Sunday, January 6, 2008

Brando



Is it true? Is there a place that is Eden? An old hotel. . . . Before the crowds came? Before money drowned us? The world earlier writers knew. . . . Perhaps always in travel there is that idea of Jung’s, of something already imprinted in us for which we are unconsciously searching. Sometimes not so unconsciously (James Salter ,There and Then).

I did not go to Peru as a photographer. I took only a small Olympus XA camera with a fixed lens. I shot slide film because I hoped some of the images would find their way into one of Brando’s slideshows. And so the photos went into plastic sleeves and were put away for twenty years or so. Recently, I looked at them and found that they were becoming ruined, victims of a mold that must have formed during the many days of moist heat and no electricity after the hurricanes, so I decided to scan some in order to save them and email them to friends. I was not careful, for the scanning is time consuming work. I was quick but inevitably learned more about the scanning as I went about the task; consequently, the quality of the images I send is varied. After spending a couple of weeks with them, culling some hundred slides from more than a thousand, I decided I would write a narrative about the trip to explain the images. This, too, was undertaken haphazardly and so the quality of the prose is uneven. I send this out to my friends only, for friendly fun. Don’t try to revoke my diplomas.

In 1986, I had just completed my master’s degree and had decided to go with my friend Brando Perkins, to Peru. Brando, who had studied at the Frank Lloyd Wright Institute when he was young and was an architect of some standing, was, by the time I met him, doing less architecture and was becoming more involved in the travel business. Brando owned Brando Adventure, a small company that he began in 1973. Sole Proprietor.



In his late forties, Brando had few possessions. For most of the period I knew him then, he didn’t have an automobile. He rode his bike around town, and often I would see him carrying his architectural renderings in a leather bag from Mexico strapped to his back as he went to meet a client. Once in awhile, however, something red and fancy and expensive and impractical would catch his eye, and he would buy it. For a short period he drove a show-winning MG, but he treated it like a Jeep, charging over curbs and through yards, and once at high speed straight down Park Avenue through a large, white tent set up for the grand opening of the new Ralph Lauren Polo store. The car was in the shop more than it was on the road, and he eventually sold it, I suspect, to avoid incarceration.



His apartment was mysterious to me then, the small, dark, second floor of a wooden house on Virginia Avenue on the periphery of a decent part of town. I don’t know if Brando had a telephone. I don’t think I did. As I remember it, I would simply drive to his house in my Jeep and knock at his door on the ground floor from where I could look straight up the flight of stairs to the second story landing. I would wait to see if he would appear, and if he did, he would always descend in a grand manner and greet me with a strong handshake and a big, hearty voice. His apartment was mostly unfurnished. He slept under a down sleeping bag thrown over a mattress on the floor. Bookshelves of cement block and untreated pine boards lined the walls. He had an architect’s table, a drafting lamp, and a swivel chair in the small living room. And that was that for furniture. Various crafts and artifacts from his trips littered the rooms randomly—a Mexican rug, some erotic clay Peruvian figurines, an African mask. If you were lucky and he was tired of working, he would shove whatever he was laboring over aside and throw down maps of places you would wish to go, places you were convinced few had gone. It was as if the world were new.



I had been to many of Brando’s trip parties before. They were grand affairs on a small scale and budget, and they were legendary. It did not take many people to fill his apartment, so of course everyone I knew wanted to go. Not to be invited was tragic. Inside, there was nowhere to sit, and mingling was difficult. Shoulder to shoulder, people stood in the living room and kitchen, on a short, crowded porch with jalousie windows, and on the landing and stairs (but never in the bedroom). The refrigerator was filled with Heinekens and later there would be various bottles of liquor, something brought back from a past trip—Greek Ouzo or Mexican Tequilla or Peruvian Pisco—horrible liquors certain to make somebody perform a haplessly egregious act. The air would be thick with voices and something else. There were pretty women and interesting men and the promise of travels. But moments before the night became outrageous, Brando would turn out the lights and begin a slideshow which he would slowly narrate. It was not a narration, really, but a lyrical conjoining of esoteric facts and obscure quotations and short tales of mishap, all stories of former trips being highlighted by what had gone wildly wrong, warnings to the timid that called to those of us huddled in the darkness as a siren’s song. Here was a slide of Hunter Carlson drinking tequila from the bottle at breakfast, another of the bloody feet of a girl I knew who had gotten drunk and danced barefoot in a local bar all night until she had to be carried back to her room. There were photos of women Brando had met, a former Venezuelan beauty queen, the daughter of a mayor of a small Mexican town, a German who ran a hacienda in Argentina. There were photos of muscular guides, one, a magnificent man for whom a women had left her wealthy husband. There were pictures of temples and ruins and museums and paintings and fabulous meals in unlikely places. Travel and romance. Brando had been and we had not, but he would take us with a promise to get us there and back, in and out, as he would say, but that was all. You couldn’t be certain what would happen once you arrived. He was no tourist guide and these were not tours. And then, too soon, the show was over and the lights would come on, and the volume of conversation would become deafening, people shouting excitedly, some writing checks as down payments for forthcoming trips. And then suddenly, as it always does, something would go unforgettably wrong, and there would be a crash and a scream followed quickly by an intervention. Outside, a car would rush away and somebody would be consoled, and then there would be the inevitable migration, the last hangers-on slowly realizing that party had ended for now.


Travel tourism was in its nascent days. The boom was about to come. I knew I had not yet seen anything like this.
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Brando had two groups going to Peru that summer, back to back trips of two weeks each. He would be there a solid month, but it seemed a bad year to travel in Peru, for El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) had been particularly active. The U.S. State Department listed Peru as the third most active venue for terrorist attacks in 1985. The Shining Path had burned down the Bayer industrial plant in Lima and blown up a power station causing a city-wide blackout. They were reported to have murdered several of the country’s key political figures including the Agriculture Deputy Minister, the president of the Peruvian Social Security Institute, and the former Labor Minister. In 1986, they seized control of three Lima prisons in a simultaneous armed revolt. All of this had been fully covered by the American press. The consequence for Brando Adventures was that Brando would take a beating. In all, seven people had signed on for the two trips. I would make eight. But the instability inside Peru had raised the inflation rate by thousands of percent, and once we were there, everything would be cheap. Peru’s economy was so bad that it changed currency from Sols to Intis at a rate of one thousand percent. Maybe other Americans were not going to Peru that year, but we were and money would not be an obstacle. I would stay the month, then travel on my own to the Amazon basin. Brando wouldn’t go if it was going to be that dangerous, I told myself. My mind was filled with images from Patagonia catalogs and the romantic advertising prose of Mel Zeigler, owner of the original Banana Republic.



Brando had spoken often of Lima’s restaurants, and of the Palace and the Cathedral and of the fabulous Gold Museum filled with the treasures of the Incan Empire. All trips ended in Miraflores, he said, a quiet, wealthy neighborhood on the sea where one could eat endless bowls of ceviche at the elegant La Carreta restaurant. “Lima’s physical atmosphere,” I read in a travel book, “is slightly dreamlike, mostly because of the ganua—a mist that settles over the city between May and October. Under its blanket, Lima’s inhabitants meet at the penas (bars offereing folk and Creole music), shop at the open marketplaces, and dine at Lima’s celebrated restaurants.” Maybe in other years. When we arrived, the city was under a curfew, the airport filled with soldiers and police. The atmosphere was somber and tense. We passed through customs and left the airport as quickly as we could. Through the dark and polluted urban light, our taxi took us through ugly streets, past partially constructed or partially ruined buildings, through neighborhoods where the vast majority of Peru’s poor were housed, riding through the failing light into increasingly more prosperous parts of town, then to the hotel where we would spend the night.

Marshal Law. We dropped our bags into our rooms and descended to the lobby as darkness fell. Curfew. The streets were empty but for the armed guard. We ordered drinks from the bar and settle in to watch them march by the open doorway. A couple sat at a nearby table talking softly in quiet tones. I walked to the doorway to peer into the street, but was roughly ordered back inside by a gun-toting policeman. From the window we watched soldiers round up anyone in sight, the pantomime of nervous faces, hands reaching into pockets producing papers, the police escort to who knows where. All that was left for us to do that night was to eat a light dinner and go to bed. Lima. Tomorrow we would fly to Cuzco, the capital of the ancient Incan Empire.

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