As the southern suburbs of Lima appeared on the hillsides to my right my first reaction was to flee. The vast blue sky and desert landscapes that had tumbled down towards the waves of the Pacific Ocean had now been replaced with grey tumble down cinderblock sheds going on for as far as the eye could see which would with every kilometer be enveloped further into a mysterious fog. Just as I had been awestruck at my first sight of Machu Picchu this too was striking but in ways that were far from picture postcard pretty. Imagine deserted shanty towns on a cloudy Mars devoid of vegetation or asphalt where the only signs of life were scruffy dogs, chimney smoke and clumps of tumbleweed while the only signs of color were brash political propoganda smeared across walls and doors screaming out candidates names like Alan! and Keiko!
As the bus travelled over dreary flyovers and into the morning rush hour I stared out into the colectivos and trucks towards the Peruvians with their expressions of severity as they did their best to ignore the clouds of carbon monoxide that swirled around and in them. I flicked through the pages of the book on my lap and opening the chapter on the city and environs sought salvation in it’s black typeset only after a few minutes to sigh in a defeated sort of way before closing the book the way you would a newspaper after reading a disturbing headline. There would be no rolling meadows or vivid singing birds here, no, not on this patch of Earth. I mentally rolled up my sleeves and reminded myself that some of my best experiences had been in the shadows of towering factories and along stark alleyways with their flickering street lamps and leaking drains. “Aim low” I whispered to myself. In doing so I would notice the treasures that would forever lie discarded in a place that was visually more pleasing. While all others would make a bolt for the airport and fly out I would remain. Like two strangers in an arranged marriage I would stick it out for the long run and waiting for the reveal, whether it be good or bad, would linger until I had uncovered the inner Lima.
true love near the steps of Convento San Francisco
Every evening as I had fell asleep in the city I had been serenaded by a legless blind man who would appear during the evening rush hour and taking his spot right below my hotel window would stay until every last shopper had gone home. I’m sure he had never been aware of my existence one floor above and how, eventually, it had been a ritual of mine to sit at the window and wait for his arrival. How, after making sure his faithful companion, a small limping white mongrel, had curled up amongst the spokes of his wheelchair I would throw open the windows to let his compositions fill the room and slipping into a bubble bath would ponder love and it’s futility. Most nights I would eventually doze off to the musician and his grand finale, the theme from The Godfather and marvelling at the irony would by transported back to a summer’s day in Amsterdam when my former lover had drove along in his new status symbol while that theme tune, of of his favorites, had played from the car stereo.
Every morning I would awaken to concrete and fog and in particular the color grey and marvel at it’s abundance of tones. Lima stirs under the monochrome landscapes like a vast ashen Pompeii brought to life again in the modern era. Like the bow of a ship jutting out into the Pacific it’s passengers seem to stare out aimlessly in search of greener pastures. Below the waves the sealions are at home here as millions of sardines are dragged by the upswell created by the Humboldt current where cold water creates the endless mist which the Limeños call the garua. I didn’t much care for scientific explanations prefering to gaze at the sky and agree with the other Limeños who fondly call the sky the donkey’s belly and how the city seemed trapped under it’s stubborn hooves. I often wondered how the world’s second largest desert city after Cairo could be so dismal and would often picture Edvard Munch’s The Scream to a Peruvian backdrop only this time as a charcoal imitation as it’s sodden kohl slipped off the paper into droplets of drizzle before eventually fading into the ocean itself. Remembering the people of the hills and how they complain it takes ten days for their washing to dry I wondered if they had 50 words for mist.
After dressing breakfasts were always the same sitting amongst Chinese atheletes visiting Peru for a sporting event I was always struck by the feelings of abstract strangeness to be the only non-Asian guest in a huge chandelier filled room on the fringes of South America. Abstract strangeness in an abstract city.
At ten Roberto would wait for me in the lobby. At first I had dreamed of being like the Limeños and holding on for dear life I had traveled along Avenida Arequipa by dented combi while admiring their dashboard shrines to Mary and christened with names like Jesús Mi Salvador I would feel invigorated before the chaos of the Centro Historico would drag my moods down into something more humdrum. After a few days of doing this the crush and exhaust fumes became tiresome and always ending up beyond where I was trying to get to I would have to wander around trying to explain my predicament in broken Spanish. I had been warned of the abundance of express kidnappings by taxi drivers and how an Australian tourist had fought back before being shot in the stomach for her efforts. In a city where taxis were a dime a dozen how odd it seemed that they should be avoided. Some days I would get into the Centro Historico by combi and at the end of my jaunts would walk over to the Marriot where the doorman would arrange a safe taxi for me to get back to my hotel. In the end however Roberto was always the best option. A friend of the concierge he was always punctual and spoke immaculate English. Often I would hire him for the day in doing so keeping my stress levels and grey hairs to the absolute minimum.
guard outside the government building
unhappy pensioners protesting along Jirón Carabaya
Some travelers to Lima seem to think that the city is Miraflores, a wealthy glass and chrome district looking out onto the Pacific full of home comforts and levels of safety more on par with home. I knew for one that I had no interest in visiting Miraflores and had only mild interest in visiting the bohemian quarter of Barranco instead gravitating towards the Centro Historico to the north. The cities original core and once the most powerful city of the Americas, The City of Kings as it was known in it’s heyday was now reduced to crumbling colonial buildings where beggars, thieves and machine gun toting soldiers loitered on the street corners while sad florists stared into the petals they were trying to sell. A place choked with car fumes and shouting protestors an air of deep religious devotion hung in the air where it’s citizens between shopping for distressed jeans and cheap Chinese appliances would throw letters full of dreams into the well at Santa Rosa or clutching rosemary beads would light candles infront of the image of Jesus painted by a slave while nearby from illuminated glass boxes stuffed with money laughing dolls would stare out at the downtrodden reminding them that there was indeed something called happiness. A city straddling a fault line destroyed many times over I often wondered what the people saw in the foresaken arid landscapes and why they hadn’t abandoned the former City of Kings centuries ago.
Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral
interviewed about my trip to Peru
walking through Plaza San Martín
Life revolves between and on the two main squares San Martín and Plaza Mayor and the Limeños will often ask you which one you prefer. At first glance I liked the mango-colored Plaza Mayor with it’s wonky brass band at 11am, it’s trimmed palm trees and beautiful squat Cathedral where one afternoon I sat on it’s steps looking on bemused as El Presidente and his convoy of bodyguards (plus one ambulance) snaked it’s way around the square before driving into the government’s compound. This square was full of life but later I decided I liked the ivory-colored Plaza San Martín more. Understated and quite European with it’s elegant alcoves and naked sanguine nymphs who danced under the statue of José de San Martín who was portrayed on horseback while he crossed the Andes. I spent a good deal of time on this square sipping tea and enjoying the feeling of almost being in a southern Europe of the Seventies or with the amount of soldiers a fascist dictatorship in turmoil. Amongst all of this were dilapidated skyscrapers tagged in grafitti and sixties office blocks cloaked in layers of grime, hole-in-the-wall shops selling religious icons, beggars, posh cars, beat-up cars, nuns, monks and ofcourse the loiterers.
give me your best smiles!
Across a trash strewn stream called the Rimac River is an area called Rimac where I walked around one day unable to decide if it could be beautiful or would forever remain a rundown ghetto. Climbing to the top of the hill in Rimac called San Cristobal I looked down onto the slums of Rimac and across to the Centro Historico. Behind it loomed the massive sprawl of Lima itself fading off into a haze of smog, dust, sand and mist from the ocean and realising it could never be loved I had felt defeated by the city.
One afternoon while waiting at traffic lights a scary looking man appeared and while waving a grimy rag over Roberto’s car had tried to peer into the tinted windows looking at me and for the valuables I had. He knew that I knew we were both thinking the same thing. Smash and grab. Luckily I had followed advice and hid my bag and camera under the passenger seat infront. Almost getting arrested with Roberto added to the drama of Lima and another time when he almost hit and knocked down an old lady who was jaywalking, luckily she stumbled and managed to regain her balance. I can’t say that I loved Lima or even liked it but it was anything but boring. My top recommendation for Lima is to go into the underground vault of the Archaeology and History Museum and marvel at the gold. There in that moment confronted with it’s glistening jewels Peru and everything I had experienced fell into place as something incredibly special, truly the Land of Gold.
at the Palacio on Plaza Mayor
At first I didn’t like Peruvians but it’s because I didn’t understand them. I’m reserved, they are reserved so there was no balance. I could hear whispers of “gringa” while walking around, this word supposedly derogatory meaning foreigner or stranger I wanted them to see me only as human. After much thought one morning I realised the only way to overcome the stigma was to step out of my comfort zone and to own this label, to be like they expected, an excited lost traveler. That day and everyday until I left I unlocked their shyness and rocked what it means to be a stranger in Peru, laughing and talking to anyone who would bother I bathed in their smiles, their frustrations and dreams.
letters to Santa Rosa
You are still wondering about that time Roberto and I were almost arrested. Okay, I will tell you. Even towards my last moments in Lima it was dramatic. Staring into Roberto’s eyes he pleaded with me in that silent sort of way not to blow his cover after we had been stopped by a rogue motorbike cop while on the way to the airport. It became quite evident that Roberto didn’t have a license to be a guide or to even drive tourists around. The agent was everything you would imagine a clichéd South American policeman to be; chewing gum, obnoxious and wearing mirrored sunglasses he sauntered around us now and again adjusting his groin area demanding to know my relationship with Roberto. Threatening me with jail if he found out I was lying he demanded to know Roberto’s surname to prove I knew him more than on a business level. It was Roberto’s silent expressions of fear that signalled to me that he was in grave danger so racking my brains, shaking and feeling quite faint I blurted out “Goya!” That artist saved me from missing my flight, from being arrested, from the police finding out that Roberto was on the run after absconding from military service and that he didn’t have a license to drive tourists around. It’s strange, days before Roberto had handed me his business card and nonchalantly noticing his surname was the same as the Spanish artist without much thought I had stuffed it away in my purse.
Walking into the airport terminal with Roberto I realised we had in some way bonded, that we had been vulnerable and at the mercy of what Roberto later told me was an agent looking for a bribe. I noticed that about Peru. After getting through the closed façades people were in general immensely open and rarely afraid to talk about their dreams and faults and what’s most important that it felt real, not like in other places where everything seems like alterior motives to get money.
Somewhere over the north Atlantic the French group I was sitting amongst were upset, repeating the word “Paris” over and over again. Walking with my luggage across Amsterdam I noticed that the city seemed different, more uptight and deserted. It wasn’t until I was home after switching on my television I realised there had been a major incident in Paris and that it had been happening while I was boarding my flight home. Everything changed that day. Before the world had been a place to size up, with various degrees of safety it had been easy to cross off the risky places but after Paris I realised that many places have now levelled out. At the start of my journey Peru had seemed a far riskier place than home but now I realised I lived in the danger zone.
Reminiscing about Peru now it seems distant and cherished, away up there above the cloud cover where sleepy villagers watch sunlight dance across mountain peaks and people tend to their animals as they always have done while remaining forever soft spoken and gentle. That’s what I love about that country. Almost innocent, Peru seems lost in time but at the same time forthright traveling at it’s own pace far removed from the turbulence of the modern world.
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Great post! But I don’t feel any more enthusiastic about Lima than I did before….
Hope you stay safe in Paris.
Yes it’s a shame the capital of such a fabulous country is so dismal but there is always Cusco.