Amusing and alarming stories from my time in Lima, Peru’s capital.
Short Stories from Lima23 05 2011
Bucketful of Love
My eyes were drawn to a wilting flower wedged into my door, the fourth one in as many days. The list of admirers was limited, but even worse it was rather disturbing.
There was the 40-plus man who lives on the floor above in our small apartment block. I’d unfortunately met him on New Year’s Eve when he placed a sloppy kiss on my cheek, his lips attaching themselves like an unwanted leech.
After prising him away and putting some distance between us, he narrowed one eye and raised his fuzzy eyebrow. I thought perhaps he was about to launch into an intellectual debate about Einstein’s theory. But no, this perplexed expression was considered seductive.
“Do you have an owner?” he enquired. This completely baffled me and it took a minute before the penny dropped. When it did, my face soured. “I don’t have an owner,” I retorted, “but I do have a boyfriend,” I lied.
“That’s the same,” he smirked.
“Perhaps to uneducated people,” I snarled back.
Undeterred by this, he stepped closer and bashfully announced, “I have three girlfriends!” Was this supposed to endear me to the leech? I flashed my best sarcastic smile and commented, “Uh huh, that’s exactly why I don’t like Peruvian men,” before tottering off and clinging onto the arm of an unsuspecting gringo who was to be my pretend partner for the next few hours.
Next on the list for the possible flower bearer was an even more alarming man.
A few days earlier the entire block had been without water for over 24 hours. During this dry period I’d been to the gym and was in desperate need of a shower. The landlady was of no help. Just when I was considering washing in the nearest fire hydrant, I received a knock at my door. Standing before me was the odd-jobs man from the apartment block, toting a bucket of water.
“I’ve brought this for you!” He gleefully announced before stepping across the boundary into my room. Happy at the thought of no longer contaminating my friends’ nostrils, I didn’t particularly notice him still lingering around.
After five minutes of edging him towards the door, I finally managed to get rid of him. Ungrateful you may think. Perhaps. But when he had referred to me as guapa (good looking) and given me a smelly, second-hand toy tiger the day before as a gift I was not too accommodating towards him.
Especially as he was 63 and old enough to be my father.
I removed the flower from the door and left it in the corridor, a clear sign not to bother doing it again. Later that evening there was a knock at the door. I was not about to have a pride-hurt Latino male squawking at me, so I chose to ignore it, and the subsequent and persistent bangs that bounced off the door over the next two days.
Whoever it was has finally taken the hint, something that the men in South America don’t seem to do very easily. I’m afraid no amount of half-dead flowers, stinky stuffed animals or fuzzy eyebrows will work on me, especially when the donor has several girlfriends or is claiming a pension.
Love thy neighbour’s possessions
The bus chugged along past graffiti-covered shops, continuously beeping its horn for completely unfathomable reasons. Ahead of us was a large orange billboard with ‘Keiko’ written across it. The Peruvian elections were looming near and candidates’ faces were plastered all over Lima.
Keiko Fujimori was one such presidential candidate popular in the poorer areas of the city. I had been trapped behind her campaign lorry several weeks earlier, not impressed that the vehicle refused to move out of the way of traffic. Orange-clad dancers leapt from the truck and danced along the road, holding up buses yet amusing bystanders.
An ambulance with flashing lights had bleared its sirens while through a loud speaker it demanded that the truck move. Keiko’s lorry, however, ignored the emergency for 15 minutes before it decided to allow the ambulance to pass. I was dumbfounded. But not as dumbfounded as I was about to become.
Beyond the orange poster I couldn’t believe my eyes: was I imagining things or was there an enormous naked person strolling down the litter-strewn street? I swiveled my head to take in the sight, to check that I wasn’t hallucinating.
No, I wasn’t. A 150-kilo woman was wobbling along without a care in the world. She stopped to natter with a shop keeper who responded with kissing her on the cheek, apparently unaware that she was stark naked.
Under one fat-rippling arm she clutched a black handbag, accessorising her birthday suit. She needed somewhere to put her money, I suppose.
I was still goggle-eyed when the next eye-popping incident occurred.
Suddenly, one of the youths flew at the bus at breakneck speed. He slammed open the window and tried to snatch an iPhone from the Peruvian man behind me, who rather stupidly I thought, had it on display. Not what you do in the grimy areas of Lima.
There was a brief tug of war and somehow the iPhone owner managed to cling onto his gadget.
The baseball-capped would-be thief laughed raucously as he swaggered back to his group of cohorts where they continued to size up the bus. My money was in my pockets but I moved my bag, which contained nothing of value, out of view. My eyes were still popping out of my head.
The bus conductor looked at me and smiled, “We’ll take you back to Miraflores, should we?” I smiled weakly at the thought of returning to the safest area of Lima and nodded in agreement.
I too, like the naked woman, was quite fond of my handbag and didn’t fancy losing it.
Lima is a heady mix of prosperity and impecuniosity, plush houses in one area juxtapose the boarded shacks in another. It’s a pendulum that swings between destitute and affluent neighbourhoods, never resting in the middle where the two might meet.
The contrast is so vast that the two faces of Peru’s capital barely seem like the same city.
In the upscale barrios, or neighbourhoods, suited men saunter past mirrored office blocks and neatly pruned gardens. Fancy apartment blocks are monitored by suits and ties who watch dog walkers pulled along by packs of pampered pooches.
The pavements they go down are rigorously cleaned by workers in red jumpsuits who fervently scrub away, their faces barely visible in a bid to hide from the sun’s darkening rays.
Small wooden huts are scattered along the wealthy streets, occupied by orange- and brown-clad security men, armed with their whistles and batons. Bars on curtained windows and gated entrances need no explanation that Lima is a city of destitute opportunists.
At the other end of the spectrum are the areas covered in graffiti and shacks. The streets are often dirt paths or filthy pavements, no one comes here to scrub the streets clean.
A few weeks ago I was in a car with Peruvian friends when we took a wrong turn in the hunt for a shop. Suddenly we were in a dodgy area with men lingering around.
“Put your foot down!” we all shouted from the back seat as the menacing locals sitting on the
kerb fixed their eyes on the car and glared. We sped past three armed policemen who were attempting to keep the area ‘secure’.
I asked other Limeans if this actually reduces the crime rate and they said that yes, it deters the locals from committing crimes. Still, I wouldn’t fancy wandering through one of these neighbourhoods and expecting to emerge from the other side.
If Lima could be captured in a postcard, it would the image I saw the other day: the backdrop was an expensive department store brandishing the latest fashion from Italy and walking past it were well-to-do women who took up all of the pavement as though they owned it.
Across the street from the Gucci-accessorised-50-somethings was a child clad in rags. He was in a slight ditch with dirt smearing his face. He looked up and caught my eye as he turned around again and scurried back to his mother. In her out-stretched hand she was shaking a plastic cup waiting for coins to drop in. The child picked up a sweet from the floor and gobbled it up.
Across the street a taxi was loading up expensive goods from the international store as a woman with immaculate hair and makeup slid into the back seat. The child watched silently, well aware even at his very young age, of the gap between them.
He looked down the street and saw me again. Slowly he edged forward, his grubby face looking up. I smiled and reached into my grocery bag, offering him a banana. Without hesitation his hands, which looked like they had never seen soap, snatched it from me as I guiltily walked away. Although I lived only less than a kilometre away, I too was enjoying a lifestyle a million miles away from his.
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