Southern Exposure 7:Two Days in Lima

The Zaandam spent  days 12 and 13, Sunday, October 28, and Monday, October 29, docked in the large port serving Lima. How do you make the most of a two-day visit to a sprawling city of 11 million people and come away with a profound understanding of its past and present? The short answer, of course, is you don’t. We tried to make the best of it by spending the better part of the first day visiting a private archeology museum, Museo Larco, and the second day visiting Mira Flores, the high rent district perched at the top of the tall cliffs along the southern shores of Lima.

The first impression of Lima is not dissimilar from what you see in  many large cities in what we used to call “The Third World.” Lima is loud, dirty, messy and seemingly out of control. Modest homes are packed together like sardines, the streets  jammed with cars and the sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. Tiny shops with graffiti on their walls sell food along with all sorts of merchandize, and every means of transport is visible at  a glance–cars and taxis of all shapes and sizes, buses of  all varieties, huge trucks puffing black smoke, bicycles with kids riding behind moms, motorcycles carrying three or sometimes four people, scooters, and covered, motorized, giant tricycles– all charging in different directions as  fast as they can.

  There is always a siren in the background and incessant honking. Within eyesight is at least one emaciated dog lounging on the sidewalk and a ferel cat darting into a dusty alley. Trash lines the streets; and at red lights, if you are in a car or taxi, chances are you will be approached by someone who wants to clean your front windshield, someone else who wants to sell you a newspaper, and another who is hawking bottled water or a warm coke. A young woman may tap on your window and ask for contributions to feed the infant she is holding, wrapped in a blanket. Invariably the traffic will come to a halt due to a car breaking down or an incident involving the police. You could be in Bangkok, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, New Delhi, Mumbai, Ulan Bator or Cairo. But you are in Lima; and if you have been to these other cities, as we have, you probably have that “I’ve seen this movie before” feeling. Yet as chaotic as they appear to be at first impression, these bustling “Third World” cities by some miracle actually seem to function, at least more or less, and what I love about them is their excitement, their humanity, and their soul, warts and all.

Also while similar in many ways, each of these cities is, of course, different with its own unique personality. We only saw one or two panhandlers in Lima. No  one tried to rob us, and the charges we negotiated with cab drivers (before getting in the cab!) were quite reasonable as were the prices of just about everything. The  people we met were polite and friendly, and most spoke at least a little English. The overall atmosphere, while chaotic was upbeat. It felt good to be here.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Lima and some of the other cities in developing countries that we have visited or (in Embry’s case) worked in is that in Lima there are a lot of solid middle class neighborhoods and some that are stunningly upscale. Embry made lunch reservations at Rafael’s, one of the city’s highly rated restaurants, which was in an upscale area called Mira Flores. When the taxi driver finally dropped us off in Mira Flores after inching his way in heavy traffic through typical neighborhoods with a mix of housing, some in pretty bad shape, we thought we had ended up in Miami Beach. Sparkling high rise apartments, 15-plus stories tall, towered  above the broad streets above the cliffs over looking the blue Pacific. Beautiful townhomes with tiny manicured gardens lined most side streets. The neighborhood was quiet, and there was no trash to be seen.

And so we have in Lima Exhibit A of the challenges associated with globalism. There is no question that Lima is better and Peru stronger than when we visited the country fifty years ago. The economy is robust (shipping, fishing, minerals, finance and more recently technology). People have jobs. Unemployment is low. The government has been reasonably stable, and the threats caused by  the revolutionary Shining Path seem to be well behind them. There is a large middle class, and some people have made a lot of money. But like practically everywhere else in the world, the fruits of the global economy have not been evenly distributed. There are winners and losers, and too many who have been shut out of the party altogether. The poverty rate in Peru  persistently hangs around 20 percent, and the social safety net is pretty thin. Protests, some violent, regarding inequality and economic justice are making headlines this week in Chile; and in many other South American countries, winds of discontent are starting to blow. This is not new. What is new is that decades ago some believed that socialism was the answer. Few believe that today, and the experiences of many countries in South America with often corrupt, socialist dictators did not help the cause. Venezuela, for example, is now a basket case and Cuba continues to struggle along. Yet at this stage in the evolution of life on the planet Earth, there is no obvious silver bullet that will magically solve the challenges of inequality exacerbated by the global economy.

The museum we visited was fabulous with beautifully displayed artifacts centuries old. And Rafael’s, the restaurant Embry picked out, was world class, ranking among my Top Five of all time. It had only about 15 tables, and the restaurant did not open for lunch until one; and when we left at three, it was still packed, mainly with men (all wearing tailored suits and formal shirts but no tie) and well-dressed women in their 40s enjoying business, power lunches. When there is no name on the building and you have to make reservations weeks in advance for a Monday lunch, you know it has got to be good. It exceeded expectations. 

So thumbs up for Lima. Not perfect and certainly struggling with globalism, but  dynamic, energetic, and  it has a soul.

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