Local life in Lima

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South America » Peru » Lima
August 13th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -12.0931, -77.0465

Warning, it's a long one, but we saw so much and met so many people!

We kicked off this morning by saying goodbye to the last few members of the group, before embarking on what was set to be a fascinating tour into the local life of Lima, a side to the city rarely seen by tourists. Our driver and enthusiastic guide, Jimmy, picked us up and drove us out of the affluent tourist area of Miraflores, to the port of Chorillos, an one of the working class suburbs of Lima. Without warning, we were surrounded by tuktuks, small motor taxis that we had not experienced this far on our travels in Peru. Jimmy explained that the are not allowed into the areas of Miraflores of Barranco, as these are classed as the upmarket zones of the city. He then explained that you can tell what class of the city you are in, simply by the traffic that frequents it. If there are tuktuks, you are in a less wealthy area.

At the port, we were greeted by smiling fishermen and fishmongers, eager to speak to us and practise their English. It was only 9.30am, and yet the daily catch had all but sold out - and all that was left were scraps and hungry seabirds, all perched expectantly on the stainless steel counters, waiting for the sellers to throw them the leftovers. Here we saw brightly coloured Peruvian plovers, their red beaks startlingly bright against the grey sky. As we wandered through the market, we found ourselves greeted by 30 or so pelicans, their flaccid necks wobbling as they waddled towards us. Our guide threw fish to the older pelicans, explaining that they are now too old to catch their own, while his companion, a friendly local who had joined us on the harbour tour, held a piece of fish to encourage the hungry birds dance and nod to questioner pretended to ask them.

We walked further into the harbour and learned about the rich waters, so teeming with fish that the fishermen don't even have to leave the shelter of the bay in order to catch enough fish to earn a living. A bait seller explained which bait is used and how it is caught, and we strolled along the pier, the pretty boats bobbing in the water under the weight of the expectant pelicans that perched on their bows. All around the harbour, murals we painted on every available space, depicting the swimmer who carried messages between the troops during the war with Chile. Swimming huge distances each day, he was finally caught by the Chileans, but has become a hero for the fishermen of Chorillos, who pray to his image before heading out into the bay each morning, a tradition that has kept them safe for decades.

After exploring the harbour, we piled back into our car and drove deeper into Chorllios, where our next destination was the bustling street market. As we stepped out of the car, I receiveD my second deposit of bird poo in 20 minutes? At least I was guarantee good luck for the day! Here, our guide seemed to know every stall holder and street vendor, greeting each one warmly, their smiles extending to encompass us too. At a fruit stall, we enjoyed more of our favourite passion fruit, a cactus very solar in appearance to a dragon fruit, but with a different texture and flavour, a juicy melon-like fruit and what can only be described as a cotton-wool filled bean pod, each pod containing 8 or 9 large black seeds surrounded by a thick, sweet tasting fluffy mass of white fibres. Aside from the cotton wool bean, the rest of the fruits were packed with juice, running down our hands in sticky streams, dripping onto the dusty street below us. Jimmy explained that because of Lima being situated in the driest desert in the world, the locals have to rely on fruits that contain a high proportion of water in order to survive.

From here, we visited a vegetable stall, the exotic-looking squashes and potatoes piled up in colourful mounds that made for excellent photographs. One stall holder told us of of the Peruvian tradition, that when a girl wishes to marry, her mother-in-law insists that she peels a potato, covered in thick purple eyes, in one long strip. If she manages, she has demonstrated that she is ready for marriage. If not, she must try again later in the year.

Our next stop was a steaming basket of folded corn leaves parcelled around thick moist batches of deliciously sweet corn bread, crisp and golden on the outside, fluffy and sticky on the inside. We'd had these packages of joy before, but they had not been as perfectly cooked as these. Jimmy explained that she was the best in Lima at making them, and the queue that stretched down the street was certainly testament to that. As well as the corn bread, she was selling sweet potatoes, their charred skin straight out of the fire, the insides melting and soft. She was a resident of the shanty town that we would visit later in the day, each day hauling her baskets up and down the vast sand dunes that have been turned into residential areas surrounding the city.

Crossing the street, we found ourselves seated around a small plastic table, where we were presented with a banquet - fresh ceviche, zingy and spicy, drenched in sweet and tangy leche de Tigre; fluffy arroz con mariscos - the Peruvian version of paella, heaped with shellfish and packed with flavour and light, golden pieces of friend fish, served with another bowl of leche de Tigre for dipping. This was all washed down with chica morada, a sweet purple corn juice - again one we had sampled before, but this surpassed the flavours we had experienced. The corn juice had been mixed with apple, sugar and cinnamon which cut through the savoury flavour of the corn and complemented the spice of the fish dishes in front of us.

It was with full bellies and great sadness that we left the busy marketplace, having enjoyed some of the best food on the trip. Our experience has been (as usual) that the less salubrious and decadent the surroundings, the better the food - in both markets we have visited, we have had incredible mouth-watering dishes, whereas in restaurants with white linen tablecloths and comfortable surroundings, the food has been lacklustre at best. We got back into the car and drive to Barranco, the bohemian quarter of the city, and the wealthiest district in the area, where our final hotel in Lima was situated. The second part of our tour was of the murals and colonial facades of the area, brighter and more vivid that the insipid tourist zone of Miraflores where we had been based before. Here, graffiti artists are encouraged to create elaborate murals which are constantly being updated and covered over, giving visitors a sense of being in a living gallery. We passed brightly painted houses with imposing turrets and staircases, the humidity of the area peeling the paint from the once grand frontages. We passed an ornate pink mansion, once one of the largest in the area. It dated back from the late 16th century, and had stunning moorish balconies overhanging the street, the intricately carved cedar wood designed to keep the identity of its female residents a secret from any men passing below.

After meandering around one of the galleries in the area, packed with beautiful works of art, trinkets and jewellery, we were ushered into a restaurant by the proprietor, a third generation member of the family who had lived in the colonial house for years, and had now converted it into a hostelry. Inside, the sun shone weakly they stunning thick pieces of coloured glass that high up on the walls and ceiling, casting pretty shadows onto the floor. The owner was engaged in his daily piano practice and, to welcome us, he broke into a haunting traditional song, his powerful voice reverberating around the empty restaurant. Impressed, we applauded his talents and then enjoyed the photographs of Barranco in times gone by that graced the walls.

From the restaurant, it was a short stroll to the Bridge of Sighs, named after the young, star crossed lovers - an aristocratic young girl and the priest of the church opposite who would meet, and sigh at one another, their love for one another destined to never come to fruition. When the girl's father heard of the love between them, he had the priest banished back to Spain. So devastated was the girl, that she died, some stories say she leapt from the bridge, others that she died of a broken heart. The story has captured the imagination of the residents of Barranco, and it is now a popular spots for couples on their first dates. The imposing yellow church that stood opposite had a grand entranceway with beautiful stone carvings, but behind the ornate face of the building, the earthquake damage from the 1970s was evident, the skeletal roof poked its bare bones above the stonework in front of it, the gaping hole clear to see from the high vantage point. In order to fix the roof, the whole church would have to be demolished and rebuilt, so it is left unused, the yawning hole in the roof leaving its interior rotting away at the mercy of the elements.

After a beer flight at the airy and spacious Barranco Brewing Company, where we sampled 6 different artisan beers, we began the second part of our tour. A new guide, Edwin, the founder of the not-for-profit company that we had booked both parts of the day through was to take us to visit the shanty towns of Lima, where more than 2 million people inhabit ramshackle buildings, contributing to the 1/5 of the population of the city who live in abject poverty. En route, Edwin gave us the safety talk that ensured that we would take it seriously. In the 1990s, the Mafia controlled the city, killings were frequent and drug crime was high. Since the present government began to recognise the importance of tourism, the crime rate has been significantly decreased. However, the Mafia, whose main source of revenue was thorough violent robberies, have now had to change their tack and their industry, moving their operations to the shanty towns, where the world's largest production of cocaine now occurs. We were warned not to take photographs of any incongruous wealth and ostentatiousness in the town - here, cardboard houses sit side by side with 2015 registration Ferraris, and it was these that we should avoid at all costs. Edwin explained that this was not a tourist show, or destination, that the lives we would see would be real, not staged versions of reality, and that we would be welcomed as honoured guests of the people who lived there. The money we had paid for the day would, in part, pay towards building new structures and services within the area, and this was well known by the locals.

We passed through run down areas of the city, at one point, Edwin pointed out three shipping containers, donated by countries in the developed world, that had been turned into a hospital - one of the best in the area. It was our first glimpse of what life is like for those people here who, simply because of political events that have afflicted the country, don't have access to basic human services - a metal container being declared one of the best hospitals in the area was a stark reminder of the wealth of medical aid we have in the UK and how thankful we should be for it. We soon arrived in the shanty town itself, a vast, sprawling area, once a refugee camp for those fleeing the terrorist action in the Andes, now a bonfire district of Lima, it's infrastructure boasting roads, a school and a covered market. This was our first stop, where we were introduced to the fruit sellers, who once again, gladly shared their produce with us. Edwin purchased large bags of prepared soup ingredients, small bananas and other treats, which we would offer to the locals as we passed them. Despite their difficult lives, the market traders were all smiles, eager to speak to their guests and offer us what they could.

At the bottom of the hill, the sides of which held thousands of houses, jostling for space in the cramped town, we were met by one of the town's leaders - 90% of whom are women - who introduced herself and joined us as we climbed slowly up the hill. As we walked, we passed houses in 4 main constructions, some built on foundations crafted from old tyres. The newest and most basic were created from cardboard, with rusting corrugated asbestos roofs. After around 8 years of saving, a panel of cardboard can be replaced with a recycled piece of plywood, and some houses were in the midst of their transition period, pieces of wood in every colour nailed together to create a more permanent structure. Once the children were old enough to move out, and parents had a little more money, they were able to move from their patch to a new one and build a house of wood. The final construction was the brick and concrete houses, reserved for only the wealthiest residents - those with children overseas, many illegally, who were earning wages and sending them back to their parents in order for them to have walls protecting them against the winter temperatures we were experiencing on the side of the mountain. The optimistic had left twisted iron rods protruding from the walls of their houses, in case enough money came their way to build another room, or in the most wealthy of cases, another level to the house, ghostly skeletons of what might be.

Only 40% of the residents have access to electricity, the legal metal poles protruding into the sky, parasitic wooden poles siphoning off illegal supplies to some of the houses. The rest of the residents live without. Fresh water is expensive, and had to be carried from the water trucks that ply their trade on the lower levels of the mountain, up the famous yellow stairs, or, up and down the treacherous rocky sides of the hill. There is no running water in the houses. We were ushered into the house of one of the smiling residents, the kitchen a small, dark room with a simple stove fashioned from a petrol drum atop which was a boiling pan of water, the base for a simple soup which would be the dinner for the family. An hole in the wooden boards to our right served as the window, through which the smoke was drawn. The floor was bare rock. There was no furniture. It was shocking for us to see, and reinforced our understanding of what life mist be like here. Yet, despite the poverty beg experiences by the inhabitants, we did not see any anger - Edwin explained that people here do not complain, nor do they seek charity or pity. We passed young women sitting out on their small yard, children playing at their feet, merely passing the time of day, laughing and joking with one another. It put first world problems into perspective and I hope it will serve as a reminder for me in the future when I complain about trivial problems that affect modern life.

We passed families, the children eager to shake out hands and say hello, receiving the bread and bananas we offered them with thanks and smiles. Anaemia is a huge problem here, with children and particularly young men dying from the condition. The pale faces of some of the larger teenagers who came to see us were striking examples of how something so easily fixed can drastically affect people's lives. We were taken to a viewpoint, where we saw the scale of the shanty town, stretching out below us, 26 zones of the simple homes for as far as the eye could see. This was the only point that I felt at all uneasy, as I saw two men looking shifting in our direction one of whom had a large knife. After he had shuffled into his house, I was able to concentrate again on the view and commentary from the guide. Edwin explained that one district was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1990s for their work as a community to eradicate the terrorists who moved from the Andes into the shanty towns, many giving their lives so the police could apprehend the men who threatened their community. There is a significant gap in the ratio between men and women in the shanty towns, many of the men were killed in the conflict with the terrorists in the 70s and 80s and many more die so that their children can have food. It's a harsh life, and one I was surprised to see in a country with what seems like such a huge amount of tourist wealth coming through the country.

We visited a silver workshop where an incredibly talented man demonstrated how he creates beautiful pieces of silverware. Despite being the artisan, the companies he sells the pieces to refuse to allow him to put his own stamp on them. He has to sell the pieces at a dramatically reduced rate, otherwise they will not buy anything from him again. Then the company add their own stamp and pass it off as their own. It tainted my view of the ornate silver jewellery and homewares available in the city and I won't be buying anything, as Edwin told us that this is common practice, and men just like the one we met reside all over the shanty town, experiencing the same issues.

The summit of the hill was our final stop, after climbing countless stairs. I can't begin to imagine doing that daily with produce, water and building materials. Here, we found the highest football pitch in Lima, a dry scrap of land with 4 posts fashioned out of stone. A group of boys were playing a game of marbles in the dust, shrieking with laughter and interacting with one another. Edwin explained that although they are poor, the circumstances mean that the children have excellent social skills and are fit and healthy - a stark contrast to many children in the developed world, who lead sedentary, solitary, protected lives. Next to where they were playing, a beautiful kindergarten had been set up, using the profits from the tours. Here, volunteers from the community look after up to 80 children so that parents can go to work, essential in the city. Another nursery is being built, and construction had just finished on a soup kitchen, providing hot, iron-enriched food for up to 100 families a day. It's incredible to see real charity, in action and know you're making a difference. It's certainly something I'll be looking into supporting in the future. Just before we left the children, having given them all a huge bag of snacks which halted the game in its tracks as they devoured them, we met the oldest inhabitant of the shanty town. At the age of 94, she is almost double the usual life expectancy here, which is only 55 years old. "What is the secret?" We asked. Her reply?


Food for thought, isn't it?

(If you want to support the community, take a look at Haku Tours' website, they accept donations too xxx)


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