The desert is literature’s longtime metaphor for solitude. People die out there, Roberto Penny Cabrera cautions me. He is the desert man, or at least that is what he is called in Ica for his knowledge of the Ocucaje desert of southern Peru is unparalleled. His collection of fossilized shark teeth, brains, and meteorites is easily worth hundreds of thousands. Respect for him in Ica is so complete that he can leave them unguarded above his bed in a simple room above the Plaza de Armas.
I called Cabrera from a bench in the plaza at 9 am one morning after wandering the city for a while. Not entirely sure what to expect after reading story after story of his exploits, in really slow English, I asked for a tour of the desert. I knew he spoke perfect English, so my nervousness was betrayed in my bizarre speech. Little did I know that he was watching me already.
“My home is near the church. Come there.” Cabrera says and hangs up. I look around at the two churches and pick the nearest. Wandering toward it while shaking off money exchangers and baked goods salesmen, Cabrera beckons me from his porch. I look for a staircase.
“You are as lost in a city as I am, it seems.” Cabrera shouts from a doorway 20 feet away. I walk over, take off my hat, and shake his hand. Without saying anything, he leads me into the mansion, past his desert-tested black truck, and up two flights of stairs.
“What is your name?… John? John Wayne!” He says, showing a bit of excitement. Mostly bewildered, I follow him to a small room in a tiny corner of the mansions third floor. Three cases of fossils line the walls, a chair, a mattress, a pile of clothes, and a desk full of rocks are the floor’s only companions. The collection is overflowing.
I listen as Cabrera starts to tell me stories. He tells me of the journalists who came to visit, the graverobbers and illegal fossil hunters who are his sworn enemy, and his philosophy of earth and family. I listen, agreeing and disagreeing when I had the chance to speak.
“I like your hat. That is why you are here. Most people who come here, I am not home.” He says. The articles did say he was very particular about who he brings out. “I am giving you my time, that is the best thing I have.” I begin to realize that the trip I hope to embark on, a three day desert adventure to search for fossils in one of the world’s richest former oceans, was not really about the fossils.
I listen further as sage advice is mixed in with see-through salesmanship. I wonder if every sage is also a good salesman? Perhaps The Desert Sage is a better name than the Desert Man, because the longer we spoke, the more I realized that the trip was really about experiencing the spirituality of the desert, not finding shark teeth and whale brains. After an hour and a half of covering topics from government corruption to the difference between science and “finding” he takes me downstairs.
“I see you, I already know who you are, John Wayne. I know because I see a piece of my crazy life in you. We are similar.” As we talk about our shared belief that love and family are the most important things in the world, I begin to wonder if he is right.
“I’ll tell you what. I have a trip for the next three days. When I get back, I will take you out. I know you cannot afford the price, so here is what you must do. If you return on Sunday with a couple in love, the kind that is all over each other and happy doing anything, instead of each paying (the standard $400 per person for three nights) you will each pay a third. Now go. When I close those doors, you’ll go back into the real world, you’ll leave my world.”
We shake hands again, and I wander to the nearby coffee shop. Sipping a cappuccino, I realize how many of the problems I thought I had were solved in talking to my own chink for just an hour and a half. I had quite a bit more to learn from the man who manages to get people to pay him to do exactly what he loves. “It doesn’t matter what you do. There are good and bad people who do everything. Be a good one, that is what matters.” Just absurdly simple enough to be true, or absurdly simple enough to get a 19 year old to believe for a while.