Lima. 5 a.m. But first I need to pick up my luggage, which causes me a bit of a stress. Before I get off the plane, a Peruvian lady gives extensive explanations to her relatives travelling from Europe that it is rather common for the luggage to be stolen at the airport. She focuses on this topic for a while until I remain convinced, same as she seems to be, that I must kiss my luggage good bye. She’s a local, so I am inclined to believe that her knowledge of the place and customs is genuine. Besides, she is not the only one who expresses concern about the luggage situation, several people join the conversation. I struggle to dismiss the sound of Murphy’s law whispering in my ear “If anything can go wrong, it will” and wait patiently for my luggage to slide down to me on the conveyor belt. I enter the first phase that leads to sheer panic: be trustful and hopeful. Be desperate is patiently waiting in line.
Long, very long minutes pass by during which many people take the conveyor belt by assault. It’s a human fortress that prevents me from even having a sneak preview of what comes on that belt. Approaching that area does not seem realistic unless I start distributing punches which I am too jet lagged to do. I have never seen so many people in an airport reluctant to keep a reasonable distance from that belt and allow other travellers to keep an eye on their belongings as well. Peruvians seemed to have a strong attachment to the airport conveyor belt and everything on it. It’s a space they are not willing to share, as if they’re all suffering from some long-instilled national trauma: the airport luggage theft.
Even if I had managed to catch sight of my luggage (which was still not the case), I would not have been able to collect it without a fist fight. First early morning cultural shock happens. After a while, there’s only me and very few people left to stare at the conveyor belt. It is therefore logically the appropriate moment to start to panic: the Peruvian lady must have been right. This time I was sensible enough to carry half of the important belongings in my day pack which I hug dearly. At long last, critically drained of patience and energy, I spot my luggage and collect it happily. It weighs about 23 kilos, which adds to the 10 kilos that make my hand luggage. I load the whole on my 52 kilo frame and start doing the funny walk towards the exit.
There’s a taxi driver waiting for me. I “booked” him and his driving skills, so I feel slightly VIP-ish. I’m sure he must have had a name, too, but I forgot it completely. I’m deep in evolving jet lag symptoms and I know I will not be concentrating much. The guy looks reliable for a 5 a.m. airport encounter, but hey, doesn’t everyone? I launch a superfluous conversation in Spanish to test his degree of friendliness. He drives me past a deserted and gloomy beach, going through some unwelcoming landscape of a country which doesn’t seem to know what to build where. We reach Miraflores, one the best neighbourhoods by Lima standards, specifically dressed up for tourists – a hub for anyone who can afford it, which technically means no locals. I’m decidedly not impressed by the accumulation of constructions and pray that a strong coffee will fix that. But I arrived in the garúa period, a greyish unfriendly mist which hovers over Lima during winter time, making it look sad and…painfully grey. I am intimately convinced that the city is much prettier under a different light.
The driver is being very kind: he drops me off right in front of my bed & breakfast even though the Police wanted to block his way and declare the road inaccessible. The place I’ll be sleeping in is equipped with a sort of bunker-like security system. Also, hello shabbiness! Yet, the driver insists that this is one of the most luxurious neighbourhoods in Lima. I raise an eyebrow and try not to look overly concerned. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning local time, so I only have the strength to accept things as they come. I go and have breakfast with the intention to rest a bit and explore the city afterwards. But someone is in the mood for engaging me in a conversation: a tour guide; he’s leaving with his group in one hour and thinks I’m one of his. He explains to me loads about the beauties I am about to see and gives me a warm hug: he’s a Quechua – no, not the brand name for the sport clothes, he’s the actual thing, the descendant of the Inca people who occupied that land in the first place. At that early hour and in my semi-conscious condition, I can’t oppose much to this bit of Quechua affection. We would meet about 10 days later and he’d still know my name. Fantastic person.
My room is much less welcoming however: the air is cold and damp and the windows are made in such an original way that they won’t close properly. You can easily push them to open by pressing the upper or lower part, but you will never be able to make them close fully. So I put on some of my warmest clothes (I could have put all of them on, really) and plunge under the blanket, hoping to warm up and have a good sleep that would make me forget I was there.
Lima is not the best place to be jet lagged in. If you are, the chances that you actually see any beauty in it are rather limited. I can reach high peaks of grumpiness when I lack sleep. Or when I wake up after only one hour of sleep and realize it’s still cold and grey. But I pile up my bits of broken motivation and decide to get out of the B&B and go to the city centre: I’m a traveller, my role is to visit. My initial thoughts were to walk there until the receptionist stopped me from doing so.
“No. Taxi,” she said, in a tone that left little room for contradiction.
Taxi it is. She calls one for me that picks me up right in front of the gate and tells me to only take a yellow one to come back. I’m afraid I did not have enough time to accommodate to the reality of the place: these people know what they are doing, hopefully. I’m all about freedom and when I’m given indicators that I can’t openly practice it, I need to take a moment to digest the news. The taxi driver seems to be confused as to why I find myself alone in his car. He repeats “Alone in the city center?” as if he is deaf and not sure he heard the instructions correctly. “Take the boy with you!” and he points to the young man guarding the door to the B&B. “Hum…I think he’s on duty. And I do travel by myself, so this is how it is.” We drive. Before reaching the end of the destination he also points to my camera: “No pictures! Steal camera in city center.” And when he sees other white European tourists walking around the main square, he yells: “Look, go with them! Go!” I’m puzzled as to how to react to this behaviour. Where am I and what have I done?
The first thing I notice while holding on to the bag in which I “hide” my big camera is that everyone else but the few tourists and me looks different: Peruvians are shorter (than me), dark-haired, look strangely similar to one another as if a big family went out for a walk and are modestly dressed. And this is enough conclusions to make me suspect each and every one of them of wanting to rob me of my camera. Talk about standing out of the crowd: I’m the female version of Gulliver and I’ve been stranded in Lilliput!
If I were to be honest with myself, I don’t think that Lima is a nice place to wake up to at all. But then again, it’s easy to get the wrong impression on a place when you’ve only been there for few hours. Maybe Lima did not reveal itself to me at its right value. I won’t be giving the city much credit that day. I am happy to get out of the crowd and look for the taxi place. Yellow they said. My head is too much the mess for me to concentrate on the plate number, so I truly hope the driver I pick is exactly what he pretends to be. I’m lucky, he decides not to kidnap me that day. I run back into my gloomy room (in August, Lima looks worse than Brussels at its greyest) to try and kill my jet lag, which, I end up admitting, is the root cause of the distorted image I have of this very new environment.
Still, I cannot be blamed for my confusion. Imagine this: there are roughly 9 million inhabitants in Lima and there is no metro, subway or train. There’s an estimated number of 300.000 taxis. Which do not really use what is called a taximeter – the price is usually negotiated before you jump in. The yellow one seems to be the most reliable (says a report based on the number of people who actually made it back safe and sound, maybe?). The yellow taxis are the metropolitan ones and are (supposed to be ) licensed. San Isidro, the “chic” district that to me looked like just another pile of buildings, proudly exhibits a 120-metre-high one which Peruvians refer to as a “skyscraper”. Because of the tectonic friction caused by the Nazca Plate working its way underneath the South American Plate, the reasons we have the Andes, Peru is rather exposed to potential devastating seismic activity. This is not a place to compete for the tallest architectural achievement.
The real problem with Lima is that there aren’t an awful lot of things to do. Because the weather improved, I decided to give the Larco Museum a miss, in spite of it being one of the main attractions on account of a collection of Kama Sutra visuals on ceramic pots. What I did is eat (food is exquisitely tasty in Lima – and nothing beats a ceviche) and hang out in El Parque del Amor, for its merit of being close to the (Pacific) Ocean. And this is where I found the one thing that seduced me in Lima: paragliding.
I watched people flying around for few hours until I decided to queue up and try it for myself. But it was not in the cards for me that day (or the very last day when I returned to Lima either) because the wind changed so I was stuck on solid ground. High and dry.
Lima was easy to leave behind. But Peru was only just starting to unveil its true precious self.