OK, so I was bored to start with...
It is a city where I have never been, but one with which I am all too familiar.
Lima does not wake up gently. Dawn brings about a concert of revving diesel engines, incessantly piercing jackhammers, and overly sensitive car alarms. Overstuffed minivans wobble as they race through intersections lacking stop signs, traffic lights, or a traffic officer. The limeño version of the classic scene of a golden retriever taking in the breeze out the passenger window differs. In place of the canine, it is one of ticket agents protruding his neck out to scream at pedestrians to see if they too wish to subject themselves to several minutes in a contorted position among new friends. Some passengers lean over the side in order to catch a breath of the solid exhaust particles wafting in the air. A motorist’s car horn is a weapon of mass destruction in and of itself, seizing whatever silence was lingering from the night before.
High concrete walls from which sprout barbed wire barriers encase residences and businesses alike along Lima’s streets. Security patrols pace the entrances to office towers, banks, and street corners. Either privately run for hire or municipal police, guards in bullet
I was put at the head of the table...
proof vests take the time to sneak a peek at the screen of their cell phones or fire off a quick text message. They patrol the opposite side of the establishments they are paid to protect. Between the main entrance and the curb of the street they rarely see or set foot on the property they guard.
One more stop to go. I have already snaked back in forth along velvet ropes for forty minutes to reach a customs agent whose name he shares with me.
“Pasaporte, por favor.” I hand it over to him with my declarations in order tucked into the page with the digital imprint of my photo. “Oh, you are a Ricardo, too!”
“Well let me tell you, I don’t see so many with our names. We are tocayos!”, a term in Spanish for two people with the same first name.
“You don‘t say?” I try to care. It was pushing eleven thirty. I had been up ever since the two-year-old daughter of my high school friend started whining for attention at six that same morning north of Boston. On his badge it read Ricardo Gomez Pelayo. The burly man with a grey stubble beard
Anything topped with fries has to be good...
went on, “Oh, you are a junior! Me, too!” He effortlessly flipped through the crisp pages and pressed his stamp into one of the many ones still untouched. It didn’t take much for me to deduce why my line through customs took ten minutes longer than everyone else’s. I had the misfortune of running into a guy who spends his free time working for the Lima welcoming committee.
“For how long will you be in Perú?”
“Nowhere near long enough.” For some reason, that answered sufficed.
“¡Ya está!” You’re all set. I stuffed my passport in my belt secured out of sight under my pants below my navel. I took hold of my daypack.
“Oh one more thing”, he felt compelled to add, perhaps by taking a look at me and having deduced I would be travelling without the support of a corporate expense account.
“Por favor, Ricardo…be careful in Lima.”
I exited customs into what any sane person would deem a political protest on the verge of becoming a full-fledged riot. Placards with names like Mr. Osasuka and Teresa Medina y Familia bobbed up and down from tired, yet excitable folks waiting three to four deep
Going Through the Motions
Mom, Uncle, Rosalinda, and, well...Can you tell which one is me?
on the other side of steel barriers waist high. Hands waived. I heard three or four shouts at the same time, “¡Mamá!” “¡Aquí!” How was I ever going to find Rosalinda? I felt like a despised senator running the gauntlet to make his way to the safety of his motorcade. Only in my case there was no limousine outside waiting for me.
My memory sped in reverse to the photos of Rosalinda to recall her features. Perhaps I could spot her, however there are the times when everyone blends into the same description. Every woman looked like her. It became dizzying and intimidating, even worse than when I escaped from the stuffy arrival hall at San Salvador over six years ago. They were all Rosalindas: All seemed to be tall and thin to the point where the likes of my grandmother would cuff them all to the dinner table just to force feed them meatballs and linguine until they attained an acceptable girth around their waists. Their skin was a deep mocha and their fine long hair fell to the bottom of their backs. Pretty enough, facial features hinted at an injection of indigenous genes, roots of Incan predecessors.
It is a crapshoot to know which bus you need to take...
the third complete rotation, I stopped my spinning. “¿Ricardo?” I smiled. She was a far nicer on the eyes than the last person who referred to me the same way.
Rosalinda has happily been by my side ever since plucking me out of the crowd. Two month’s worth of emails and correspondence has awarded me with her trust and care. My eyes scanned her from head to toe. I needed to pat myself. Nice job, Rich…I mean Ricardo.
As sweet as she can be, Rosalinda is not the type to take the initiative. Predator taxi drivers swarmed us until we decided on one who was kind enough only to overcharge us about fifteen percent. If I had been alone, I may as well fork over my VISA card to the sharks and wear a T-shirt with the PIN embroidered on it. My pack went in the trunk, which she gave an extra push to make sure it was securely shut.
“Barranco, por favor”, she instructed the driver from the back seat to my left.
“Sí, señora.” She then leaned over me. Her torso fell flat on my lap as she extended her hand to the door on my right. Slightly taken aback by this unfamiliar welcoming gesture, her fingers pushed down and on the door lock and she reassumed a proper seated position.
She took my daypack on placed it on the floor between my feet. “Ricardo…this is Lima.”
Her palms, like mine were showing smalls beads of perspiration. Hispanic women just don’t throw caution into the wind and make brazen decisions like this. They, unlike Australians or British, do not possess the experience to judge the different categories of people that come in and out of their country on extended journeys. Their instincts as women are to be overly cynical of strange men. Most likely this originates from a very profound sense of a woman’s role in society. It might be OK for a lady to pick me up in Tasmania and take me in for a few days, buy a single lady in Lima? It is practically unheard of.
“Ricardo, tomorrow, you know you are invited to lunch at my aunt’s.” Rosalinda had the courtesy to inform me of this a few days ago. I tried to imagine how this would go over in a traditional Peruvian family:
“Hola tía…well, there’s this guy I have been writing to. He’s really nice. I like him. He says he’s single. I’m picking him up at the airport at some ungodly hour and taking care of him while he’s in Lima. Oh, did I mention I want to go into the Andes with him? Can he come to dinner on Friday?” Essentially, we’ll just let him into our home knowing next to nothing about him.
“Well, Rosa, I think that-“ Ana, her aunt, turns her attention temporarily to the news crawler on the local TV station.
“Oh, it looks like they’re doing another press conference on Van der Sloot. Anyway, what were you saying?”
“About Ricardo…you know, lunch on Friday?
“Oh, sure…no problem.”
You HAVE to be kidding me.
Taking a taxi in Lima proves it is a buyer’s market. Rosalinda is slowly learning how to not just negotiate a taxi fare in the city where she has lived for ten years. She can pointedly tell the driver to get lost when he perceives her as too dainty and misinformed. As soon as she dismisses one taxi, another appears. I stay out of her way to watch her refine skills very handy to possess when travelling independently. Without being fleeced, she agrees and opens the door for me. She’s a quick learner.
We headed for the district of Los Olivos via back streets and junk strewn alleyways. I knew the driver was avoiding the sedentary traffic and choking fumes. He was interested in taking us on the scenic route, for which Lima is not really known. At one of the ubiquitous and clogged intersections, I pulled out my camera to get a visual souvenir of Lima’s traffic quagmire. I leaned out and framed my target.
Rosalinda firmly snapped at my wrist and withdrew it back into the taxi. “What are you doing?”
Easy, woman. I took a look behind us just to be sure, so as not to get attention. “Just taking a photo, that’s all.”
“No, not here.”
“Don’t worry.” I have done this before, you see, my dear, I don’t need to be told all the time to mind my belongings like that. I know where I am. “See”, I put the camera in front of her eyes, “I have the strap wrapped around my wrist and hand. No problem.”
“Then the thief will simply pull harder and rip your fingers off to get it”, she retorted plainly. I paused to envision that scenario. Speechless, I put my camera away and took in the city with my mouth shut.
We stopped along the way to get some flowers, since I neglected to pack the chocolates I bought a few days ago for this very occasion.
While at the shop, I sheepishly took the unwrapped bouquet as presented on the shelf after paying for it. Rosalinda chimed in, “Señor, you need to find a bag so we can carry that.” The comment sparked me to conclude two things: services in Peru are like anywhere else in Latin America…spotty at best. Second, Rosalinda was looking out for me at every opportunity.
“¡Ay, Ricardo! What a pleasure it is that you have blessed us and our family, my dear!” This is not how I am usually received as a guest for lunch, but it beats being told to sit in the corner and not say anything too offensive in the first twenty minutes. Tía Ana, a diminutive woman at about five foot nothing, escorted me into their modest but tasteful home. Located on a quiet side street, it is exempt from the noise pollution roaring by just a few blocks away. I was shown a seat on the sofa in front of the television set showing a late morning World Cup match. José, an unpretentious and relaxed man also playing the role of Ana’s husband, greeted me without getting up. I understood; the match was on. This man has his priorities straight.
With the rest of the introductions, hugs, and obligatory pecks on the cheek out of the way, the women did what they all do in a male-dominated society. They retire to the kitchen to prepare lunch. Tía Ana makes a brief appearance to place a bowl of Doritos in front of us men. The only other sound to drown out the South African vuvuzelas is the collision of pots and cutlery behind the closed kitchen door. I settle in and do my best impression of José, which is to do very little but vegetate. Tranquil in a flannel shirt, he observes my taking a particular interest in his collection of beer mats stacked on the coffee table. “Ah, those are from when I went to Switzerland and Austria. I like the beer there. In fact, I spent much time tasting different beers on that trip.” He rattled off the common German brands: Hofbrauhaus, Paulaner, and Bitburg to name a few.
“Did you ever try Cardinal?” I was testing him. It’s not a German beer, rather it is-
“Swiss!” he screamed. Not bad. Actually, Ricardo, I like to watch soccer and talk about beer. I used to work at a brewery.”
I instantly liked José. We were going to get along just fine. My mind raced on how to approach him to get a tour of where he once worked. I left that tactic for another time.
Tía Ana is the gracious matriarch of the show. She is a story teller who
packs a punch, the kind of woman who asks a question not to learn what you have to say, rather to continue her own story she can barely keep from letting out rapid fire. “Ricardo, what do you think of Peru?”
I played the diplomacy card, not exactly my style, “Well, I have been here less than twenty-four hours and I-”
“Well, let me tell you that I”, and on she would go. The key is to let her get it all out. If in search of equal time to express your viewpoint with Tía Ana, you’ve come to the wrong home. Thankfully, the bean salad peppered with large corn kernels followed by a roasted beef dish drenched in tomatoes and onion made me forget about her charlatan tendencies. It was easy to forgive her.
Rosalinda’s mother, Angélica arrived before dinner. She is her sister’s complete opposite. Just as short, she speaks only when necessary and keeps a quiet reserved demeanor about her. Chunky at the waist, her face tells the tale of the tough and toiled lifestyle of indigenous Peruvians. Originally from around Puno in the South, she lacks the European features that one of her daughters inherited from her father. Change the urban backdrop and her conservative attire, she could have just walked out of a National Geographic article on agrarian Peru.
I like Angélica because she has not put me through the penetrating interrogation I had been dreadfully anticipating for weeks. She asks me few questions because her own judgment will serve her through strict observation. If something needs to be said, she will speak up. Otherwise, she leaves senseless chatter to others. At one point between courses, Tía Ana piped up, “Ricardo, what do you think of the salad? It is a recipe from Arequipa. Meals are different from all over Peru, you know.”
“Well I think that the corn is unique. A single kernel covers the whole fork. It is like a fistful of tasty starch and-“
“Ah yes, let me tell you about that! You see…” My time to have the room was over. I exited stage left for a brief moment and let Tía Ana go on. Eventually, she would have to come up for air.
I called the attention of everyone at the table and took a risk. “Gee, this woman talks more than me. I am not used to this. Frankly speaking, I don’t like the competition.” With that, everyone let out a burst of laughter in agreement. Even more importantly, Angélica laughed. We all returned to pick at the last morsels on our plates. I withheld the satisfaction that with the snarky comment I had just told. The tension in my shoulders and my overtly polite style of address disappeared and I got to relax. I was in.
As the ladies cleared the table just as in any Italian family, it occurred to me. No one in my life knows where I am at this very instant. No one could find me if they tried. I have no phone, have left no flight plan with the control tower, and have sunk into to a family in a nondescript Lima neighborhood. For now, I answer to no one. I am operating without technical support. I am officially off the grid.
As we got up to leave, Tía Ana sat me down to tell me how wonderful Rosalinda was, which I had already concluded on my own. She took a chair and brought it over to me so she could be on my side. She grasped my wrist firmly, “Ricardo, Rosalinda, she is a good woman. She is sweet and caring. You remember this.” I knew where this was going. Quickly, she dashed to a mantle and took down a photo of her daughter posing with an Anglo looking man. See, he is Jeff, my son-in-law. My daughter and he, they live in Los Angeles. She is happy there, though I do not see them often.” Out came an album of wedding photos. All I remember was words like “happy”, “good to him”, and “together all the time”. Rosalinda was not oblivious to Ana’s poorly veiled strategy.
Farewells delivered, Ana took Rosalinda aside, and not-so-discreetly ordered her, “Cuídalo cuando está aquí en Lima.” Take care of him when he is here in Lima.
Rosalinda and I escorted her mother to a dangerously busy and narrow overpass to put her on a bus back to her home. “Shouldn’t we accompany her?”
“Nah, she’ll be fine. No one will bother her.” Angélica gingerly boarded the bus with the help of an attendant and left in its wake waves of suffocating fumes.
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