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When There Were No Shadows

From the book

Leslie Lee (484x640).jpg

Antofagasta, Chile

December 13, 1987


I went to Chile but I wanted to get back to Peru.  My passport and American Express card were in the safe there, in Cuzco.  Besides that, it’s not a bad town.  At eleven thousand feet, it doesn’t take a whole lot of booze to get you blotto.  I figured I was saving thousands.

Peru is an appendix shaped squiggle above the long intestine of Chile.  Cuzco is sort of toward the bottom in the central mountains.  I spent a fair amount of time there – being bait.

The modus operandi was to install me in a cheap hotel and then put out the word that I bought and sold guns.  I actually did that once.  That was a long time ago and certainly not in South America.  I had had a class III license that let me deal in fully automatic weapons I normally sold to spoiled rich kids.  The CIA was flashing my old ads all over the tropics.

As a result I got a lot of business, and leads for the CIA – usually in the middle of the night.

I got to see a lot of Peru, a couple year’s worth, in fact.  I liked Peru even if I was a prisoner. 

Peru is bigger than Texas. almost bigger than Alaska, for that matter.  1,285,216 square kilometers.  Don’t ask me how much that is in real measurement, like miles.  I don’t have my calculator.  It was a great place to hide.  I think my big mistake was not hiding there before.

The western coast of Peru has mountains and is dry.  In a weird way it reminds me of San Diego, driving down from L. A. with the sea on your right and the mountains on your left.  But it’s desert and it also reminds me of the moon.  The mountains on the coast aren’t the big mountains, though.  The Andes are in the center.  Those are the big ones.  In the mountains there is land they call “puna”, it’s like they transported Nebraska to Dante’s hell.  Puna is high altitude and cold as a bitch.  It has grasslands like used to support buffalo, but shorter.  The puna runs out into plateau they call altiplano or alto plano, which runs all the way to Bolivia in the northeast.

Still in the Andes, but heading down and east, there are forests – kind of semi-tropical jungles that go from maybe a half mile high to over eleven.  There’s real jungle from 2,500 feet down to zero.  At 2,500 feet they call it selva alta, the high jungle.  Down at sea level there’s selva baja, the low jungle of the Amazon basin.  Both are lush and beautiful, but nice to see from afar, like maybe in a travelogue.  It is definitely not a place you want to walk through if you’re afraid of spiders.  They have some down there in the lowlands that are big enough to snare small birds.  One of those landing on your shoulder is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies for a month.

For as huge as Peru is, you can plant on maybe three percent of it.  Of that maybe a third is irrigated.  Twenty one percent is grazing land for cattle and llamas.  Fifty five percent is forest and woodland.  Twenty one percent is concrete or rock.  The rest of the country is either too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry or too infested with so much nasty life you really take a liking to the concept of slash and burn.  I know.  I was through some of it when I escaped, a lot of time looking back over my shoulder.  The suburbs of any decent sized American city are a lot nicer.  In American suburbs a snack is a hot dog and a Coke.  In the high jungle a snack is live grubs on a stick.  In the low jungle a snack is, very often, you.

So you go from desert in the west to fairly nice in the highland valleys, where it really is like a rocky, pebbled Nebraska but not so flat, to nearly arctic on mountains higher than the Rockies to tropical juiciness.   Nobody even lives at elevations over 15,000 feet, of course.  If Jerry Fanto is after me, that’s where I’ll go.  Just a joke.  Summer at 19,000 feet is like a New Hampshire winter, except there are no liquor stores or donut shops and you can’t breathe.

Peru starts at the equator and goes to about 18 degrees south.  It’s entirely between the Equator and the southern tropic line.  The one down here is Capricorn.  Cancer’s on 23.5 degrees north.  Capricorn’s on 23.5 degrees south.   The earth, for some reason nobody knows, is just off kilter in its axis by 23.5 degrees.  If the Earth weren’t tilted, there wouldn’t be winter and summer.  Because of the tilt, when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and vice versa.  It depends how the Earth is tilted into or away from the Sun.  But in the tropics, the temperature doesn’t really depend on the season.  It’s based on elevation, more than anything else.  And the season doesn’t depend on the calendar, it depends on the rain.

What is unique about the tropics, though, because of this tilt of the Earth, is that at mid Summer, the Sun at the Tropic of Capricorn will be directly overhead at noon.  That’s right, directly overhead.  In Chicago in August you might feel that the Sun is directly overhead and beating down on you, but it’s not.  The Sun is never directly overhead in Chicago, not even at noon on any day of the year.  That only happens in the Tropics and it’s because the Earth is tilted at 23.5 degrees.  The Sun is directly overhead at summer solstice at 23.5 degrees north and winds its way back to 23.5 degrees south over a six month period.  In the next six months it will repeat the course.

Peru is in the Southern Tropics.  Wherever you are in the tropics you would be able to tell exactly when High Summer arrived.  Just put a stick in the ground pointing straight up.  High summer will be that exact moment when, at noon, there will be no shadow – none.

The sun in summer keeps the rains away in Peru.

Peru’s rainy season is winter and it’s from October through April.

They tell me Peru is a great central location and the ideal spot for instant travel to Columbia or Chile or even Costa Rica.   I don’t think so.  Travel to any of those three places is long, uncomfortable and mostly sweaty.  I had a feeling Jack Baylor was about to add “scary” to the list.




My case officer … Jesus, how easy it is to fall into this routine … Jack Baylor tossed me a couple of typewritten pages when I came into the dump he used as an office in Antofagasta.   I put my feet up on the desk and lit a cigar.  Jack hated cigars.  I always made sure I had one when I came to visit.

He gave me a nasty little mew.  You know that one:  Where you purse your thin, bloodless little lips and get those deep lines down the side of your skinny nose and your inevitably balding scalp wrinkles up and you say,  “Young man, I’ve had a talk with your mother and …”

Wait … That was Sister Rosemary in High School.  What this weasel actually said was, “This came down the pike from some outfit in the States.”

Baylor loved to talk like he thought a tough guy talked.  “Came down the pike.”  “Some outfit in the States.”  I loved it.  He was such an asshole.  The phony Harvard accent only added to it.  I am so tempted to write every conversation I had with him in dialect.  The problem is, with all the misplaced ‘r’s, you, my dear reada, would be so confused it would be a distraction from my fine prose.  God knows my having to sit there and listen to him is confusing enough.

I suppose he was good looking enough.  He was tall and freckled with sandy hair that would be completely gone in a few years, a long nose, an athletic build.  He was just a moron.  He’d let loose with something he thought was really profound and then he’d look at you – stare  at you – with those watery blue cop’s eyes until you made some response … a squeak … a jibber … whatever.

On top of all that, he chewed tobacco.  Yuck.  So he always had a Pepsi bottle with him to catch the spit and drool.  Disgusting.