Hello Lima, the mist-shrouded Peruvian capital that the author of Moby Dick said was “without tears, the strangest and saddest city that you could ever see.” After the past years of terrorism, bankruptcy and other problems, it is now finding its feet as the economy booms and a rising middle class enjoys the Pacific Coast beaches, restaurants and bright new shopping malls.
It has been just ten minutes since I jumped into a taxi at the Jorge Chavez International Airport to begin winding through the streets of Lima but I can already see that the city is much cleaner and more orderly than when I last left it 13 years ago. Along the edges of the wide Elmer Faucett Avenue are small areas green with plants and trees that offer relief from the fumes of the thick traffic that does seem to have resisted change.
The “micros” (small public buses) that traverse the city also continue with their double duty of connecting the “Hormiguero” (anthill) of downtown and maintaining the chaos on which they subsist. Thousands of these micros, privately owned, constitute the capital’s public transportation network. They rent their routes and compete with each other as if it were an authentic race. The faster they go and the more riders they collect, the more they earn. “The micro’s days are numbered,” my taxi driver says. “They’re reorganizing everything.” However, I heard the same thing when I called Lima home for three years, back when I was working as a photojournalist for the newspaper, El Comercio.
And I can see the “Datero” is still at work, one of the strangest professions I have ever seen, created from the chaos that is the micro network. Their job is to make careful note of all the micros that drive by, and the time, passing on this information to the drivers so they know to accelerate or go slower, depending on whether their competition is near or far. The Datero is a symbol of the mentality of the Limeño, or native of Lima. Here people have little expectations of the government. They just try to get by on their own, to get ahead without help. They even have a verb for it – “recursearse” – the rough translation being “to rely on your own resources,” or “to find your own way.”
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, passed though Lima in 1843 and in his book called it the city “without tears, the strangest and saddest city that you could ever see.” The city without tears refers to the fact that it never rains, given its geography. Besides that, Lima is infused with a melancholy light, a perennial white veil that makes seeing the sun nearly impossible all year round. It is a strange city, filled with controversies, with nuances and a Peruvian syncretism that has turned it into a microcosm of the country itself, even as it seems to turn its back on the rest of the country.
In 1990, Peru was bankrupt, and abandoned by the international community for refusing to pay its debts. Inflation was suffocating all sectors of society. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was the catalyst for big economic changes in the country, applying neo-liberal policies, which he in turn railed against during his campaigns for power. During his mandate, the leader of the Shining Path guerilla movement, Abimael Guzman, was jailed, and the terrorist movement was nearly quashed. Now Fujimori is in the same jail as Guzman, both sentenced for crimes against humanity – that is, against the same people, the mountainfolk who were caught in the crossfire and used by both sides in the conflict.
Trying to fundamentally remake itself
Meanwhile, Lima has gone from complete bankruptcy to a middle-class boom unmatched by any of its neighbors. From its colonial architecture to the sprawling slums of its desert, it is undertaking new construction projects and trying to fundamentally remake itself by taking advantage of the current prosperity. Even the Limeño does not really exist anymore, because all the diverse peoples of Peru are now found here, mixed together like a gigantic cocktail.
As my taxi passes the beaches along the Green Coast, which traces a perfectly straight line through the city from north to south, I can see lots of new construction. Entire neighborhoods, such as San Miguel, are modernizing; the tiny single-family homes and even the flimsy huts that people once built with the help of family and neighbors are mutating into dignified homes and apartments. I pass billboards promising a modern lifestyle, filled with smiling faces and open spaces. Peru’s economy has been growing for a decade, becoming the envy of many during this period of economic crisis.
But the country’s greatest accomplishment is its burgeoning middle-class, filling the shopping malls, driving new cars and uniting this melting pot of citizens from diverse origins. Descendants of Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, indigenous groups from the mountains or jungles and, of course, the mestizos give this city its unique culture, development and food.
On my first day in Lima I revisit my favorite restaurant, the Canta Rana, an old house in the Barranco neighborhood, the most bohemian part of the city. The owner, Vicente, from Argentina, started this place with $600 and has always maintained its cozy atmosphere, decorating the walls with posters of the soccer star Maradona, Che Guevara, local musicians, countless local soccer jerseys and photos of friends and family. The secret to its success has been hanging on to the same cooks and waiters since day one.
As I sit down, I recognize some of the same faces. Today, even though a line of tourists stand outside waiting for tables, it is clear that Vicente has kept his faithful local clients too. Romulo, one of the waiters, remembers me. “The only thing that has changed is that we are now open for dinner too,” he says. The kitchen is working full-steam. The plates of ceviche, tiradito, jaleas or tacu tacus land on the wooden tables. Romulo asks for my number – this is new – for my chance to order. I am meeting up with a group of old friends, so I am preparing myself for hours of great talk, Cuzqueña beer and all the wonders of Peruvian food.
The cost of housing has gone up a lot
Toño Martinez is a photographer and works for the mining companies doing industrial photography. “The mines are booming, there’s a lot of work,” he says, “It’s the construction and the domestic consumption that’s driving growth, though.” Sengo, my old boss and today editor of the free paper Publimetro is more critical. “The cost of housing has gone up a lot and the restaurants too,” he says. “But wages haven’t risen in ten years.” We talk about Barranco, with some complaining that is changing, losing the magic of an aged and authentic place that gave it its charm. Others say it is okay, that new locales are opening up and that that is a good thing. The talk around the table is what hanging out in Barranco is all about, so I relax and enjoy the moment.
The Spanish founded it as “The City of Kings” but Lima has been many cities throughout its history. “When Lima had two million inhabitants, the Miraflorinos (inhabitants of the district of Miraflores) greeted each other when they passed on the street,” says journalist and writer Eloy Jauregui. “Today, no one knows each other.” That may be because the city now has ten million inhabitants, followed the arrival in recent years of vast numbers from the countryside fleeing terrorism.
The best mirror Lima has to reflect its past is the old colonial mansions. In recent years, many have been restored but others lie in ruin, begging for someone to return them to their former glory. Mariano is a good friend, a designer, who was living in New York until a few years ago. Now he shares one such huge old house with his family and two other guests. “This is exactly why I came back, the way of life,” he says as we share a beer on the patio. “I learned a lot in New York but my life is easier here. I have time to enjoy my little daughter and keep working.”
Mario Testino, Peru’s most renowned photographer, has turned another into a museum called El Mate that displays his work as well as that of other artists from his private collection. In its various rooms, there are photographs in different formats. None are framed in the traditional manner. The colors embrace me and draw me into the images. Sure, it is a museum, but primarily it is a colonial mansion whose structure has not changed and the art feels like part of the furniture. I sit down in one room and forget about the grey sky waiting outside. It is a pleasure, after so many years, to be able to enjoy great art here and I am inspired to head over to the Museum of Contemporary Art (Mac), also in Barranco, only to find that it is closed between exhibitions.
We hook up at a trendy cocktail bar
To get over the disappointment I meet up with my friends Catherine and Luis Miguel. She is from the United States, he is Peruvian and we hook up at a trendy cocktail bar. “These days people go out more, you can tell they’ve got more money,” says Luis Miguel. “In addition, since there is now more to do people go to different places. Plus with the economy on fire there are a lot more foreigners.” Traditionally friends would get together at each other’s houses, bringing food and drink to share, but the new generation wants more nightlife and the number of venues has grown exponentially. To end the evening I order a pisco sour, Lima’s traditional drink, made of fresh but strong grape brandy mixed with bitter lime. Peru even has a public holiday every February in honor of the drink.
I wake up on the tenth floor of a building by the Cisneros boardwalk, in the Miraflores district. The view over the sea and adjacent coastal parks is incredible. The apartment belongs to Gustavo and Kirsten, another mixed couple (Peruvian-Scottish) who have returned to Lima because of the hopeful outlook. From up here I can see the traffic intensifying little by little. The vehicles bunch closer together, creating a long uninterrupted line that disappears among the giant buildings of 15 or 20 stories that stand like guards on the cliff’s edge.
In Lima, outdoor sports are popular and this is one of the best areas for them. At dawn, the boardwalk fills up with people dressed in exercise clothes. There are runners, and urban athletes using the various exercise machines the city has put outside for public use. A bare-chested cyclist is pulled along by a young dog, as if it was training to become a sled-dog, and sailboarders and surfers make their way toward the waves.
When I get out and about, the focus of my photos becomes the “nanas” or nannies who are an integral part of any family of standing in Lima. Only the latest generation are breaking with the tradition of having a hired help who arrives early from outside the city to work around the house, doing a little bit of everything. In uniform, normally white or blue, they cook, clean, take the youngest kids for outings and even walk the dogs if needed.
My favorite is a young woman I see marching straight down the bike lane, in elastic pants at least three sizes too small, pumping her hands that are clenching two small weights. Next to her, dressed in white, is a young nana who, judging by her expression, is not enjoying pushing a double baby carriage holding her employer’s demanding twin infants.
A vast complex right on the edge of the cliffs
Miraflores, one of Lima’s wealthiest districts, is a good example of what is happening to the city. Its most famous mall is Larcomar, a vast complex right on the edge of the cliffs, where bars and restaurants stand next to multiplex cinemas, theaters, a disco and the chicest of stores. It opened in 1998 and is dedicated entirely to entertainment and distraction. Just a few years ago, its clientele was mostly white and upper class but today it is entirely mixed. I see mestizo faces; indigenous and Asian faces mingle naturally through the ancient kingdom of the privileged.
Even so, Larcomar, though now more democratized, does continue to be a fiefdom in need of defending. At every possible entrance stand security guards wearing caps and military-style uniforms, seeming prepared for any contingency. In other parts of Lima you will kids begging for money, or selling cheap candy, but here they do not even make it past the escalators at the entrance. “In 2013, more than 4,600 children were rescued from Lima’s streets,” says Sengo. “They were begging or being sexually exploited. Many were being manipulated by their parents or mafia, with poor families from the outskirts sending them into wealthier areas to ‘work’.”
The middle class is the new queen of Lima and it is the triumph of millions of people who worked for years building businesses and companies, and who are now finally enjoying the fruits of their labor. “Lots of old families have built large empires thanks to diversification and new strategies,” says Sengo. But there’s also something very interesting going on: many entrepeneurs have a provincial origin. Before they didn’t have the chance but now, with the economy booming, opportunities are everywere. However, we are still in Peru; illegal mining moves almost $3,000 million every year.”
Tourists did not usually stop over in Lima
The name Lima itself derives from the old indigenous name of this agricultural area, Limaq. If you had to put a date on the beginning of the city’s recovery, it would be 1996 when Alberto Andrade became mayor. During his two terms he oversaw major public works projects such as the construction of the Javier Prado freeway which connects numerous neighborhoods to each other, the remodeling of parks and public squares and the restoration of the city’s historic center.
Before all this, tourists did not usually stop over in Lima but headed straight for their preferred destinations of Cuzco, Machu Pichu, Iquitos or the Lines of Nazca. Today, things have changed and the historic center deserves some credit. Bars such as el Cordano, in the Plaza de Armas, are part of Lima’s history. Its uniformed waiters look like they have stepped out of photos from times long gone. “All of Peru’s presidents have come through these doors,” one of the barmen says. “We are part of the history of Lima.”
While eating a Peruvian ham sandwich and drinking a beer, I have the chance to live out one of Peru’s craziest traditions. A plate slips from the hands of a waiter, shattering into a thousand shards on the floor with a huge crash. After a moment’s silence, all of the customers and staff suddenly break into raucous applause, cheering and shouting: “Bravo!”
They could be celebrating their city’s break with the past. Or its bright future.