Walking the World: Lima (part 1)
Loud, Hot, Dusty, Hard Working, and Sweet
Federico’s eighth birthday party began at 10 pm and ended three hours later with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, sung in English, at first by Federico alone, then accompanied by a Mariachi band, then with everyone. They did the “Are you one, are you two” and when they got to eight, he broke out in a loud Si! and everyone sang some more.
I don’t know Federico, or anyone who attended the party, but I heard the entire celebration through my bedroom window, blasting in from a few buildings away.
When the party finally ended my annoyance shifted back to the car alarms which were going off every six minutes, triggered by passing motorcycles. After ten nights of this I had memorized the 45 second sequence of beeps, chirps, squeals, honks, whistles, and more chirps, all designed by scientists to maximize annoyance. Well done scientists, well done.
I had also memorized the car with the most sensitive alarm, a white Suzuki, which went off close to ten times an hour. I would get excited when I saw it parked far down the street, and sad when it was just beneath my window. It was mostly just beneath my window.
The small gaps of silence between the alarms were not wasted though. Dogs, sometime fighting, sometimes warning, sometimes simply excited, took their chance to be heard. Or men filled with drink acting like dogs.
Nobody else on the block, or in my building, in the Breña neighborhood of Lima seemed to mind any of the noise. Not the constant car alarms, dogs, drunks, revving engines, or parties (another evening, a garage was turned into a reggaetone dance hall, which eventually brought the police, who joined in, rather than stop it).
By 6 am, when the sun finally comes up, any chance for a moment of silence is over as people head to work, and almost everyone in Lima is working, very hard, almost all the time.
Cars, three-wheeled taxis, motorcycles, and taxis and buses of various sizes and legality, take over. All of them honking, all of the time. Honking to warn, honking out of frustration, and honking to advertise (Beep! Beep! Come, ride me! Beep! Beep! Beep!)
Many of them work on the sidewalk, inside carts and stalls. There are carts and stalls selling everything: Fresh orange juice, ceviche, more juices, dove eggs, sandwiches, even more juices, popcorn, magazines, toy trains, leather goods, books, old DVDs. There are carts and stall offering every form of service: Watch repair, shoe repair, soccer ball repair, keys made, xeroxes made, photos taken, engines (large and small) fixed. All out in the open.
Competing with the stalls and carts are lines of shops, almost all open to the street, offering a similar festival of products and services. Very few of them are franchises.
The roads, filled with people going to work, are also filled with people working. Buses and cabs, yell, honk, and wave signs advertising for riders. The hack buses, often small vans, are the most aggressive, their side door flung open, a person hanging out, shouting the direction they are going. VENEZUELA! MIAFLORES! GAMARRA! That direction changes, depending on the demand, which is judged by men at busy intersections holding clipboards counting who is going where.
Side by side with the buses, and making just as much noise, are large food carts carrying bananas, avocados, oranges, and other edibles, driven by bikes or motorcycles, the drivers advertising their goods over huge megaphones attached to the top, the microphone strapped around the driver’s mouth like a face-mask.
Intermixed in all this are more carts, piled with mattresses, or junk, or old computers, or huge boxes, some attached to the three-wheeled taxis, others pulled by men unworried by the growing heat.
By ten am the noise is full blast, and non stop, and then the heat and dust begin to grow. Lima is in a desert, and the mornings are cool, misty, and cloudy, thanks to the Pacific Ocean only feet to miles away. But by ten the mist is burned off, and the sun takes over, and as it arches its way across the sky, everyone who can scurries to shift with the changing shade.
Without any water beyond the morning mist, Lima is dust covered. Cars, roads, sidewalks, buildings, awnings, and the hardest working people, are coated in a thin gray film, which only gets washed away with attention. In the poorer neighborhoods that means older women splashing stuff with buckets of soapy water. In the wealthy ones, that means uniformed employees constantly spraying with long blue hoses.
It also means much of the town smells of pee (dog and human), since there are no downpours to flush the city.
By sunset the heat breaks, the dust becomes harder to see, but the noise and work don’t stop. Carts and kiosks switch to selling night time stuff, and the buses and cabs switch on their blue and blinking lights, and the roads somehow grow even louder.
While some shops close, some work ends, neighborhood street corners grow louder as kids playing, older men gossiping and drinking, and families eating outside add to the continuing noise from the carts.
It all only really beings to quiet down around eleven, when the last of the bodegas close, and the final carts, kiosks, and hawkers go home. Then comes the garbage trucks and junkers, but it is quiet enough to once again hear the birthday parties and car alarms. Oh the circle of life.
Most every day I walked a big loop of about 18 miles that started and ended in the working class neighborhood of Breña (where my apartment was), and passed through neighborhoods of almost every class, from the very poor (Urb Lima Industrial, Rimac, Urb el Porvenir, Barrios Altos, La Victoria, etc) to the middle class (Lince, Jardin), to the rich (San Isadora, Miraflores).
Every neighborhood is loud, hot, and dusty, but the poorer ones far more. Wealth means more regulation, fewer people, thicker windows, higher floors, and police and security guards to stop the worst noise makers. It also means better shading, cooler buildings, and employees to spray and sweep the dust into only a nuisance.
Yet, even in the rich communities, the roads are an ear shattering nightmare of honks, beeps, yells, squeals, and engines. I am not generally a believer in socio-biology but Lima is evidence humans have a honking gene.
While wealth does dampen the noise, dust, and heat, what having money in Lima really changes is how hard you work. Or how visibly. Whatever the wealthy do for work, it isn’t done in public, doesn’t dirty their body, and doesn’t generate a lot of noise.
It does allow them to relax in cafes, for hours on end, with other well-dressed people, not covered in dust, sitting and talking under spacious awning, and maybe even in air conditioning, removed from the noise of the streets.
That is a big difference from the poorer neighborhoods, which are all about work. For most of Lima’s poor their homes are their offices and their shops their homes. These neighborhoods are effectively huge markets, factories, and offices, that sprawl for miles, with homes interspersed.
That partly explains the noise and the acceptance of it. Work and home are the same, and the work is loud, so the home is loud.
The result is whole neighborhoods are devoted to different industries. There is a construction industry neighborhood, where you can get anything you need to build stuff. It has store after store and kiosk after kiosk dedicated to some specialized bit of the construction business.
There is a neighborhood devoted to clothing, with more than one six floor mall of stalls — where you can buy hand made suits, or any possible surfing short every made — to rows of garages filled with piles of fabric scraps.
There is a neighborhood devoted to fixing cars, trucks and semis, with one of its streets dedicated exclusively to fixing VW bugs.
The work in these areas isn’t confined to the shops or kiosks. It spills out into any space that can be used, like parks, traffic circles, or along the roadside. Intermixed and adjacent to it all, are other stalls, carts, and stands serving food for those working.
In Lima work, in a physical and geographic way, defines the poor, where as wealth allows one not to be defined by it. Which is a flip from the US, where jobs define the wealthy.
Partly that is because work for the poor in Lima is all encompassing, and partly because the work they do is a trade and specialized skill. It is making or fixing real stuff and using the body to do so. It is old school.
In the US, while there is still plenty of this type of work, much of it has been outsourced to places like, uh, Lima. Because it is hard, dirty, tiring, and very noisy.
That is the best reason to walk the poorer parts of Lima. As a reminder that all of us who live a life of relative ease, removed from hard physical work, are able to do so because of these places.
As to the final word in the title: Sweet. When you walk 18 miles a day as an outsider, and don’t speak the language, you are forced to deal with people, or more precisely, they are forced to deal with you. A lot comes through in those interactions. In Lima that was a genuine warmth, caring, curiosity, and sweetness.
Everyone was eager to help, to show me the best Lima has, and to make sure I saw it. “Go to X. See Y. Taste Z!” All said with a big smile.
Everyone also worried about my safety. Although it was never an issue, despite being told it would be. Including warnings by the residents of the neighborhoods I was walking through, especially about going any further. “Carterista!”
The last evening I was taking pics of teens playing soccer in the street near my apartment. When they saw me, they all stopped, ran onto the sidewalk giggling, called their friends over, and posed.
A few hours later I passed back through the very dark street, and five of the kids recognized me, ran up, surprising me, and surrounding me. They wanted a copy of the picture. So we took out our phones, exchanged numbers, laughed, fist bumped, and as I was leaving, they all told me to be careful. Pantomiming that my phone was at risk of being stolen.
I wanted to tell them that they, a group of rowdy teens in a working class neighborhood, were exactly who everyone said I should be scared of, and how silly that was, and how this proved it was silly. But even if I had been able to tell them that, I am not sure they would have gotten the point.
Because most people don’t get that point.
Rough outline of my usual walk (with lots of variations on it)
Coming soon, part 2! With more pics, more info, including touristy stuff such as restaurant and bar suggestions.
Update: Part 2 is here
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