Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Central Lima and Environs

This was a day of full-on tourism. Stuart, my friend from Lima collected me at 9am and we took a bus for 1 Nuevo Sol (about 25p) for a 15 minute ride to the city end of Av. Arequipa. Once there we negotiated busy and dusty roads on our way to the Historical Centre.

My overall impression of central Lima is favourable. It is a real city, both commercial and historic. Although I only experienced a very restricted slice of life it felt at once slightly frightening but also charming and grand. It seemed as if the centre had been in a constant process of change with once fashionable districts now somewhat unkempt, their treasures corroding in the humidity, dust and pollution. At the same time some areas which had hitherto been very downbeat have now been improved, renovated with their historic treasures having been revealed and enhanced in the form of their colonial foundations and the greening of the surroundings.

One of the most striking features is the number of mansions in with ornate balconies in varying stages of decay or renovation. Stuart explained that these screened balconies had once hidden the faces of genteel women of Spanish descent, whose Moorish past had originated a tradition of wearing a sort of half hi jab with one seductive eye made knowable. From the balconies they looked down on the passers by maintaining discrete anonymity.

One of the largest squares contains the presidential palace. From here we were able to witness the changing of the guard, albeit at a distance. The guards, dressed in bold red and blue and accompanied by a pretty good band goose stepped and shimmied across a grand courtyard observed by a small and appreciative crowd. Riot police prevented us from getting too close to the action and the whole process, which happens every 2 hours took at least 20 minutes to complete.

We also visited the convent of San Francisco and although I am not too keen on religious building I was intrigued by the use of this one, housing as it did in many catacombs with the bones of thousands of souls fully viewable and macabre to the extreme neatly sorted and stacked in rectangular and circular vaults.

As you can see this was a day of touristic excess and later we also visited a colonial house with a medical library written in Latin and dating to 16 century. Later we had an excellent lunch including ceviche, marinated raw fish and the pisco sours a cocktail of Pisco a type of brandy, lime juice and whisked egg white.

In the late afternoon we visited a museum demonstrating the rich history of Peru dating back over several civilizations and evidenced by some excellent artifacts. We then went on to the bohemian district of Barranco and watched the sun go down over the Pacific and ending a great day with a couple of beers.

I was pretty tired from all of this and retired early with a glass of Peruvian red!

First days no disappointment.

As I ventured out to walk down Av. Arequipa I immediately noticed the pleasant 23 degrees, bright sunshine, palm tree lined avenue and pleasant sea breeze – sorry! I headed in the direction of the centre of Miraflores which is a peaceful outer suburb between Lima and the Pacific. Many of the houses are grand ex-colonial buildings interspersed with newer office developments with residential districts surrounding the main area. Off to the right are some pyramid ruins which I will visit soon but I headed for the plaza which is laid out with grass and flowers and shady trees. Artists were setting up easels to sell paintings and people were in the process of attending mass in the large Catholic church at the end of the Plaza. I watched the participants each kissing the foot of baby Jesus and there was a carefully crafted nativity tableau. On this Sunday after Christmas it seemed a well-attended and joyous celebration and one of many scheduled throughout the morning.

Later I met Stuart my contact in Lima. He moved here following gaining a First in Computer science and married a Peruvian girl with whom he corresponded on the Internet. Stuart runs a website called enperu (see front page link) where he blogs super-interestingly about life in Peru but particularly about its relics and history. He took me on a super fast walk round the district and we went to the beach and Larco Mar which is a large and brash commercial complex given over to Western attractions including every kind of fast food outlet, so much later I caught up on my emails while sitting in Starbucks. I also had a very nice lunch of Lomo Saltado which is basically sauted beef - Interestingly the the restaurant above us, McDonalds had free wifi so I was able to have a skype chat with my family.

My second day in Lima was supposed to be given over to all kinds of practical objectives but I was agreeably sidetracked by some charming young Peruvians who I met in South American Explorers. If you don't know of it this is a very useful organisation with several offices from where you can (see front page link) plan trips, use the Internet or just chill out. They offer advice and have worked out discounts with hostals and travel agencies. On this day there was a free Spanish class which I joined. Unfortunately he teacher called in sick but his 3 students, myself and 2 young women, one each from Holland and Texas were entertained by 3 Peruvian volunteers and we chatted for nearly 2 hours.

After this we went and had an inexpensive lunch and then headed for the beach. The journey to the beach included crossing a busy 3 lane highway 3 times. Our guides didn't see this as unusual or particularly dangerous but it was somewhat harrowing and had to be negotiated on the way back too. So we now continued to chat, by now mostly in English and although the beach wasn't pristine it was sandy and fairly well-used by the mainly younger set on the long summer break vacation. Eventually we went back and I got to see my first Pacific sunset for 35 years. On the route back we we befriended by a municipal motor cycle security Policeman who told us he would escort us along the road to stop us from being robbed – I rather felt this an improbable outcome given there were 6 of us in broad daylight so maybe he was just a bit bored.

I did manage to achieve some of my more mundane objectives and bought a replacement set of glasses for abut 35 pounds and a Sim card for 3pounds. Hopefully I can now use my mobile. Back at the Hostal the staff team were having an early new year party so the place seemed more festive than usual with a bit of dancing, but by 11pm it had subsided and I slept well after a couple of beers. This morning I noticed a group of runners pass by my window at around 6.30 am so perhaps I will stir myself to follow suit but today is a full day of visiting central Lima and my friend Stuart has promised to share with me its beauty and marbled historical past.

Getting There

In all probability the normal can seem less so when set in the context of 24 hours of wakefulness and 14 hours of flying. Leaving Croydon a t 3.30 am after scraping the ice from the windscreen my kind driver had a nose bleed and we decided I should drive to Heathrow. 2 flights and 21 hours later I arrived safely at 'Home Peru', my hostal in Lima. The journey was relatively uneventful but the Iberia Airways staff were typically laconic and at times rude. I had to put up with 2 sessions of their musica navidena which included favourites like Sing Hosanna, Green Sleeves and a Spanish version of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas!

On reaching Madrid I paid 9 Euros for a modest breakfast which with Pound Euro parity seemed somewhat steep. In London I had chatted to a lady who was off to Colombia to spend 3 months in South America – on meeting her later she was obviously distraught and had been crying. She explained that a cash machine had eaten her only bank card and she had no other funds. Luckily she was being met by friends in Bogata but even after a 40 minute call to HSBC they couldn't offer her any useful advice. I felt sorry for her but perhaps she needed to have planned for such a contingency given the length of her stay. We talked about using ambassadorial services in Colombia but my guess is she could open a new account with a South American bank and have some money transferred.

On arrival at Lima we formed an orderly group waiting for our cases to be off-loaded – this took some 45 minutes but otherwise immigration was a painless experience. I was met by Pedro an amiable and helpful taxi driver and the ride of 35 minutes cost $14. By this time, about 8pm the traffic was light but notwithstanding he impressed me with his close formation driving and maneuvering between lanes. Driving in Peru is always a bit random and later I asked my friend Stuart for top tips for pedestrians. He proffered the need to assess the value of their car relative to your life, meaning cheap cars like taxis are unlikely to avoid hitting you while more expensive ones may think twice! My room and the hostal is basic but OK except the sound of the traffic outside is tiresome. For $12/day including breakfast and free Internet who can complain? After visiting the supermercardo I snacked on cheese, biscuits fruit and Cusquena cerveza and slept well until around 6 am, 11am in the UK.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Christmas Party with Peruvian Ambassador

Peruvian canapes and Pisco sours was the staple of last evening's do at the rather grand residence of His Excellency the Ambassador of Peru and hosted by the Anglo-Peruvian Society. 

Having arrived promptly I was in fact the first of the guests. On being shown into a rather grand salon festooned with art and artifacts. I was rather glad I had opted to wear a tie for this quite classy affair. Billed as a Christmas party it soon got going and a classic cocktail party. The guests comprised an assorted group of embassy officials, Peruvian business people, a good number of couples where one of the partners was from Peru but the other from UK. There seemed to be some VIPs as well but I wasn't introduced.

I chatted happily whilst consuming more than enough Pisco Sours a cocktail famed for its bite and popularised in the West by Ernest Hemmingway and a number of others who hung out in fashionable Lima back in the day. The food was great, some cerviche, raw fish with a salsa dip and an assortment of what looked like sushi but I thing were potato wraps in vine leaves and finally some tasty mini   empanadas.

People were friendly and the Ambassador said a few welcoming words. I made one or two contacts, notably Leonora who is a trustee of a charity based in Piura in the North of Peru were I will be situated next month. I believe it is an organisation devoted to the disabled and hopefully I can make a visit whilst I am there.

One interesting conversation was with an elderly lady, Enid. She claimed that 30 years ago (aged 54)  she became lost on her climb down from Wanu Pichu which is the peak that overlooks Machu Pichu. She lost her way and managed to descend through the semi-tropical forest to the river some 2000 feet below. She was lost for 2 days and nights and was rather expecting to meet her maker when she noticed a man on the other side of the river; he signalled for her to continue to follow the river. But by this time she was pretty desperate so faked a feint and was air-lifted out of the canyon. I can only imagine the effect this must of had on her. Having climbed Wanu Pichu I notice they now require you to sign on and off the climb, no doubt owing to Enid's intrepid misadventure!