Monday, April 19, 2010

Lima is Peru; beauty and chaos

Lima was founded in 1535 and became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. It was the most important city in South America for three centuries. It hosted the Viceroy, the Inquisition and the Royal Audience. Its colonial architecture with exquisite wooden balconies and indoor patios with fountains can be still appreciated in the downtown area that has two main squares: The Plaza Mayor where the cathedral and the presidential palace are located and the Plaza San Martín, a few blocks away, where the famous Hotel Bolívar is.
With its explosive growth and the Andean migration during the 20th century, Lima grew out of proportion and very disorganized. Dictatorships and terrorism made it a non-friendly tourist destination. For decades Peru was synonymous with coca traficking, the Shining Path and Alberto Fujimori, the Japanese-descended president that Peru had for over 11 years, who is currently in prison.

Lima has dramatically improved in the last two decades but contrasts and chaos are still part of its culture. From the majestic Plaza Mayor you can see poor homes built on the slopes of a close by mountain, all in one view.

Walk at your own risk

It may not sound credible but in Lima pedestrians do not seem to have the right of way; motor vehicles do. So pay attention even though you may think you are a good multitasker (talk on the phone, read the paper and cross the street at the same time).
Lights at the corners do not assure anybody that cars will respect them carefully. Stop signs that warn us with their octagonal red presence can be perceived as complete corner decorations in this buzzing metropolis.

In this chaotic city, cars and buses drive with abandon. Of course, there are policemen and traffic lights but drivers approach the streets as being in a Formula One race. Lanes become just lines on the road; the fact that the road is divided in parts doesn’t mean that drivers will choose one of them. I have been in taxis when the whole road is empty and drivers go in the middle of two lanes. A road can be divided in four lanes and you may be in one of the seven (yes, seven) cars that want to share those four lanes across the road. Cars cut into each other with total sense of confidence and entitlement. An inch of space between cars is an accepted occurrence. You will feel your heart is pumping quite fast when you are at the mercy of your c
Driving in a car in Lima can r
eally man you up.
If someone cuts you off and you yell at the driver who did this, you’ll get immediately yelled back at. I heard a driver saying: “Lima is the only city in the world where the people who made a mistake while driving insult you.”

In this circus-like spectacle, pedestrians have to act with special care. Motorbikes, trucks or cars will try to get the right of pass without a second thought. While walking in the city you need to develop a seventh sense so you don’t get hit. Forget about the rules of the road in the U.S and you’ll be fine. (Video courtesy of Laura Nalin)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Negotiating your taxi ride

Taximeters are not a feature in taxi transportation in Lima. All fares are negotiable. Taxis will honk at you trying to get your attention. You can size them up before you accept their friendly invitation and see if the model, size or appearance fulfills your desires. They can be modern, old, ugly and uglier. Once you stop one, you ask something like: “How much is it from here to (your destination)?” The cab driver will size you up and say a price. If you feel it is on the “expensive” side you give a counter offer. He can get back at you with something in between and if you feel comfortable you just hop in. That simple. And there is no surcharge if there are more than two passengers. But always have change since drivers don't usually have change.
For U.S standards, taxis are very cheap in Lima. Three dollars can drive you two miles. Gasoline is more expensive than in the United States but these drivers work for very little. From what I have seen a lot of these drivers exercise this job when unemployed. A lot of them rent the cars from other people and work them in two shifts of 12 straight hours. I have also noticed some of these cars use natural gas instead of gasoline, which is cheaper and cleaner. And you don’t tip. It’s not customary. But beware of the ones who will notice you have an accent or look like a tourist. They will ask you for a higher price.

Helpful and inviting people

It’s not likely that people smile back at you when walking through Lima. You may feel they are not friendly. But if you ask them for help it’s likely that they will stop and take some time to assist you. Of course, life can be very busy down there but the clock is not the king of the universe.
Peruvians in Lima are willing to help visitors. They seem to be happy to share their culture with tourists and to make them feel welcome. One afternoon, while walking with a group of students along the Malecón (boardwalk) in Miraflores by the ocean, a Peruvian woman who heard us speaking in English asked us where we were from. When she found out we were from Chicago, she invited us (a group of 15 people) to her condo. She was very excited because her husband was a native Chicagoan and wanted him to meet us. We spent 20 minutes at her beautiful condo overlooking the Pacific. Some of the students were surprised by such a gesture. Even though this is not something that would happen all the time, it’s more likely for people to be more open and take the time to share what they have and what they know. So if you get lost, you can be sure that you’ll find someone who will be willing to share his time with you.

The Peruvian food boom

Peruvians are very proud of their cuisine. Once you get into that subject, Peruvians can’t stop talking about it. The melange of Andean, Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese with some Italian and French influences make of this food a varied and exquisite fare. Lima has been declared the gastronomical capital of the Americas and according to several tourism operators, the “Peruvian gastronomical tours” have increased dramatically this millennium. That means that some tourists visit Peru just to try its food. In 2004, The Economist magazine said that "Peru can lay claim to one of the world's dozen or so great cuisines. "
Potatoes are native to the Andes and according to the International Potato Center Peru produces 2,400 varieties of this tuber. So imagine the variety of dishes that Peruvians create with potatoes. Try the “Papa a la Huancaína,” “Causa Limeña” or “Papa Rellena.” But the most popular Peruvian dish is “ceviche,” (pictured left) chunks of sea fish marinated in lime juice, chile peppers and onions. Seafood is popular in this country since the generous Pacific Ocean that bathes the entire coast produces a huge variety of fish, like sea bass, sole, corvina, cod, snapper and an enormous array of other fruits of the sea like octopus, mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, squid, and scallops. A whole cornucopia that can also be part of the ceviche. Africans contributed with the cooking styles and the use of everything that was eatable. Chinese brought the use of rice (Peruvians eat rice every day) and the sauteing technique along with the use of soy sauce and ginger. Later, the Japanese, Italian and French immigrants brought their own additions.
Peru produces its own kind of native chile peppers (ají,) which offer its food a unique taste. Most of its dishes have ají to give color and flavor. The Peruvian salsa, called "salsa criolla," is a mix of feathered red onions, lime juice, salt, pepper, oil and ají strips, and it's a fabulous accompaniment to a Chicharrón sandwich (pictured above.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tart, sweet and refreshing

Pisco originated in Peru after the Spanish conquest. This aromatic brandy is the base of the national cocktail: the Pisco sour. Made from distilled grapes, pisco and pisco sour have been in the center of a controversy about its origin with its southern neighbor country: Chile.
Peruvians and Chileans have kept a grudge since the War of the Pacific that started in 1879 where Peru and Bolivia lost a big portion of their territories. The pisco issue has deepened into the old animosity.

Some say that the problem is that Peru failed to register the name pisco as France did with Champagne, for example.

The Peruvian Pisco sour cocktail is a blended mixture of pisco brandy, lime juice (Peruvian limes are very acid,) sugar or simple syrup, egg white and ice. Some recipes call for a couple drops of Angostura bitters and a little sprinkled powder cinnamon over the foamy top. In 2003, February 8 was institutionalized as the “National day of the Pisco Sour.” If you want to keep Peruvians on your side, you don’t want to make comparisons with its Chilean counterpart.

Big, humid and dry—no rain

Lima is the fifth largest city in Latin America. It is home to almost a third of the country’s population of over 29 million according to the 2009 census estimate. Lima lies on a coastal desert and presents very mild temperatures, the lowest being 54 degrees in the winter and up to 88 degrees in the summer. It never rains but it is humid all year round. Winters are foggy and misty and for Americans this metropolis can be depressing in June, July and August. Remember that seasons are reversed since Peru is in the southern hemisphere. Beware if you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD.)
No, Lima it’s not on the Andes but right at the coast. Foreigners tend to believe that all Peru is mountainous. It is a city of contrasts where extreme poverty shares the city with colonial architecture, booming districts and a western lifestyle. It’s not uncommon to see barefoot beggars walking by people getting out of Mercedes Benz sedans.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Music is gonna get you

With three distinct geographical areas, Peru is divided in every aspect of its cultural manifestations, including music. It has a vast variety of dances and musical genres. The coast (Costa), the Andes (Sierra) and the rainforest (Selva) produce different cultural expressions.
Among the most popular dances I can mention is the Marinera, a beautiful flirtatious dance from the northern Peruvian coast. There are annual contests looking for the best Marinera dancers. It is acknowledged as the national dance of Peru, as the tango is for Argentina. There is also the Peruvian waltz and polka that are part of what is called “música criolla.” From the southern coast the Afro-Peruvian rhythms come: the landó and the festejo. These dances are usually presented in a frantic and exhilarating fashion and Peruvians are very proud of this heritage. The wooden box (cajón)and the quijada de burro (donkey’s jaw) are the most recognizable instruments. Music ensembles like Perú Negro and singers like Tania Libertad, Eva Ayllón and Susana Baca (the only Peruvian artist who has gotten a Grammy) are the most recognizable voices that interpret the black rhythms.

Probably the most identifiable music from Peru comes from the Andes. “El Cóndor Pasa” written by Daniel Alomía Robles and popularized internationally by Simon & Garfunkel is probably the song that foreigners recognize the most along with songs that use the zampoña (panpipe) and quena (Peruvian flute.) The huayno and huaylash are probably the most recognized Andean dances. A lot of these rhythms are presented in weekend shows at places called “peñas,” and there are several of them that cater to tourists like “La Candelaria” and “Brisas del Titicaca” where visitors can spend an entertaining and colorful fun night.

Water, bread and asking for the check

Unless you go to a posh restaurant when you go to eat out you usually choose where to sit. Once at your table the waiter will come, greet you and take your order. Don’t expect a cheery waiter. They are usually helpful but quiet.
If you want water you will need to ask for it. The waiter will give you a choice of natural or carbonated water (¿con gas o sin gas? —with or without gas?) and you’ll pay for it, usually as if it were a soda. And if you want bread, you will also ask for it and be charged for it.

There are some restaurants that charge you a “silverware fee” (derecho de cubierto) and that includes the
bread and butter. So don’t be surprised if it comes with your bill.
Once I ate at a nice restaurant in Miraflores called T’anta, one of the eateries owned by Gastón Acurio, the m
ost renowned Peruvian chef who also owns restaurants in Latin America, Spain and the U.S.
I chose an “Ají de gallina” (pictured left) and it was delicious. I asked for bread and I found that I was charged 1.
50 soles for it (around fifty cents.) Curious about the name of the restaurant, I asked the waiter what T’anta meant. He answered, “It means bread in Quechua” and I added with a smile, “And you charge for it?”
One more important
thing: Waiters won’t come to ask you how you are enjoying what you are eating; not even once. And when you are finished they won’t come with the bill until you request it. It is considered extremely rude to interrupt or to bring the bill without asking for it. It would mean that they want you to leave.
So get ready to enjoy a delightful meal without waiters coming to cut into your conversation every five minutes. Love it.


Not in restaurants. Not in taxis. Of course, a waiter will be very happy if you do tip, and the taxi driver will be very surprised.
This is something a lot of tourists find a little confusing and sometimes unfair, but it’s part of the local culture. When you pay at a restaurant there is a sales tax and a service tax already included.

In Peru, everything comes with the tax built-in as part of the final price, so what you see on the restaurant menu, the supermarket or the department store is what you are going to be charged. Salons, spas and barbershops expect tips but not at the 15% rate. A couple dollars will suffice.

Credit cards? They are widely accepted. But if you ask for a discount (at a crafts market, for instance) you will be asked to pay in cash.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Beautiful fruits

Going to an open market can be quite an adventure. If you are queasy, avoid going to the meat and poultry section. You’ll see cuts of meat hanging in open spaces. You can even ask for your own live chicken to be butchered, feathered and cut for you. It couldn’t be fresher. You can buy fish that had been alive in the ocean hours earlier.
But if you want to be delighted with multicolored views and fragrant smells, just walk around the fruits and vegetables areas. Having such benign weather, there is plenty of fresh produce in the markets in Lima all year round. Papayas, passion fruit, mangoes, star fruits, quinces, chirimoyas and lúcumas share the space with the common bananas, oranges and apples.

Chirimoya and lúcuma are fruits native to Peru and they are used in desserts like mousses, pies and ice creams. Simply delicious.

Can you spare some change?

In Lima you will find beggars everywhere, especially in the touristy areas. Shoeless mothers with babies, toothless older women sit on the sidewalks stretching their hand for anything you can give them. The saddest part is that you will see lonely children harassing you to buy some candy or chewing gum. Some of their stories are heartbreaking. Beggars are willing to do something in return for your money; they just don’t ask. They either sell something or try to entertain you. You’ll hardly find anyone asking you for “one dollar” as you may encounter in the U.S.
I have seen
kids dancing on the streets, playing music with improvised instruments, doing tricks and somersaults in the middle of the roads at the red lights; even spitting fire as if they were in the circus.
Once, while in a
taxi, the car stopped at the red light; a boy approached the car and started singing. The poor kid was so out of tune and right in my face. He must have been 8 years old. I asked what his name was and he said: “José.” I reached to my pocket and gave him one sol, the equivalent of thirty cents. He seemed happy despite knowing he would never be on “American Idol.”

Alpacas are not always "Baby"

One of the most luxurious wools is the one that comes from the alpaca, a camelid native to the South American Andes. Out of the four native camelids (the others are the llamas, vicuñas and guanacos), alpacas are the most widely known. Vicuñas are an endangered species and its wool is extremely expensive.
Baby alpaca wool is quite soft. So when shopping for Alpaca goods—scarves, hats, sweaters, ponchos, you name it—beware of the vendors who will try to convince you that their goods are “baby alpaca.”

You don’t need to be an expert to notice what is baby alpaca or not. Adult alpaca wool can be a little thicker and itchy. It also comes blended with synthetic materials, so if you see that the garment is a little shiny that means that it’s not pure alpaca wool.
A textile artist told me that real alpaca feels cold when you touch it.
Once when I was shopping a vendor kept saying that his goods were baby alpaca. I responded with a smirk: “I think these are from the grandma alpaca.” Fortunately he had a good sense of humor.

Fly, robin, fly

When you walk around the Malecón (Boardwalk) in Miraflores you will see people paragliding over what is called the “Costa Verde,” or “Green Coast.” It has become part of the coastal landscape in this district. You can spend time enjoying the vast ocean view with these flying devices sprinkled in the sky.
For US$50 you can have your ten minutes of Icarus glory and see this coastal city from above. It is an exhilarating experience, a little steep for Peruvians but quite affordable for American standards. So far, no accidents have been reported and even an 85-year-old Peruvian grandmother “La abuela voladora” has done it
(I later learned she is the mother of a college classmate.) But digging a little bit deeper, one of my students who went up in the air found out that the company who runs this activity is not registered with the city and has no insurance. Another incredible third-world story.

Lack has a "green" face

As a third world country, Peru has a “natural” recycling process. Glass bottles are exchanged when getting beverages (beer and soda for example), plastic containers are used as “tupperwares”, and appliances get repaired at cheaper costs. Labor is way cheaper compared to the U.S.
It’s not uncommon to see older car models, even from the sixties, running around the city. Peruvians say that “lack and adversity make people resourceful.” I completely agree with that.

In Lima we can see more shoe repair shops, tailors, car mechanics. You can find that anything can be repaired to extend its life. During my trip to Lima I took my reading glasses to be welded, and I paid 10 soles (a little bit over 3 dollars). A leather jacket was cleaned, tinted and reconditioned for 50 soles (18 dollars) a pair of jeans were hemmed for 6 soles, a little over 2 dollars. Not bad, at all.

Maids are also common in Lima and you don’t need to be rich to have a live-in maid.