Saturday, January 08, 2005

Trip to the coast - Lima...

It's summer in Lima. Remarkably for a city only a few degrees south of the equator, it spends eight months of the year shrouded by the garua, a thick coastal fog produced by the cold Humboldt current, and in winter the temperature hovers around 17-18 degrees. But by December a hazy sun has come out, the temperature is up to 25-26 degrees, and the high humidity makes the air thick and steamy on the streets.

The true extremes of Lima are supposed to be the leafy mansions of San Isidro and Miraflores, and the desperate poverty of the pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) on the rim of the city. But in the centre itself you can pass from tranquility to chaos within one block. In the area around the Plaza Mayor, the pedestrian mall on Jiron de la Union and the boardwalk along the Rimac river by the old railway station, Paola and I walked on clean, spacious pavements past splendid colonial buildings under the watchful eye of abundant police.

A couple of blocks away we crossed the avenida Abancay, officially the most polluted and noisiest street in the whole of Peru. Crowds of people hovered on the sidewalks waiting to dash across the avenue between the dilapidated minibuses belching clouds of smoke. We picked our way through the usual menagerie of sidewalk kiosks, street sellers, hawkers, beggers and thieves, only to be submerged in the pre-Christmas chaos of the barrio chino, where a human flood tide surged in all directions past shops and galleries filled with cheap jewellery and trinkets, and it wasn't clear who was buying and who was selling.

And we almost didn't even get there. With tickets booked for the 5:30 pm bus from Arequipa to Lima, I reluctantly took at face value Paola's promise that she would "pick me up from my place at 5:00 sharp" I had desisted from promising to pick her up, as I thought she didn't want her parents to know she was going to Lima with me. In fact, although she can't stay the night at my place, and I'm forbidden from ever going upstairs (where her bedroom is) when I visit her place, her mother had been told casually "I'm off to Lima with Simon". Complexities of Peruvian morality.

Although we were really supposed to *be at the bus terminal* by 5:00, I gritted my teeth (sometimes I think I'm turning into Dad) and accepted the 5:00 pm pick-up time, and was dutifully waiting by my front door at the indicated hour. At 5:10 I called Paola's cell phone. "You're already in the taxi, right?" I asked. "Yes, yes", I could hear her lying.

By 5:15 I was starting to sweat; I smoked two consecutive cigarettes pacing back and forth and checking the clock in the store by my front door. At 5:20 I phoned the desk of the bus company at the terminal and spoke to the guy we had bought the tickets off. "Can you make sure the bus waits for us?" I begged. We're, uh, having some problems with the taxi but we'll be there soon". The bus company guy winced. "Well, the bus has to leave at 5:35 sharp....where are you?". "In the centre" I replied. "Ufff" I could hear him shaking his head. I hung up after a couple more desperate supplications to wait for us.

By 5:25 I was renouncing any relationship that might ever have existed between Paola and I, rehearsing the last string of insults I would ever deliver to her, and readying myself to make a last desperate attempt to get to Lima by myself.

At 5:26 a taxi stopped by my place bearing a grinning Paola. "What are you trying to do to me, woman!" I blustered. "We'll never make it!"
"We'll be fine", Paola assured me. "It's only 5:20". After consultation of various timepieces and the radio, it did appear that my clock had been five minutes fast. But we still had to get to the bus station, normally at least ten minutes south of the city centre, through rush-hour traffic. I squirmed in my seat as we waited at traffic lights and urged the poor taxi driver to take any possible short cuts.

The taxi clock was reading 5:32 as we pulled up by the bus terminal. I grabbed all our bags and made a desperate rush for the terminal entrance and the Cromotex counter, Paola trailing in my wake. Fortunately the bus was still there on the tarmac and we were able to load our bags into the luggage compartment. But as we climbed aboard, the bus was already moving. We had made it by the absolute skin of our teeth.

I was still shaking a little as we pulled out of Arequipa, with the sky getting dark. Paola curled up in her seat and glanced up at me. "Everything alright, baby?" she asked innocently.

Once in Lima I was dragged into what seemed like *every single* clothing boutique on Jiron de la Unión and suffered in the non-airconditioned galeries of the barrio chino while Paola painstakingly inspected a huge variety of jewellery and other trinkets. But it was good to be there. Lima is everything Arequipa is not, or aspires not to be - humid, dirty, and chaotic - but it's good to get out of the provinces for a change. Lima is also one of the culinary capitals of the world, and the seafood in particular is delicious. We ate cebiche (chunks of raw fish marinated in chili, lemon and onions) in sidewalk cafes and enjoyed the warm air.

In between the shopping, we also made it to three different musuems - the Musuem of Popular (Folk) Art, an exhibition on "Women in Peruvian and Mexican Prehispanic Society" in the old railway station, and the Musuem of the Inquisition near the Congress building. This was my favourite - a historical tour through the building that housed the Lima branch of the Spanish Inquisition up until the 19th century. The same building later housed the Peruvian Senate, which was featured in the second half of the tour. This is one of those nice ironies which remind you you're in a country that doesn't make any sense.

We also made it to a silver workshop, and were given a guided tour through the process of forging the silver and making it into jewellery. Paola has ambitions of making and selling her own jewellery, in funky designs of silver and alpaca, so was keen to inspect the possible competition. But design wasn't the workshop's forte - mostly the rings, earrings etc were in predictable moulds for mass export consumption.

After two days, Paola had to go back to Arequipa on the 7pm bus. I had drifted into her time zone, and we suddenly found ourselves with 15 minutes to get from the hotel to the bus station - again through rush hour traffic. On hearing about our deadline, the taxi driver changed direction and threw us a blanket. "Put that over your backpacks" he said. "We'll have to go down Abancay".

On the way through the chaos of the avenida Abancay Paola and the driver swapped carjacking stories. Apparently Paola and a friend had once been attacked in a taxi in Lima; the assailants managed to leave her a nasty cut, but didn't actually take anything. "Yeah, they're usually half-drugged" said the taxi driver. "You know, the other week a guy tried to jump into the car when I was with a señora. He grabbed hold of the lady's purse, but I accelerated and shook him off onto the sidewalk. Then she goes mad at me, says I was in cahoots with the thief. Jesus, I just saved her from getting robbed! What thanks do I get?".

Welcome to Lima.

As it happened, we arrived to Cromotex terminal shortly after 7:00, and things were running on a more typical Peruvian schedule; people were still lining up to check their luggage. By now I had abandoned the idea of heading to the north of Peru; there wasn't time before Christmas, all the bus companies were raising their prices, and it would be hard to even get a seat in the last week before the 25th. Instead I said goodbye to Paola and wandered two doors down to the Flores terminal where I jumped on the first bus headed for Ica, three hours away in the desert south of Lima.

No comments: