48 Hours in Lima

Next stop: Lima.

After leaving Huaraz at 10 p.m. I arrived in Lima with my friends Kate and Owen. Of course buses have a habit of arriving early only when it’s inconvenient. In this case we were forced to find our way from the bus station at 4:30 a.m.

We chose to stay at the Flying Dog in the touristy (but nice) neighborhood of Miraflores because James, Graham and Santiago (also buddies from Huaraz) were staying there. We killed some time in the hostel lounge – I did some writing – not able to sleep because our beds weren’t yet available. Santiago found us first and we woke up the others shortly after to go to breakfast.

We received laughably atrocious service at the breakfast restaurant because our free meal vouchers from the hostel probably took the back seat to the cash of paying customers. You would think it hard to forget a table of six, especially when they are waving their arms and looking you right in the eye from across the restaurant, but these ladies were pros.

When finally completed our meal, we walked to a cafe around the corner where Santiago said he’d found the best churros ever. While my memory of churros is mostly that of the stale, sugary dough sticks served at my high school lunch hall, I quickly changed my mind about the fried treat. Fresh and warm from the oven, generously filled with our choice of chocolate, vanilla or (as if there was a choice) dulce de leche – we were in heaven. The rest of our time in Lima can be measured in how many churros we ate. (At least a dozen over 2.5 days)

We were all a little apathetic after breakfast and churros – the newbies still recovering from hiking and lack of bus-sleep, the others from a late night in Lima. I took the down time to take care of some mid-trip errands.

I found a post office where I could ship home the souvenirs I’d gathered in Huaraz. Though 50 bucks is more than I’m used to spending in a day here, there was no question of me carrying the bulky load another month in my backpack. Compared to the $200 FedEx wanted to charge, I felt alright about it.

I was also in need of a belt, because mine disappeared somewhere along the road. The beauty of this part of the world is that when you need such a random commodity, you can simply walk a couple blocks, preferably in an aimless manner, and stumble upon a street vendor selling exactly what you are looking. I made fast friends with this guy, who cut the imitation leather down to size and punched the holes. Embarrassing myself, I said “Gracias, Amigo. Y gracias de mis pantalones.” He like me.

When the troops were finally rested, we organized for an adventure in the city, consisting of lunch and a visit to the Lima Art Museum.

Some locals working at the hostel told us about a really good cevicheria we should go to. Tucked away in the back of a dirty indoor market where few gringos tread, we found the place. While the surroundings weren’t exactly that of a fine dining establishment – the pungent smell of open-air meat stalls, overripe produce and stale neck sweat, lit with the green and yellow glow of old florescent bulbs – it was the real deal. They had to scour the area to find enough seats for us to even sit down, but damn if I didn’t dig into the most delicious plate of ceviche I’ll probably ever have.

Next we hopped on the metro bus and headed toward the city center.

With close to 8 million people, Lima is the giant capitol city of Peru. With such size comes a lot of diverse territory, including plentiful Western amenities in several neighborhoods, as well places where they’ll knife a gringo before he even steps off the bus. We tried to stick to the former.

I think my greatest disappointment about Lima is its lack of character. For being so large and having so much to offer, it is simply too much like every other developed metropolis in the world. You can find Starbucks on many a corner, clean streets and many comforts from home – but when it comes to personality, Lima is something of a lame duck in my experience, as demonstrated in the very few pictures I took. That said, I had a nice time with good company.

We dilly-dallied wherever we went that afternoon, taking time to stop for churros when necessary. 

By the time we arrived at the museum, they were 30 minutes from closing. While we were disappointed, we resolved to see the rest of downtown. After walking for a while, laughing at funny signs and goofing around along the way, we found a large plazas, which then connected to a lengthy pedestrian mall that easily resembled Copenhagen’s massive Strøde. We found more churros and watched our pockets as we traversed the crowded mall.

Because this was Saturday night, all of Lima seemed to be out on the town. While our numbers were an asset to safety, it was also difficult to keep from losing each other. Luckily, most of our group was tall in relation to the average Peruvian (myself included) and if you looked around for a minute, it wasn’t entirely difficult to spot a familiar head floating above the crowd.

On the other end of the mall was another historic plaza, this one with a nice fountain. While taking pictures we were approached by a group of local high school students who wished to interview some of us for an assignment in their English class. They made the worst choice in Owen. Even I have trouble understanding his thick Irish accent, so these kids must have been lost. Nonetheless, it was cute and amusing to watch the kids ask him questions, feed him samples of Peruvian food and play Andean music on toy instruments.

We followed the remainder of the mall to a bridge-crossing. The street seemed to continue on but the scene shifted very quickly, as crowds diminished and storefronts became less posh. After a few blocks Santi voiced that it was best we not continue, as we were entering questionable territory. It’s amazing how fast your surroundings can change. While we were never that threatened in a group so large, we could just feel how unwelcome we were.

We backtracked across the bridge and decided to check out Lima’s version of Chinatown. If we thought the walking street was crowded, Chinatown was markedly worse. The more we pushed into the center of it the more we were squeezed among the crowd. We peeped into storefronts and restaurant windows, wandering with no particular destination. It was fascinating to observe how these two familiar but different cultures mix. Though it was more successfully done here, listening to Chinese immigrants speak Spanish reminded me of how my old boss at the Thai restaurant would try to speak the language with her hispanic employees.

After losing a couple of our numbers for a minute, and with the sun having gone down, we decided it was time to head back to Miraflores.

We hopped off the bus and walked through Parque Kennedy (named after the American president.) Kennedy Park is odd because where most South American city parks have an unwanted presence of stray dogs, this one is overrun with cats. Lounging on the grass, playing in the flower beds, these kitties have clearly marked their turf. It’s quite a funny sight.

An even more amusing sight was presented when we found a large crowd gathered around the small, sunken amphitheater at the park’s opposite end. As we approached, we could recognize the familiar sounds of ’70s American dance music. Apparently Saturday night is Disco Night in Kennedy Park, and its participants are strictly those who were alive when disco was.

In the pit the large crowd watched as dozens of Peruvians, all between the ages of 50 and 70, danced their hearts away to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” and other lovable classics from the era. Some sporting bling and garments from back in the day, others dressed more contemporary, these shameless soldiers of soul still had the moves to shake their moneymakers, even if their joints moved a bit slower than they once did. I don’t think any spectacle has made me smile that much in a long time.

With our stomach’s sufficiently growling we headed to the restaurant avenue across the street. 

Along the narrow road, each establishment has a bonafide salesman working the crowds that walk past their gate. Most try to drive young gringos like us in with offers of free pisco sours, so we thought it would be fun to play them against each other for the best offer. After a bit of hard to get, we ended up choosing the place with cheapest menu, but of course we got our free piscos.

The evening concluded with a return to flying dog, where we played some pool and drank beer. Unfortunately two middle-aged American guys were ruling the table, beating everyone who challenged them and earning free drinks along the way. They kind of took the fun out of it, and besides my pool skills being rusty, my body and mind were failing me after so little sleep over the past few days. The group had a little more fun hanging out on the hostel roof and it was about 2 a.m. when I finally hit the sack.

I woke up close before noon, more rested than I had felt in a week. 

Though James and Graham had caught a bus to their next destination, there’s a good change I’ll see them again along the Gringo Trail. The remaining four of us got lunch at a really nice sandwich place across the park, which I discoverd the night before on a munchie run. I’ve spent more money on food in Lima than any other place so far, but it’s an expensive city and it’s been nice to eat well. After breakfast we got more churros.

We caught a bus back into the city center and actually got to see the inside of the art museum this time. 

Because it was Sunday, it only cost 1 sole ($0.30), which begs the question why they charge at all. Although the the place is small, everything we saw was good. The first exhibit Ruinas al Revés (Ruins in Reverse) collected works from several contemporary artists (mostly Peruvian) on the theme of modern ruins. One artist took portraits of buildings across Lima that once served as home to the recording studios and record companies of Peru’s now defunct music industry.

Another photographed the countless statues and monuments erected in Peru over the last two decades, criticizing (in my reading) their failed purpose to foster community and patriotism. Often squeezed between medians or roundabouts, and rarely taken care of, the artist presents these statues as symbols of embarrassment, rather than of pride.

The rest of the museum was dedicated to the career and legacy of Peru’s most famous artist, José Sabogal. As grandfather to the indigenist movement of the early 20th century, Sabogal was one of the first artists to celebrate indigenous heritage and culture. From portraits, landscapes, mural work, woodblock printing and magazine publishing, this guy was as much a socio-political icon as he was a prolific and respect multi-medium artist.

After getting coffee at the museum cafe, we bused to Barranco. 

The historic area is equally as posh as Miraflores, but more bohemian. Being a Sunday night most bars and restaurants were closed, but we got to see the area (and the ocean) at night before heading back for dinner. Sadly, we didn’t eat more churros.

After some pizza and beer we finally had the chance to play pool among friends, until another shark (who I’m pretty sure wasn’t even staying at the hostel) came in and kicked us off. I’m not sure I like how that part of billiards works. When I get home I’m going to practice so I can actually hold my own when assholes try to take away our fun.

I woke up early for a change. 

I had breakfast with Owen, who also had some things to do before he and the others took their own bus in the afternoon. A guy on the street was selling the International Herald Tribune (the global edition of the New York Times). It was a pleasure to read a copy of my Times again, catching up on what’s been going on at home and in the world.

I walked to the post office and read some more of the paper until it opened at 10 so I could buy some stamps and send a few postcards stateside. Then I purchased a couple of goodbye churros. While churros are not hard to find in South America, they belong to Lima in my heart.

Stopping into a grocery store I bought some food to keep me alive during my 22 hour bus ride to Cuzco. I also had to get my belt fixed from my street vendor friend who sold it to me (the piece of crap fell apart the first night). I got a shower and packed my bag before grabbing lunch with Kate. By the time we got back it was time for us to hop in a taxi to the bus station.

With not so much time I hugged the Santiago, Owen and Kate goodbye and was on my way. 

I’m going to sound like a broken record soon, but it’s a strange phenomenon how quickly you makes friends on the road, how normal traveling with these strangers can become, and how painlessly you split up and move on. As wrong as it feels to part from nice people you just got to know, every short but exciting chapter leads into another, and I have many new people I’ve yet to meet.

In three weeks I’ve already made friends from England, Ireland, Canada, America, Israel, Singapore, Korea, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador. From each of them I’ve learned about their homes and lives, and they’ve learned the same from me. In almost every case I’ve been amazed by everything we learn from each other, as well as how we have even more in common.

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