Monday, May 25, 2009

Snapshots of Lima

Even when winter is arriving and the sun is slowly losing its battle with the coat of hazy fog that encroaches from the Pacific, Lima's air has a tactile thickness that makes you feel as if it's working its way into your pores. I also reckon it takes on different qualities during the day, evolving from a ripe flavour of decaying vegetables early in the morning to a heady odor of used cooking oil by the evening; always underlaid with a rich base of dust and exhaust fumes.

Over the last 10--15 years, the governance of Peru's capital has been somewhat better than that of the nation as a whole. This has probably been aided by the fact that it's problems are at least tangible and geographically concentrated, and that, despite the chaos, this is where most of the country's money flows through.

In recent times, Lima's municipal government has taken the approach of carving out small, public oases of order and calm, of which the most notable has been the resoration of the historic centre of the city since the mid-1990s. The grand colonial architecture has been restored and security for locals and tourists alike is assured by the armed, paramilitary-style serenazgos, like those pictured below, who literally have a squad on every second corner within the few designated central city blocks.

While this approach is open to the normal criticisms of elitism and authoritarianism, it's hard to disagree with entirely. When social problems are so massive that they can't be tackled all at once, and many of them are inter-generational, you have to start somewhere. Security, some green space, and well-maintained public facilities benefit everyone and have a direct effect on the quality of life. The alternative is to give the city up to complete chaos and let the rich wall themselves off in private compounds. It would just be nice if the same objectives could be achieved without quite so many guns.

Next to its headquarters on the west side of the Plaza Mayor, the municipality had an exhibition showing the changes that have occurred through various building projects that are part of the Construyendo Peru programme. It was quite impressive, and represented a welcome effort by government to communicate with citizens about the fruits of their taxes.

A noticeable feature, however, was how often the name of the mayor, Luis CastaƱeda Lossio, appeared on the posters and exhibits. To me it looked rather like a case of using the state to promote the politician. The same day, I saw an article in La Republica confirming this view. Congress is drafting a law that will prevent local government advertising particular politicians or parties as part of public information campaigns. One of Lima's district mayors was complaining that the law was 'discriminatory', as it should also apply to central and regional government, public ministries, and so forth.

In the pedestrian walkway next to the municipality was another exhibition, of photos by evangelical Christian photographer Graham Gordon. The exhibition was titled Rostros Diversos, los Mismos Derechos ("Diverse Faces, the Same Rights"), and featured images of Peruvians from all backgrounds, organized around eight groupings of universal human rights. The municipality of Lima was a key sponsor, while, among others, the European Union had added its endorsement.

It's hard to know how much to take from the motherhood-and-apple pie tone of the exhibition, but some of the commentary offered a mild rebuke to Alan Garcia's administration, only metres away across the plaza in the Palacio del Gobierno. Garcia and the likes of former Prime Minister Jorge Castillo have famously argued that development will only come through large-scale investment involving privatization of resources and the breakup of communal property; those who oppose such moves are "dogs in the manger" impeding progress. However, the text next to the photos under the "right to territory" declared that:

...these rights are being jeopardised by the priority that is being given to mining, petroleum and logging companies over communal territories. Priority needs to be given to the development of indigenous peoples, based on the protection and sustainable use of natural resources, and respect for their cultures and the lands that they have traditionally occupied.

For evidence that the central city restoration project is limited, and in some ways merely symbolic, you just need to walk a few blocks east to the avenida Abancay, where the city resdiscovers its edgy, grimy, chaotic character. It's all but impossible to capture this in a photo, which will always miss the noise, the smoke, the odors, the constant movement and the vague sense of physical threat that only partly comes from the worried urgings of hoteliers, officials and taxi drivers to be a good tourist and not walk down the avenida Abancay. But for some idea of the change in a few blocks, I offer the contrast between the following two photos.

On day two in Lima, I had already booked a ticket to Arequipa, keen to get on with the main purposes of my trip. Before leaving, I wanted to at least see something new, so I decided to cross the Rimac river to visit the bullring at the plaza de Acho. There's a long, impressionistic passage in Alfredo Bryce Echenique's Un Mundo para Julius that describes a family outing to a bullfight. The book is set in the 1960s, and from my own experience of Lima I couldn't really imagine the scene, so I thought I would walk by and take a look.

Things have certainly changed from Julius' world; crossing the Rimac towards the bullring, the view is dominated by the pueblos jovenes sprawling up the Cerro San Cristobal (above). On the other side, nestled between the grimy bridge underside and the dust and chaos of the avenue, I lunched at a restaurant specialising in Arequipan food, with a bright and spotless interior and run by a softly-spoken woman from the village of Yanqui. This reminded me that the oases of cleanliness and order in Peru are not just those created by a patrician municipality, but more often are carved out in individual homes and businesses by people determined to make the best of their lives and surroundings.

I found the plaza de Acho, a faded and sad-looking coliseum, smaller than I had imagined. The entrance way led to a 'taurine musuem' that didn't appear to have any visitors. I didn't have time to go inside, so contented myself with walking around the outside. The most poignant image was this door, presumably once a prestigous entranceway, judging by the sign which announces that entrance is restricted to "officials, bullfighters , police, journalists, invited guests and children".

Across the street from the plaza, and near the base of one of Luis CastaƱeda's advertised accomplishments, a rather steep footbridge across the avenue, I took an obligatory couple of photos of the bullring's exterior. I was beckoned across by a group of people sitting around a cebiche stand. While I acceded to topping myself up with a plate of cebiche and canchita, a voluminous woman called Marta subjected me to a lecture, wanting to know what was I thinking, a tourist, in coming to this spot by myself. "As long as you're with me no one will touch you; I'm from the barrio", she told me. Then, when I had paid the cebiche stand woman, Marta demanded a tip for being so helpful and protecting me. I gave her two soles, "for the conversation".

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