We first locked eyes in northern Peru. I was a wanderer, a traveler, free to kick my feet on the dusty streets of the market. He was behind bars, desolate and longing for the freedom that I simply took for granted.
And then, just days later, I found myself roaming the majestic hilltop of Kuelap, home to the ancient Chachapoya, or ‘cloud-people’, who resisted the bloodthirsty Inca for centuries. There, at the foot of their crumbling circular dwellings, lay tiny tunnels where the Chachapoya kept his ancestors enslaved below their beds.
Then, at last, we embraced. A friend and I were famished from a hike to a secluded waterfall, and took shelter in plastic chairs on the dirt floor of a small restaurant. It was the grandmotherly owner/chef/waitress who tossed him onto our table. He landed gracefully.
He was more beautiful than I had expected, but also smaller and slimmer, more rat than cat. I gently caressed his back for a few moments — but he, knowing his fate and that of millennia of his ancestors in these mountains, swiftly tap-danced his way to the edge of the table. The señora threw a weathered hand over his loin and returned our friend to the kitchen.
That evening saw the end of our Peruvian affair. I’d like to think I was motivated more by history than hunger. After all, without the Eurasian staples of chicken, cow, and pig, what other domesticated sources of protein did the pre-Colombian Andes have? It fell to this petite creature (with the help of llamas and alpacas) to feed entire civilizations from modern-day Chile to Colombia. So who was I to reject savoring a piece of history, fried with a side of cheesy potatoes?
Maybe I should have. Bland and bony, it’s hard to picture him providing much pleasure or protein to the Incan legions who conquered the Andes and then defended them against the Spanish. I liked him better alive.
Postscript: We met again on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia. I, to my credit, was less cruel this time. I gambled 1,000 pesos that he would enter the purple box. He entered the red one.
I just hung out with an assassin. Two actually.
I’ve been living in Colombia the past 5 months, filming, you guessed it, drugs. This is where I should add, in order not to be slapped by the Colombian friends over drinks tonight, that Colombia is so much more than just cocaine and criminals, that it is an endlessly gorgeous, diverse, and fascinating place that I have fallen in love with, and has been moving beyond Pablo Escobar and daily bombings for twenty years.
That said, a frightening underworld does exist here beneath the shadows, sometimes even in the headlines, and American TV loves to explore it. So a production company sent me out here to produce a new series for National Geographic. I’m not supposed to divulge the details of the show. So let’s just talk about assassins.
The female assassin: Curvy. Dolled up. Method of choice — dropping poison in your cocktail at the bar.
The male assassin: Normal-looking. Really fucking normal-looking. Bland even. A bit stylish. Method of choice — pulling up and putting a bullet in your head (see photo above).
The two of them are for hire. You pay the right price — which believe me, is not a lot — and they will ask no questions, concoct a little plan, and kill the guy. Rival gang members, businessmen, politicians, the guy who’s screwing your wife, it’s all fair game for the right pesos.
I had been arranging the meeting through some contacts for weeks, and it was finally happening. My crew and I were setting up lights for the interview, when the two silhouettes came through the door. Why, sir, your murderer friends have arrived.
The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, the guy wore my personal sunglasses during the interview to hide his eyes. I must have shook his hand and man-hugged him six times during a few days of filming.
I was nervous about everything I said, I even tried to put him at ease with warm eyes and a warm smile just so he’d have no reason to come after me and whack me during the rest of my stay in Colombia.
But even worse than my unease was what happened next — it all started to feel normal. I was asking him questions about his life, and he was answering very honestly. And the creepiness began to wear off, and he was another guy that I was sitting in a room with and chatting up for my job.
Except, yuck. Those two bastards represent everything I hate in the world — violence, viciousness, lack of empathy, humanity destroying humanity. Yet there I sat, quietly, burying my true thoughts, to get the job done and share this story.
Sure, such is journalism.
But it destroyed me inside.