Although Lima is not one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been, with a seemingly constant shroud of mist blocking it from the sun and the heavy odour of exhaust mixed with cologne and cigar smoke hanging in the air, I have discovered it is most definitely a city with some interesting history, culture as well as tasty cuisine, utter chaos and cats.
Yes, that’s right, cats. The park in central Mira Flores is overrun with them and as a result it is deemed the cat park. Regardless, there seems to be harmony between the cats and the people here. As I strolled through the centre of the park, long tails poked up through the foliage in the garden beds like submarine scopes breaking an ocean surface while the cats navigated the grounds hunting for small critters and discarded scraps of food. They sit curiously on park benches and cement posts or lay curled up in tight balls of fur in the grass or along sidewalks. If they need something cozier they nestle into the welcoming lap of a park visitor or on top of a jacket or duffle bag.
They are strays making their home in a place they have learned they can survive. Like in Spain there doesn’t seem to be fat cats around here. Unlike their Canadian cousins they probably don’t know the luxury of tuna juice from a can or a treat like catnip. And they won’t likely know the savory flavour of the decadent cuisine their home city is famous for, ceviche.
I was lucky enough to try ceviche a few nights ago, raw white fish cooked solely by the citric acid in a broth made of lime and lemon juices, sweet purple onion and chili pepper. If you are a fan of sashimi your palate will delight in the slightly firm texture of this raw, tangy delicacy. Top it off with a crisp glass of vino blanco or a smooth pisco sour. This is definitely something to try if you ever come to Peru.
Earlier in the day I taxied into the historical centre of Lima with Clare, the young Irish woman I had met the night before. We walked between the two main squares trying to find the Baroque style San Francisco Cathedral. It was interesting to observe the street activity while we walked. It’s so different from Canada. Drivers are horn-happy and traffic control people are whistle-happy here. Drivers constantly cut each other off. The ones in the inside lane think nothing of making a right turn onto a street directly in front of the driver in the outside lane if you can picture that. Cars veer all over the place trying to avoid getting dinged by another. It’s a random dance of two left feet to their very own symphony of chaos. But it seems to be the norm. It’s accepted. The amazing thing is there doesn’t seem to be road rage and I didn’t see any major accidents other than bumpers tagging other bumpers although I’m sure statistics must be high. It’s a serious combination of aggressive and defensive driving. Road tests for teenagers? That would be interesting to see. There is no way I would drive here. There wouldn’t be a point having a nice vehicle around here either. It wouldn’t stay looking nice for long. Most vehicles I have seen are old, also quite small aside from buses stuffed to the max way beyond capacity.
If you ever decide to go out for dinner or to a nightclub in central Mira Flores expect to be constantly ushered into restaurants to eat. “Come in…good food! Free pisco sour for you! Come now!” they shout as they wave you towards their establishment. Window shop or browse the market? You need to be assertive otherwise you’ll be held up for 15 minutes by the shop keeper each time you stop to look at something. Out comes the calculator displaying the regular price and then your special price. When you say no, that you would like to think about it, they’ll keep working on you explaining the good quality and why you need to have it. It’s safer to take a mental snapshot of things as you walk by and mull it over on your own until you know what you really want.
The culture is very evident in Lima. Smiling families dressed in colourful Peruvian attire are seen sporadically in the streets. Markets selling llama wool garments, blankets, fabrics, jewelry, Incan art and trinkets are always nearby too.
You can also visit an assortment of museums, including an X-rated one called The Ancient Erotic Art of the Larco Museum. Visitors under 18 are not allowed in. Although I never actually got to visit this museum, there is an erotic ceramic gallery depicting the various sexual practices of the Peruvian indigenous people. Three of us were contemplating going, but time wasn’t on our side. Instead we viewed the gallery on-line and it’s quite explicit. There are ceramic displays of various sexual positions plus ones of indigenous men with enormous penises…pretty much the size of the actual statues themselves. Crazy! They are certainly a people who celebrate their sexuality!
The streets were also bustling with local people selling chiclet’s. Many of them are mothers with babies or toddlers wrapped around their waists in a blanket. They are very poor and many probably come here from the slums on the hill to work in the streets. From afar the slums splatter the smoggy hill with pastel colour. The conditions are hazardous with exposed electrical wire and plumbing leaks. It’s hard to walk past them without wanting to buy from each one of them, but it’s impossible. There are so many. I was told today it’s best not to buy from them or give the children money. It’s better for their future in the long run. At around seven years old children start to sell chiclet’s or other items in the streets. The problem is that when a family is successful at it there is little incentive to send the children to school and so the cycle continues.
Finally, Clare and I stood at the wrought iron fence looking in at the old San Francisco Cathedral. Pigeons swarmed in circles around the large courtyard. Many of them landed in various nooks on the pale yellow cathedral walls covering it with black specs. It was like something out of a Hitchcock movie.
The reason why there were so many pigeons is because they are fed on the steps. Someone was selling bird seed and so the pigeons know where to come for an easy meal!
Inside, we were led through the cathedral, but the most creepy and memorable part was the maze of dark, arched stone passageways that lay hidden underneath the floors, the catacombs. Mustiness hung in the dead air reminding me of how ancient this place is. Crypts containing masses of old bones covered in an ancient film of grey dust lay neatly piled in a design including femurs and skulls; however some were strewn into a heap behind a wrought iron gate. ‘Why were they treated so differently from the others?’ I wondered. One story is that the passageways led to the inquisitor’s chamber. Could the heap of bones be a result of that?
They say there are at least 25,000 people buried in the catacombs. Originally, only the bodies of priests and nobles were buried there, but the practice grew to include others willing to pay. The thought was they would get a quick pass to Heaven. It got so crammed in there they had to douse bodies in lime juice and sand to aid in decomposition and to reduce the pungent odour of decay…a nasty job I certainly wouldn’t ever want.