Thursday, April 20, 2006

Learning to Love Lima

The sense of being in Peru rushed back as soon I got off the plane. With large queues waiting at immigration, the staff were backlogged because one of their machines was "malograda". As the crowds threatened to back up to the air bridge, the decision was made to open up a couple of extra counters.

"SeƱorita! Close off that gap between the lines so people don't come through there" one of the immigration officials shouted at a harried assistant. She started to rush off but then stopped. "It is closed" she said in frustration..

When I finally got my turn, the woman at immigration confirmed my flight number and started filling out my form. I noticed she had written "30" on my entry form. "You're only giving me 30 days?", I queried. "Why, how many do you need?", she asked. "Ah, maybe 35, to be on the safe side", I replied. "Hmm, ok, we'll go for 90", she said, proceeding to change the 3s to 9s.

So why didn't I get 90 in the first place? On all the other occasions I've come into Peru I've been given 90 automatically. Something to do with having come in from Chile? Note to Peru: generally you want to at least give gringo tourists the option of staying longer and spending more money.

Driving out of the airport though the port suburb of Callao, the air blowing through the taxi window carried a familiar thickness of humidity, tar, petrol, and fish. The driver steered in wide arcs around potholes, as the odd person wandered aimlessly into the poorly lit streets. I was definitely back in Peru.

In previous conversations with Peruvian friends in MSN Messenger, without exception they emitted cybernetic groans when the elections were mentioned. They had all voted for Lourdes Flores, and were despressed by the prospect of a choice between Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. Perhaps not surprising, given that my friends are all middle class, including a language teacher, a law student, a designer, and a number who work in or rely on touism.

However, it seems that in Lima the pro-Lourdes sentiments go beyond the upper crust. I asked my taxi driver Carlos, a native of working-class Callao, who he wanted to win in the elections. "The woman - Lourdes", he said. The young guy on the nightshift at my little family-run hostel in Miraflores? "Lourdes", he confirmed without hesitation.

In the morning I talked with Juan, the young guy who manages the hostel, about travel into the jungle. He had travelled quite extensively in the "ceja de selva", the area between the Andes and the jungle proper, and had gone downriver for one day, but not as far as Iquitos.

He dismissed the dangers of drug traffickers and terrorists. "Really, the provinces are tranquil", he said. To be honest, there's much more danger here in Lima than in out there" (almost certainly true).

"Forget about being robbed or whatever", added Juan. "What you really have to watch out for in the jungle regions is the women".

My plan for the day was to secure a ticket to Arequipa for the following night, and make a visit to the Mueso de la Nacion, which houses many of the archeological treasures of the pre-Incan and Incan eras.

On the way out to the bus station, my taxi driver was a jovial guy named Leo. "Watch out for las charapas (women from Iquitos and around)", he warned me when I told him of my travel plans.

I asked him how business was. "Hmm, some days good, some days bad", he shrugged. It's hard making money. We have the cheapest taxis in South America. And the most expensive gasoline in South America. Everything here is expensive", he grumbled.

Leo was my first encounter with a non-Lourdes voter. "Alan Garcia's the man", he said, giving the thumbs up. "Ollanta would be a disaster. Nationalisation? That's crazy. It'd scare away the foreign capital. You're a foreigner, you want to invest here; you're not going to do it without security, guarantees".

But didn't Alan already have his turn at being president, I asked cautiously. "Ah, he's changed. He's matured" said Leo confidently.

Later, on my way out to the Museo de la Nacion, I saw a piece of graffiti scrawled in big, awkward letters on an underpass. "Alan hasn't changed", it proclaimed.

The musuem had a fantastic collection of artefacts, particularly from the pre-Incan cultures. By then the jet lag was kicking in a little, so my stamina waned, and I'll probably go back on my next trip to Lima. I was already enamoured of the extraordinarily lifelike and expressive ceramics produced by the 7th-century Moche culture, which I had seen in Chiclayo. But what grabbed me most on the museum visit were the carved stone pillars and feline heads from the BC-era Chavin de Huantar de culture.

With a centre in the Huaraz area, this was the first "horizon culture" in Peru which unified people over a significant area through government and religion. Its stone artwork shows great skill and control, revealing a striking, almost demonic, iconography.

The musuem was a somewhat surprising place to meet my first Ollanta Humala voters. I got to talking to two women in the forties, Rosa and Cristina, who were also looking at the artefacts. Rosa lived in London, and had ended up teaching continuing education classes on Peruvian culture. She said she was "catching up"; she'd never taken that much of an interest in her country's cultural history until she found herself teaching it to foreigners.

Cristina said she lived in the poor shantytown area of Comas and was a trained physiotherapist. I asked if physiotherapy paid reasonably well. More or less, she said, but she also worked in preventative health, and that was definitely on a voluntary basis. I imagined that such work must be really necesary and valuable. "That's right", said Cristina. "That's why we're very much supporting Ollanta".

"Oh yes, she's in love with Ollanta", said Rosa. She even has a picture of him" she said, searching in her own purse. Unfortunately the picture of Ollanta was nowhere to be found.

Politely, I didn't press them on the question of what specific actions they thought Ollanta Humala would take to improve life for people in the pueblos jovenes.

From the bus station to the musuem and back to the hostel, I travelled in kombis, the mainly antiquated minibuses and vans which roar along the streets, stopping wherever there are passengers to pick up. They dominate Peruvian cities, and Lima in particular, to such an extent, that I feel if you're not confident travelling in them you'll never really get a feel for daily life in the city. You can't take taxis forever.

I didn't do that great on my way out to the musuem, and it took me three tries to get to the right stop. Lesson learned: if you want someone to point out your stop, you really need to remind them more than once. But on the way back to Miraflores (minimum two kombis), I got it right first time.

Miraflores and San Isidro might be what the women in the museum called the "snooty" parts of Lima, but they're still democratised by the endless stream of kombi vans belching smoke and bouncing frenetically along the worn streets, the young assistants leaning out the open doors and shouting out their destinations.

Lima is huge, incomprehensible, polluted and dangerous, and appalls even most people who live there. At the same time it's diverse, exciting, friendly, and especially in April while the sun is still shining, has an odd sense of hope. Once you settle into its rhythms a little, the dominant impression is of constant, frenetic movement. After it stops frightening you, it's an energizing place, and you may even feel that you're beginning to like it.

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