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First full day in Lima
Our connecting flight from Atlanta touched down softly. The immigration line was a breeze and our bags popped up on the baggage carousel quickly. The men’s restrooms were an ecological disaster. I decided to wait.
An on-the-ground employee of our travel agency was outside of immigration to meet us. It never gets old seeing someone holding a sign with your name on it at the airport. I think we should greet all of our family and loved ones this way.
Our guide, going by Chris (shortened from something very Spanish) walked us out to a van, with our driver. Chris gave us a run down of restaurants and food and what to do and how to do it. I was tired and I didn’t want to play. But Chris was charming and soon I was scotched up to the edge of the van’s bench seat so I could hear better.
The Lima airport isn’t in Lima, it’s about an hour away. Chris pointed out landmarks and explained local dishes and we shared stories about Portland. Chris has travelled all over the US. He’s probably seen more of the United States than you have. I wonder what comes first, working for a travel company or wanderlust?
We arrive at our hotel, a beautiful 19th century pile of creaky doors and tile. The receptionist explains all the things for us, provides restaurant recommendations. Chris, not to be outdone, suggests that, no, this is the restaurant you want. A little professional competition.
We dragged our bags into our room. I washed my face. I drank water voraciously. Refreshed, we headed out to find a bar that Chris recommended - a pisco house.
Street signs and signage in general seem to be either optional or very understated. We walked right by the bar. Once we were sure where we were going, my wife was apprehensive. For travel, she dresses for comfort, wearing stretchy athletic gear. My philosophy is to dress like the guy the waiter instinctively brings the check too. I fit the vibe, but she felt underdressed. Couples entering the bar were dressed up cute and snazzy with difficult shoes.
The attendant at the door waved us in. The dress code for tourists is different.
The bar not only serves drinks made with pisco, but also quite amazing food. We enjoyed a ceviche, which in Lima is made with sea bass, chili, and lime, and a salmon carpaccio, thin slices of raw salmon, layered with avocado, nested on a creamy citrusy sauce. We ate and drank at the bar. Better for watching people and talking. At a bar you can sit close, turn to each other and talk, or you can watch the bartenders, or you can watch the other patrons in the mirror.
Next to us a couple was on a date. He is too old for her. She wanted to take some selfies. In a move I’ve never seen, she snatched his phone, turned on the flashlight feature, gripped his phone behind her phone as a makeshift studio light and took some very flattering photos.
Two bartenders were making drinks and keeping a solemn watch on things. One bartender was quite young but very serious. The other bartender was older, and seemed to be enjoying himself more. My wife noted that, with his hipster glasses, he looked like a Peruvian Harry Crane (from Mad Men).
Back at the hotel we realized our bed wasn’t a king, but two twin beds lashed together to make some kind of super-king bed. We slept like drunk babies.
The hotel breakfast buffet was coffee, fruit, pastries, eggs, potatoes, crispy roasted pork, and tamal (like the insides of a tamale). I assembled a mostly vegetarian plate and drank all the coffee.
After breakfast we headed out. Our first planned stop was the MAC - Lima’s museum of contemporary art. We consulted the illustrative map the hotel gave us (Apple Maps doesn’t do directions in Lima) and picked a walking route. We are staying in the haute bohemian Barranco district of Lima, which is known for the arts, culture, and restaurants.
The MAC sits in a smallish fenced park, surrounded by an artificial pond. The primary exhibit is titled simply “Color” and is a sort of exploration of color in art and technology. Works of art along side old technical drawings of color wheels are coupled with scientific explorations of the workings of color. The final piece in the show is a darkened room of video projections and sound - undulating surreal color cascades over jungle plants.
After the museum we decide to check out the Huaca Pucllana, an ancient pyramid and other ruins in the midst of of the city.
We choose to walk the 4 miles (give or take) to the ruins. We start on a main road, but realize quickly that this road is not for people and head over to a side street. We discover that my wife’s phone’s compass seems to be about 45º off (at least in Google Maps) so we give up walking directions and try to just navigate the old fashioned way - look at a map and guess.
Lima has a mix of old, very old, new, and very new. A jagged, futuristic brutalist engineering school looms over the freeway, along side small modernist homes and old traditional buildings. The variety is striking.
We stop into a small pharmacy. I was a fool and failed to pack my malaria medicine. But we’re in Peru, you can just buy that stuff over the counter here. No prescription needed. Remarkable.
After getting a little lost and turned around, realizing that the street names on our digital maps bear little relationship to the signs on the road, we finally make it to the archeological site. The pyramid looms large, like a small mountain over the city. The stacks of handmade mud brick reveal 1500 year old handprints of the brick makers.
There is a lovely restaurant next to the ruins, named for the ruins. It’s fancy, it’s for tourists. We are both. The restaurant opens at noon, and it’s just a few minutes before noon. We take a seat and wait. A waiter appears to tell us they’ll open at 12:15.
At 12:30 we get a seat on a covered patio overlooking the ruin and order a sumptuous lunch. As we eat the restaurant fills up behind us with folks finishing their tours. Perhaps we’re going about this backwards.
After lunch we sign up for a 2pm tour in Spanish. The English tour starts an hour later. We take the Spanish tour.
Last year when I was traveling in Japan, I had no hope of learning or understanding any Japanese beyond konichiwa, gosaimas, and sayonara. I leaned into my helplessness and quickly learned to enjoy being a polite, simple, idiot.
This is my first time in a Spanish speaking place since before the pandemic lockdown and I still remember just enough Spanish to be the worst sort of bumbling tourist. The kind who says one phrase nearly perfectly and then has no more vocabulary. Setting up expectations which can’t be met. It’s an exercise in repeated humility. Why did I take German in high school anyway? (Oh right. That cute exchange student.)
My wife’s Spanish is brilliant and she is routinely asked where she is from, as there’s no way that an American speaks Spanish that well. (That’s a safe assumption, really). It makes me proud. It also makes me feel like I should download DuoLingo or something.
The pyramid and the ruins are amazing and tall. From the top you can see all around the city and out west to the ocean. The contrast between the sun-dried adobe and the modern world is striking. Throughout the tour the museum has staged historically accurate mannequins acting out the tasks of the day, brick making, rituals, etc. The figures are so short, no more than 4 feet. I suddenly realize that the “low” walls I’ve been peering over all afternoon are ceiling height for these people.
We decide to take a cab back to the hotel. We’re hot, tired, and sweaty. The first cab to stop for us turns us down flat, claiming he didn’t know where the hotel was. Buddy I know where the hotel is. Our next cab whisks us off through traffic back to the hotel.
I can’t imagine driving in Lima. Riding in a cab is thrilling enough. Aggressive lane changing, honking, and narrow misses with buses are just how you do it.
At the hotel we mop off the sweat, my wife settles in for a nap, and open a bottle of wine and write up my day.