Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Travelers arriving in Lima usually land at the busy and friendly Jorge Chavez International Airport. It feels like a department store: all duty free goods are available for arriving passengers. Shop attendants welcome passengers with spray perfume in hands. Travelers have then to go through the usual airports hassles, immigration, and luggage collection; there is the additional hurdle of an x- ray tunnel for luggage. No problem really, unless you are a mule, i.e., a drug smuggler. Civility however ends at the door of the terminal.
Driving in Lima is not recommended for the faint of heart. Limeños, as the inhabitants of Lima are known, take traffic rules in utmost contempt. Taxi drivers define their driving style as alternatively offensive or defensive, depending on the comparative size of their vehicle in any given traffic situation. Obviously, bigger is better in Lima. Literally speaking, truck and SUV drivers usually get away with murder. Driving is so reckless and dangerous that some 500 cyclists recently decided to demonstrate. To make sure that people paid attention, they rode naked in the city; their mobile protest created a buzz and gridlock. After a day in Lima traffic, one wished that Humvees would be available for rent.
Visitors are also puzzled by the weather and the color of the sky. In summer, the blue sky may suddenly turn grey with dark clouds and thick fog but it doesn’t rain. In winter a sea mist engulfs the city, bringing moisture but rarely rain. This phenomenon has a specific name: la garúa. La garúa comes in all shades of grey; actually grey is inaccurate, it is rather dirty beige: the color of the earth, the color of the pre-colonial ruins and the color of most of the houses.
With 9 million inhabitants, Lima is the second largest desert city in the world after Cairo, the Egyptian capital. The coastal desert of Peru is also one of the driest in the world. Lima is a rather characterless city. Many people even question how its derelict historic center deserved an UNESCO Heritage site listing. Lima could easily be dismissed save for its magnificent museums, the hustle bustle of its Chinatown, the rich gastronomy and its tempting silver market.
Lima’s residential suburbs are very spread out, on the model the urban sprawls of the West Coast of the United States. The housing density is small. High rises are still few in the quaint suburb of San Isidro; many green areas including an 18-hole golf course, have notably been preserved. Now and again, the uniformity of San Isidro’s bourgeois housing pattern is broken by the sight of mini fortresses guarded by heavily armed men. A foreign flag usually flies on top of the gate. San Isidro’s claim to fame is the 1996-97 hostage-taking crises in the residence of the Japanese Ambassador. Even before this dramatic event, Lima’s embassies had always been surrounded by high walls for protection against terrorism.
However, high walls did not deter the daring raid by 14 Tupac Amaru guerrilleros in December 1996. On the contrary, these walls prevented the escape of the hundreds of dignitaries trapped inside. The stand-off lasted for 126 days. Finally in April 1997, the Peruvian Special Forces blasted a hole in the roof and tunneled their way into the residence and freed the 72 remaining hostages. One hostage was killed in the raid and all the captors were summarily dispatched to an unknown location. Now, under Human Rights new legislation, family members of the guerilleros are suing the army.
The hostages ‘ordeal makes good reading. It notably inspired American novelist Ann Patchett. She wrote a novel titled “Bel Canto”. This best seller explores the relationship between captors and captives and the impact of opera music on people with a very different background.
Now, every foreign ambassador worth his salt is living in a dungeon. The new residence of the Japanese ambassador stands out. Its high walls and metal fences look like a castle out of a Harry Potter film. An empty lot is all that is left of the former residence where the siege took place. It is for sale.
The heydays of urban warfare are gone; this is not to say that Peru is not totally free of terrorists, guerrilleros or freedom fighters. This writer is not qualified to make the distinction between these terms, subtlety of which escapes her. Many former guerrillero movements have diversified their activities, with political activism being a front for more lucrative drug trafficking. Today Lima is enjoying more peaceful days.
Peace-loving tourists must visit the Sacred City of Caral. The ruins of the city lay in the rocky coastal desert, some 120 kilometers north of Lima. What makes Caral so extraordinary, is not the site which is remarkable in itself, but the exceptional story of the
Caral: Lunar desert and two of the six pyramids.
archeological discovery. Caral is still a place few tourists have heard of. It takes over two hours to get to the site in the Supe Valley. The last 26 kms are on a dirt road. Before reaching Caral, cars have to pull out at the gate of a chicken battery farm. Disinfection of the vehicles is the first stop on the way to Caral. Intensive chicken farming is big business in Peru; to avoid contamination the majority of the farms are scattered in the desert near Lima. Their dusty white sheds add to the overall desolation of the area.
The fascinating story of Caral only started to unfold in 1994 when the first pyramids were identified by Ruth Shady Solis, a Peruvian archeologist. The site had been known since 1905, but it had been dismissed as marginal because no ceramic artifacts were found. In 2001, radio-carbon dating confirmed that the settlement was the oldest in Latin America, dating from 2600 BC. This news caused disbelief among the archeologists. Many had to make drastic revisions to their theories. Caral was a millennium older than previously believed!
Furthermore the warfare model which had been taken for granted as the underpinning of city building had to be thrown out. In the Americas, most pre-Colombian cities were built to protect the population. In Caral no weapons or mutilated bodies were found, only tools for agriculture, nets for fishing and musical instruments. Therefore Caral had not been established to protect its inhabitants from quarrelsome neighbors, but to enjoy peaceful activities and trade. Life must have been quite idyllic in Caral during its heyday when 3000 people lived there. Since there is no evidence of ceramics, the people were certainly eating their food raw. The city was opened to visitors in 2006 and became a UNESCO Heritage site in 2009.
Not only is the Sacred City of Caral the oldest known civilization of the Americas, it is the third oldest in the world after that of Mesopotamia and China. It is contemporaneous to Egypt and a couple of hundred years older than the Giza Pyramids. With its 626 hectares, Caral is the largest and most grandiose settlement of the Supe Valley. Life in Caral lasted for some 400 years before declining; the city was later abandoned. Why did the population flee? Did they move to a greener area or to the coast? Since there is no indication of violence or destruction, archeologists believe that drought may have compelled the residents to leave the area. Obviously, archeologists are still looking for clues.
Despite its archeological significance, Caral is not as breathtaking as Machu Picchu which stunning beauty is unparalleled. Cusco, the Inca capital has more appeal than Lima. However Peru’s capital deserves a little more respect thanks to its five impressive museums, most of them set up by private collectors: Museum Larco Herera (pre-Colombian ceramics, including erotic ones); museum Andres del Castillo (Peruvian minerals and Chancay ceramics); museum Pedro de Osma (colonial art); museum Amano (pre-Colombian weavings) and the Gold museum (mish-mash of gold artifacts, ceramics, and weapons). Savvy shoppers will head for the silverware market of Salaverry St in the Surquillo suburb. Last but not least, Limeños take their food seriously, and tourists cannot miss savoring a ceviche made from raw fish and sea food marinated in lime juice and chilies. Like in Caral, present-day Peruvians eat their fish raw.