Ceviche
The Posada del Parque

The living room

Salsa Rumbera #3
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The Park
Lima

Yesterday, from Costa Rica, we flew into Lima, an airline hub of sorts for all of South America, except Brazil and the northeast coast. It is difficult to get to Chile and Argentina without a stopover in Lima, so it was not surprising that the airport was very large, if not stylish. We were met at the airport by a driver for the apartment Tricia had arranged for us over the internet and we got a thirty minute drive through some of the tackiest urban landscape imaginable. Yes, I knew Peru was poor, but the reality was so much more striking than was the reading of it.

 

The traffic in downtown Lima is horrendous, and crazy. People seem to take traffic signs as mere suggestions, stop signs routinely ignored. Cars weave in and out like bumper-cars at an amusement park, and most of them—small, old, noisy and dirty—exhibit the scars of the game. A lane of traffic that is attempting to merge into another seemingly solid and impenetrable lane of traffic—which of course in the congestion is barreling along at all of about two kilometers per hour—literally has to fight its way in, car by a car, inch by inch, a multiuser game of chicken. The trick here seems to be to try to insert a small part of your fender into the largest gap to be found between any two cars in the line you are trying to penetrate.  In the process you may first have a careful look at the driver just behind the potential gap to evaluate his courage.  The quality of the two contesting automobiles also comes into play: if the penetrater drives an old beat-up car, he may choose a relatively new car as his adversary, aware that the newer car has more to lose, and probably knows it.  Most of the cars are driven by a man but if you can find a woman in the line, and you are a man, you can probably get in just by force of will, though not always, these Latinas are sometimes cold as steel. 

In the states, at least in Pittsburgh if not in Boston or New York, consensus thinking seems to be that since were all in this together, why not play nice, and drivers merge in an orderly way, first one from one line and then one from the other line.  Here though it is the opposite.  The situation is taken as a challenge and the attempt at forceful entry by the oncoming line is taken entirely without surprise by all, those drivers trying to get in and those trying to keep them out, it being understood that Latin testosterone is in play here.

Pedestrians are lower in the status hierarchy than drivers. Since stop signs are largely transparent to drivers, there are usually only two ways to cross a street on foot: one, wait until traffic is so jammed up that cars simply cannot move, then you can pick your way through the temporarily stationary cars, each driver now so angered at those in front that he feels obliged to blow his horn, temporarily taking his mind off your nimble penetration; two—and this is most interesting to observe—if sufficient pedestrian pressure builds up at an intersection to create a critical mass, and then some few brave souls begin, the crowd will throw all caution to the winds and surge forward en masse. The trick here is momentum: the crowds leaders must initiate the chain reaction and, with not a word spoken, all must sense intuitively that the time is right and that her brothers and sisters will stick with her as a homogeneous force. This action, when taken, forces drivers to contemplate in a split second a mass killing and it makes them think, temporarily displacing their aggression so much that they then sit back casually and go to plan B which is to look for pretty women in short skirts in the conquering crowd.

The psychology of third world countries with respect to motorists and pedestrians is, I suppose, a holdover from the days when the serfs had to make way for the (Spanish) lords on horses, at peril of injury, or of their lives. The motorists are the top dogs here.

 

We arrived at our accommodations at dusk, unpacked and went on foot in search of a restaurant. This, in Latin America, can be a major project. First of all one has to find someone that speaks English well enough, or who can understand your limited Spanish, to find even a direction to walk in.  That will usually be someone at a hotel.  Restaurants here are on the whole of poor quality unless one eats in large hotels—which we succumbed to a few times—and menus are the same almost wherever one goes. Lomito (tough, but occasionally very flavorful, steak), pollo roti (roast chicken—one of the better bets), corvina (sea bass prepared with various sauces), and usually some few comidas typicos (filling, country foods). While this sounds varied, and can every once in awhile be delicious, one tires of it quickly, in part because of the strong flavoring with which it is prepared and the general toughness of most meat and poultry here compared to what we’re used to. Portions are very large, sometimes huge. Eventually, one begins to crave spaghetti, pizza or Chinese food—all of which are here, but are different here—one may even look for a McDonalds.

To be fair, the thought of eating always in restaurants is not pleasant even at home.  I enjoy eating in little out of the way places, and trying dishes I haven’t eaten before, but this can be dangerous. At one place I liked the looks of a leg of pork and had a sandwich made with it. That night I was very, very sick. Tricia, on the other hand, who split the sandwich with me, was affected not at all. She is now referred to by me as Old Iron Gut.

 

We are staying here in Lima at the Posada del Parque, a “hostel” that faces a park. This is not a place where a bunch of young people throw their sleeping bags in the corner—anyone who knows me will understand this. It is, rather, a small hotel near a pretty park. It is a “hostel” because it is a large home converted for the purpose and it does not have all the amenities of a hotel. In hostels like this one, one has a room—in our case with a banyo privado (private bathroom)—and usually some arrangement for breakfast. Hostels are inexpensive compared to an upscale hotel. We paid $48 a night for this one, though much cheaper is to be had.

The Posada del Parque is a little gem of a place, with ten to twelve guest rooms. It has a charming little garden patio surrounded by the high walls of adjacent buildings. Exotic red and purple flowers and flowering vines, and native Indian sculpture dress the high walls painted in white. For patio furniture there are a few tables with umbrellas, and some chairs, and a chaise lounge. I spent many hours reading there.

As I wrote, the hostel is situated on a small park in the “university” part of the city. Leo, the owner, is an Ecuadorian but has lived in Peru for a number of years. Ecuador is just north of Peru. He doesn’t look at all like the native Peruvians—who are relative stocky and seem, in some minor way, oriental. Leo is tall and thin and with his black beard and mustachio, and wearing loose flowing pants and sandals I think of him as a Spanish grandee, but he is one that has lived in California a few years and developed some cool. Leo is an internet guy—that’s how Tricia found the place—he makes most of his bookings on the Web and closes the deals using email. Except for the clothing, he almost exactly matches the Spanish gentleman in the large painting hanging on the wall behind the reception desk. He and his pretty wife and a few dark, silent, (Indian?) employees operate the place.

 

Someone here has an artistic taste. I think it is Leo, but it could be his wife, or perhaps both. They collect what I would term Spanish folk art and it is displayed throughout the hostel: highly abstracted, or distorted, figures of thin Spanish horsemen; small, elaborately painted, open “cupboards”, like a not-very-deep kitchen cupboard, are mounted on the walls with the doors permanently open, their shelves completely filled with hundreds of colorful, individually painted, miniatures of people, burros, goats, dogs and the occasional crucifix. The population in the cupboards seems right out of Don Quixote. One can look at this display for a long time and keep seeing new things. Or one can step back and see them more abstractly as a bright mélange of color.

Often very charming, a hostel tends to be one or two steps more personal than a hotel. Since the public spaces are smaller, people are more thrown together. Instead of staying in our small room all the time we spent most of our time in the “living room”.  Other travelers did as well and so you get to meet people, whereas in a hotel one more less disregards everyone else and builds a wall of privacy, except perhaps at the bar.  In the living room we found baskets of books left by former guests that we could read if we liked. The furniture in the public spaces is right out of the Inquisition: high-backed, dark, carved wood, intricately carved chairs that resemble small thrones, uncomfortable by design. There is a common “eating room”, where only breakfast is served, though during the day one can eat sandwiches brought in from the outside—there is no restaurant in the hostel. Everywhere, of course, one walks on beautiful tile floors in rich, dark colors.

Our room in the hostel measures perhaps twelve feet square. It is also twelve feet high. It has smooth plaster walls and ceilings, intricately hand-painted where they join, as in a church. A miniature bathroom with no ceiling is in one corner of the larger room, simply blocked out by two walls seven feet high. The floor of course is tile. There is no furniture except for one straight-backed  chair. It is a monk’s room—except for the “matrimonial” against one wall.

In a city like Lima, you can meet an adventurous bunch of people from all over the world in a hostel. Language is negotiated as best as one can, English being the usual bridge between disparate tongues.

The Parque is a new experience for me. It is at first like boarding in someone’s home—uncomfortable for me—but soon the other people there, and the businesslike operation of the place dispel this feeling and I am charmed by the unusual ambiance and the interesting people.

 

Wandering around this part of Lima (Centro, the “downtown” part) one sees many very old (three to four hundred years) Spanish colonial buildings of carved stone with beautiful windows, huge ornate doors and delicate wrought iron gates, balconies and window guards.

Lima was the Spanish colonial capital for all of South America—not just Peru.  It was the big-daddy of the continent. Most of these buildings are huge, covering a whole quadra (block). Their use of course has changed over the years. The military have taken over some; these can be identified by the uniformed soldiers and sailors that guard their entrances. Others have become arcades of shops and restaurants, still others have remained true to their history and are still government ministries of one sort or another. Immense cathedrals and ornate commercial buildings, laid one against the other around vast open squares, tiled, stoned and statued, make up the balance of the architecture in Centro. It is, well … Government, firm and fatherly. 

Think of the wealth it must have taken to build these structures in the first place. Gold and an unending supply of cheap labor did the trick, though we should not forget the skill and craftsmanship that the Spaniards brought to the project. Now it is strange to see this grand architecture embedded in the shabby matrix that is the rest of Lima. Yet in a peculiar, Latin-world kind of way, the two, strangely, blend together. Some cities, among them Lima (and also, I may say, Pittsburgh) have a richness that other cities do not, an opulence that, however faded, remains as a testimonial to their once grand days, like the family’s old Persian rug, laid over the carpeting in the living room that testifies silently to the wealth of a long dead relative.

 

The ministries, military buildings and the commercial buildings have armed guards at their entrances on the sidewalk, and they are not of the ceremonial kind. The smartly-uniformed guards of the commercial Seguridad forces sport bullet-proof vests and pack automatic pistolas. The army guards in their camouflage clothing are armed with submachine guns.  (It seems odd here in this urban landscape for soldiers to wear camouflage when one would think a stone-gray uniform might provide better concealment—but, world-over, camouflage now means military, whether in the city or the jungle.) I was unable to determine from where I was whether they were Uzis or AK47s, a damning admission for a Libertarian; I blame my liberal upbringing. Around the squares, at strategic places, soldiers stand with their guns in the hot sun behind shoulder-high, half-inch steel-plate shields, attentively observing the crowds. In one corner of a square I saw a squat armored personnel carrier with a fifty caliber machine gun mounted. 

All this could be due simply to the hot Latin temperament, but it probably has more to do with the current political situation: the president, Alberto Fujimori, a Peruvian of Japanese descent, turned dictator, suddenly resigned and changed his address to Tokyo. Meanwhile, the former head of security, his buddy, absconded with a small fortune (actually not enough to animate an African or middle east potentate, but still a tidy sum). A new president is now in the process of being elected with the aid of—no less—Jimmy Carter’s, Carter Center  which has been designated official watchdog. All this new tension has been overlaid on the longstanding insurrection of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla group that Fujimori suppressed but was not able to completely eliminate. Now, superimpose on all this the skirmishes with Ecuador over just where that border in the north really lies, and one can understand the current rather jumpy situation.

The long history of these and similar problems helps to explain the poverty of the country. On the bright side, progress is measured by the fact that during all this unrest the military has not taken over but is supporting a genuine election.

 

We prepare to leave Peru today and, after settling our bill at the Posada, we stroll a kilometer or so to the Plaza de Armas in Centro and wander around watching the always fascinating people. It is 80 degrees or so at noon, pleasant. At about one o’clock we decide to have lunch at a rather ritzy looking restaurant in one of the stone and iron masterpieces of architecture. It resembles a staid men’s club, hushed, and with a tuxedoed maitre de.

In a classy place like this I screw up my courage and—in contradiction of all intestinal logic—order as a starter a Ceviche de Corvina, for which Peru is well known. I have been wanting to try this dish of raw fish “cooked” in lime juice ever since 1965, when I worked with a Peruvian Indian in Pittsburgh, an engineer named Armando Cangahuala, who tortured the unsophisticated Pittsburghers with tales of eating raw fish (“Oh, my God, no!”), the age of sushi not yet having dawned over the towers of the steel city.

(Armando was a most interesting fellow. He stood about 5ft. high and I’m sure was very nearly 5ft. in circumference around his chest. He had been born high up in the mountains, was orphaned, and went to a Catholic school of some sort which apparently realized his abilities and supported him to some extent through engineering school. He then came to America and lived in a small apartment with three or four other expats, saving virtually every penny they made for a number of years. Every workday he brought the same lunch to work: half an avocado filled with chicken. After ten or fifteen years of this his doctor told him that his cholesterol was about 800 and he never ate avocado again.)

I had eaten ceviche before in Costa Rica and liked it, but I was hesitant to try it here in Lima where the concept of refrigeration is only just sinking in. It turned out to be the best thing I have had to eat so far on the trip. Small chunks of the marinated corvina, in a thin, very spicy sauce of lime and coriander (cilantro) and, no doubt, pepper were covered with thin slices of cebolla rojo (red onion). Also on the small oval plate—just the right size—were slices of boiled white potatoes and sweet yams. The whole thing was topped by one small, thin and round slice of a pepper that, whatever its name, was so hot as to make Jalapenos seem like bubble gum in comparison. It was surprising how these very different elements perfectly complemented each other and I was much impressed.