Lima’s faded glory

For no good reason, I’ve been in Lima for two weeks now.. which is about two weeks too long. I exaggerate. Kind of.

Like any metropolis of it’s size, there are many Limas.. and some of them certainly are attractive. The central plaza is a beautifully landscaped park surrounded by handsomely restored colonial palaces and other grand buildings. Over on the other side of town, the aptly-named Parque Amor makes for a romantic stroll along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean, past finely manicured lawns and Gaudiesque mosaic benches. But the vast majority of the city is a sprawling wasteland of grimy industry and depressing slums. The smog is so thick that visibility is often reduced to just a few hundred yards (although to be fair, I find the exhaust to be no worse than that of Panama City, Managua, or some of the other ugly capitals I’ve seen on this trip.) The honking is incessant, made worse by the untimely death of my noise isolating in-ear headphones which until now facilitated my escape from the din.

The weather has been pleasant with warm, spring-like temperatures, and although the skies are constantly gray, rain in Lima is about as common as snow in San Francisco. The streets don’t have storm drains and many homes have roofs that aren’t designed with the rain in mind. Many Lima residents have never used an umbrella in their lives.

My hotel room is across the alley from a casino that leaves it’s back door open all night. I lie in bed falling asleep to the incessant cartoonish songs of the slot machines. When the announcements join in, I think I’m inside a Jim Jarmusch film.

I’ve changed hotels three times since arriving in Lima. Never quite satisfied with the value, or discovering annoyances not noticed at first viewing, and of course eternally searching for that elusive WiFi. It’s slowly dawning on me that my hotels may in fact be discrete love dens for amorous affairs and not simply undiscovered gems off the tourist circuit. Come to think of it, they’ve been located in unusual places for a hotel. And I can’t think of any other reason the cleaning staff would be making rooms up at all hours of the night. Usually I pick up on the signs at first entrance, like the multitude of hotels that quote their rates in 12-hour blocks – but these places are more subtle. No matter, it doesn’t bother me.

Most visitors to Lima stay in Miraflores, the upscale neighborhood full of all the traveler delights – malls, fine restaurants and gringo food, internet cafes, travel agencies, outdoor equipment shops (although surprisingly for a country famous for it’s outdoor sports, there are only three quite small gear stores). I am not like most visitors; I have been staying exclusively in working-class neighborhoods. Queens, as opposed to Manhattan, for you New Yorkers. Safe, but (and) not another tourist around for 50 blocks. Oh, I long for the smart cafes and crave the comfort food available in Miraflores; but I’m not willing to pay the ridiculous prices that they ream the tourists for these pleasures.

My one exception to this rule is when it comes to coffee, which as you know I take very seriously. One of the only places to get a real cup of coffee around here is at Starbucks, and fortunately there are a handful scattered around the upmarket neighborhoods. A small coffee at Starbucks costs as much as a complete meal at any of the typical neighborhood eateries. I’ve been partaking in both. My typical day begins with breakfast in my hotel room made from supermarket groceries as I leisurely check email and browse the news on the net. I then hike to one of the far-flung Starbucks’ while listening to podcasts or language tapes along the way and taking in different neighborhoods. There I savor over the hard-won cup of joe while I write. After a couple of hours, I’ll wander back through a different neighborhood and have a late lunch at whatever hole in the wall is hopping with locals. I’ve been averaging about 80 blocks a day – walking being the best way to see a city, in my opinion.

I sure miss my iPhone, with it’s GPS and Google Maps. The guidebooks and tourist office only have maps of downtown and Miraflores, which does no good for my kind of exploring. So after a couple of days of getting hopelessly lost, I finally realized that I could load Google Maps on my netbook in the hotel, take screenshots of where I would be walking that day, and transfer those image files to my Treo. Kludgy, and doesn’t give me GPS, but at least it gives me a map in my pocket.

The address and street layout of Lima is exasperating. Streets change names about every 20 blocks, and of course there are the old and the new names. So while the guidebook or a listing will use the new street name, people on the street and bus conductors use the old names, leaving you thoroughly flummoxed.

Before arriving in town I’d read that the taxis are corrupt – not licensed (any car can call itself a taxi), no meters, ripping you off, robberies and worse. This is actually a blessing in disguise, since avoiding taxis forces me to either walk or learn the local bus system. Easier said than done – the buses in Lima are among the most inscrutable and confusing I’ve ever come across. There seems to be no organization or hierarchy to them. Each bus has numbers and colors and destinations written on their fronts, but they don’t seem to mean anything. The guidebook conflicts with people’s advice (which conflict with each other) as to which bus to take to a given destination. Even one of the guys with clipboards who stand at major stops timing arriving buses had to ask each passing bus if they were bound my way. I guess since they’re all independently owned and operated, they can freely vary from whatever set route at will. [Wikipedia says there are 652 transit routes in Lima run by an unregulated 464 private companies. You do the math.] Amount of payment seems to be arbitrary too – prices are posted, but after watching locals pay less, I did too. Which works until you take the same journey on a different bus, subjected to the whims of a different conductor.

It’s unfathomable to me how a city of eight million people can exist in 2009 without a modern transportation system. No subway, no light rail, nor even the efficient express bus system that Colombian cities have. It’s a marked demonstration of the dangers of unchecked capitalism and lack of municipal planning (which so many libertarians and right-wingers claim that “market forces” will provide for – FAIL). To be fair, Lima is in process of building a simple bus-based mass transit system. And they proudly have photos up around town showing before and after shots of various infrastructure projects that have improved neighborhoods. But it all seems too little too late.

It’s not just infrastructure – where is the opera house? Symphony hall? Ballet? Modern art museum? There are only a handful of (small) theatres, no concert halls nor a single modern art museum, and the number of contemporary art galleries can be counted on one hand. For the 18th-most populous city in the world..  I’m just sayin’.
There are, however, half a dozen sports stadiums – which gives us a clue as to priorities around here. Bullfights and cockfights are popular spectator sports in addition to the ever-present soccer matches.

Clearly it wasn’t always this way. Walking the grand boulevards evocative of European capitals lined with enormous stately baroque, neoclassical, and republican architecture, one gets a sense of what things must have been like in Lima’s heyday. The term “faded glory” keeps coming to mind – these stunning historical buildings that would go for millions if they were in North America or Europe are just rotting away down here with no one caring for them.
Strangely, there are few parks – certainly none in the grand tradition of old-world cities that Lima was modeled on. What parks there are are fenced off or even charge admission. For the above reasons and more, Lima feels more like a Central American capital than a South American one.

It’s fashionable to decry the widening gap between the rich and poor in North America, but those problems can’t hold a candle to the stratification of society down here. As in many parts of the world, the upper class of Lima have abandoned the former heart of the city, preferring instead to construct a separate world for themselves isolated from the fray. The neighborhoods of Miraflores, Barranco, and San Isidro is where you’ll find the bourgeois living behind high walls, automated gates and electrified fences, patrolled by private security armed to the hilt. I shudder to imagine how one’s development is affected growing up in that environment while a mile down the road the rest of the city lives in shantytown shacks with dirt floors and no running water.

On the upside, Barranco has some beautiful views out over the ocean and a few lovely blocks of cafes and outdoor restaurants. It’s also peacefully quiet, for when you need to escape Lima’s insane traffic.

But enough bitching – now with a few pleasant stories.

One day as I was changing hotels I became frustrated at how long it was taking since I was trying to make a 2pm dance performance I had seen advertised. Well, sometimes “Peruvian time” works in your favor – although I didn’t make it to the theatre until 3:30pm, the show was just beginning! It turned out to be a creole waltz competition. An excellent live band played off stage while couples of all ages danced in front of the five judges at the back of the stage. The couples competed against one other two at a time on each half of the stage, slowly being eliminated. After a while I wandered out to eat supper. Out of curiosity I came back several hours later… and they were still going!

Another day as I was wandering around I heard music coming from a high school and a lot of excited parents milling about. Having learned ages ago that there’s no propriety down here with strangers (particularly white people) wandering into a semi-private function, I did just that. It seemed to be some sort of traditional (not indigenous) dance demonstration going on – successive groups of kids performing in traditional dress for their teachers and parents.

My first day in town I came upon a paraglider landing in the beautiful central square while official bands played. Don’t know if it was a commemoration, national holiday, or what. A few blocks away, mimes, jugglers, and buskers were plying their trade while the crowd moseyed by carny food booths. In a museum down the street, a painting dating from 1656 depicts the Last Supper with the disciples eating guinea pig and drinking from gold Inca cups.

My last day in town I jumped on a cheap bus tour that took us through poor barrios which nonetheless had the fronts of every house painted a different pastel color, such that when you view the neighborhood from downtown it’s a kaleidoscope of color. I wonder how the city enticed the residents into doing this. We ended up at a look-out point that would have been spectacular given that it was sunset – but the smog was so thick it felt like being in a smoky club.

Apparently Sunday is gay day. My hotel proprietor warned me not to walk through the very safe and well-trafficked square nearby because on Sundays gay hustlers hang out there, “you’ll end up going with one, and then they’ll ask you for money afterwards.” This from a married family man.

Here’s a brief snippet from the creole waltz competition:

And here is a longer video of the high school traditional dance demonstration:


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1 Comment »

  • Allen Craig says:

    Josh, Glad you’re stopping in one place for a bit. I imagine that through your school, you’ll make some nice connections. I’ve been in Cuenca for a month and I’m looking for last minute excuses to stay longer (but no women are hearing me apparently). I’m sure the Galapagos will make me forget soon enough.

    Buenas suerte con sus classes!

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