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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