Deepest Darkest

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Peru  ,
Thursday, January 10, 2008

My first impression of Lima was one of overwhelming heat.  I boarded the plane in the freezing cold after travelling from Berlin at the frosty hour of 5am wearing 3 jackets, jeans, boots, mittens, a scarf and the rest of my clothes.  I alighted to a, now recognised as standard, hot, humid 25 degree Lima evening.  Pulling off all these layers and balling them up I suddenly had armfuls of extra baggage.  My swollen backpack zipper barely closes when I am sitting squarely on my bag.  Now I have about 4 extra kilograms of bulk which needs to somehow be squeezed inside.  This will wreak havoc with my packing.

I know we are in the capital, but I had envisaged Peru to be different to this.  Lima is a bustling city with large plazas surrounded by a good smattering of old churches and buildings.  I suppose I thought South America would be less developed.  A little more primitive.  (I know I probably suffer from the stock standard tourist misconception and if I weren´t from Australia I would also think that crocodiles slithered down George St and everyone had a kangaroo as a pet). 

I know it is probably my expectations not quite being met, but this is not my favourite city.  It is a nice change to be back in a world where everyone speaks Spanish again.  For some reason speaking Spanish always makes me laugh.  I think it is that you can't say "Ola" without smiling.

The one major advantage Lima holds over places like Sofia is the ability to eat a hearty meal cheaply and quickly.  Everywhere we go there are zillions of small restaurants serving set menus for inexplicably  low prices.  (On my first day I dined on 2 tasty traditional Peruvian dishes (entree, main and drink) for the astoundingly low price of 4 SOL (about AUD $1.60).  We've wandered around the old town immediately after filling ourselves up with breakfast and been overwhelmed (even with the Pavlovian response) by the delicious smelling meals emanating from every second restaurant.  The South American continent does look incredibly promising.

Having said this I think my favourite bit of Lima is the fact that we met up with Liz, Mike and Pete here.  We will be travelling together as a group of 5 for a little while. Yay!

* * *

Stepping out into downtown Lima is as close as one can get to walking into Grand Theft Auto. The buildings, the hazy humid light, the constant pulsing arriba soundtrack, the sprawling Ford Chargers - and the cops dressed like they walked straight out of CHiPs - make the illusion complete.  

In living and people terms, the comparison with a violent and controversial computer game is entirely inappropriate. It may be a little crazy (particularly in terms of road rules and their hesitant application), but its a very happy vibe.  

I consider myself fortunate to be in Peru. There is a letter of the law requirement that all arriving visitors hold a ticket out: in practice, this is a requirement not to look like a hobo, and to be carrying a credit card.  

Iberian Airlines saw things differently. Without a physical paper ticket to Sydney, they were very reluctant to let me board in Berlin. I was bluffing along fairly well with my (actually technically non valid) Singapore Airlines return flight out of Los Angeles, but the airline staff were frenetic and stressed and very line ball about allowing me to board. Their fear being they may get stuck with having to return me if Peruvian Immigration authorities thought I may choose their third world paradise as a place to live illegally. Bear in mind that Claude travelled the same route on the same airlines 24 hours earlier with no supporting documentation: no questions asked.  

First impressions of what South America held for us come on boarding your aircraft, a cacophany of happy pandamonium I had not before seen on any plane. One of my favorite parts of the Spanish language is how colourfully and volubly it allows people to disagree. Everyone had sat in the wrong seat - I found a lady in my seat, 29A, and expected her to have the seat on either adjacent row, as its an easy mistake to make (maybe 28A, say). No, she had seat 43F, and no intention of walking all the way down there. Another lady was absolutely refusing to sit next to a  6y.o. child and had plonked herself much further forward in the plane. As the stewardess went delightfully apoplectic there were chuckles up and down the plane as the stewardess made everyone aware that as it was the woman´s own child, she had no right to raise how annoying they were to sit next to on long trips.  

Lima, in brief, is very tidy and very full of short people. No matter what else you may see in a day´s ambling about, every other minute is punctuated with a sense of respect that despite elements of poverty, everyone is very house proud and you see far less litter than most any other place in the world. In terms of pricing and food and day to day living it would seem to be on a par with India (though less crowded of course) - so the appearance of such order comes as something of a surprise. Maybe by having so many people 4´6" you have a lot of folks acutely aware of mess by simply being much closer to it.  

Our first day wandering around town was on a Sunday, meaning we quickly experienced just how religious folks are in this part of the world as we stumbled across a parade through the centre of Plaza d'Amas at the city´s heart. The parade was kilometres long, the centrepiece of each segment being a heavy wooden furniture item with a statue of the Virgin Mary adorned by vases of flowers. It was more than 30 degrees, and the humidity was such that I had to get a second excellent 40c icecream just to be able to watch them. The God they worship clearly likes suffering, leading folks to think "how about we all carry our heaviest bits of furniture to church?" A discussion appears to have followed whereby that proposal was seen as acceptable, on the precondition that the bearers wear something really hot in which to carry out this feat.    

Church, when I was at school, was a place of quiet. Not so in Peru, as in the numerous old churches we rambled into, the priest was merrily banging away as merely the loudest of many voices taking care of business.  

Overwhelmingly, both in town, in church, or merely sitting around on your very hot Armoured Personnel Carrier, everyone seems to be having a pretty good time. Helpfulness abounds, and even when my efforts to ask a policeman for directions could be roughly translated as "I am the post office", his smile was no larger than anyone else´s.  

My conversational Spanish has a long way to go. Claude's interspersion of English and Spanish yielded better results, and the look of one boy was hurt but full of nodding, accepting wisdom as he heard Claude's description of wanting a "local bus" and responded with enquiring eyes "is that what you call them". He had thought we were calling them, not totally inaccurately, the loco bus.   

There is a soundtrack to South America in every cliched movie, and Lima delivers. Whether on a bus, in a restaurant or just trying to get to sleep there is always the exact cliche level of rhythmical cha cha happening. Its amazing how much it adds to an otherwise bone jarring bus trip to have cheery music attempting to smooth over the fact that the bus has seen no lubricating oil since Bolivar.  

Only on getting to South America have I realised just how startling little I know about the place. I can´t recall even a week of South American history through six years of high school modern history. It took a bit of scratching around just to figure out why they all love Bolivar just so much (liberated everywhere from Venezuela down to Argentina, but died hated in his lifetime having become a dictator - so after death everyone felt kind of bad). As it stands, we are learning principally from statues as we go at this point.  

The Musee de Nacion was a good place to start to get some background. While much of it is closed in anticipation of an APEC meeting coming up here, we did get a primer on 3000 years of Peruvian history from an excellent museum guide. He had only been learning English for 2 years (as a way to get jobs in tourism of course), but still managed to weave "anthropomorphic" into the conversation. I continue to be amazed at the spread of English, especially in contrasted with Mi es burro.  

The various indiginous cultures, of which the Inca were the last, just loved their pottery. Normally all forms of ceramics in museums act as an acute sedative for me, but the varied and cheery little faces adorning some crazy looking pots were actually very different to that which is the norm for old pots. I left wanting an Inca teapot. I am not sure that counts as educational.  

For a fairly well developed people (great building design, efficient agriculture, aforementioned excellent pots), the Inca surprisingly never developed writing. This doesn't fit anywhere else in the blog, I was just surprised by the fact that so many other elements of civilisation could be put together without a seemingly central tool.  

The Inca ultimately fell to the Spanish when the new arrivals managed to take the king hostage. While the uniform practice of royalty worldwide is to identify yourself as God's man on earth, here it backfired severely. As a monarch you may hope everyone will leap in front of a bullet to protect you, the Inca citizens deduced, not unreasonably, that if the new folks had the power to capture God, then maybe they represented an even better, stronger god. No real attempt was made to rescue him, and the rest is history.  

Attached to the museum was a photographic exhibition covering the modern era revealing the troubled times when Shining Path were making their presence felt. It was a little hard to penetrate, as it was a display focused (with good reason) on the local Peruvian audience. It has been a little hard to find any more information about Peru's modern history. In Cambodia there were ten or so books on their historical events of the 1980's - something yet to emerge in Peru, despite the fact that it is pretty much a job for "find and replace" in Word to convert Cambodian 1980's history into the Peruvian one, sadly. Fortunately all on a smaller scale.  

Lima has been a surpisingly fun place to spent our first week. Always entertaining, always alive, and with a local iteration of Oporto (Norky's) that makes every dining day a pleasure.
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