Saturday, December 29, 2012

To Lima

The hotel staff kindly sets out breakfast around 5:40, and Lucio doesn't come around until 6:10, so we have plenty of time for coffee and wonderfully fresh pineapple and watermelon. The night rain tapers off and stops just in time for us to load our luggage on the top of the van and rush to the airport. The mountaintops are dusted with snow this morning.
Our flight is meant to board at gate 2 at 7:40, but at 7:15 nobody from our airline is there. Then another airline appears there at 7:40 and a crowd gathers  for the 8:15 to Lima. Hey! What happened to us?
After quite some effort, Mef tracks down the lone Peru-Air person in the terminal and extracts information from her. Oh, the plane is late, and there's no gate yet. You will go at 8:35. I will make an announcement when the gate is fixed, she says.
Any gate announcement must have been unintelligible, but we learn by word of mouth that it's number 4. There is eventually a boarding announcement, asking for the back rows first, and a huge crowd leaps up. Having forward rows, we decide to let the line shorten before getting up with all our hand luggage. The crowd ebbs and grows again – must be a really big plane. Then we hear our names being called on the loudspeaker. Apparently there are two flights boarding at the same gate at the same time, and we are the last passengers for ours. Well, thank you for making that clear!

Most of our group is staying at a hotel in the Miraflores sector on the coast, but Eva and I are staying at Mev's family's house on the north side of the city. Mev has a lecture to give at the medical school, so we drop off our stuff and turn right around. The plan is to join up with the others for a tour of the old downtown.

Michel drops Mev off, and although it's only a mile or two to the central square it's not easy to get there through the crazy traffic and one-way streets. At one point, there's  construction blocking one way at a T intersection where both of the other streets are one-way toward the blockage. What do you do? Just drive the wrong way for a block and honk a lot.
Eventually Michel drops us off at the Plaza de Armes, with the presidential palace on one side and the Cathedral on another. Mev recommends strolling down the pedestrian-only shopping street to the Plaza San Martin, or visiting the catacombs under the San Francisco church and monastery. Or both; they're not huge places.

Mef and the others haven't left their hotel in Miraflores yet, so Eva & I figure at least half an hour before they join us. The cathedral steps seem the most visible place to meet, so we fix that and wander off in search of a snack. At first we think to be choosy, but hey, it's just a snack/lunch before a huge dinner, so any little place will do. In fact, we settle on the first place we come to with seats available. 6 soles (about $2.25) for a starter plus main dish and beverage. Among the 3 starter choices none rings a bell from our Cuzco experience, so we pick at random. Mine is boiled potatos in some minty sauce, quite interesting. All the main dishes seem to be chicken-based, and I end up with fried chicken while Eva's comes in mystery sauce. The fried chicken is among the best I've ever had, light and crispy but not at all greasy. Plus rice and a pile of fries. I like the fries here; they're not made from the usual kind of potato, and they have a certain body to them inside the crunchy surface. Eva and I both pass on the strangely chemically colored beverage included in the special, insisting instead on bottled water that must be fetched from next door.

Once we finish, I would like to poke around just a block farther away, where they're constructing some kind of waterfront for the river that passes through the city, but we're going to be late for our rendez-vous if we hang around much more. (we've not yet learned the reality of Lima traffic) We do pause, though, for plastic cups full of jello and custard. The bottom bright yellow layer is vanilloid custard, then strawberry jello in red, topped with hot pink whipped strawberry jello.
When Mef and Carl, Inge, Helle, and Jenny arrive, they too want to have lunch before exploring. So we set off down the first block of the pedestrian street in search of their happiness. No luck on the main street, but down a side street there are plenty of little eateries. They settle on Chinese through a lack of willpower to search further for a place with a large enough table. While they order and eat and chat in Swedish, I go around for some photographs.
I love this group. When I get back they're really interested in what I saw. Which is cool, because we won't be going that way for them to see for themselves.
It is decided to visit the Catacombs first. It turns out I am the best navigator in the group, which is surprising because I tend to look at a map, choose my landmarks and my route, and then start instantly in the wrong direction. This time, I spied the spires of our destination while out on my little excursion, and we are saved.
On the way, Eva and I recount our own lunch, and Helle remarks that she's a great fan of jello, so at the next jello vendor, and there are a great many so this takes less than a block, we stop for one. No custard for Helle, just jello.
As another detour, we discover that you cannot walk around the back of the presidential palace.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it, all those presidential deliveries & getaways & whathaveyou. But who's thinking? We're on vacation, and we have jello.
San Francisco church and monastery

At the San Francisco complex, there are no self-guided tours. You wait for a guide who speaks a compatible language, and he will take you around and show you what he feels like showing you. It's a big place, having previously housed up to 400 friars, although today there are only 30. They rent out some of the space for exhibitions and a school now. This makes for a curious tour. We leapfrog other groups, skip some rooms, visit others, and seem to see things in no logical order. If you took the tour again you would surely see a different selection of the possible sights.
Common to all the tours is the visit to the catacombs, and probably the library.
The library is about ¾ full of old and ancient books, the empty shelves waiting for volumes to return from restoration work, or scanning. Unexpectedly, the books present are just piled right there on the shelves, unprotected from humidity or bugs or anything. Just a braided rope to keep them from theft. Most of the volumes are stored sort-of upright, not being packed tightly enough to keep them from leaning. That must be great for the bindings.
While they last, the books are fabulous. With official permission you could probably read one. The gigantic illuminated hymnal open on display is gorgeous. Sing slowly – they turn the page once a day.
Around the main cloister there's an art exhibition, with paintings for sale from local artists, with mostly local and religious themes. Some of them are quite interesting. Our guide studiously ignores these as he whisks us along to listen to the history of the remaining original frescoes more or less visible above and between the canvases.
The gardens are beautiful, full of flowers and slender trees, but we are allowed no dawdling to admire them. No photos, either, of the exceptional architecture. Our mission is to get through the lives of the early friars and patrons of the church, to the catacombs below. This place is so obviously alive, continuing to evolve from its beginnings through to modern times and new uses and policies, that it's odd to tour it as if only its first century mattered.
So on to those catacombs. These used to connect most of the major buildings of old Lima, and not just the religious ones. The tunnels are mostly blocked off now, or collapsed by earthquakes, leaving only the bit below San Francisco accessible.
Bodies used to be piled high in the niches, and to make room they would occassionally take all the old bones of a niche and throw them down a large pit. Tens of thousands of bodies were laidto rest here.
Today the bones that have not turned totally to dust – the femurs and tibias and skulls that are our thickest bones – have been sorted by type and laid in neat designs in the niches open to view, and the pit that's part of the tour contains a rosette of skulls and tibia.
Helle finds this design macabre, but then, tossing them in a pile would hardly be nicer. This way, they have taken care with the remains, and shown such respect as is possible for keeping them on display at all. In rooms at the periphery of the tour, there are just piles of dusty grey bones and drifts of fragments everywhere.
I dunno. I think I can skip catacombs in the future. I am neither interested in seeing the display, nor paying my respects: there is just no point in coming here other than that my comrades are here and I didn't fancy waiting around outside.

A caged trash bin.

Outside, Mef and Carl decide to go back to the hotel. A few blocks later, Helle, Jenny and Inge decide to do the same. We've pretty much seen the 'sights': outside of the cathedral (they charge to much to go in), Catacombs, Presidential Palace (again, just the outside), the main square. The pedestrian shopping street we've had a taste of, and with the absence of any uniquely Peruvian shops, it doesn't grab us. My friends would rather get back and put the finishing touches on their presentations.
Eva and I decide to go with the pedestrian street down to the other square, San Martin, just for the walk. It's only about 10 blocks. In fact, it's rather one block of shops, reshuffled and redealt ten times.

At San Martin it's time to negotiate our first taxi. Mev said to expect to pay about 50 soles. We pick our ride carefully, no dented and horrible car for us. Mev recommended the yellow cars, but there isn't a nice one in line so we let that go. Some of the junkers it's amazing they still move. The first guy with a nice car wants 200 soles. This we don't even discuss. Never mind, and on to the next.
The next guy wants 25.
Yes, really, just 25 soles and off we go. Our driver is not sure of the way once we get out of his usual zone, but Mev's written directions are clear and we're there in about an hour. We give him a nice tip.

Preparations for the evening's festivities are in full swing. The original guest list of 15 has swelled to 30 as no dignitary or relative is left out. The living room has been cleared of every stick of furniture to make way for the rented tables and chairs. Downstairs in Mev's sister's house the living room is also cleared and lined with chairs: we are to be treated to a display of native dances, so yes it is supposed to look like a ballroom.
For a while it's just Eva & me and Mev's mother & aunt, and the DJ. I motion to Mom to go ahead and dance, and she immediately pulls me out to the floor with her. I asked for it! Eva gets into it too, but the Aunt stays on the couch.
The busful of guests eventually wins a victory in the traffic war and the party can start.
Which it does, and it's great.
I'm sitting next to Helle, and we play at making up stories about people we don't know. One Peruvian guest in particular is our favorite. He's a small, dapper man in a tweed coat fand a sharp hat which he does not remove. His wild white hair floats around his shoulders. He wears headphones around his neck, as if he has just momentarily interrupted his private life to observe us, and in his hand is a videocamera that prevents him from shaking hands or giving a cheek kiss as everyone else does. A character. We decide he is an older, japanese version of Johnny Depp, whom he resembles greatly.
Music and eating and Depp jokes until midnight.

1 comment:

Bagman and Butler said...

What a wonderful trip you are having. Thank you for pictures and words -- the colorful houses on the hill - WOW - you are better than any travel book.