By Val Higgs
Copyright January 2000
At the age of four I was uprooted from my cold Montana home where I was born. The harsh winters were to be replaced by high altitude. At that point in my journey through life it really didn’t make too much difference to me where I was from or where I was going. My needs were still in their pristine, primordial state. However, after a barely remembered trip by boat from New York, through the Panama Canal and into the Harbor of Callao, Peru, my life began to take on an awareness. That is another way of saying I began to emerge into a conscious human being with memory and all those good things - which have subsequently begun to vanish with the relentless passing of time.
I have never really understood how my mother, in particular, could sail away from her family and friends with her husband and two small children to the third world country that Peru was then and still is today. All I know is that for the next seventeen years of my life it was my idea of Heaven - Camelot - Paradise - and then some. I loved my life on , “The Hill” and had the grace to never take it for granted.
I should probably explain how we happened to migrate to this hill. My father was a metallurgical engineer and was offered a three year contract with an American Mining Company called Cerro de Pasco Corporation. For the next seventeen years I referred to a small mining industrial center called La Oroya as home, which gives new meaning to the expression, “time flies when you are having fun.” Somehow or another, we simply never got around to leaving until we were forced to do so.
This hill we lived on was no ordinary hill by U.S. standards. It began its origin just out of Lima at sea level and climbed to an altitude of just under 16,000 feet above sea level in an incredibly short vertical distance until it dropped into the small Peruvian village of La Oroya which was actually located in the bottom of a canyon at 12,200 feet above sea level. Needless to say, we were well above timberline and the landscape would probably strike most as being pretty bleak and barren. The highest standard gauge railroad in the world went through this pass in the Andes mountains and I did have the privilege and pleasure of being able to ride in its rustic coaches on occasion. Steam engines were still in vogue at that time and the coach cars were not particularly comfortable, especially if you decided to ride in second class, which I did only once. You were likely to share the car with all manner of small animals such as chickens, baby pigs and lambs. It was kind of like a traveling petting zoo.
On other occasions I had the privilege of riding in a private car that was reserved for VIPs going up or down the hill. Most often we went up and down the hill by car and traveling on a typical Peruvian road is a thrill that would put the wildest Disney ride to shame.
There was one section of road between Lima and La Oroya that will always remain vivid in my memory. The contractors who built the road made a cut right through the middle of a cemetery. They somehow neglected to remove the coffins first and simply sliced them right in half. For all the years I lived in Peru those coffins stuck out of the hill side.
16,000 feet is not terribly high by Andean standards and 12,200 was probably considered the lowlands by the natives but it took our breaths away - literally - at least until we acclimated, which usually took about a week. Soroche, which is the Spanish word for altitude sickness, was a frightening reality and we took the early symptoms very seriously. It can be a swift and painless killer. We learned early on, to keep a very close eye on any friends or guests who had recently arrived and many of us made a point of having oxygen tanks in our homes.
Many of my earliest memories of life on "The Hill" and that is how we referred to our home, involved elementary school. While taking a science class we happened to encounter the following little blurb in one of our text books .
"If you were to take a walk in the Peruvian city of Oroya, you would have to walk much more slowly than you normally do in your hometown or city. Even at this slow pace you would be panting with exertion and sweat would roll down your forehead before you had walked two blocks."
You can well imaging how some of us were behaving by now. The room was filled with sweating, panting children - a teachers nightmare.
"You might not be able to live in Oroya at all. Most people who visit this city cannot stay there for even for a day. They are taken with mountain sickness; they become dizzy, short of breath, and cannot retain food. Oroya is approximately three and a half miles (17,000 feet) above sea level, in the Andes Mountains.".
Shortly after I recovered from all the above ailments, which was about the same time a few of us were being escorted to the principals office, I developed a healthy skepticism for the written word. By no stretch of the imagination was Oroya a "city" and there is a very big difference between 12,200 feet and 17,000 feet. The mountain sickness part, or soroche, was for real.
I had many international friends in Oroya. Dave was from Australia, Monica’s parents were from Argentina and England, Tony was half French and half Chilean, Milan was from Yugoslavia, Alistar was Scottish, Annie and Jennie were from Belgium, Nancy and Ian were Chinese, and on and on it went. I never thought too much about it until one day I overheard one of our teachers make the comment that in the elementary school of approximately 200 young people there were 58 countries represented. I remember that number specifically because I wondered how she arrived at that figure since many of these young people claimed parents from two countries. Did they get counted twice? However, I was impressed with this statistic and it was the first time I really realized the unique situation with which I was blessed.
I reflect back on my years in Peru and by some standards it would have been many people’s idea of hell. We didn’t have t.v.. We didn’t have shopping malls. We didn’t have opera, or symphonies or little theater. Frequently the sulfur fumes from the smelter, coupled with the barren surroundings really did make Oroya resemble hell more than the heaven I thought is was. So what did we have that was so magical? Well, it wasn’t totally primitive and back woods. We did have a house, a huge house, with indoor plumbing, a couple of maids, a cook and a house boy who all lived in. I never made a bed in my life until I went away to boarding school and if we even thought of venturing into Anna’s kitchen we took our lives into our own hands.
The young people in the camp congregated at our house in droves. There was always a gang of kids around ranging in age from 10 to 25 or older - or younger. We always had the latest collection of popular music and mother gave dancing lessons to all the young people in the camp. By the time we entered our teens we were all very proficient at ballroom dancing, knew the steps to all the Latin American dances and many of us enjoyed square dancing, also taught by mother. We even had Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and a small building was set aside specifically as a Scout House. We had a golf course and La Oroya was a great place to play golf if that was your sport. Since there was no atmosphere, if you connected with the ball on your drives, it went forever. We had a club we called the Inca Club. On the bottom level there was a bar, which was what many of the bachelors, and some of the married men called home - unfortunately, a mining camp reality. There was also a two lane bowling alley where I spent ma ny hours of unadulterated pleasure not only throwing balls and playing in tournaments but in dodging balls while setting pins. There was a barber shop where my mother had great success in teaching the barber the fine art of achieving the perfect “duck tail”. On the upper level was a small restaurant, (we never could teach them how to make Dairy Queen type hamburgers) an even smaller library, a beauty salon and a large multipurpose room. On Monday and Wednesday evenings the multipurpose room was a badminton court. On Tuesday and Thursday and twice on Sundays it was a movie theater and frequently on Saturdays, it was home to fantastic dances. Live bands were brought in from Lima or even from some of the surrounding towns and we danced all night. This multipurpose room also served as an amateur theater. Because of a very temperate year round climate, the days were equally delicious. We did acclimate to the altitude and the Inca ruins that topped every peak around us became a challenging goal for a picnic.
We could always find bits of broken pottery dating back to the ancient Incas and, on various occasions, even remains of the people who once inhabited the area and who were buried in very shallow graves . I suspect that I am one of the few people around who has a real skeleton in my closet - well, at least a real skull.
There was also ample opportunity for hunting and fishing which brings back some interesting memories. My younger brother was very accurate with a shotgun and the one and only time I ever fired one of these things, while living in Peru, I missed the perdis, a high altitude partridge. My brother was totally disgusted with me, refused to let me hold the shotgun ever again and demoted me to the position of driver. That proved to be lots more fun than hunting. My gun toting, hunting passengers rode on the front hood of the Toyota “jeep” as we slowly cruised through tall grass in search of the illusive bird that generally burst out inches in front of us when we were least expecting it. I would then slam on the brakes which resulted in my passengers being propelled off the front of the car and, if all was executed properly, hurled in the general direction of the fleeing bird. Amazingly, no one was ever even injured let alone killed. There were a few tense moments when we did have car trouble and civilization was light years away. What we would have given for triple A and a cell phone. As it was, our feet and our thumbs were our best resources.
We, Jeff and I and all our friends, went everywhere in a no frills, no comforts Toyota land cruiser which was about the best vehicle we could have had considering the places we took it. Frequently there was no road!
We were members of a rod and gun club on a lake called Pomacocha. We owned a small boat which we kept docked up there and frequently went fishing for trout on this small, glacial lake which was located at over 14,000 feet. One of my favorite stories has its setting here. My brother and Dave, a friend of his from the States who was spending the summer with us, decided to head off to Pomacocha to put their hunting and fishing skills to the test. They were well into the middle of the lake when Dave shot a hole in the bottom of the boat. The boys frantically bailed and were able to make it back to the dock before the boat sank to the bottom. Fortunately, they did not have to test their swimming skills because, considering the altitude and the temperature of the water, it could have proved to be a rather deadly test. Dave felt terrible, and when he got home, retreated to his room and played his guitar for the next few hours until dad arrived home for dinner. It was awfully quiet as we all assembled at the dinner table. No one spoke a word. Dad, ceremoniously, uncorked a bottle of wine, flipped the cork over to Dave and said, “Here, you might need this sometime.” That defused the situation and was all that was ever said.
In our later years in Peru we got involved in horse back riding, first as a family and then as a community. This turned into my major passion for a number of years and my horse, Black Prince, was my number one love. I can’t even begin to describe the thrill, pleasure, excitement and pure joy this animal brought to me. In retrospect, it was probably a very wise decision on the part of my parents to buy me a horse at the same time that I was entering the full throws of puberty and becoming very aware of the charms of the opposite sex. Where I might have unleashed my energies on trying to attract one of the them, my attention was diverted to the magnificent animal which was mine to love and totally enjoy. I am not saying that I shunned male attention in any sense of the word. The guys I dated just had to know how to ride and to be sensitive to the care and needs of a horse. There was a total trust between me and Black Prince. I could ride him standing up or even backwards in the saddle. Most week-ends he took me to the ruins of an old Spanish mill where I picnicked with friends. But his greatest talent was his ability to jump. When we first purchased Black Prince it was with the idea that he would be father’s horse. At the same time we bought a cute little bay we called Brownie. Brownie adapted very well but Black Prince kept trying to run away. There wasn’t a fence high enough to keep him enclosed - he jumped them all. The only thing that kept him with us for the first few weeks was Brownie. Brownie couldn’t jump the fences but the bond of friendship between the two horses was strong enough that Black Prince always returned. I had just lost my first horse and was grieving myself. I suppose this created a certain empathy towards Black Prince and his difficulties in adapting to his new environment so I started to visit him on a regular basis with carrots, sugar, a curry comb and lots of good conversation. It wasn’t too long before the horse and I were inseparable and in a short time we both were jumping. What a thrill that was. We even did a bit of traveling and entered local exhibitions and competitions. Looking back, I think that maybe jumping with Black Prince was the prerequisite for jumping from planes that came later in my life. Somehow, I always trusted that horse much more than a parachute or a plane although the latter was something of a thrill too.
There was always a special holiday or event to look forward to during the course of a typical year. A favorite event of mine that took place once a year was Ganadera Day. This was a rodeo hosted by the company and many of us participated in the events. There was the grand parade into the arena on horse back which was followed by bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing and square dancing on horses. For the younger set there were greased pig races, sheep riding contests and burro races. The afternoon was spent either participating in or watching a soccer game on burros which was inevitably hilarious since most of the men were way too large to actually sit on a burro so simply straddled the poor little animal and physically picked it up to aim it in the desired direction. It was against the rules to leave the burro under any circumstances. The day always ended with a pachamanca, a Peruvian picnic. There was nothing that I loved more that a good pachamanca, and I considered all pachamancas to be good. A pachamanca is actually a way of preparing food but was generally associated with a festival of some kind. Very early in the morning a group of people would venture forth and dig a hole in the ground. Above and surrounding the hole they would construct a rounded structure of rocks. In the hole, they would light a fire and keep it burning at a furious rate, which was no mean feat in the altitude, until the rocks were red hot. Then they would collapse the rocks and place all sorts of tasty delectables on top of them. Guinea pigs, lamb, beef, field corn and potatoes were the most common fare for a pachamanca. These were then covered with burlap bags, clean straw and dirt and left to cook for the remainder of the day. In the meantime you became involved in whatever the festivity of the day happened to be. You could always count on small native bands with their Andean flutes, guitars and harps. There was also inevitably an abundance of pisco to be had. Pisco is a Peruvian brandy made from fermented grapes that is guaranteed to knock your socks off. Chicha also flowed freely. This was a fermented corn drink. By the time that the main meal was ready to be served, many guests were no longer in a position, literally, to partake of the solid food, which left more for the rest of us.
One of my favorite festivals was Carnivales. During this time a tree was imported, decorated with toys and other goodies and stuck into the ground. Couples danced around the tree to the typical, plaintive Andean music and one couple would be handed an ax. They would take a couple of swings at the tree and then pass the ax onto another couple . When the tree came down there was a mad scramble to obtain any goodies you could purloin. Woe be it however, for the person who finally felled the tree for it was his responsibility to provide the tree and cover all expenses for the following years celebration. There was always a myriad of street vendors during Carnivales. They sold everything from serpentine, like we have for our New Years celebrations, to chisgeti, which was an ether like concoction that was bottled under pressure and very cold when sprayed at each other. It also had the ability to blind if some of it got into your eyes. The ever enterprising street vendors had that avenue covered too. They also sold plastic goggles.
The 28th of July was another holiday of substance. It was Peru’s Independence day, and was celebrated with parades, bands, dancing , drinking and the inevitable pachamanca. The only difference between some of the holidays in South America and ours is that theirs generally last for at least three days where we usually get ours over with in one. We celebrated the 4th of July as well in much the same way as we do here so I won’t go into great detail . I would like to recount one particular fireworks display that I will remember vividly to my dying day. At that time we were living in a house that overlooked the Montaro River. It was decided that the fireworks would be launched from our front yard across the river. Subsequently, everyone in camp settled into our front yard as soon as the sun went down. The spectators were only a few feet behind the firing line. All went well and we were thrilling at the beautiful display until one man, accidentally, dropped his cigarette into a bundle of rockets at his feet. The fuses ignited and all of a sudden rockets came shooting off the ground in all directions at about knee cap level. Those of us who lived to tell to tell the story have never had any trouble relating to the stories that our war vets tell. Needless to say, the following year the fireworks were set off from the golf course which was across the river from the camp.
We shared some of our holidays, mostly the Christian ones such as Easter and Christmas since Peru is predominantly a Catholic country. However, the way in which we celebrated these holidays differed greatly. I particularly delighted in the Easter tradition of the small town of Tarma, about an hour drive down the Hill from us. Tarma had two churches, both Catholic. During the weeks preceding Easter the natives would start to collect seeds, flower petals, coffee beans, wheat, etc. The night before Easter Sunday they would spend the entire night drawing designs and decorating the street between the two churches with the above mentioned commodities. The end result was very much like the floats we see in the Rose Bowl Parade only this was done on a street. Early on Easter morning two processions started out, one from each church. One procession carried a huge statue of Jesus and the other an equally huge statue of The Virgin Mary. They walked down the highway of truly beautiful floral artwork, passed each other in the middle and carried on. The statues changed churches every year.
Christmas was also very different for the native people than it was for us. We brought our own traditions into the camp; Christmas trees, gift giving, caroling , parties for the children complete with Santa and even a wonderful yearly choral presentation of Handle’s Messiah by the very talented people who were the heart and soul of our camp. The indigenous people celebrated quite differently. For them there was little of the commercial aspect that, unfortunately, has become all to prevalent in our lives. It was a deeply religious experience for them, but even here there is a profound irony. The natives are descendants of the Incas and even more primitive civilizations that believed in a multitude of Gods, much like our own native Americans. The intrusion of the Spaniards just brought confusion to their lives. The end result was a bazaar intermingling of both cultures which combined tradition and superstition. To add to the mystery, the Catholic church made a practice of doing most of the preaching in Latin which no one understood.
I have especially fond memories of a more personal event that resulted in a day of celebration and festivity. On that occasion someone, I don’t recall whom, decided that my mother should be honored and subsequently named a bridge after her. All of the local government and religious dignitaries were on hand for that auspicious occasion as was the inevitable band. I trust that the, “Puente Leah Higgs” is still in use today and that the brass plaque that was mounted on its side is still in its rightful and proper place..
Not one to be overshadowed by my mother, I talked a friend into naming a truck after me. However, we were not able to muster up a band or even a local officials to record that momentous event. Unlike mother’s bridge, I am quite certain that the truck no longer exists.
The Peruvians also enjoyed their sports. Soccer is probably the most popular and you find soccer goal posts in virtually every village regardless of the altitude. Lima was home to a professional soccer team and the fans took their team very seriously. If you cheered for the wrong team you were likely to be thrown out, over the top of the stadium, and riots were a fairly frequent event. Another big sport in Peru was bull fighting and many of the top bullfighters from Spain came to Lima every year. This was an immensely popular season in Peru, comparable to our football season. To my way of thinking it was and is bloody, inhumane and cruel. However the pageantry was spectacular and the music, the traditional Spanish pasadoble, is comparable to none. On occasion, the bull actually got the upper hand for a short while.
Then there were the many, many trips that we took all over Peru. Some of them were close to home and we could get there and back in a day, or at least a week-end. One of our favorite places to go for short outings was Huancayo which was about two hours away. Every Sunday the natives from the surrounding countryside would bring their wares and produce into town to sell. The streets were closed off to motorized traffic and hundreds of stalls were set up for several blocks. It was an incredibly colorful scene and there was not much that you could not buy at the Huancayo market. There were witch doctors that had herbs and remedies for any malady from a genuine illness to a broken heart. You could purchase an amazing array of musical instruments, unlike anything you would find in this country. There were all kinds of native crafts that were up for grabs from carved bull horns to carved gourds and pottery. You could find skirts and blouses, if you were interested in wearing the native clothing, and even shoes if you wore a size four extra wide. The Huancayo market was truly a wonderful place to be and I never tired of the sights, the smells and the colors.
Further afield was the jungle on the eastern slope of the Andes or the coast on the western slope. We usually waited until we had a vacation before we traveled that far. I will digress briefly to explain how our vacation system worked. It was deemed prudent to encourage everyone to leave the hill twice a year for two weeks at a time, simply to get them out of the altitude. We generally headed to the coast for our two week summer vacation in January . Lima and the outlying areas had many attractions. There were fabulous restaurants and resorts. One in particular that we loved, was Santa Maria with a free form swimming pool that was about four acres in size. There was even an island in the middle of the pool. The water was pumped in from the ocean which was just beyond the resort and which boasted some of the most pristine beaches in the world. However, the entire coast line was also noted for its severe undertow which claimed many lives every year.
Lima had a wealth of museums and cathedrals and churches. I will never forget the catacombs under one of the churches. Someone had taken the time and effort to make archways out of skulls and intricate designs out of vertebrae and other bones. The entire effect was rather ghoulish. Lima also had a wonderful array of stores so even I enjoyed shopping on occasion and I must confess that is not my favorite pastime.
I have to admit that the jungle was more my speed and I did revel in the occasional adventure while there. I remember when we were quite young we went to the town of Tingo Maria along with some other friends for a two week vacation. Tingo Maria had a very nice Hotel Tourista complete with a swimming pool which is just about all that a young person could ask for. One day four of us decided to take a tour of the hotel kitchen in order to determine what we were going to have for dinner that evening. We were told that the specialty would be fresh duck, and, believe me they were fresh. They were still waddling around the kitchen alive and well. All of our humanitarian instincts came to the surface in unison and each of us grabbed a duck and ran in different directions with the kitchen staff close on our heels. The staffs’ desire to retrieve their ducks was no match to our determination to save them. In one case, the child involved simply put his duck under a box, sat on the box and screamed at the top of his lungs. I simply vanished into the jungle for a few hours, (or minutes, as the case may be) with mine. Finally the manager was called upon to appeal to the parents of these thieving children. Mother was the parent of choice and, with the wisdom of Saul, solved the entire problem. The ducks would be returned so long as there was a solemn promise to not serve them for breakfast, lunch or dinner for as long as we were guests at the hotel. An agreement was reached whereby we could even visit our ducks for the remaining days. Even so, that night at dinner, where we were served spaghetti, my brother took one look at the curling noodles, and burst into tears wailing, "My duck!" I guess it sort of looked like intestines or something. Jeff presented the entire staff with an insurmountable problem. Everything that was placed in front of him, including a bowl of cereal, looked like a duck and he just about gave up eating entirely.
On other occasions we visited rubber plantations and learned how to tap the trees. We also visited coffee plantations and learned the entire coffee making process from picking the ripe berries to drying, roasting and grinding the beans to finally imbibing the exquisite brew. I have yet to find anything in this country that deserves the name, "coffee" or even remotely resembles the beverage we consumed by the gallon. It was good stuff!!!
As we got older, my mother, on a yearly basis would gather up a gaggle of young people ranging in age from ten to twenty five or more, and take them on an adventure and, believe me, some of these adventures put James Bond to shame. We would all pile into an assortment of vehicles ranging from land rovers to the back of pick-up trucks and head out for a week or so of fun and frolic. On one such adventure we stopped at a hotel for lunch. Fourteen or more of us unloaded from our respective vehicles, where we had been bounced around for hours on end, and took off in all directions. Some climbed the nearest statue while others headed straight for a pineapple field that looked ripe for harvesting. The manager of the hotel came charging out with a horrified expression on his face which turned into a look of sheer terror when he recognized mother from the Tingo Maria duck saving days. He had requested an immediate transfer to another hotel after the duck incident and had been feeling much saner and safer for a number of years, but we were back!! Mother assured him that we would soon be on our way again if he would just serve us lunch. You have never seen anyone come up with a meal as fast as this man did. MacDonald’s could take some lessons from him when it comes to, "fast food."
On that same trip a group of enterprising youngsters took off into the jungle on a nature trip. They gathered together many tropical gems and returned to proudly display their finds to my mother. She was slightly less than enchanted when, among the treasures, was a cluster of baby coral snakes. Granted, their colors were spectacular but their venom was as lethal as a full grown snakes’. Fortunately, their fangs were not quite as well developed or maybe they were just too young to have learned the art of being ornery. In any event, they did not bite anyone, and mother insisted that they be returned to the wilderness. One of our group started feeling ill towards the end of the week. I think that mother was probably quite anxious to get her back out to something remotely resembling civilization. Within 24 hours of our return, the young lady was rushed into surgery with a ruptured appendix. Someone was looking out for us.
Another adventure took us to Goyaresiska, a coal mine camp that belonged to Cerro de Pasco Corp. We all donned hard hats, miners lamps and heavy gloves and descended into the depths of the mine on a platform car that was lowered on tracks from the head frame. Now this might not seem too unusual or adventuresome, but it was unheard of for a female to enter a mine. This would bring incredible bad luck and disaster would surely follow. It is amazing, isn’t it, the untapped powers we have as women! Well, the mine continued to produce with no more or fewer causalities in the years to come than had occurred before our arrival, but, whenever something did happen, it was probably credited to female contamination. Goyar, as we called the camp for short, had another charm - not that a coal mine is exactly a charm. What it did have was fantastic gladiola gardens. The flowers could be ordered throughout the Cerro mining camps communities and were a special treat in an otherwise rather drab surrounding.
I had the opportunity to hold down some very interesting summer jobs while living in Peru. Most of them were connected with the medical world. Our chief surgeon took a liking to me and I was allowed to roam the hospital at will. One job involved working in the surgical unit preparing and sterilizing instruments for surgery. I was allowed to observe any operation that was going on and watched everything from open heart surgery to a hemorrhoidectomy. I was even present during many deliveries which just about discouraged me from ever having a baby. Yuck, who would ever want to go through that!
Another job I had was acting as interpreter for doctors and nurses from the Hope Ship. They would volunteer a year or so to travel to foreign countries to teach medical personnel the latest techniques in their respective fields. I recall going into a very large government built hospital in La Oroya. There were only a handful of patients and fewer medical personnel to be seen. The place was freezing cold because nothing like heat or even the autoclave had been hooked up. We did manage to get the latter going and taught a nurses aid how to sterilize instruments and surgical drapes. When we returned a couple of days later we discovered that she had learned to use the machine alright, but all sterilized drapes were stacked neatly on the floor. I somehow think she missed the point of the exercise.
My story would not be complete without a brief, or not so brief, account of some of the pets that graced our South American home. We had all the normal array of cats and dogs and the joys and heart aches that come with loving and loosing those creatures. We also enjoyed the anticipation of watching little tadpoles grow little legs and loose little tails and turn into little frogs. There were lizards to be caught, raced against other lizards and then released. But some of our so called pets were a bit more exotic. I will start with a story about a parrot although he wasn’t really ours . A parrot on the loose at 12,200 feet above sea level was not a very common sight. However, one was spotted and subsequently captured and brought to our house. We had a reputation for taking in anything from man to beast or, in this case, fowl. Mother called around the neighborhood and was able to find a cage large enough to accommodate said creature. A major war ensued, but the parrot was finally coaxed into the cage. During this time of the battle of the wills between mother and parrot, we discovered that the bird had a very extensive vocabulary - and none of it was printable material. Mother was horrified and I learned at least a dozen new words in Spanish. About a week later a young gentleman appeared at our door, having heard that we had found a lost parrot. Mother was more than happy to return the bird to its rightful owner but made very certain to convey the fact that she did not approve of the language it used. The young man was very dismayed. He apologetically explained to mother that he had purchased the parrot the day before it had escaped and that she, mother, had been the keeper of the bird for much longer than he had.
Among the first exotic pets that added prestige to our home was Elmer, a very pretty young boa constrictor. I was not too sure that I wanted Elmer for a pet because I thought that some of my friends would think I was weird if I became fond of a snake. However, Elmer finally won my heart and I subsequently decided that, “weird” was a title I could live with and even learn to enjoy. Elmer was happiest when wrapped around a waist inside of a shirt. So even back then, when I was a skinny little girl, I had a spare tire around my waist that wiggled and squirmed.
Then came Horton and Hortense, our two not so charming alligators. They lived long, happy lives with us but did not contribute nearly the pleasure in return, that Elmer did. Mostly they tried to bite off the hand that fed them -not a very endearing trait in a pet. Later came the two jaguars whose names I don’t even remember. The mother had been killed and the two cubs rescued. What would become of these babies?? Why of course, take them to Leah Higgs. She gives shelter to anything and everything. These became a bit of an undertaking. We tried to bottle feed them but they ate the rubber nipples. They also ate through the leather gloves that were trying to hold them. For the most part, they were so intent on tearing through any restraints to get to the human flesh trying to help them, that they did not get much nourishment. It wasn’t too long before they were shipped back to the jungle to a family who were considerably more adept at handling really wild animals.
The goose was relatively tame by comparison. One day our doorbell rang and there stood a Franciscan Monk with a gift for my father. The gift happened to be a very large and a very alive goose. I believe that that goose was meant for a pot but it was delivered into my hands. We all remember the duck story don’t we? Well, the goose was to receive similar reprieve. It immediately settled itself into our enclosed backyard where it proceeded to plow great furrows in the lawn and systematically decapitated every flower in the yard. It also flapped its wings and hissed at anyone who even thought about venturing into its yard. Mother, once again, made a wise decision. One of our maids, Celistina, had a fantastically wonderful ability to relate to even the most difficult of our pets. I think she was probably a sister of St. Francis of Assisi. Anyway, my mother convinced me that the goose would be far better off in the loving care of Celistina’s family. Celistina was thus granted an unexpected leave of absence to visit her family in a remote village far, far away bearing the gift of goose.
Last, not necessarily in chronological order, and certainly not least, came Pepi, the squirrel monkey. You have all seen them in zoos. They are little monkeys with heads about the size of walnuts and exquisite small faces. I couldn’t live another day without him and thus, he became a part of our menagerie. Poor Pepi! As we brought him over the pass and into the altitude his small eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he fell off his perch. But we had our trusty oxygen tank with us and Pepi was revived so that we would have tales to tell about him, and he does live on in infamy. Of all the truly disagreeable pets we had, Pepi probably topped the list. We could attribute a lack of intelligence to the reptiles and thus forgive them their feisty attitudes, but Pepi was brilliant in his scheming and manipulating of events. The only human he ever tolerated was, who else, but Celistina. But he did form a strong bond with a very soft hearted French Poodle we had at the time. Suzi and Celistina were all that Pepi tolerated. Any of the rest of us who wandered too close to his cage were baptized compliments of Pepi. He may have been a very small monkey but he was always provided with an abundance of water which he filtered through his kidneys and could accurately release whenever a target presented itself.
I look back on those years in Peru with wonderful memories and I am compelled to pay a special tribute to two people who were instrumental in making those years so fantastic. My father was the backbone of the community and my mother was certainly its heart. As I mentioned earlier, my parents went to Peru on a three year contract. Seventeen years later dad, by then the manager of Operations, was promoted to Vice President which spelled the end of our years in Peru. Dad was a fabulous role model, a generous and loving father and a well respected paragon in the community. He made possible the incredible life we lead and mother brought it to life.
From the day that we arrived my mother gave freely and generously of her time and many talents. She immediately started a kindergarten. She gave bridge lessons to anyone in camp who wanted to learn the game. She taught dozens and dozens of kids how to dance. It was mother who introduced horseback riding to the community, and that took off big time. It was also mother who rounded up the young people in the community and took them on wild and wonderful adventures to the jungle and else where. We didn’t have a mortuary in the camp. When someone died, more often than not a group of ladies would assemble in our kitchen to make a blanket of flowers for the casket. Mother was also responsible for entertaining up to 150 people in our home at any given time and those people were frequently ambassadors or generals or bishops. It wasn’t always fun and games. I remember one (of a few) occasions when we had all been evacuated because of a strike and riots. It was the holiday season and we were slowly being allowed to return to the camp. My parents decided to have a party just to try to get the few people who had returned into the holiday spirit. This was a group that would not normally have socialized but my parents made sure that the ice was broken by serving fried ants and cactus worms on crackers. Not everyone ate them, but it did bring the group together - in a most merry manner.
I can truly say that my years in Peru were the best of my life and, in conclusion, I want to thank God for the extra special parents He blessed me with and for the opportunities they provided for me and my brother, Jeffrey.