GETTING TO LIMA / LEAVING LIMA
First impressions of Lima are not favourable. It’s as if a nuclear explosion (whose cloud still lingers) wiped out everything and the population quickly had to rebuild the city using whatever they could find, which was apparently just fat red bricks, and so they constructed a charmless shanty town as quick as they could, without worrying about petty niceties like greenery or beauty. Thankfully things improve as we approach the centre: houses are actually plastered, some are painted; there are a few older buildings; there’s even a park; and the cloud, which before was a uniform white, blurring the sun, suddenly seems less harsh, with a tint of blue. For a second the cloud fools me into thinking that it doesn’t exist, that it’s actually clear blue sky.
Up until Lima every city I’d passed through had a general bus terminal – in other words, all the long-distance buses went to the same place. Lima is different: every bus company has its own terminal. This is quite irritating and a bit stupid. It means that you have to buy all your trips through a travel agent (who might represent just a couple of companies), there is no swanky building (like in Quito), and you get ripped off for the taxi because there’s no competition – the only ones on offer are the bus company’s.
Any traveller going to Lima hears a thousand stories about robberies and crooked policeman and dodgy taxis. In fact, I heard so many stories that I fully expected the first taxi ride to involve my being raped by a cocaine-snorting transvestite while the taxi driver stole my wallet, my backpack and then all my clothes, leaving me naked, violated and without passport, in a slum.
With this image in the back of my head as we swung into the small dusty Flores terminal, I decided to go with the first taxi driver who accosted me (the Flores own-brand) rather than go out to the street and risk the rape-robbery. He asked for a staggering 20 Soles for the 15-minute drive into Miraflores. I tried to bargain, but without much fight as I had no idea how much the trip should cost, nor where we were, and so we agreed on 18 Soles. Approaching the hostel he had the temerity not to drive up to the door but leave me a block away because they would have charged him extra. He did accompany me to the hostel, which seemed a gallant gesture, although I know that often taxi drivers will lead a gringo up to the reception desk at a hostel and then stick around after the gringo has gone off to the room in the hope of receiving a commission.
It’s a Sunday and Avenida Lorca, the main street passing by my hostel, has been pedestrianised. Some way down is the surf school of my sister’s friend’s friend, Manuel, but since it’s closed I decide to continue on the seafront, expecting to be able to paddle in the shallows of the Pacific for the first time on the trip. There are skateboarders everywhere. You hear the grinding from a way away, and then suddenly they’re passing right by you in a thunder of tarmac and rubber, sometimes attempting a jump just as they pass you which invariably sends the skateboard flying past your legs like a truant chainsaw. They don’t apologise for almost removing your legs, instead looking at you with a mixture of sheepish guilt and determined disdain, as if they had to put on the hard face to impress their friends while trying to communicate the pretence to you, the victim.
The closer I got to the coast the more I could smell the sea. This was my second favourite thing about Lima (the first being the churros), that from time to time the wind would carry that sea smell and you could breathe in deep the salty grime. Eventually I reached the sea – well, I could see the sea. It was about 100m below me at the bottom of a cliff and on the other side of a motorway. My visions of paddling in the Pacific had been thwarted for the day. For a while I watched the waves roll up and leave behind half-moon traces on the beach.
Just below, built into the cliff, was some kind of fancy shopping zone populated by international brands like Starbucks and Quicksilver and Swarowski. This was a surprising aspect of Lima in general: it had clearly opened its doors to the foreign legion of franchises and multinational corporations and showed the effects of this conquest everywhere. A friend commented that Lima reminded him of Los Angeles, which could be a good thing or a bad thing. My only knowledge of Los Angeles comes through films and NWA, so I can’t say if the comparison holds.
On the street people were well dressed, even hip, some groups sporting undercut hairstyles and denim shirts, which I assume are hip based on their appearance in Grease, which was made in the 70’s, and everyone loves the 70’s. People are more attractive here too, which is always nice.
I spend the evening conducting an exhaustive search for a restaurant with a cheap menu. For some reason I want pasta. Unfortunately the so-called cheap street, Berlin, is not cheap, not in the evening at least, and it’s impossible to find a typical Peruvian ‘menu economico’, so I end up in a cute German-themed café called Kulka Café which looks like it’s been transplanted from Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires. I know it’s German because the man at the till is a tall, white, dreadlocked German and the menu contains various plates based on ‘German Sausage’. I get the not-very-German fettucine with mushrooms for 16 Soles – it’s a bit crap.
Bad or bland food is a common disease of cute cafes. They believe that if the café is attractive and inviting then there’s no need to bother with the food. It could be down to economics: if the space is nice then people will come, whatever the quality of food, so there’s no need to splash out on good ingredients or quality chefs. Or it could be down to laziness: they can’t be expected to make an effort with the décor and the food! It is a rare and beautiful thing to find a café that is both beautiful and tasty.
My second dinner in Lima is an improvement on the first thanks to stumbling across La Lucha Sangucheria. From the hostel you could almost see it, tucked down an alleyway on the other side of the plaza. It’s effectively a sandwich bar, a hole in the wall, made to feel like a fairground stall by its large spherical lamps. The workers wear quaint white hats and buttons done all the way up to the top, as if they were all real chefs and not just people required to place things between pieces of bread. I end up eating here twice, the second time is worse because I choose the cheapest thing: chicken put through a shredder which comes out tasting something like tuna.
The passageway is full of marble tables which serve as seating for those eating their basketed sandwiches, and also as the headquarters of the local chess club. As I write 4 matches are going on simultaneously. All the players have their special bag carrying the pieces and a timer. I am reminded of the women in the milongas (the tango clubs) of Buenos Aires, who would arrive in flat shoes and then remove from their bag glittering high-heeled tango shoes. Sometimes during the evenings you’d see a lady purposefully striding down the street with the telltale bag bouncing from their shoulder and you’d see them in a different light; suddenly they were holders of an intimidating and seductive power, about to pass through a nondescript door into that magical world of melancholy and passion in the gloom. The chess players did not quite have the power of the tangoing women, and yet there was something rather wonderful about seeing these – mostly old – men arrive and unpack these weapons, these physical manifestations of their intellect.
Other men stand around the players in silence watching and nodding. One player resigns and leaves his seat to be replaced by another, one of the watchers. They setup quickly, all in silence, and the winner peers over his glasses at the new challenger, makes his move, and sniffs his hand. An older man – white hair, glasses and over-wide brown corduroy trousers – comes and stands over the challenger’s right shoulder, stamps his feet against the cold, and when the challenger looks at him disapprovingly he goes and stands by another old man wearing a red baseball cap and thick square glasses that make his eyes large. They exchange a couple of short sentences and then return to silence.
Finally the cloud has lifted and I can see Christ on the far slopes beyond Barranco. Surfers like black pebbles dot the white foam. It is my third and final day in Lima and I am in a rather pleasant park atop the cliff face that falls to the pier and the beach. Gnarled twisted trees line the crazy-paving path along with a short hedge. On the other side of the hedge is a sunny green lawn.
A young blonde girl trundles past and says hello apologetically. She’d obviously just had a traumatising Spanish-speaking experience and was so overcome with relief at seeing a gringo that she couldn’t help but greet me in her native tongue. Perhaps she asked for directions and ended up in a slum, or tried to buy Coke and ended up with Inca Cola (two equally horrific consequences of breakdowns in communication).
To smell the sea is a joy. And to feel its soft breath. I think of Cornwall, of the bench at the end of my Great-uncle’s garden, now surely washed away by time’s quiet swell.
For lunch I head back up through Miraflores, past colourful houses protected with rolls of barbed wire and thorny gates, to calle Berlin. A few blocks from the park, beyond the restaurants and bars where the waiters accost you on the street, there’s a small alcove of four or five restaurants. They are all thin and spill out onto the street with pleasing little setups of tables and chairs. Here I find, for the first time in Miraflores, a ‘menu economico’ – a full meal in Miraflores on the cheap! I rejoice silently and sit down at the high square wooden tables.
The starter is Ocopa Arequipeña, which involves cold sliced and boiled potatoes in a greenish cheesy peanutty sauce. A hard-boiled egg sits on top. This is followed by a soup with rice, celery, carrot shavings and suspicious shreds of meat. Despite the relative diversity of its ingredients it contrives to taste exactly like every other soup in Peru and Bolivia. Finally the main course: Cabrito. I assumed, quite reasonably, that this was kid (as in young goat) since ‘cabrito’ means ‘little goat’. But the waitress assured me it was alpaca, which made me view the plate in an entirely new, exotic light. The meat was dense but tender, a little like lamb, and came with rice, red onions, a leaf of lettuce and light skin-coloured frijoles that tasted a bit like baked beans.