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One Day in Lima

by  pastytraveller

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Word Count: 1673
Summary: My first submission to the Travel Group. Your comments and guidance would be much appreciated. Thanks

My first impression of Lima was that it looked a bit like Baghdad without the excuse of being in "Shock and Awe". It later turned out that I was mistaken but at the relevant time my sight was obscured by my hands, which were covering my eyes. It is no exaggeration to say that our taxi left the airport only marginally slower than the speed at which our Boeing 767 had arrived forty minutes earlier. Meanwhile, I cowered in the back, occasionally sliding effortlessly across the frictionless grey vinyl seat to pin Leigh against the door as the battered yellow Toyota boomeranged around corners, the bald tyres struggling for grip on the dusty tarmac.

Death Wish Roger, as we christened him, signalled his intention to chat as we shot through the grey breezeblock suburbs, leaving a vortex in the smog like a fighter plane. Like most taxi drivers he was keen to relieve the monotony of sitting behind the wheel of a car all day. Mesmerised by the terror unfolding in a stroboscopic flicker outside, I was keen to discourage him. Leigh's eyes were so wide with fear that he could have seen the oncoming traffic reflected in their glazed corneas but I still wasn't entirely comfortable with him turning round in his seat to exchange pleasantries face to face. Had I actually learned Spanish instead of just buying the Linguaphone tapes and congratulating myself on a job well done, I could have explained that such are the remarkable properties of sound that he didn't need to face us for us to hear him. But I couldn't, so he did. Perhaps he could see through his ear. Perhaps Leigh's muted prayers paid off. Either way, we didn't crash and having received permission to land at our hotel, he dived into the drop off point trailing smoking rubber and the acrid smell of superheated brake pads. Disorientated by the g-force exerted on my jet lagged body, I would have given him anything to go away but he settled for twenty dollars.

The Lima Sheraton is an impersonal, mausoleum of a place, although predictably well equipped with several bars, restaurants and the ubiquitous H Stern, Jewellers in the foyer. It's an enormous edifice. Standing in the rectangular central atrium with twenty-five floors soaring above on all sides Filippo Brunelleschi would have revelled in the stunning sense of linear perspective. However, it's ability to effortlessly absorb countless Japanese tour groups and their trunks of expensive photographic equipment is its own worst enemy: the place is so big that it feels empty even when full and there's not much more dispiriting than a desolate hotel. The door of our room echoed like a gunshot as it closed behind us. From our fifteenth floor window we had a view of Lima. I suspect that a room without a view would have cost more. I could make out a radio antenna, a multistorey car park and several thousand three storey breeze-block buildings sprawled monotonously over the pancake flat coastal plain as far as the eye could see, which given the haze wasn't actually very far at all. Smothering the city like a wet blanket was a combination of pollution and the convective coastal fog called "garua". The bright sun was a copper coin mounted on grey muslin. The city was drained of colour. What wasn't achromatic took on the hue of stale urine.

In fact, Lima has real charm but to savour this you have to get down amongst the clamour, the exhaust fumes and the machine gun toting militia. At the time, the populace had finally worked out that a large percentage of the country's GNP was finding its way into President Alejandro Toledo's Swiss bank account. The fact that thirteen million of them were working for less than a dollar a day may have tipped them off. Discontent was in the air and was rapidly gravitating towards revolution. Retreat from the trough not being an option, Toledo called in the military. Bolivia's President Sanchez de Lozada had been toppled only three month's earlier. Tension was etched on faces that had seen it all before. On street corners, soldiers in Ray-bans and black jumpsuits caressed the safety catches of their machine pistols in anticipation. Even the rumble of traffic sounded like distant shellfire.

Undaunted, we hailed one of the many decrepit Daihatsu Charade taxis to take us to the Monasterio del San Francisco. The most notable feature of the monastery, other than the rabid soapbox proselytising in the courtyard, is what lies beneath the attractive collection of baroque buildings. There, a warren of dry and dusty catacombs holds the remains of over twenty five thousand former citizens. Such is the ongoing demand for interment here that the monastery authorities have imposed conditions on entry (Franciscan monks only at the moment, thankyou) and have established a waiting list, rather like a popular golf club. (Presumably, a proposer and seconder from among the current membership are not required but there's a good chance committee meetings are more productive.) Oddly, the tombs’ residents are not so much left to rest in peace as left to rest in pieces. A deep clay pit of neatly arranged femurs stands next to one brimming with clavicles. Digits have a floor to themselves, spread out like gravel on a dusty driveway. Skulls are somewhere around shaft four, level two. Our guide was a young, friendly, enthusiastic ball of energy. He spoke Spanlish, an impenetrable recipe of basic English words cooked up with Spanish syntax and served in an accent so thick it should have been prescribed Warfarin. As he fizzed through the network of brick lined tunnels like a highly charged radioactive particle, a very elderly, bi-lingual French couple carried out the necessary translations from the French he was delivering to them. "Watch out for the red-hot lightbulbs hanging from the roof" evidently wasn't in their vocabulary. Fortunately, I was left with nothing more serious than the dilemma of whether to sweep the charred remains of hair across my head in a spectacular Bobby Charlton comb-over or simply shave it all off. Given that I'm twenty-eight, I opted for the latter.

Then it was across town to the Miraflores district to be dropped off at Parque Kennedy. Dedicated to JFK, a small bronze bust of the tragic former President stands in a non-descript but well-tended urban park at the fork of two main roads. JFK looks a bit like Elvis at his cheeseburgers-for-breakfast stage but the sentiment is commendable enough. Across the road, we had lunch al fresco at a delightful little restaurant called Café de la Paz, followed by the most exquisite homemade lemonade. With the first wisps of a cooling breeze, the garua dissipated and the white sun beat down. The ice in our glasses sparkled like crushed diamonds.

Next stop was the Museo del Tribunal de la Santa Inquisitor - the Spanish Inquisition Museum. This time we commandered a taxi in the form of an enormous American Pontiac. It looked like a yellow coal barge on wheels. The afternoon traffic was starting to grind to a halt by the time we got to the Museo. The building itself saw the full force of depraved religious persecution from 1680 until 1820. A variety of instruments of torture have been replicated to which waxwork models are chained, their faces eternally contorted in pain and disbelieving terror. The sheer creative effort put into inflicting agony on fellow humans wasn't new then and, as we've seen recently, has only been refined in effectiveness since. Cruelty in the name of religious adherence is even more ingrained. As a lesson in the savagery and hatred of humans towards themselves, the Museum is far less effective than the chilling War Remnants Museum in Saigon, but the point is made bluntly enough and as a historical artefact in its own right it deserves a visit.

As darkness fell, we navigated back to the hotel on foot. It wasn't hard. The Sheraton is the tallest building in this part of town and was lit up like a beacon. Walking, we were a magnet for beggars, most of whom were adorable but desperately poor children. Unlike Rio, where the favoured tactic of beggars is a preliminary beating with an iron bar, the Peruvian children simply lay siege to your senses. It works on the same principle as the Japanese water torture. After only fifteen minutes, each pitiful whine of "For my lunch, meester, dollar for my lunch" is an audible bradawl being screwed another half-turn into your skull. There is no respite because there is nowhere else for them to go and nothing else for them to do. When we visited Rochina favela in Rio, our guide advised us not to give money to beggars because it only breeds reliance on and contempt for tourists. While I agree wholeheartedly with this, I'm not convinced that the converse is true. Certainly, in my travels I've never seen any evidence that not giving fosters respect. Indeed, I vividly recall the venom with which an elderly Vietnamese woman attacked me with a packet of out-of-date Minties when I spurned her advances. The preferred option is to carry some sweets and distribute these, especially to the children. The crestfallen look on the faces of the ragtaggle band trailing in our wake hinted that they were used to hard currency. Nevertheless, after a conspiratorial consultation amongst themselves - no doubt to establish how much the sweets could later be sold for - they thanked us and vanished into the darkness.

We were leaving for Cusco, the old Inca capital high in the Andes, in a few hours. Time for a quick shower and an overpriced sandwich from the hotel before heading back to the airport. As we checked-out, I saw a familiar face pressed against the front door. It was an expectant Death Wish Roger, waiting for a fare. I couldn't hear him through the plate glass but what he mouthed was unmistakable:


15 Dec 2004