The last couple of days have been a whirlwind of hectic travel, enjoyable sightseeing, exquisite culinary adventures, and life-threatening taxi rides. Since I had less than two days in Lima, Peru’s sprawling metropolitan capital, I wanted to see as much as possible before moving on to Cusco. Unfortunately Aeromexico, the operator of my flight from Mexico City to Lima, wasn’t going to let me have such a smooth experience.
When I landed in Mexico City, I had to reclaim my suitcase and drag it through the airport to re-check it. This struck me as somewhat unnecessary. I mean, isn’t this the twenty-first century? With all this modern technology, for instance COMPUTERS, you’d think a baggage transfer wouldn’t be such a complicated operation.
When I arrived, huffing and puffing, at the Aeromexico check-in desk, the lady asked me to wait for a half hour. They were “waiting for some seats to clear” before they could let me in, she said. Weird. I seemed to recall buying a ticket on this flight, and last I knew, that reserves one a seat. But I still had over 2 hours before the flight left, hadn’t eaten a square meal for 14 hours, and had caught sight of a Subway on my way in, so I didn’t’ complain. When I returned to try and check in again, it was a different worker who asked me to wait “just another 5 or 10 minutes.” By my third attempt, the line had gotten long and was barely moving. I kept checking my watch. I had less than an hour left before my flight left now, and I was still far back in line. I started to consider causing a scene and yelling madly at the Aeromexico man in my less-than-perfect Spanish. Finally they said everyone on the flight to Lima could skip the line, and there was a mad rush for the ticket counters. Fortunately, I just made the plane. Unfortunately, my suitcase didn’t.
I suppose I wasn’t that surprised when it never showed at the Lima baggage claim. I wasn’t the only unhappy passenger. The Aeromexico representative told us the delayed bags would come in late that night. I told her I had a bus to Cusco the next day, so they’d better.
I tried to put this unfortunate mishap out of my mind as I exited the airport and looked for a taxi. Scores of potential rides to my hostel literally screamed at me to accept their offers, but I knew these drivers would charge an arm and a leg. Being rather attached to my appendages, I sought out other options. I found some airport personnel and asked them for a recommendation. They were all laughing about something, and one of them started to tell me that all his friends were gay, a fact that he accentuated with a number of enthusiastic hand gestures. It took me some time to explain to the man, over roars of laughter, that as fascinating as the sexual persuasions of his friends might be, the information I sought was how best to get downtown. He said he had a friend who would take me. I refrained from saying: “you mean downtown, right?”
Fortunately, this was what he meant. The taxi driver said he would bring me to my hostel for 45 sols (about $17). I told him I had read not to offer more than 40, to which he responded that the toll was included, making explanatory gestures at a sign which probably had nothing to do with tolls or even taxis, but had some numbers on it and looked very official. He was a nice guy and we had a good conversation, so at the end of the trip I gave him his 45 sols and refrained from pointing out that we had definitely not gone through a toll booth.
A little more about taxi drivers in Lima: they’re terrifyingly reckless, excessively aggressive, and quite often absolutely insane. The highway to the airport had space for four lanes… except there weren’t any lanes, or if there were, nobody observed them. What resulted was an all-out free-for-all, complete with roaring engines, exceedingly fast stops, and more total honks than a month of Boston-area rush hour traffic. People in Lima absolutely love honking, often when they’re in the wrong, and sometimes for no reason at all. If there are cars in front of them, they honk, no matter if there’s a red light or an old lady crossing the street. Of course, nobody pays any attention, including the old lady crossing the street, so the horn is completely useless. It seems to have evolved into nothing more than some (rather limited) form of self-expression. When taxi drivers aren’t busy honking at other taxi drivers, they’re usually honking at pedestrians like me: two quick, polite toots that translate, in English, to “Want a ride?” They’re especially insistent with gringos, probably because many of us don’t know to haggle. The fact is, the law makes no effort to stop unofficial taxis, and a taxi sign is as easy to come by as a can of coke (I even saw a lady walking through stopped traffic trying to sell them.) So everyone and his cousin owns a taxi, and if you can’t get a driver to take you where you want to go for a reasonable price, his cousin probably will.
My first day in Lima was a great success. I went to the Historic Center and saw some of the sites, like the Plaza Mayor and the San Francisco Monastery.
The monastery was established by the Franciscan Order, which still controls it today, but has been so kind as to open it up as a museum. Unfortunately, said Franciscan Order is not so kind as to allow any photographs whatsoever, so I can’t show you any of the inside. It has some pretty neat old rooms with spiral staircases, dusty old books, and Spanish paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. The best part was at the end when the tour guide led as through the catacombs. Piles and piles of bones were neatly arranged for our viewing. There was even a massive pit with hundreds of femurs arranged in a circle, surrounding a vast collection of human skulls. Back in the day, the monks of the Franciscan Order were all buried in these catacombs. I have to wonder if they ever had a conversation like this:
Father Mendez: One day we will be buried in this monastery, to rest forever beneath the earth.
Father Jorge Luis de San Francisco: “Yes, brother, unless perchance this site is excavated some day, and all our bones are mixed together and organized into aesthetically-pleasing displays that tourists will flock to enjoy. My skull may very well rest atop your femur someday.”
Father Mendez: “Father Jorge Luis de San Francisco, that is disgusting and simply doesn’t bear thinking about. And what’s a tourist? This is the sixteenth century!”
My lunch in central Lima was almost as good as seeing the corpses of the reverend Fathers Mendez and Jorge Luis de San Francisco. In Peru they have an option to eat “Menu”, which basically means that you’ll get three courses selected from a small list of options, and it’s often a real mother of a meal. I couldn’t face trying the famous raw fish dish called Ceviche on my first day, so I had soup, rice, beans, chicken, and a delicious warm honey-like drink called Cebada. And all for 8.5 sols (about 3 dollars). I left full to the brim, awkwardly leaving a tip for no one in particular because I felt like I had taken advantage of someone.
At Plaza Mayor, I met some university students who wanted help with a project they had for their English class. Their assignment was to find tourists and videotape short conversations, which often ended up being hilarious. Example:
Student: “Excuse me, can you help me with something?”
Me: “Sure, what do you need?”
Student: “What’s your name?”
I tried to explain that this did not make a whole lot of sense, except perhaps as a rather clumsy pick-up line, but the girls did not seem too concerned. Later, my new friends took me to the Magic Water Circuit, which I think will be adequately described by the pictures.
That night, as I was fast asleep in my hostel, one of the employees woke me up and started talking to me. At first I thought I was dreaming, and the rapid Spanish did not help with overall comprehension, but I managed to piece together something about my suitcase being sent to the hostel. My luggage had been found! I mumbled an incoherent spew of groggy exclamations that were probably half English and half Spanish. The employee smiled and walked out.
That rounded off a great day in Lima. And now I will be able to catch my bus to Cusco after all. It will be a twenty-hour trip with dangerous cliff passes, potential robberies, and bathrooms without toilet paper (or so I have read online). Stay tuned, beloved readers!
A few more pictures: