The wet-rag relief of Chiclayo disappeared within moments of entering the market. A jigsaw of scaffolding stifled the Southern breeze and knotted fists of herbs choked out the mid-day light. I double wrapped my camera bag’s strap around my wrist and dipped at the waist to avoid the two severed condor heads that hung directly in my path.
A couple words of Quechua—a gap-toothed man held out a bowl belching tendrils sandalwood smoke. I leaned in to inhale the homemade incense, my eyes darting between his and the various animal parts strung along the shelf behind him. Something tugged against my bag. I dug my left boot into the dirt—eye-balled the easiest corridor through which to disappear into the labyrinth of the Mercado Modelo.
Three. Two. One.
A meaty palm cracked down upon the small of my back.
I’d left Nicola behind three days ago in Catacaos. She wasn’t the first person to tell me that if I continued to carry 12-pounds of camera gear around with me I’d eventually be robbed. I was used to hearing Latin American horror stories every time I pulled out my SLR at a bus stop. I’d become accustomed the exhausting smiles I received each time I left my Nikon dangling around my neck. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the threats. I simply felt I was playing a calculated game of odds. Having to purchase a new camera upon my return was a lesser evil than getting back to Canada without any images at all. I used the same excuse last summer to shrug off a broken MacBook screen in Bangladesh. Toys were made for playing with. Technology comes and goes but memories are immortal.
Elion stood half a foot taller then me and weighed at least two and a half times as much. The red-face German could not have looked more out of place in the witch market—a polar opposite to the shriveled mahogany shamans in every possible way except his jack-o-lantern smile.
“You’ve got to be careful around here,” he said a few minutes later over pineapple juice. Elion swatted away my hand when I went to pay. “Especially with Shamans. If you’re after a healing make sure you know the guy first. Last month two English guys signed up for an Ayahuasca trip and woke up with their organs cut out.”
I scanned Elion’s massive sweat-soaked face for a hint of humor but he gave nothing away.
Elion had been in Peru for 10-years. After touring a chunk of Africa as a member of the German armed forces, he’d fallen in love with the expat life and posted up in the Amazon rain forest where the private security gigs paid well. He and his Amazonian wife were in Chiclayo for a few months where she could get any medical attention she might need in the lead-up to the birth of their twins.
“I’ll show you around,” he said. “But not with that bag. Let me show you my friend’s stand. You can leave it with him.”
There was a fierce irony Elion’s statement. Two seconds ago, he’d warned me not to trust strangers. A mug of pineapple juice later, he was asking me to leave my bag—complete with computer, camera, and passport—under the safe-guard of someone I hadn’t even met. It’s a strange truth of travel that we’re expected to put our trust in others due to the simple coincidence of sharing a language or skin colour. But once more, I stacked up the odds and it seemed better to play Elion’s game and grab a deeper glance at the occult.
“Sure.” We turned the corner and I tucked my bag behind the stand of a man whose hybrid Spanish I could hardly understand. He poured Elion of I two glasses of a strange herbal mixture—it burned on the way down and immediately my insides started to shake. I had a feeling this meeting would be worth the gamble.