Field Notes

Looking for the Shining Path

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 11, 2008; 7:02 PM

Our chariot on this particular journey looked particularly uninspiring.

"Maybe we should find a truck?" I asked our driver, Willy.

In front of me, parked alongside the central plaza of the Peruvian mountain town of Ayacucho, was an unimposing and none too new Toyota station wagon, with four impressively bald tires.

"It's fine," Willy said.

We set off. The purpose of this excursion was to explore the territory of the Shining Path, the communist rebel group whose guerrillas have resumed fighting the Peruvian military. We would not find them. Neither, it seems, does anyone else who goes looking. Perhaps the most basic reason the Shining Path has been able to survive for 28 years and counting is that they are so hard to get to. Forget the mines and booby traps and tunnels, or the dense jungle or constant cloud-cover, there seems no better defense than these roads.

Road is not the right word. A few minutes outside of the Andean cities of central Peru, tires roll onto something closer to goat trails, shoulderless single-lane ruts of dirt and rock fragments hacked and blasted out of the near vertical mountain slopes. The pace over such rubble is glacial and there is time to muse.

"We wouldn't survive the fall. It's too steep. Too far," said Lucien, my travel companion, who sat closest to the precipice.

"This road used to be half this wide," Willy said. I found that hard to believe. He started to count. "Three, four, five. Five of my friends died on this road," he said. One car-load "fell 500 meters and they were found three days later."

This recollection prompted Willy to honk as we approached each blind corner. Unless he forgot, which seemed about half the time. I was surprised he hit such a high percentage, because barely anyone else was using our rut. But that did not mean progress was steady.

Our ultimate destination was a place called Pukatoro, a copper mining camp of unknown size somewhere in the mountains. The maps we could find did not care to mark this settlement. But the Shining Path had found it, why couldn't we? At each cross-rut, or as close to it as we could find a shepherd or avocado farmer, we would stop and Willy would ask if we were on the right path. Most of them hadn't heard of Pukatoro.

At other times we stopped to lug boulders off our trail. Or to wait for cows. Or to ford streams and skirt waterfalls. Or once, to wait for a group of people to finish chainsawing a eucalyptus tree that blocked the path. This was a particularly surreal, and tedious, interruption. After measuring the tree and making careful chainsaw cuts, the half dozen people present would stand around idly watching the scrawniest teenager take a crowbar and inch a massive piece of trunk off the road. No one seemed to notice we were waiting. "This is the twilight zone," Lucien said.

I saw a pig on a leash. I saw a man with a bag of sticks on his back who carried his machete by the blade. And amid the growing darkness on the side of this desolate mountain we rounded a corner and saw an unreal blaze of lights.

This was Expansion. This Andean Vegas was basically a massive labor camp for an American mining company, Doe Run. There we would find rotisserie chicken, and beds for the night. It shone like a beacon, it couldn't take long to get there.

Then our first tire popped. Willy, who normally drives tourists on day trips and seemed to be losing enthusiasm for this adventure, replaced it quickly. We inched down over what looked like very sharp shards of rock to the bottom of a ravine, crossed over a river, and scaled the other side toward glowing Expansion. Then the second tire blew out. Willy made clear he wanted more money.

The next morning before dawn we began the final ascent to Pukatoro. A small boy had pointed the way the day before. "It's up there in the clouds," he said. We drove past the crumbled remains of stone huts, whole villages abandoned during the Shining Path war in the 1980s. Dirty snow speckled the mossy rock.

At last we saw human life.

First one guard and then several others came out to greet us. Their reception was colder than the morning mist. After the Shining Path had come the mining workers had left and they were not going to let anyone else cause trouble here. We argued, but they formed a human chain and stared at us with a silent determination. They put boulders and orange cones to block our progress. Their leader made it very clear that we were going no farther on that road.

It was the best news I'd heard in two days.

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