Lost In Lima

It was when I passed a pair of policemen patrolling the footpath in leather boots laced to the knee and double gun holsters, each with a Rottweiler on the end of a chain, and they looked surprised to see me, that I seriously rethought my plan. I had already begun to wonder how far it really was to Lima’s famous Gold Museum: on paper it hadn’t seemed a great distance, but then again, it’s a city of nine million, and hotel tourist maps are not always as particular as they should be about boring things like scale.

This was certainly a lived-in area — lived-out might be a better description, to judge by all the eating, working, sleeping, playing, laughing and shouting going on around me. I had noticed the increase in volume as soon as I crossed over the expressway from the neat tourist precinct of Miraflores: lots more noise, plus more litter, more traffic and many more people, all of them looking so much more at home on the footpath than I was currently feeling.

I cursed once again the false economy that had made me leave my trusty — but heavy — Lonely Planet guide at home. I did, however, remember its advice not to flap open a map in public in case I made myself conspicuous to predators. Apparently, a fair-haired, fair-skinned woman, on her own, wearing sensible shoes and an anxious expression would be completely invisible in a crowd of Peruvians right up to the moment that she unfolded her Globetrotter. Yeah, as they say, right.

One person who had already noticed me was a private security guard on duty outside a shop. In my best night-school Spanish, I asked him how far it was to the museum, and could I walk there. It was well-practised tourist vocabulary, and came out so fluently that Miguel responded with several rapid paragraphs in which only “no, no, muy peligroso” were recognisable. Never mind the ‘very’, at this stage just ‘dangerous’ was all I needed to hear, and I decided to turn back — but Miguel had some questions of his own. Once he had established that my husband was back in New Zealand I had just enough time, while he scribbled out his phone number, to remember the name of a different hotel from mine to tell him when he asked. Which he did, naturally: not for nothing is machismo a Spanish word.

I scuttled back to Miraflores leaving Miguel smirking, planning our date. Crossing the motorway again was like closing a door: the shouting faded away, the litter vanished, there was room to move again on the footpath. Strangely, the tooting continued and eventually, sharp as a spoon, I realised it was I who was causing this particular commotion as passing taxi drivers, better informed than me, suggested that I flag them down instead of attempting to get around the city on foot.

Yet to be driven from one point to another is to miss an authentic Lima experience, and I don’t mean getting mugged. As I meandered through well-heeled Miraflores down to picturesquely crumbling Barranco on the coast, I got a feel for the city that would have been impossible in a car. Even in the flat light from a white sky the colours glowed, and nosing into little cul-de-sacs I found clusters of pretty Spanish colonial houses, their stucco and shutters painted in zingy combinations of lime green, turquoise, yellow and red. Churches in ochre and orange with huge wooden doors of shiny black were edged with neat gardens of roses and lilies. A blue and yellow macaw sat on a perch in a walled courtyard. Sombre black turkey vultures circled in the thermals over the cliffs; far below them fishing boats bobbed on the waves. A swirl of uniformed school girls waited at a bus-stop. In a quiet playground a young man was training a kestrel to come to his whistle.

The footpath bustled with locals, tourists, beggars and people renting cell-phones by the minute or walking small dogs in jackets, but in the rabbit-warren of aisles that made up the Artisans’ Markets piles of folded woven tablecloths and knitted jerseys slowed the foot-traffic and embroidered wall-hangings absorbed the noise. Instead it was a riot of colour in there: hot pink, purple, red and turquoise hats, scarves and skirts, brightly-painted wooden llamas and masks, dolls and necklaces, bags, gourds and paintings. The stall-holders smiled at me. “Pase, amiga!” they called. “Come in, friend!”

© P Wade 2012

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