Welcome to Lima
Our first impression of Lima is, of course, the airport. An airport. Late at night. Long lines of tired travelers waiting to pass through customs. The fellow who is supposed to meet us does meet us, and drives us down many unsurprising city streets, then along the coast: beaches, people still out enjoying the beaches, and occasionally a restaurant on a pier jutting out into the Pacific.
We get settled in the apartment we will occupy for ten days while we buy a car and do other chores in Lima before heading into the countryside. An acquaintance from Cuzco has told me that Lima is a place in which to get your business done quickly and get out. I’ve felt that way in Zhu-ze-Hu about Taipei, in Las Cruces about El Paso, and even in Lincoln, Massachusetts, about Cambridge. But when I make a late-night excursion to the nearby Vivanda for groceries, I feel comfortable on the streets and a little exhilarated that we are finally here.
When I awaken, it’s early Saturday morning in Miraflores. Five a.m. Through the night, the traffic noises from Alcanfores, on which we’re staying, and Benavides, the bigger street two blocks away, have never quite stopped. Now the noises are minimal, mostly the horns of taxis warning potential cross-traffic of their progress down Alcanfores. From the 13th floor, I have a fine view of the world.
I watch for awhile, looking at nothing in particular. Glad to have the preparations and arrangements and long flight over with, and pleased we’re really here. People have asked why Peru. There is no easy or cogent answer (or maybe I don’t understand the question). Impulse; but also the fact that Peru has a marvelous mix of remote, high mountain country, seacoast, and jungle/rainforest, along with a mix of cultures and an interesting history that has left behind plenty of tangible reminders. Or, I wanted to go somewhere, and when I went down to the farmers’ market one day in January, I got talking to a man from Cusco selling Peruvian health food.
I am glad we are here, and glad we will soon be on the road.
Ragna is ill that first morning. I wander out on various errands, and look at our new environment by daylight. Miraflores, of course, is not Lima. It is a privileged enclave. The Vivanda is a fine supermarket with a large wine department and plenty of gourmet treats.
I see an eclectic mix of glitz and beggary. Down the block from Vivanda is a huge glitzy gambling establishment that looks as if it should be in Vegas [and is in fact called “Atlantic City”] with mirrored front walls, fountains, and more guards than Fort Knox. The mirrors look interesting for photography, but I notice the sharp contrast to many of the people passing by, some of whom are begging. Miraflores’s gleaming modernity coexists with a very different world. Diagonally across the intersection of Alcanfores and Benavides, Vivanda’s competition is a chubby woman reading a newspaper beside her white pushcart of fresh fruits and vegetables. The hang-gliders and para-sailors fly over LarcoMar’s modern shops, while outside women with children on their backs seek handouts from people approaching or leaving the enclave. As I walk back down Alcanfores, past buildings of relatively expensive apartments, I see a man with one leg, sitting on the sidewalk and exhibiting his stump to invite financial assistance, as I so often saw in Nepal.
Late Saturday afternoon we go for a drive with a Peruvian couple, and see the sea by daylight and some pleasant parks and some amusing handicrafts and a sunset. Barranco feels like where I’d want to live if I lived in Lima. It was an artists’ community and is near the sea.
Our friend Aldo is a government official who was partially educated in Indiana and has corresponded with me on a Peru-related web-site. We looked forward to meeting. When we do, he and his wife Carola show us around a bit, apologetic that they can’t spend longer with us because their maid leaves at 6 for her Sunday off, and they have two young children.
My initial photographs in Lima are hardly travel photographs, but rather the sort of thing one might shoot anywhere. At the Atlantic City, I play around with shooting photographs of the city block, the streets, and even myself reflected and slightly distorted in the mirrored front walls.
Later, waiting for Ragna outside a store, I shoot a series of a small girl playing a small stringed instrument for coins on the street. She cannot be even ten years old, and may be just seven. I give her a coin, a smaller one than I ought to have given her; and after I show her the first few pix, she smiles a warmer but guarded smile.
It is a fact of domestic life that one sometimes spends a fair chunk of time in shoe stores, even when the quality of light invites photography. Like a restless boy stuck taking piano lessons across the street from the ballfield, listening to the dry click of the metronome when he wants to be swinging a baseball bat, I stand around in stores and stare longingly at the lengthening shadows outside, my camera hanging uselessly in front of me.Bored while waiting for Ragna to finish trying on clothes, I take off the lens cap and shoot a couple of shots of a father, also waiting for his wife, who obviously loves his kid. Then, hidden in the store, I shoot out across a main street to the park, where there is an outdoor exhibit of wonderful large photographs from around the world, many from the air. (Three are from Iceland.) Just aimlessly shooting folks looking at the show, I catch this just in front of them on the street:
We like Parque Kennedy. Artists show and sell their stuff along one side of it, and some of the art is good. Children play, lovers embrace, and there’s a huge crowd around what turns out to be a sunken dance-floor with live music. No one is dancing. As we watch, a very old man walks over to an elderly woman and invites her to dance. They begin dancing, gracefully, and are eventually joined by others.
In Lima one feels the rhythms of many races – and discovers wonderful unfamiliar fruits. (Instantly I become addicted to maracuyá juice, never even having heard of it before.) The beautiful cliffs, marred by high-rises, are alive with colorful hang-gliding contraptions, and the sea is dotted with surfers. We enjoy Lima more than we’d supposed we would, but we want to get out into the countryside.
Buying a car in Lima
Our plan is to buy a car. Something used and not too expensive, but hardy enough to trust on bumpy and remote mountain roads. Possibly a four-wheel drive – a quatro por quatro, as I soon learn they say here. We will be here six months, perhaps more. To rent would cost as much as to buy – with nothing coming back in when we leave. If we leave.
Everyone has said, both before and since our arrival, that we would be crazy to try to buy a car in Lima without taking along someone who is both fluent in Spanish, particularly in discussing automobile parts, and local to Lima. I agree. But life does not always cooperate.
We miss connections with people who might assist us or they are not immediately available. We do not wish to be stuck in Lima forever.
Thus one day we call a car company and take a cab to the address we’re given. That address turns out to be the company’s corporate offices, not its car lot, and we begin wandering on foot down long blocks [in an area that, two days later, a woman will come up to us in a grocery store and warn us we absolutely should not walk through], looking at cars but finding nothing suitable. Meanwhile the man we’d actually spoken to begins to assume mythic proportions, like some Holy Grail: due to a confusion about the actual address, we keep traipsing around near his office without ever finding him, until finally we hail a cab, start off in a completely wrong direction, then hand the phone to the cab-driver, who takes us down a side street a block or two from where we’d been walking.
Initially the salesman starts talking about some four-wheel drive vehicle priced at about U.S. $28,000. Way beyond our budget. Eventually, though, he drives us to the site where an acquaintance has a used Mitsubishi 4×4 for sale for $12,800. Ironically, the site is a parking lot on Benavides, catty-corner to the Vivanda, with one side on Alcanfores, the street we live on. We’ve passed it several times a day.
The car looks fine. Later we return to meet the man who is selling it. He has a German or eastern-European name, R___. He and I go for a drive so that I can test it. I’m no mechanic, but everything seems fine. I try to bargain the price downward from U.S. $12,800, and manage to shave only $300 off it.
We need to raise more than $12,000 U.S. in cash. There are constraints: I can’t just withdraw up to $10,000 per day from my CitiBank account, as I’d been told I could. Nor can I do anything like that with my Bank of America account. Along with difficult calls to the U.S. to increase the total amount I can withdraw each day, I make repeated trips to two different ATM sites, where I stand withdrawing as much as I can. Since I am limited to U.S. $200 [?] per withdrawal, I stand for embarrassingly [and dangerously] long times at the ATM windows, withdrawing ten twenties at a time, stuffing them in a formerly hidden pocket in my shirt, retrieving and re-inserting my card, and snagging more dollars. This is not discreet. Since I will immediately walk back home down several blocks of Benevides and two blocks of Alcanfores with a bulky collection of $20 bills, it is not entirely safe or wise; but there seems little choice, and Miraflores is relatively safe. I stride purposefully and keep my eyes open, grinning inwardly at the silliness of it all.
Ragna, not unreasonably, is not inclined to leave thousands of dollars lying around in the flat unattended; we are not inclined to carry it with us; and, not having met him,
In light of all we’ve heard about Lima, as well as the flimsiness of our apartment door-knob, Ragna is absolutely unwilling to leave the flat with thousands and thousands of U.S. dollars hidden in it. Every clever hiding place I suggest is, she announces derisively, the first place anyone would look. Haven’t I ever seen a movie? We are equally disinclined to carry the money with us; and, not having met him, she vetoes my suggestion that we could take it as a partial payment to the seller of the car, who would give us a receipt and, I feel sure, not try to claim the next day that he hadn’t gotten the money.
As a result, I wander out to get us something to eat. At the nearly-empty restaurant at the Posada Marquez, I order a Pisco sour to kill a few minutes waiting for the food. The drink creeps creeps up on me, along with a sudden sense of relaxation.
Although I’m dimly aware that it seems to be taking a long time for the food, I don’t care. About anything. Somewhere in my mind a voice repeats the phrase, “aaja bholi parsi” [“today, tomorrow, the day after . . .” in Nepali] echoes through my mind. Left alone in the pasture, without anyone to talk to or anything to do, my mind wanders freely.
Ten days ago I was in Arlington National Cemetery – as strange an environment for an old antiwar advocate as anything I’ll experience in Peru – at my uncle’s funeral. I hear again my cousin’s moving discussion of his father, watch again the white horses pulling the wagon with the flag-draped coffin, listen to the mournful bag-pipes played by a bearded gentleman dressed in kilts, see the ironically smaller box with his ashes removed from the coffin, and hear the rifles salute him.
I let the Pisco sour soften my mind and listen to the Spanish spoken around me. It’s a language I’ve learned to find my way around in and order food in, after so much traveling in Mexico, but I do not really speak it.
Now, isolated words and phrases drift through my mind. “Si, claro,” repeated intermittently by men far drunker than I am in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. “Mas o menos,”a genuinely useful phrase. “Parece Jesus,” spoken by a very old lady, the grandmother of a Mexican former girl-friend, when I was walking home from one-on-one basketball with the ex-girlfriend’s brother, and as we approached his mother and grandmother the latter, whose mind had long ago left on a permanent vacation, touched my beard and repeated, “Parece Jesus” with apparent contentment. “Amortiguador,” spoken by a fellow who had just looked at my rented Volkswagen deep in the jungle near the ruins of Bonampak, a word that sounded as deeply ominous as the clanking sound that had led me to stop next to him as he, an artist, was inspecting the engine of his own car, but which meant only shock absorber.
Finally the food arrives, and I return belatedly to Ragna, who has begun to worry about me.
Thursday morning I get up and walk to Citibank to continue the process. By noontime we are wealthy enough in cash to purchase the car, and so inform the seller. We are told that he’ll be back in 40 minutes. We wander up the street and discover a health-food restaurant where we eat a light but satisfactory lunch, while the same kid from Cuzco that we heard across Miraflores two days earlier plays indigenous music for coins.
We are quite content, sitting outdoors and eating. The only other customer, a Peruvian fellow, opens a conversation with us. He turns out to be a staff-member at the Irish consulate. Upon learning that Ragna is Icelandic, he advises us that the Icelandic consul is a doctor, and quite a good one. After we chat awhile he calls his boss and good friend, the Irish consul, then hands the phone to me, and I chat with the fellow for awhile. He sounds quite pleasant. Has spent time in Iceland, was born in Toronto, has a son in New York who was born in Houston. “We’ll have to get together next week,” he says. I tell him we’ll be on the road by then, but give Jorge our phone number.
I feel a little as if I were back in Tai Bei, or somewhere in mainland China, where expatriates of all nations tend to share a comradery for which they might not loosen up so quickly in London or New York.
What is different here is that I have been asked several times in a day where my forebears hailed from. The Irish consul, for example, after we had talked a bit, said “What about your father?” “My father?” “Yes, what about your father?” “My father is dead,” I told him, uncertain why it mattered. “But where was he from?” “He was American.” “But where did your forebears come from?”
When we return to meet R___, he introduces us to his partner, W____. Both have Polish names and heritages. W. is a long-haired fellow who has in fact studied in the U.S. for a year or two – at U.C. Davis, where my sister teaches. W., who speaks English, will take us to the notario’s office.
It appears that the car belonged to the daughter of a former vice-president of Peru who bought the car when it was new and kept it until she sold it for a 2007 model. This may be true: I have signed my name and paid down a couple of hundred dollars, and we are on our way to the Notario, so this is rather late for a sales pitch.
We set off toward the Notario, W and two of his friends and Ragna and me. As we enter a freeway, headed who knows where, the fanciful part of my brain has a character asking, “Didn’t it occur to you that there were dozens of notarios within a few blocks of Benevides and Jose Larco?” We are, indeed, setting off with three relative strangers in a city we don’t know toward a destination we don’t know; and since we are meant to pay one of them $ 12,300 after the paperwork, it may have occurred to them that we have that money on us.
All this is mere mental play. I feel perfectly comfortable. Then W interrupts my reverie to recommend that if we get up to Trujillo, we might want to consider looking in Deliciosas, a seaside community just south of the city, as well as Huanchaco to the north. He’d have to be a hell of an actor to waste time on such courtesies at this point, if he planned to do away with us!
Seriously, instinct and logic have convinced me there’s no danger. Instinct first: this guy is not some violent criminal. Logic follows along: he’s a doctor’s son and a businessman and making ample profit just selling me the car. Even if he were dishonest, which he is not, he’s smart. If he meant to rob us, he’d know that he’d have to kill us too. He’d hardly drive off in plain sight with two foreigners he planned to kill.
The notario’s office is on a quiet cul-de-sac with a garden park out front. Inside, at least a dozen people at a dozen desks create or modify documents or witness their signing. The notario carefully explains the document, and I have to sign an additional document acknowledging that although Spanish is not my native language I fully understand all the provisions. Surprisingly, we have still not been asked to hand over actual money.
W could not have be better to us. He drives us back the long way, showing us a special sushi restaurant and other local points of interest and sharing good advice on spots to visit or avoid in Peru. He’s funny, too. At one point he comments negatively about Peruvian driving and the traffic in Lima, adding, “In that we’re still hopping around in feathers up in Cuzco somewhere.” He has the city-dweller’s amusement over the provinces. He’s a professional-class urban youth with a European heritage who’s studied in the United States, and would have it clear who he is not.
It occurs to me that far from cheating us, W has theoretically left himself open to being cheated: having officially signed away all rights to the car, what would be his legal remedies if we gave him another $5,000 and claimed to have paid the whole price? I could show all my receipts for cash obtained during the past few days, and convincingly claim that I paid it to him and he’s now trying to gouge me for more
Once back in the little shack behind the used-car lot, I start pulling money out of all my secret pockets, much to the amusement of all of us. W says he now understands why Ragna looked very nervous to him at the notario’s office.
We all count the money several times in various ways and make all the obvious jokes about what could have happened or could now happen, with this vast amount of cash in the shack. W reassures us that even if someone now held up the shack, that would be his problem, not ours.
But we have our car.
Next we must do what a prudent person would have insisted on doing earlier in the process: take it the next morning to an independent mechanic to evaluate its condition and make any necessary repairs.
Tomorrow morning I will take it to the fellow recommended by our chance acquaintance in the vegetarian restaurant.
Like a couple of happy idiots we drive around in our new car, occasionally getting lost but enjoying the feeling of discovery. Down toward the playas. Hang-gliders and surfers out in force. Afternoon sun turning the sea a blinding silver. Breakers rolling in along stone jetties, each looking almost like some strange, frothy creature crawling in toward shore.
Without discussion we stop at La Rosa Nautica, although it’s too expensive. Walk out the long, wooden walkway to it. Feel as if we are stepping back in time, somehow. A roundish dining room with windows overlooking the sea. Wooden floors and a very fine menu. Fans and open windows keeping the place so airy that while I watch an old man smoking a huge cigar ten or fifteen meters away, I can’t smell a thing. (There is a long table occupied mostly by very old men. They are very familiar with each other, and very comfortable being who they are in a world they have had plenty of seasons to get to know. They seem like men who know how the world is supposed to be, even if the world doesn’t always live up to that standard, whereas I just bumble on through it like a dog, sniffing curiously and reacting.) The one in the striped polo shirt is so visibly enjoying his cigar that I almost imagine he has been wondering how many more of them he would smoke in this lifetime.)
Meanwhile, on the roof a young man appears with a huge bird. It may be a falcon or it may be some other sort of bird, but whatever it is it seems quite content to stay on his arm. It’s an odd sight, particularly here. I wander out to shoot a few photographs, but never do find out whether this is a daily occurrence or whether or not the bird sometimes hunts fish or smaller birds outside the restaurant.
We laugh about the day’s events. As Ragna orders a second glass of wine, I ask the waiter how the laws are on driving after drinking. He laughs at the question, and basically says that so long as a man isn’t drunk, it doesn’t much matter. Then I say we’d have two more glasses, not just one, and he laughs at that. A moment later he adds that as we are tourists, no one much cares what we do.
Red-beaked seabirds dart about, presumably picking off fish stunned by waves hitting the building-supports below us. On the roof, a slender young man plays with what might be a falcon. Whatever it is, it seems content to stay on his arm. Behind Ragna, surfers paddle about in the water. Very occasionally one or two will stand and glide in on waves, with the sun setting behind them. Before them, the moon rising above the cliffs.