I've never been a big fan of summer, and one of the nicer things about taking your summer vacation in the southern hemisphere is that it turns into a winter break. This is not to say that it was cold – it never seems to get cold in Peru. But where summer can be beastly, it was a comfortable 20 degrees most of the time.
The consequence in Lima was that it was grey all the time. All winter they have a thin fog called garua, though my friend Jorge told me that no one ever uses that word except the Lonely Planet tourist book. Lima is situated on a coastal desert, something I never knew was possible. They don't have any rain to speak of, but somehow the plants manage to take their water from the mist. So do the blankets, bedding and carpets, and most of Lima smelled from mildew during the time that I was there.
Lima, sad to say, was not that impressive. There were buildings, monuments and museums at the center, but at the time, things looked post-apocalyptic. There were no lights on in many buildings, making them look deserted. There was a look of improvisation all over the place, with people selling garden hoses or whatever they could find, wherever they could sell them. There was a preponderance of signs painted on the sides of buildings that said "Llantas" (tires).
Lima was full of crowds, and there was a certain liveliness of people who were working twice as hard as anyone else in the world to make half a living. People were feeling hopeful, though, and one of the most interesting sights in Lima was a long line of people in front of a bank. They were waiting to apply for loans to start small businesses. Everyone I spoke to was both friendly and philosophical.
My first day in Lima, we met Germán for lunch. Germán is a photographer for El Comercio, which is sort of like the Times of Lima. We picked him up at the office. While I was waiting, I remember being curious about El Comercio and reading some of the articles. Later, it turned out that this impressed the secretary no end – she remarked that I would make quite a catch as a husband. If only it were that easy other places in the world!
As we parked the car, a kid came out of nowhere and offered to watch the car. The night before when he picked me up at the airport, there was also a kid near the car, and Jorge handed him a coin as we got in. Jorge explained that this is a way of life. There are people who don't have a lot to do, and they'll stand there and watch your car for a small tip. There's nothing extortionate about it, and in fact, it's a form of charity. The only time it didn't work was a week later in Barranco, where the local government charged for parking, the meter maids were in cahoots with the car-watchers, and Jorge got noticeably annoyed. Otherwise, it's the magnanimity of people with cars toward the people who have nothing at all.
Lunch was ceviche, with choclo on the side. Ceviche is the national dish, at least in the coastal areas. It's a raw seafood salad that's "cooked" by marinating it in lemon juice. Choclo is one of the many varieties of corn that people eat, this one being like hominy. Peruvian food is consistently excellent. Peruvian dishes consistently have the letters "ch" in them (antechucho, choclo, ceviche, chirimoya, chupe, chicha), which no doubt adds to the taste. You have to look hard to find a bad meal.
We took a look around the Plaza de Armas. There's a huge cathedral, and of course, the Presidential Palace. We walked around the streets of central Lima, stopping at the Palace of Torre Tagle and other interesting places. Most of central Lima is given over to printing houses, which occupy the older buildings.
After walking around, we stopped for a soda in a hotel across from the Church of San Francisco. This was a building that I had singled out as particularly scary looking. The shutters and windows were wide open but the lights were off. To my surprise, there were people inside and there was a restaurant with a carvery. We sat down, and it was here that I was introduced to Peru's "national drink", Inca Cola.
Inca Cola was invented by an English immigrant to Peru, a Mr. Lindley, who wanted to capture the Peruvian taste. I know I'm supposed to be open-minded about these things, but I thought that Inca Cola was positively vile. It reminded me of an equally vile Polish soda called Limoniada, which the Polish markets had back home in Brooklyn, and I mistakenly tried, once. Inca Cola is a sickening, iridescent yellow, and I'm convinced that at least thirty of the chemicals it has are also radioactive. I couldn't say that, of course, as Germán waxed poetic about the unique bouquet, and the fact that nothing else in the world was such a perfect accompaniment to all types of Peruvian food. He was truly enthralled.
The other part of the conversation dealt with Lima. They kept repeating, "cuando Lima era París" – when Lima was Paris. During the 1940's, Lima was one of the hotspots of South America. People came here for shopping and for nightlife, the economy was booming and in the forefront. Part of it had to do with the fact that there was a lot of money floating around during the war, but more had to do with the fact that a lot of opportunity was squandered after the war. Argentina has a similar story. With Fujimori taking control there was another chance, and it's always easier to have had a golden age already, since you don't have to imagine so hard.
That evening, a group of us went out to a Korean restaurant. Lima, again, revolves around food, and if you have money to spend, you can find mostly anything. Because of the paucity of health laws in Peru you can have cuisine of any kind in authentic form, which I regard as a big plus. (You just shouldn't get your customers sick.) Jorge had been interested in a Korean broth he had seen earlier, with a bunch of Koreans going "ooooh" and "ahhhh" as it came out. There was no version of it for one person, so he waited until he came to the restaurant with a group.
The Korean owners had hired Peruvian waiters to talk to the customers, since in Peru you can pay employees the same wages you would pay your family. When we asked about the broth, the Peruvians said that they'd never tried it and they never would. It was one of those Korean things that they seemed to like. It must have been authentic, because that's a recommendation if ever I've heard one!