When I was in my twenties, I sought adventure. I couldn’t help it, so ingrained the desire was in my nature. As I endeavored in jungles, deserts, and mountains — sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others — I would occasionally find myself (or the others) in harm’s way. There were deaths. All were painful; some were gut-wrenching.
In those days, whenever we lost someone young and adventurous, we tried in vain to assuage our sorrow by telling ourselves that the person died doing what he or she wanted; seeking adventure and pushing the limits of their minds and bodies. It never actually worked, but it made the first weeks more bearable.
Now, approaching my sixth decade, I’m seeing more friends pass away, often from disease rather than injuries. Invariably, I wish I’d spent more time with them, or at least written them more often — not in emails or texts, but letters. And invariably, I hadn’t. Some friends I have lost touch with altogether, a result of getting too caught-up in projects and life’s considerations.
While researching my next novel, which takes place at Harvard University and in Peru, I learned about Harvard Anthropologist Dr. Gary Urton—first while making inquiries at the Peabody Museum, then later in the texts I was reading about the ways of the Incas. Gary, a remarkably interesting fellow, is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard.
As it turns out, Dr. Urton was in Peru at much of the same time I was living there in the 1980s while I was climbing in the Andes and involved with the adventure travel industry.
As it turns out, he knew a man named Alberto Miori Sanz very well.
As it turns out, I knew Alberto very well also, and I was looking for him.
I cannot give away too much about the novel, obviously, but there is a character in the book based on Alberto, so I wanted to get in touch with him to discuss it. Also, I hadn’t seen him in 30 years, and since I will likely have to return to The Sacred Valley of the Incas in the next year, I was excited to reconnect with him. Unfortunately, I could not find him. It was odd; I tried all the tricks of journalistic research I have learned over the years. It produced nothing.
The more I dug looking for him — and the more the book progressed — I began reminiscing about Alberto. He was not a big man, but he had a certain carisma. He had a way of calming a situation, and of figuring out a problem on the fly. He was also good in a tight spot.
I first met Alberto Miori in 1985 when I hired him to guide me into the backcountry of the cloud forests of the Urubamba River Valley. I had heard about possible pre-Incan ruins somewhere south of the Urubamba, about half-way between the lovely city of Ollantaytambo and the tourist attraction Machu Picchu. I had been researching the spot, and I had modified maps.
Before traveling to Cusco, the jumping-off spot for so many Peruvian adventures, I had been told two things at the South American Explorer’s Club in Lima. One: That the Sendero Luminoso —the “Shining Path” communist revolutionary group conducting terrorist activities throughout Peru was active in the area, and, Two: Alberto Miori was the guy I wanted. He was a man “with skills,” I was told, who would possibly be able to negotiate his way out of a problem with the Sendero if one arose. So, in Cusco I found him, and after going over the maps in the Cross Keys pub not far from the Plaza de Armas, he agreed to go…for way too little money. I did not have to twist his arm. His interest was piqued.
We did go on the search for eight days of tough bushwacking. We did find some ruins which we mapped, photographed and reported to the authorities, and we did have an amazing week. We did not meet any of the Shining Path, although we did emerge from our tents one morning to find a warning sign painted in the night on a rock in our campsite: “Soy un vigilante.”
We had many campfire conversations about the world, the Inca, politics, Alberto’s time living in the States (for another story), and the Shining Path.
From my journal:
“They (the Shining Path) will never make it,” Alberto said. “They’re too disorganized. They have no clear message; they want mayhem—they want to overthrow the government, but they haven’t told anybody what their plan is…what they really want. They talk about Leninism, Maoism, Marxism. It’s all very confusing, especially for the uneducated, of which we are many.”
Alberto was originally from Buenos Aires, but after a decade of traveling and working interesting jobs, he settled in Cusco, Peru and eventually got married. Cusco, he said, was, “A place of magic.”
After I started guiding climbing trips into the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes, I would always hire Alberto to be a guide for those trip packages that included a side-trip to Machu Picchu. I went along on most of them since the clients were on my insurance.
I loved talking to Al. He was a writer/vagabond’s dream; he would say things like, “…Yes. It is true, you see, in our veins runs the blood of the conquerors, and the conquered.” Pure gold. And on another evening, when most of the others were in their sleeping bags, wiped-out by the altitude, the wine, or the chicha (a seriously alcoholic drink in the beer family), Alberto said, “We are children of the vanquished. But we’re still here, and we live strong.” He used the term “Live Strong” thirty years before social media was a thing.
Al introduced me to Pablo Neruda, for which I will be forever grateful.
Years after my South America trips were over and I was traveling to other parts of the world, Alberto would do translation work for Dr. Urton’s publications, and other clients. I suspect Gary Urton enjoyed Al’s company as much as I did. Those were the heady times of our youth, and it pleases me that we both knew him.
So, when I wrote to Dr. Urton a week ago, and he graciously responded to my query asking if he had contact information for Alberto, I was saddened to hear that Al passed away in 2013 from cancer.
Dr. Urton reached out to him at the end of 2012, and he kindly took the time on an extremely busy day to find and forward to me his last correspondence with Al. It is stoic and written with grace; reflecting the way he lived. With Gary’s permission, I’ll share it with you.
December 28, 2012:
Dear Gary: Long time no hear! Well, here I am, in the hospital in Lima, in the cancer ward and, indeed, I do have two malignant tumors in my lil’ ol’ liver. They are at an early-middle stage so that my demise is not imminent. I’ve still got some proper time ahead of me. And I’m getting out of this farm in a few days, heading back to Cusco. Needless to say, I shall be undergoing treatment(s) and monitoring
A little bird came and told me that my wife wrote to you…she is terribly distraught by this whole affair, her nerves are a wreck, etc., etc. My apologies, by the way.
However, since I have –as above stated- at least the better part of the forthcoming year before this becomes a more serious nuisance (i.e., a very painful one), what I am (as always) in the market for is some, any, scraps of (translation) work. It can also be a larger than scrap work as long as it’s not a real rush job. So please, as always, keep me in mind and try to send a bit of gig my way….
…Well, my man, I’m afraid that those are the only things I’ve got to tell you. Do let me know how you and your family are doing, how life is treating you and how go the projects and studies (khipus, et al.).
Again, please don’t forget me.
“A hug.” I would’ve liked to have given Al a hug, though I’d settle for having stayed in touch with him.
“Please don’t forget me,” asked Al.
Dr. Urton has not forgotten Alberto, not in the least, and remembers him fondly, as do I. Perhaps that is enough for any of us.