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I was Kidnapped and Held For Ransom in Peru, Part 2

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Spears out and ready, this is the Saramuro community protesting the oil companies. Photo by Mark Berman


Read Part 1 right here

We left off watching Looney Tunes, which would have been a brilliant closer, except that’s not where the story ended. That same night, the villagers got together and agreed to advance their protest to the next level.

I woke the next morning to news that we would not be leaving as previously scheduled. Shit escalated pretty quickly from there.

Our captain ordered the whole boat to join him on shore for a heated discussion with the protesters. It was eventually decided that each boat was to remain docked for as long as it took, meaning we weren’t going anywhere until the president of Peru paid the village a visit. There was no foreseeable solution – we were stuck.

At this point there were about seven boats being held hostage, carrying a myriad of machinery, cows, produce, petroleum and other people – not to mention the speedboat full of tourists that were living out their own dramatic reenactment of Gilligan’s Island. As I recall, time passed slowly that day as we retreated back to the boat to quietly sort out what was going on.

The men aboard began to circulate a plan: they’d unhook the cable from the spike ashore, edge our boat away and get the fuck out of there. It was risky, but it was our only option. We agreed the best time to make our move would be after dinner. The thought alone was enough to inspire some optimism among myself and fellow travelers. That afternoon, I decided to climb to the roof of our boat and take the 25-foot leap into the river. Best decision ever! Swimming was a refreshing reprieve from the reality of our bizarre situation and the villagers got a kick out the spectacle, dubbing me Loco Gringo. We all needed a good laugh.

At 8 p.m., our captain and crew were preparing for escape, but the residents had something else in mind. They stormed the boat, armed with spears and a few rifles, and forcefully entered the engine room. Despite a good deal of resistance, they successfully dismantled our engine and carried the batteries back to shore, an action they repeated with each boat in their possession until we were all stuck there, literally. Our exit plan was no more.

Protesters in Saramuro armed with spears. Photo from by Ann Wong and found on Servindi

As they continued to lure more boats, the protest grew and the chanting became louder and louder, lasting well into the night. And then the news spread that the boats weren’t the only hostages – each individual on board was now being held for ransom of 30,000 soles (roughly $10,000). I stayed up until 3 a.m. observing the phenomenon, pondering how this village escalated its own anger so quickly. It was as if they were channeling past generations of oppression and using this moment to express centuries’ worth of outrage and frustration.

I was torn. I empathized with their cause and but disagreed with the actions they were taking. Of the 60 or so passengers aboard our boat, 95 percent were Peruvian, many of whom rely on growing and selling these goods in order to make ends meet for their families. The village was hurting its own people as the produce was rotting away in the hot sun. I believe their anger clouded their judgement.

Regardless of right or wrong, the fact remained that our boat was being held hostage in middle of the jungle, still 125 miles from Iquitos, and I needed a way out of there.

I had originally set out on this adventure to practice trust, and this experience was certainly putting that to the test. Completely powerless in the situation, I was left to practice trust in a way that required full surrender, not an easy feat for a self-proclaimed control freak. By the third day, I was terrified and we were running out of drinking water. An elderly woman next to me passed out with heat stroke, babies were crying, rice and milk was being rationed out in cups. As the day passed by slowly, the tone grew to a dark shade of grim.

Needless to say, it’s a strange feeling when you realize you have no direct influence over your own circumstances. I had done work with Ayahuasca back in Ecuador that helped me understand the power of trust and the need to practice in that acceptance, and here I was, given an opportunity to face it head-on. There was really no other option but to trust the situation would unfold safely. However, with only 20 ounces of water left in my jug, time was running out….

I tried to sleep the third night amid gunshots being fired in all directions and tribal chanting well into wee hours of the morning. There was nothing to do but stay calm and just be with it, especially considering that the tribe was chucking Molotov cocktails from small boats surrounding us in the river, enforcing a boundary of sorts. The whole scene was fucking creepy.

The sign reads “No more abuse and contamination by oil companies of the Amazon rivers, this is a matter of life and death!” photo by Mark Berman

I wondered how much money I would pay to get out of here, to see my family again. I concluded that I would gladly spend everything I had – money was the least of my concerns with my life in danger. I decided to pray. I sent out a deep intentional prayer for the first time in my life, and allowed myself to drift off to sleep. Two hours later, I was jolted awake by what some might call a divine intervention. A small fishing boat had pulled up beside us and I saw people being loaded up. Shielded from visibility by our bigger vessel, the villagers didn’t notice the great escape just beyond their shore. With a quickness, I packed my shit and headed down to figure out what was going on and how I could get in on it.

It turned out that a neighboring village, two hours downstream, had sent an earlier boat to help the elderly to get away, and this second boat was for additional passengers to escape. For a mere 15 soles per person, the brave captain offered to haul the hostages to his own village, where they could hop other boats to take them on to Iquitos. Daylight was breaking and the risk of being seen by the villagers was becoming very real, but the risk of remaining on board seemed a hell of a lot more daunting. So as the little boat was nearly loaded, I threw myself into one of the few open gaps with my backpack and within minutes we were off and motoring on down the river, suddenly and finally free.

The eight-seater wooden boat was not built for the 20 people and their belongings on board. We nearly bottomed out and water spilled onto the deck. Some French dude and I went to work scooping it back out with buckets – that part was pretty fucking epic. But the best feeling ever came as we made it around the bend and realized we weren’t being followed or shot at. That feeling of freedom is something I will never forget, it was tangible in a way I’d never known before. It didn’t matter where we were going, or how and when we would get there – we were safe. I had placed my trust in the universe and somehow, it actually worked out.

The author smiling with gratitude a little while after his escape

The gratitude I had for the boat captain and for the people that welcomed us is indescribable. I swam in the river, ate fresh fish and basked in the simple peace that surrounded our refugee village. Their sense of calm was exactly the what the doctor ordered after days of fear and aggression.

I proceeded to hop village to village over the next few days, spending two more nights along the way in tiny pueblos, eventually making it to Iquitos. The three-day passage took nearly one week, but as the highs and lows evened out, I eventually began to feel a deep sense of gratitude for this experience. It tested, stretched and molded me into a much cleaner human being.

What a fucking ride.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.