Try Not to Die in Peru

To be fair, try not to die in a foreign country. I don’t think Peru has cornered the market on red tape. Every country has its own policies and bureaucracy when it comes to dealing with death, and the US has additional regulations when it comes to bringing a body back into the country.
My husband died at 2:30 in the morning. By 3:30 our hotel room was full of cops, a doctor, hotel staff, and the detective in charge. I watched from a across the room as they bagged my husband’s body in a body bag that was too short for him. The top of his head protruded and the bag could not be zipped up. The cops like Laurel and Hardy tried pushing him into a bag that could not contain him, zipping and unzipping the bag. Then one of the men had a brilliant idea—he took a pillowcase off the bed and used it to cover my husband’s head so that he would not be exposed as they carried him away. I try to believe it is an effort to show respect for the dead, but it was so ludicrous that in different circumstances in some other universe I must have been laughing hysterically through the tears.
Before he left Detective Pino stopped and talked to me. He told me I would be seeing him during the days ahead and he gave me a direct number to call if I needed him for any reason. I wrote the number in my little notebook, but I had no idea that I would in fact need his number many times. He asked me to verify my husband’s first, middle, and last names and he entered them correctly in the boxes labeled nombre/apellidos.
Then I was alone. I used the hotel phone to call my daughter. I packed my bags. I stood at the window and watched Miraflores come to life. My daughter asked me if she should call her bishop in Mesa, Arizona. I told her I thought it was a good idea. But really, what could they do from Mesa? Probably nothing, still maybe they could offer some kind of help and comfort to my daughter.
I hadn’t been using my cell phone. Every call in or out cost $3.99/minute. I had a calling plan in Chile, but in Peru we had been been relying of emails and facetime. Now, given the circumstances I answered my phone when it rang. (Thank you Sprint for eventually reversing nearly 100 minutes of calls) All eight of our kids called. They all wanted to know what happened. How had the incomprehensible happened?
My youngest daughter and her boyfriend booked a hotel room at the Radisson hotel in Miraflores. They would be arriving in Lima before midnight. I called the Radisson and they said I could check in at 11:00 AM. That was my first ray of sunshine. I was ready to leave Hotel Stefano’s. I hadn’t decided where to go, but I could not spend a second night in that room.
I called the US Embassy and was connected to Citizen’s Services. On my first call I was connected with the right person, the one who would facilitate paperwork and interaction between the US and Peru. I never went to the embassy, I never met the person I talked to multiple times. But when all was said and done he did his job and saw to it that I had what I needed.
At 10:00 in the morning, just as I was making arrangements for a taxi to take me to the Radisson my phone rang again. A woman introduced herself as Sister Acosta from the Area Offices of the Church. She had received a call from my daughter’s bishop. She understood that my husband had just passed away and that I was alone. We chatted for a few minutes. I have to say her statement of the facts made me feel pretty bleak, but she told me the church was there to help me and asked if it would be alright if a couple who lived nearby contacted me. I said that would be fine.
When Julie called and asked if she could come meet me I told her I was on my way to the Radisson hotel and that from there I had to go to the morgue. She offered to meet me at the Radisson. I agreed. They arrived almost immediately. I immediately liked Julie and her husband–he looks just like my brother-in-law and I felt like family had arrived. They insisted on buying me lunch. I hadn’t eaten really since lunchtime the day before but food was the last thing on my mind. We ate in the hotel restaurant. All I remember is that I had soup and it was warm and easy to eat. I finished maybe half the bowl. Julie had a driver she used to get around Peru. She offered her driver to me if that would be helpful. Her husband went back to work, and Julie and I went with Luis to the morgue.
Going to the morgue in the best of circumstances is not a pleasant experience. In fact I can’t really think what the best of circumstances might be. The morgue is in a bad part of town. Luis cautioned us to leave our purses locked in the trunk. He would stay with the car. I carried my passport and my husband’s passport, a credit card and cash zipped into my pocket.
At the morgue I waited in line, then sat in a metal chair beside a metal desk to speak to a man with mountains of paper piled around him.
He looked at me and asked if I had brought clothing to dress the body. No, I hadn’t. He told me to go and come back with clothing.
We drove across town to the Radisson and back with a bag filled with clothing. I waited in line again. A second man sat at the desk. He wasn’t interested in clothing—I could give the clothes to the mortician. This official pulled a sheet of paper out of a pile and read off my husband’s name. It is important to understand that the naming system in Spanish is different than the naming system in English. In Spanish everyone has two last names–the paternal last name, followed by the maternal last name. In English we generally use only the paternal last name. Also, legally a woman does not take her husband’s last name in Spanish. When I showed the passports with only one last name, and with my last name and my husband’s being the same, the official asked for my marriage certificate. I explained that I had not brought my marriage certificate with me to Peru, but that he could see on my passport both the last name I was born with and my married name. Nope. To him the passport showed that I was a Hopkins on my mother’s side and my husband was a Hopkins on his father’s side. Worse, he had entered my husband’s name into the computer using the middle name Kent as a last name followed by Hopkins as the second last name. That might have made us brother and sister. Even though he had the correct names his record did not match my husband’s and I would have to go back to the Criminal Investigations Office and ask them to correct the error on the name.
WE went through the naming conventions over and over again. Despite numerous explanations officials wanted to know what my second last name was, what my husband’s second last name was, etc. One official shook his head in exasperation and said that at least the hispanics in the US used two last names, didn’t they? When I told him they did not he found it hard to believe.
So that was Day One, Welcome to the Bureaucracy. I can’t remember everything I did that first day, but I do remember that Luis spent eight hours with us and that he charged me less than I had paid for the taxi ride from Stefano’s to the Radisson earlier that day. I must have talked to the embassy several more times. I had the names of two mortuaries the embassy said American’s tended to use, although the could not actually recommend a mortuary. I called the first funeral home and was given a price. Luis heard the price and shook his head. The price was outrageous. He called the second funeral home and got a price that was half that of the first. We met with Percy at Funeraria de la Paz. Percy told me the price for Americans was double what he had quoted Luis because of the additional requirements and paperwork, but being an honorable man he would honor the quote. Percy was a big guy–very big compared to the average Peruvian and he had lived in New Jersey for five years. We talked about the United States, about being in a foreign country. He was very sympathetic, very personable. He introduced me to Miguel, who would actually be doing the legwork. I don’t think I ever saw Miguel smile. Oh well.
I got back to the hotel room about 8:00 Friday night after making arrangements for Luis to pick up my daughter and her boyfriend from the airport. Without Luis I might still be in Peru! Having a driver saved not only hundreds of dollars in taxi fees, it saved my sanity!
The junior suite at the Radisson was large, comfortable and had only one bed–a giant king sized bed, but still only one bed. I called downstairs to see if I could change rooms for something with two beds. “I’m sorry,” they told me, “When your daughter made the reservation this is what she requested.” So, I showered and washed my hair and climbed into bed. When M and J arrived at midnight M walked into the room and stopped. “There’s only one bed,” she sputtered. For the next twelve days we shared a bed and it was another ray of sunshine. I never slept alone. We lay in the dark with M in the middle, and we talked and cried and planned our next steps, and J said soothing things so that we all fell asleep. We never would have planned it, but it turned out to be a wonderful arrangement.
Saturday morning bright and early Luis came to take us once more through the maze known as Lima. First to Criminal Investigations. Even though it was a Saturday Detective Pino came in and filled out a paper with all the appropriate stamps and signatures attesting to my husband’s correct name. He told me he was doing it as a favor to me since he had it filled out correctly on his paperwork and that in fact the error was the fault of the morgue. I knew this was true. He had checked the name with me at the time of my husband’s death. I had watched him fill in the boxes. Luis told me to tip him 20 soles—Pino had come in at our request and filled out paperwork he didn’t need to bother with.
Julie called to invite us to stay at her apartment. She assured me they had plenty of space and would love to have us there. M and J had reserved the hotel room for 2 more nights. They hadn’t met Julie or her husband. I told her I would think about it, but we were okay for now.
Back to the morgue. We waited for an hour and a half. Finally Luis came to the gate outside the morgue. It’s a Saturday he explained. We’ll have to pay a tip here or it could take a week to ten days to get anything done–and to expect service on a Saturday? Impossible. He talked to someone, slipped them 50 soles and within ten minutes I was called over to the metal desk where I presented the paper from the detective. The new man sitting at the desk waved the papers away. Why would he need those? He could fix the name on his computer. He asked for the name of the funeral home. Is your representative here? Yes, Luis had called and arranged for Miguel to meet us. There was still the problem of marital status, but when the official saw M’s passport with the last name Hopkins he smiled. She was obviously the daughter; she could speak to the coroner, identify the body, and sign the paperwork. Thank heavens we are both bilingual. How would we have gotten anything done if we didn’t speak Spanish??
By mid-afternoon on Saturday we left the morgue with the requisite papers in hand. Miguel came with the wagon and picked up my husband’s remains–still without clothes. He had left the clothes I’d given him at the mortuary.
A murder victim was released at the same time we were leaving. Journalists and photographers ran after the hearse with my husband’s body in it snapping pictures. It was soon on the front page, misidentified as the hearse with the other unfortunate’s body. Reporters stuck microphones in M’s face. She turned away, angry.
Luis took us to eat lunch every day at little hole in the wall places that charged us about 30 soles for four meals. We always ate well, hot meals with large portions from a set menu.
Sunday morning Luis picked us up for church. Julie sent skirts for us and off we went. We met the Acosta’s and many many other members of the church that morning. After the services we took a tour of the missionary training center and then went home with Julie and her husband for lunch. M and J were comfortable with these good people and we agreed and accept their hospitality. It was a good decision. Being in a home with a family was much better than being in a hotel room. Julie gave me–a virtual stranger–a key to the house and told us to come and go as we needed.
Monday was my birthday but I wasn’t feeling very festive. We ate our last free breakfast at the hotel and just as we finished a waitress came up and asked me if I was Señora Hopkins. When I replied in the affirmative she brought me a chocolate flan covered with whipped cream and strawberries and a chocolate happy birthday card. I looked at M and J. They shook their heads, they knew nothing. When we checked out M asked the receptionist about the birthday treat. “Oh we noticed on your passport that today is your birthday!” she told me with a smile. Another small ray.
We dropped our things off at Julie’s and went on our way. We had to go to the bank and convert our dollars into soles to pay the funeral home before they could actually begin to do anything. Peru is a cash only country in almost everything but the hotels. J said he could pay the whole amount into the funeral homes’s bank account with his credit card and we could sort out the money later. We went to the funeral home and got the unsigned contract and the banking info. We went to the right bank, arranged everything, charged the card, but the computers could not connect to confirm the transaction. No go.
On to plan B. I had several thousand dollars and Julie lent me the equivalent of a couple of thousand, I got another thousand with my Citibank card, M and J pitched in. We were good, except the bank would not accept wrinkled or torn bills. And they gave me an exchange rate well below the Exchange Houses rates. We left the bank and took our wads of money to the exchange house. Nope, they would not accept wrinkled or torn bills. I went back to the bank. The teller didn’t know what to do. The manager came over and said they would give us a better rate of exchange. I got another 700 soles on a credit card. So did J. Finally we had enough. And I still had $650 in wrinkled bills in my wallet. (I never could spend them in Peru, I put them in the bank when I got home.) It was closing time before we left the bank.
M, J and Luis said they needed to make a stop. They came back to the car with an enormous birthday cake! Then we went to a restaurant that specialized in fried chicken, games and fun. The food was great, the waiters sang happy birthday, sliced the cake and served it up. Finally we arrived “home” and settled in.
The next day we had to meet with the funeral home again, drop off the receipt and pick up the signed contract marked paid. Then on to CSI where I had to make a statement to the police and sign it. I answered questions and everything was typed up so that the criminal investigation into my husband’s death could be closed. Pheew. Six pages of questions and answers. And so the days passed. We thought we would be finished in time to fly home by Friday. No. The papers from CSI had to go to the equivalent of the Peruvian Social Security office and a Peruvian death certificate had to be issued. Then the paperwork from Social Security had to go to the Embassy so that a US death certificate could be issued. Miguel said he would take care of the paperwork for the Peruvian death certificate. I called the embassy, they agreed that was standard practice. The embassy received the paperwork on Friday from the SS office. They called and assured me they would make the death certificate while Miguel waited so that he would have it in hand. By late Friday afternoon we had twenty official copies of the US certificate of death. Thank you US Embassy.
I was ready to go home, but shipping regulations stood in our way. The personnel who supervise shipment of remains evidently don’t work weekends in either the US or Peru. We had no choice but to wait. Luis took us on a tour of Lima. We went to the Plaza de las Armas, and the Inca Markets. We saw adobe ruins built with hundreds of thousands of adobe bricks. The ruins are impressive and don’t get the press they deserve.
Sunday we attended church with Luis and his girlfriend and went out to eat a typical Peruvian meal, including guinea pig. Sunday night Luis drove M and J to the airport. Monday I went to a farewell luncheon for Julie (she and her husband were leaving for a new job in a new area) and met her friends. Then we did some shopping at the Inca Market with another friend. Incredibly Julie’s friend from Arequipa had grown up in Playas, New Mexico, a town so small it is not on the map, and coincidentally the place J lived for the first 6 or 7 years of his life. Small world.
Despite seeming to not have a care in the world, Julie and her husband were leaving Peru on Thursday. I crossed my fingers that I would be on my way prior to Thursday!
Yes! Luis’s phone rang. I had a confirmed flight for my husband’s body leaving Lima at 1:00 AM TUESDAY morning. I got online and bought a ticket on the same flight. I said good bye to Julie and her husband. Luis and Carmen drove me to the airport. We said our goodbyes in the terminal. I waited until I knew my husband was on board. I was the last one to board the plane. Finally on August 12, I waved good bye to Peru.
When I stepped off the plane in Tucson seven of my kids, plus spouses and grandkids were waiting to greet me. What a happy sad moment. There is no place like home.

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About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States"--Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico, Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and Cochise College in Nogales, Arizona. She and her husband travel extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, and have spent many summers in the remote highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala with their family. Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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