Impressions of Peru so far? So many! As the KLM flight came in to land at Lima International Airport, the first impression was of a brown, low-rise, half-built town, with a glittering glass crown in the centre. My week in that centre, at an international conference, served to underline this. The ‘middle classes’ of Lima, if I can use such a term, are the wealthy, with, it seems, far, far below them, the very poor, and little if anything in between. The gap is evident in the gated business sector I have spent the last week in, like a Baghdad Green Zone, characterised by the profusion of security guards, high steel fences, the railings, broken-glass-topped walls, spikes and grilled up doors and windows that are ubiquitous here.
As a colleague of mine said to me yesterday, as we took a hotel taxi to the best private museum, we have earned the privilege of being among Lima’s wealthy, chaperoned, protected, looked after. There are poor in our countries, too, and we have worked hard to get where we are. Yet, in the UK at least, the welfare net is set so very much higher than the average level of the poor here, and prevents the worst excesses of poverty so visible in the faces of those desperate to sell us “anything” at the windows of the taxis when they stop at the lights. The driver presses the central locking switch, in a quiet, protective move, and then we are gone. The garish colours and busy-ness of the advertising hoardings and shop fronts are such a contrast to the dull brown, low-rise town seen from the air as you approach – the outskirts surely where the poor gather like (equally brown) moths to the city-centre flame, their (equally brown) faces pressed to the security gates, admiring the spectacle of transnational wealth.
And never before have I been given so many warnings about how dangerous a country is – what not to do, where not to go, what to be careful about. In Egypt the tour guides marshalled the hawkers, fair enough, but they were pleasant enough, just a little overwhelming. Here, apparently, it just isn’t safe to go out at night in many places, where ones tourist face is so clear to pick out. I don’t know if the tales are an exaggeration, but am I really that inclined to find out? What with this having been the worst year for my back in over a decade, and the orthotic strap holding me together the only reason I didn’t bring my stick, I don’t fancy my chances at running away from anything. But everyone I have met has been really pleasant, welcoming – albeit also protective. I am glad I have booked this entire trip through a travel agent, and that every step of my journey around Peru will be guided. My Spanish is non-existent, at any rate, and outside of the city-centre, so is the English of most people other than my guides.
Arriving in Chiclayo, today, after the short flight north from Lima, the impression is immediately one of being in a third world country. I am strongly reminded of southern Egypt. Although it is winter here now, and I arrive in the early evening, the warm air as I step off the plane is dry, slightly dusty, and faintly sweet. The view of the town during the descent was similar to the outskirts of Lima – half-built, (at best), and here the metalled roads are in the minority – the main thoroughfares, interspersed with broken concrete lanes near the centre, and simple flattened dirt in the outskirts. The taxi ride to the hotel reinforces this impression. I must say something about the driving here. It is terrifying. I am so glad I didn’t even consider hiring a car. Although the drivers (well, the one who spoke some English) tell me there are few accidents because of the driving style, just the usual accidents due to drink and speed, this is clearly because, as he says, all Peruvian drivers “have eight eyes and radar inside their heads”. The roads are a complete free-for-all with no rules at all. Terrifying for a well-behaved British road user.
Anyway. I am here principally, now that my conference is over, to see pre-Columbian Peru, and extremely fortunate to be able to do so. Like most tourists from the ‘rich’ world, I will simply have to deal with the poverty around me by getting into private cars, taking private tours, and, basically, not dealing with it, not looking at it. All I can hope is that by visiting some of the less well known sites, as I am doing this week, in the north of the country, I am bringing some desperately needed tourist dollars to the local economy, and that this is at least something, and all I can possibly be expected to do, in the face of so much need.
The Larco Herrera Museum, in Lima, is reputedly the best collection of pre-Columbian artefacts in the capital, if not the largest (The National Anthropological Museum) or the richest (the Central Bank’s Gold Museum). I have taken over 100 photos there, and confess to being completely enchanted by pre-Columbian history. The Moche, in particular, I am finding really fascinating – a culture that rose and fell through five stages from 1-800CE, and which has left some very striking artefacts, along with its own mark on the civilisations which followed it. Of particular note, (predictably) for me, is that the Moche left a great deal of erotic art and ceramics behind, of which there was a whole separate gallery at the Larco, and of which I am told there will be more at the Cassinelli Museum I am to visit during my stay up here in the north.
See flickr.com for all the photos.