Reflections on Lima

1. It’s a big, ugly city—yes. But everywhere one finds splashes of beauty amidst the ugliness. Lima startles but seldom jars. In contrast, consider Vancouver, prettified and perfect, where an entire perspective is fragile to a syringe. Is it better to be startled with beauty amidst despair, or jarred in one’s enjoyment of life, if only for a moment, by the ugly? How would you rather meet the Unexpected? I suppose how you answer is a matter of temperament. Given the choice between Lima and Vancouver, it is the stranger indeed who would choose the former. (Vancouver is a bullet hole in the Starry Night, which you can learn to unsee and so hang the canvas with pride.) Lima is a city for the melancholy, the moody, the brooding, and the blue. And that is why I love her: She is a city for an artist. (Vancouver is a city for those who buy art.)

2. ¿Boleta o factura? Boleta.

3. Los cerros, too, have their own peculiar beauty. Even amidst impossible sadness, there is hope. Why else would one paint one’s hovel? And that shriek of color, in defiance of the desert, changes the timbre of the sadness to something striking and strange.

cerros3

4.  Living in SMP, I would walk along Túpac Amaru from Av. Nicolini to Plaza Norte two to three times every week. Each walk is an odyssey of modernity: Dogs, unleashed, bark at one’s heels; cobradores, out of tune, shout street names in long corridors of song. Horns, horns. An old Quechua woman, her shawl tattered and her hat as sunken as her cheeks, limps down the street dragging two heavy sacks, her only possessions in the world. Step around the cars being serviced on the sidewalk. Anything can be fixed here. Young men fix their eyes on computer screens in internet cafes, self-medicated into game-worlds of magic and medievalism. A mototaxi turns, the driver’s daughter standing upright on the carriage frame and clinging to the rail as if windsurfing. Chickens turn on rotisserie rods in the pollerías and pedestrians turn their heads every half block to watch their backs for thieves, or worse. On red lights, the crosswalks swell with people swarming toward the Metropolitano, the rapid bus link cut through the center of the Túpac, or Metro, the discount superstore at the foot of the hills. 20140916_110807An hostal’s doors swing open to embrace the street and a made-up girl in a mini dress and an older caballero with his arm on her shoulder step inside. There’s a bag of bread in his free hand from the bakery around the corner—5 rolls for 1 sol. There’s bread outside the market too, but it’s around the big, bubbling pots that workers congregate on their way home, sitting on stools while street vendors ladle hot chicken soup into their bowls. Stalls of shoes and shirts and stationery and whatever random item might come to mind can be found in the market, but you’ll pay the gringo price unless you’re very good at haggling. Adjacent is the bus depot, where the bus companies are ironically named—Apocalypse and Titanic, for example—and the buses are more luxurious than any to be found in car-centric Canada. Through the bus depot and up an escalator, Plaza Norte appears like Huacachina in the desert, an American-style shopping mall where luxury retailers, including an iStore, overlook the shanty towns of the hills. All this on a street named for Túpac Amaru, the last of the Sapa Incas.

5. Is there a city quite so hated by tour guides as Lima? And is there any greater compliment than their universal antipathy? To make the most of your time in Lima, follow Colin Post’s suggestions.

Metropolitano6. What follows are two secrets to riding the Metropolitano, Lima’s overcrowded rapid bus system, particularly during peak periods. First, make use of the express lines, even if it means travelling backward first. It’s often faster, minimizes your time spent inside the bus itself, and maximizes your chances not only of being able to board a bus, but also of finding semi-breathable standing space once you’re there. In both life and transit, you must sometimes go backward before you can go forward. Second, accept from the outset that you are not going to find a seat. Accordingly, your strategy should be to find the most comfortable standing space possible. This is in the accordion section where the bus pivots. To get there, you need to choose the middle line on the platform—i.e. the line for the “center” of the bus—and break left once you’ve boarded. When the bus arrives and the gate opens, you’ll find people crowding the doors of the bus. Just keep saying “Permiso!” and push your way through the mosh pit to the more sparsely populated pivot. Apart from a window seat, there’s no greater amount of personal space available than leaning against the accordion. Don’t be worried about missing your stop—in five months of riding the Metropolitano at rush hour each day, I was never once unable to get out. Start making your way to the doors at the stop prior to your own and you’ll be fine.

7.  It is difficult to describe, portray, or capture the effect of a winter’s night in Lima, when the humid cold fills your lungs and the street light scatters off the mist and fog and the city sings with energy. Warm yourself at an emolientero’s stall with a hot herbal drink or quinoa, gaze out at the city surrounding you, and you will experience something of the Burkean sublime.

Christmas lights in el Centro

8. Here is Herman Melville’s famous passage on Lima, which really requires the full context of “The Whiteness of the Whale” to be understood: “Nor is it, altogether, the remembrance of her cathedral-toppling earthquakes; nor the stampedoes of her frantic seas; nor the tearlessness of arid skies that never rain; nor the sight of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets); and her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other, as a tossed pack of cards;—it is not these things alone which make tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou canst see. For Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins forever new; admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions.”