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.

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… and back to the Andes

I awaken to the cold steel light of dawn filtering through the drawn curtains. The windows are fogged over indicating how cold it is outside, but I occasionally catch glimpses of the passing scenery. It looks like Iceland – barren tundra, ice floes in the river paralleling the road. Mist and fog hang over everything, reducing visibility to 50m and adding to the mystique. We’re climbing over the pass at 4,000m (13,100 ft.) and my ears are popping as we approach the mountain city of Huaraz.

Being on the second floor of a luxury bus (just $5 above economy class), my seat reclines nearly all the way – meaning I actually got some sleep through the night. It was $15 for the 9-hour trip, and comes complete with a hostess who hands out drinks, snacks, and blankets. I could get used to this. They fingerprinted and videotaped each of us as we got on the bus which I guess reassures me? Oh, and wove a metal detector cursorily over our bags, putting the TSA to shame at it’s own game of security theater. I’m finding that overnight buses are often the only option for covering long distances, and while it’s efficient and saves the cost of a hotel room, I’m pretty much wiped out the following day. Plus I miss watching the scenery rolling by. I have a front-row seat on a large picture window, but being nighttime, can’t see a durn thing.

We pull into Huaraz a bit past 7am and I leave my bag at the station to walk around and find a hotel. Being such a touristed town, there are a ton of cheap hotels and not-so-cheap gringo restaurants and coffee shops. Really nice comfortable groovy places that look like they’re straight out of Berkeley, Madison, or Asheville. WiFi abounds as does good coffee, and I even found a microbrewery! Real beer at last – made solely with hops, yeast, water, barley, and in a local twist, coca leaves. The George Clooney look-alike proprietor took a liking to me and kept feeding me tastes of brews he was working on. A jet-black porter. A pilsener which I usually don’t go for, but this one tasted so fresh, and got even more interesting when he muddled it with yerba buena (an herb similar to mint). I highly recommend this bar (13 Buhos) if you find yourself in Huaraz. The owner invokes such a fun, happy spirit in his guests that you can’t help getting swept up. One night, the traditional Alcatraz dance broke out – a sensual dance in which the woman has a tissue or napkin tucked into her waistband hanging down between the cheeks of her ass, while a man circles around with a candle trying to light it. She sways her hips and dances in circles trying to get away from him and his candle. Full of innuendo and metaphor.

This particular stretch of the Andes is called the Cordillera Blanca, and it’s the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. Crazies Climbers from the world over come here to test their mettle on 34 peaks over 6,000 meters (20,000′). The first successful ascents were made by an intrepid American woman named Annie Smith Peck who was over fifty years old at the time. After a teaching career in classical studies she became fascinated by mountain climbing while traveling through Europe in 1885. That year she became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn, and the first to climb it wearing long pants instead of a dress! A truly inspiring woman, she continued to travel right up until the time of her death in 1935 at the age of 85.

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From the mountains to the sea…

Leaving Cajamarca, I headed back to the coast – to Trujillo, a large city of not much interest. Spent a few days wandering around the colonial centre viewing the pretty architecture and large square; but as one moves away from the center the city quickly devolves into urban blight. In an example of the law of unintended consequences, in 1990 the city banned buses from the city center in trying to decrease smog and traffic. Unfortunately this lack of buses caused an explosion of taxis, resulting in far worse air and sound pollution.

I’ve only been in Peru a few weeks and already I’ve witnessed several demonstrations and parades. There must be a rich tradition of protest here. One particularly grueling incident occurred in 1932 when angry union strikers attacked and killed 10 army soldiers. In retaliation the government rounded up 1,000 union members and summarily executed them by firing squad.

The demonstrations I’ve witnessed have varied from schoolchildren protesting energy reduction (?) to workers striking. The parades have varied from schools celebrating their founding to religious (Catholic) endeavors. Lots of these. One night as I was wandering around I heard the sound of a marching band. Like a moth drawn to the flame, I sought the source. Imagine if you will several hundred people dressed in black solemnly walking the streets. Leading the charge were about 20 dancers in ordered rows wearing costumes made from burlap bags and in blackface. Next came a drum line in the same outfits and makeup. Then came the devout women. Many holding crosses, worry beads, or photos of saints. A couple dozen of them held aloft an effigy of Mary, carrying it the way pallbearers carry a casket. She was life-sized, standing on a large elaborate rostrum, and surrounded by hundreds of roses neatly arranged. Since this was at night, she was lit by a halo of dozens of compact fluorescent bulbs surrounding her.

Next came the men. They were holding aloft an effigy as well – this one was of Judas. Arcing over his head was a halo of neon lights spelling out “San Judas Tadea”. The electrical cord for his neon and flood lights strung back to several people holding it aloft with sticks, and eventually back to a pickup truck with a generator in the back. A kid was playing the role of cable puller.

Between the two effigies was the priest in all his garbous robes, talking on a megaphone, and surrounded by a small cadre of incense swingers.
Bringing up the rear was the band – only about a half-dozen players, all middle-aged men, they were fantastic. Clarinet, horns, snare, bass drum. All wearing matching black suits but not marching in formation, just strolling along casually to the beat. And what a beat it was! Happy, catchy, in the New Orleans second-line style (to my ears. I’d love to know what they call it here).
I loved it! This is not the sort of thing that’s listed in any guidebooks or websites, yet happens all the time. It’s probably the special day of the patron saint for that particular congregation – not notable enough to make the news or guides, yet wonderful for a tourist to come upon.

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First Week in Peru

Some impressions from my first week in Perú.

First, about getting out of Ecuador – leaving the hotel at 4:40am having not slept in a couple of days, I made the 5 o’clock bus to Loja. But the 7am bus from Loja to the border never showed, so I had six hours to wait until the next one. I spent the time wandering around trying to stay awake – sleep deprivation can be pretty trippy – in that dreamlike state, not totally sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Who needs drugs?
I’ve added a few more photos to the Loja post from that morning that you may find amusing.

It took three hours to reach the border and I’m glad I paid my fine ahead of time, since I wouldn’t have wanted to hang around Macará any more than needed. It felt sketchy and transient, like most border towns. As it was, the Ecuadorian police didn’t even look at my $200 receipt – but I guess it was in the computer. Crossing the river into Perú, there was nary a computer in sight! Hmm, interesting first sign of what’s in store. In a very simple structure, a kid barely old enough to shave and sans uniform wrote my details in a log. Perhaps they later copy the logbook into a computer, who knows. Then across the street to have the police do the same thing. No bag search, no questions, nada. One of the easiest border crossings I’ve had on this trip. Hallelujah!

Bus pulled into Piura about 9:30 at night. Took me a while to find a decent hotel room, there seems to be a gap between cheap/grungy hotels and fancy/expensive places. Finally found a room with a window (a surprising number of hotel rooms in Latin America don’t have windows out to the street, which makes me feel like I’m in prison). Piura is a small city, decent enough, didn’t feel dangerous at all even at night. But not that attractive, either. Although I love cities, I’m experiencing culture shock being back in one after 2 ½ months in Vilcabamba. All the honking and chaos is a bit overwhelming after so long in tranquility.

After not nearly enough sleep, I headed out the next day for points further south. There seems to be an amazing range of high quality long distance bus companies. All the buses I’ve seen are quite comfortable which bodes well for those long distances I have coming up. And there is good security even on the economy lines – checked baggage, for instance. I’m finally learning that nobody sits in their assigned seats – it ends up being first come, first dibs on the best seats.

I caught one for Chiclayo, three hours south and closer to the coast. The journey took us across the Sechura desert – dry, flat sand as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by occasional low shrubs. Markedly different from the Andean highlands I’ve mostly been in for the last six months. Arrived in Chiclayo about 5pm, much preferable than arriving after nightfall. There’s a better range of inexpensive hotels here than in Piura, although so far I’m noticing the prices of things in Perú are a bit more than in Ecuador. Uh-oh.
I’m happy that the weather is no different than what I’ve had for the last few months – warm and sunny, spring-like. I know I have to, but I’m dreading heading south – for the further I go from the equator, the less this will be true.

I’m back in a country that communicates through honks – drivers are constantly tooting their horns, even when no obstacle is ahead. It’s a curious (and annoying) form of communication. Things generally seem brasher and louder (touts and beggars are more insistent, for example) than in Ecuador, although I realize it’s impossible to judge an entire country based solely on a couple of days spent in these random towns. I’m sad to have left the pedestrian-friendly confines of Vilcabamba – here, as in most of the rest of the world, the automobile is valued higher than human life. I’ve also returned to a land of casinos – as in Colombia, there is one on every corner.

I usually forget to bargain down the price of hotel rooms, but here I remembered – and the guy immediately dropped the price. Amazing when that works! Trying to cut back on the carbs, I bought a bottle of wine instead of beer. I asked the proprietor why the Argentinian wine was so cheap when it was the best wine in the shop, and I think he told me the local equivalent of, “it fell off the back of a truck” (i.e., he paid no taxes).

Turned on the TV tonight to discover Project Runway – in English! Oh, I’m in heaven. You just can’t dub Tim Gunn and keep his flamboyant charm.
Both Chiclayo and Piura have tons of those three-wheeled motorcycle-taxis running around in addition to the normal yellow cabs. I wonder why some places (small towns in Panama & Guatemala, coast of Ecuador) have them while other places (Colombia, rest of Ecuador and Central America) don’t.
Perú is meant to have the best cuisine in all of Latin America. I’ve already had some deliciously cheap seafood, and there is a string of cevicherias on one street that I intend on trying tomorrow.

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