Notes from Peru: #1

I had hoped by the time of my first report I would have great adventures to tell of. I don’t, so let me apologize in advance for what is a pretty mundane recounting of a short week. The report is long, since I’ve tried to cover both my experiences and impressions so far, as fully as possible. And I’ve detailed the bad with the good, so if you get into it and find yourself concerned, read on or skip ahead—it gets better at the end.

When I arrived in Lima on Monday night, I was met at the airport by my first host, Christian, greeted for the first time at the arrivals gate by a sign bearing my name. I’ve struggled to explain who I’m staying with, since I’m not staying in a hotel or a hostel, nor with a friend I knew before the trip. Months ago, when I began researching Peru in preparation for fellowship applications, I Googled “lima photography” to find information related to my proposed destination or occupation. One of the first hits was the website of an American photographer who had worked some in Lima and had photos posted on his blog. I emailed Jake, the photographer, asking for advice or assistance on similar work in Lima, and he pointed me toward Christian, a New York- and Florida-raised Peruvian now living in Lima who served as his guide, translator, and host. I emailed Christian asking for help upon my arrival in Lima, and he quickly offered not only to show me around, but to host me as well.

He’s been a phenomenal host, and this is a great place to stay, at least at the beginning of the trip. He has a small three-room apartment that’s clean, safe, and just a little cold at night. I have the second and otherwise empty bedroom in the apartment. The only other room is the large hallway that doubles as living room and office for his business. Christian runs a three-person company that arranges real estate appraisals in the U.S. over the phone and online, so during the day he’s on calls with people in Alabama, New Jersey, Wyoming, and all over the U.S. The apartment is in Surquillo, a decent part of town that borders the upscale, coastal neighborhood of Miraflores. It’s a 45-minute walk to the coast, and for one sol (about 30 cents), a “combi” bus gets me there in half the time.

Miraflores is where I’ve spent most of my time so far. Its beautiful homes, tourists, and numerous stores have put me at ease as I get settled here. I had heard repeatedly that I needed to watch myself in Lima and guard against street crime. But in Miraflores, whose tourists, I imagined, would make it a particular target for pickpockets, such a risk seems distant. Walking around has felt entirely safe, and most of the locals in the neighborhood seem to be those from the apartment buildings by the beach. A couple days ago I passed hours at the coast, reading and writing while overlooking the cliffs that separate the city from the ocean.

Though the coast is beautiful, you can’t see very far. A thick fog blocks sight beyond about a hundred meters out. One block away from the coast, the fog seems to sit right on the cliffs, creating the illusion of a wall at the end of the city. Visibility is fine within the city, but the sky is permanently obscured. The fog, which settles down in March, will last through September, and today’s peek of sunlight was apparently a treat. Winter in Lima is not too cold (long-sleeved shirts and pants have been fine during the day, and I’ve worked up a sweat as I’ve walked through the city). The breezes are very pleasant, but it’s clearly a different city in the summer, when Limeños flock to the beach. In fact, a report from the health minister last week encouraged residents to escape the city once a week to get some sun, warning that uninterrupted months in Lima could cause seasonal depression. Having temporarily escaped the Northeast winter, I find the lack of sun disappointing, but I’ll count my blessings. If this is winter, it’s the best winter I’ve known.

Though I already feel I’ve been here a while, you wouldn’t know it from how I’ve spent the time. I’ve done remarkably little so far, in part by choice and in part a side effect of unfortunate second-guessing and indecision. I had planned to spend my first two weeks here, before Lydia comes, being a tourist: visiting sites, experiencing the city’s food and culture, and just wandering. And I began doing that, heading out to Miraflores the first two days I was here. But I’ve found that solo tourism isn’t much fun. I see what I want to see quickly, grab meals in a flash, and then have lots of time on my hands. The fun stuff, from excursions to nightlife, doesn’t seem worth trying by myself. And I haven’t motivated myself to see a lot of the obvious sights yet—I still need to get inside the spectacular churches and mansions in Centro Lima. So what have I done? For dinner one night I met up with Mike Thornton, a fellow Yalie (as well as a fellow Morsel and religious studies major) who’s doing research in Andean Peru this summer, I’ve seen some of the famous sights, I’ve done a lot of walking through a couple neighborhoods, and I’ve taken time to plan out a route for Lydia and me to follow when we travel in a couple weeks. Not much to show for a week.

My inaction has mainly stemmed from some early frustrations and disappointments, which in turn come primarily from one surprise: my Spanish is not very good, and no one here speaks English. I know, I know: that shouldn’t surprise me. Well, I’ve never been in a place where I can’t expect anyone on the street to speak English, at least not alone. In all my international traveling, I realize I haven’t truly been by myself much, and, when I have been, I could expect some of the people I encounter to make communication easy on me. Not here. My rudimentary Spanish lets me ask all the questions I need to, and supposedly Peruvians don’t speak as fast as many Latin Americans do, but I’ve still had difficulty with even basic conversations at stores. Christian has helped translate some, but my longest interactions in Spanish have been with waiters. I’m disappointed that the language hasn’t come back more quickly, since I’d like to be more competent at it already, but the disappointment is compounded by its more troubling implications.

I realized quickly that my hope of reporting in Peru might remain unrealized. My progress with Spanish is yet to be seen, but I don’t see how it will get to the point where I can talk to people on the street with accuracy or comfort. And I haven’t yet figured out how to make “professional” contacts—people in business, government, or NGOs—who speak English and may be able to show me around. I’m meeting soon with an American journalist, whom I’m hoping can advise me on how to report here given my limitations, and I’ll be contacting several non-profit groups operating in Lima, but those are Peruvian-run and may not be easy for me to connect to. I don’t need to come out of this trip with articles, but I will be at least mildly embarrassed if two months in Peru don’t yield at least one Globalist piece. Whether I can avoid that embarrassment won’t be clear for a while.

Photography, too, has been more challenging than I had expected. Although I’ve felt surprisingly safe, I haven’t yet felt comfortable with the camera out. Even in Miraflores, stares have accompanied me as soon as I’ve taken the camera out. And I haven’t been brave enough to take it out in the less savory neighborhoods. Some of it is fear of being targeted when I have something so flashy, but a large part is the same discomfort I feel at photographing strangers at home. My hope is that, as I become more comfortable here, photography will become less of an issue. That’s also tied to my language skills, but it’s not dependent on them alone. I’ll never be ignored when I have the camera, so I need to work beyond my aversion to the attention. And I’ll need to feel comfortable taking pictures of people who don’t and won’t know me or be able to communicate with me. When I find myself comfortable being watched as I photograph—and only then—I’ll start to get some good shots.

The third major worry I’ve had since arrival has been personal. I hadn’t thought through how I would meet people here, but I assumed I would. In my romantic visions, I thought I could end up befriending lots of locals, even perhaps being “adopted” by a family. And I assumed I would meet fellow travelers, since I’d be staying in hostels and that’s what people do in hostels. My problems with Spanish have made the first notion seem no closer than a dream. Until I can manage simple business transactions, I definitely won’t be able to make friends who speak only Spanish. And I haven’t figured out how to meet other tourists here. Of the people I see on the street, many are older couples or groups, and I haven’t wanted to introduce myself to people a generation or two ahead than me. Among the younger set, though I want to meet other travelers, I don’t feel comfortable stopping people on the street and striking up conversation. Not staying in a hostel has kept me from some easy ways to meet other travelers, but there don’t seem to be the youth hostels full of young people looking to meet other young people that exist in Europe. And the fact that almost all the other tourists I’ve seen have been in groups has added another challenge: when I’m alone and others have traveling companions, I’m afraid that I would be an unwelcome addition to an established group. It doesn’t feel lonely, and I don’t know that it will, but it will be odd to go a month without speaking to anyone. I don’t expect that to happen, but I’ll need to take steps to make sure it doesn’t.

I have ten days in Lima before my sister, Lydia, arrives and we travel down the coast and into the Andes. When we get back I’ll have another month here. Though the division of time is nice, it’s made it hard for me to immediately mobilize to address my concerns. The only major step I’ve taken is to sign up for a week of four-hour-a-day Spanish classes beginning Monday. I’ve also asked Lydia to speak to me only in Spanish when she arrives. By the end of the month, I should have a sense of my progress, and I’ll be able to tell then what I need to do in July. If I still don’t have much facility with the language, I might have to go for several more weeks of classes or meetings with a tutor. Although that would limit the time I have to spend on reporting and photographing, improving at the language will help me with both of those in my remaining time. And, as much as I want to have articles come out of this trip, it’s more important that I make progress with the local language.

Though I won’t be able to make decisions about July until it’s almost here, I’ve already begun thinking about it. If I stay in Lima I can choose to pursue Spanish seriously or choose to pursue journalism seriously, and hopefully I’ll be able to work on both. And I’m newly open to the idea of getting out of Lima that month. An email from Mike urging me to get to Arequipa has made me think about where I might prefer to be if my frustrations here remain. Leaving Lima would mean revamping my fellowship project, but I’m sure a change, if honestly done and diligently pursued, wouldn’t be a problem. And so I’ll see if I prefer Arequipa or Cuzco when I get there. I have no way of guessing now if I might leave Lima next month.

In thinking ahead, I’ve thought about best- and worst-case scenarios. Remarkably, the worst-case scenarios, of which there are several, are all the result of extraordinary good fortune. Figuring that I have four main objectives for my time here—the photography I have to do, the reporting I want to do, learning Spanish, and having fun, not necessarily in that order—the worst I can do is meet two of them. I’ll have to figure out a good architecture-related photography project, and I will. But if I’m too intimidated or lazy to seek out sources to report and people to meet, I’ll throw myself into learning Spanish, and hopefully come away with that as the main legacy of this trip. If I ditch the Spanish, I know that I’ll be having fun, at least by relaxing, reading, and writing on the coast, with no serious worries for a month. It’s not what I’m aiming for, but can I complain about that? And all of that is ignoring the best-case scenarios, in which I meet three or four of my goals. Those are very much possibilities, and will happen with a little bit of luck and hard work.

In all of this, I’ve written little about Lima. I feel I almost shouldn’t say anything about the city, since I’ve seen so little of it and spoken to fewer than a half-dozen Limeños. To make any statements about the city now would be like analyzing New York after only wandering my neighborhood on the East Side, watching people and looking at buildings. So, knowing fully what small portion of Lima I’ve experienced, I’ll say that my early impressions are mostly very positive. As much as I can tell without speaking to them, people here seem very nice (I guess because they don’t stare at me or threaten me in more serious ways). The city is at once a bustling metropolis and peaceful like a small town. (One of the guidebooks I have says that Limeños are calmer than many urban Latin Americans, giving Lima the feel of many small towns. I read that passage after having a similar observation myself.) And I’m impressed at how, although there is tremendous poverty (which, again, I haven’t seen yet), the physical feel of the city is remarkably egalitarian. There are no great monuments of private wealth, few shining residential beacons, and almost no way for the rich to separate themselves physically from the poor. As in my hometown, there are parts that are far wealthier than others, but no one in Lima seems able to avoid fellow citizens of lower economic standing by guarding himself within a gated estate. There is surely an upper class here, but beyond the coastal high-rises I can’t see a visible sign of it, and even that is hardly flaunted wealth. From dress to architecture, Lima seems as egalitarian or more so than anywhere I’ve been. All of this is, of course, from observation alone, and very flawed observation at that: I have yet the see the majority of the city, which is far poorer than what I have seen, or even, probably, than I am expecting. And though the city is pretty, I realized today that stepping outside is stepping into exhaust fumes. On the bright side, the gunshots I thought I heard last night, which I heard again tonight, turned out to be fireworks. At least food is good, transportation is easy, and both are cheap. If I do stay here as planned, it shouldn’t be a difficult couple of months.

Hopefully when I write again I’ll have more adventure to relay. And with a coming journey into the Andes, who knows? As I’ve begun familiarizing myself with Peru’s history, I’ve quickly gained appreciation for the people and history I’m getting to know. It’s a beautiful and fascinating place, and I’m amazingly lucky just to be here.


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