Travel Photography advice. When on the road, how to get your camera stolen and buy it back. Thisfabtrek from Cusco, Peru.
It is shortly past 6 and sun rises over the plaza de armas as I stop to ponder once more in sight of the two beauties, the cathedral of Santo Domingo and the church of Compañía de Jesus. For us this was a week of sorts in magical Cusco, and I take the second only shot that I will bring home before we drive 1,000 miles back to Lima.
In the late days of our 3 months plus Peru travels Daniel, David and I came to this Inca and Colonial town, a UNESCO world heritage site, 'the best you have left for last' I wondered, a father en voyage in a Chevy van, solo with five year old twin boys. This was a week ago, all after we had defied altitude sickness and slept in the freezing cold on 15,000ft on the Altiplano, after the desert and the jungles, the beaches and countless pre-Colombian sites.
Last Sunday morning while down below on the main square the bands marched and the soldiers paraded, we climbed up to Inca Sacsayhuamán, a walled city fortress, overlooking Cusco. In the 16th century the Inca fought the Spaniards within the hundreds of meters of walls, in three layered terraces of huge, 200 tonnes weighing, monolithic stones, cut round; the Inca way. The rocks fit precisely together, and a theory has yet to fully explain how the Inca managed to pull and push them down the ravines and up mountains from the quarries afar.
Carried by amazement, my boys and I in the afternoon pulled into a pub, for food and beer intake, and after a while my boys became a bit active and noisy, climbed over the bar, and I left my place in the corner, went and sat next to them at the counter to calm them. The distractions were such that I forgot about the other baby, my D700 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, still sitting in the back. In 8 years on my fabulous trek from Africa to the Americas this had never happened, the cameras, that I carried, always made it back home with me. This Sunday was different and the CCTV images would show that it didn't take the thieves more than three minutes to carry it off.
It was fast, one moment it daunted me and I went looking, probably rolled my eyes and gulped, and there was just a minute of frustration and contemplation where I thought the 'why me and why now' and what next, or whether to do anything at all! 'I have a problem', I let the bartender know of what seemed likely and the bar's owner, let's call him Brian, was around, trustworthy and helpful. He unlocked his dusty office to see what the 20 or so TV cameras had recorded; two guys and one looks straight into the lens. The guys working for security identified him, 'works at a hotel down the street', still at night they involved their official colleagues. 'By tomorrow afternoon we have the camera', was a first bold encouragement.
Just then it dragged on for many days, 'we have one', but 'he's so afraid, because the other one carries a gun!' and I began to internalize that my first pro-DSLR, was gone, and thought about changing careers; I certainly looked at the positive side of this journey, that nothing had happened to my youngsters after all we had been through in 5 months and that a camera was actually 'only' money and the Gods might have something else in mind for me...
Time in Cusco was becoming a reality check of sorts, thinking up a new life while waiting and going back and talking to the police and Brian. Thursday we took back to our van to make sense of our time and explore what is around, we headed for what is called the sacred Valley. Overlooking the agricultural terraces from the high on the Inca citadel of Písaq is where I busied myself with the crappy iphone-3 camera and the shots always came out blurred with dull colors.
Winding, steep roads lead us out from the valley on Friday and there was Inca Moray, site of several perfectly designed, enormous terraced circular depressions, spectacular to the eye! Nearby the 3,000 pools of the Maras salt works shined brightly in the late afternoon sun. A Peruvian took photographs with a D700; his, not mine, and he told me of a market in Cusco where at 6 in the morning all the stolen gear comes out on the counters, 'but be careful as a foreigner, don't go alone'.
In Ollantaytambo at night I drowned my frustrations in rubia and negra Cusqueña beer. We were ante portas of world famous Machu Picchu, other impressive Inca ruins were all around, and at dusk I could make them out up mountain from my windy restaurant. Being damned to visit Machu Picchu without a heavy camera on a strap, is probably every photographer's nightmare; it sank in there and then how much photography had become my life.
Morning and Saturday, and lackluster I sipped the usual, lousy coffee which I always prop-up by adding Nescafe out of my bag. The phone rings and my eyes turn wet, it is Brian cheering; the police managed to dig up an informant who could produce the camera, but it would cost 800USD (because he would have to buy it from a buyer; 'whatever'). This is expensive and this is cheap, and Machu Picchu would have to wait for a better day, I contemplated, we drove back to Cusco immediately.
In Brian's bar I met the two police men, nice chaps, then we waited all afternoon for the mysterious man to call. Later, like in the cop movies, we drove in their battered Ford, curved around markets, parked, waited, waited for another call. Finally the criminal came and sat in the back, he brought even his girlfriend with thick makeup and eye colorization, what a world apart. From a plastic bag, wrapped in a shirt he pulled the digital camera, I checked its functionality, the memory card was gone, but the scratches and scars were mine indeed, the settings all tossed about, language changed to Spanish. After a nod the police handed him the money and the fixer couple was gone.
Quick and dirty. Crime pays, everybody in the chain seems to have made a buck, just not Brian and me.