Out and About in Lima
Friday 8/26 5:30pm
The thing about currency in a foreign land is: IT’S NOT MONOPOLY MONEY. I have this powerful urge to pull out the pocketful of coins and turn to a dealer somewhere and say “Color me up.” Like…turn this pretend stuff into something I can understand.
There is NOTHING COOL about standing at the register, turning coins over to peer hopefully at them through glasses fogging up from the mask. It leads me to do things like pay for a bottle of water worth two soles with a hundred-sole note…because I can read the notes!
Incidentally, two soles is worth roughly fifty cents. For a BIG bottle of water. Every time we turn around, I am reminded that life is exceptionally expensive in the United States. After a full day of touring (and Uber’s thorough refusal to actually find us a driver home), Rusty flagged down a taxi to take us back to the hotel—a ride of roughly 40 minutes, depending on traffic…which is dreadful.
“How much?” I asked the driver before we got into the car.
“Twenty,” he said.
“Get in,” I said to Twig and Rusty.
Then I spent the rest of the ride alternately gasping at the guy’s brio in very heavy traffic and then wondering if my grasp of Spanish (tenuous at best) had done me wrong again. I often misunderstand numbers. He didn’t really mean twenty, did he? That would be a LONG taxi ride for $5.
But no—he meant twenty soles. I mean—jeez. Twig, Rusty, and I were all fishing in our pockets and reading coins to cobble together a tip. We looked like rubes who NEEDED to be ripped off—but he seemed very happy with the five-soles coin we eventually identified. Roughly a dollar tip. Man. I am far outside my natural habitat.
The style of driving in Lima is what my darling friend Kevin would call “Just put your dick out there.” If you want to change lanes, just start moving. Either someone will let you in or you will discover you’re less of a man than you thought you were. As long as there are two or three paint thicknesses between you and the car or truck beside you or in front of you or behind you, everything is fine and you will still be able to attract a bride and father children.
Twig found an incredible walking food tour. She’d hired Lorena, a native Limeño, to walk us through the city and take us to eat things…which was cool. We NEVER would have gotten to ANY of these places alone.
(And when three of us appeared instead of the two Lorena expected, Twig explained that Rusty was a last-minute addition to the tour; could he come, too? With great apologies, Lorena explained that we’d have to buy him a ticket, which we did. Twig had paid well over a hundred bucks per ticket when she reserved them for her and me; how much did Lorena want to add someone? “Oh, I’m sorry—it’s forty, maybe forty-five soles.” I gave her a 50-sole note (because I could read it!) and she was delighted. To review: I’d paid her about $12.50.
From that point on, we never paid for anything. She got the food on the foodie tour and we didn’t pay for anything until I wanted to buy a bottle of water. (Which was 50 cents.)
We had a “torren de Doña Pepa,” which was layers of a cookie-like jobber with WAY too much honey laced in. Throw in some anise seeds and some sprinkles on top. “You don’t like it?” she asked me in concern. “No, it’s wonderful. Just a little sweet.” “Oh, yes.” This was the expected response, and she was happy with me. “It’s very sweet. That’s local honey.” Ah. Good. And I didn’t have to eat any more. This was when I began longing for a bottle of water…but didn’t succumb for a long time. We are obedient to the guide; if she gets our treats without water, then we will go without water. For we are GOOD guests on the tour and not at all a cluster of American Karens, making life miserable for everyone…
Then we went to the central market, where a policeman checked our vaccine records and verified we had on serious no-kidding masks (none of your comfortable cloth with ear flaps; we’re demanding N-95s at the Mercato Centrale, which I appreciated!). The market was the best stop. Butchers were displaying animal innards that we couldn’t identify. One guy had opened up chicken bodies with all the viscera still intact, which was SO DAMNED FASCINATING. Also... ew!
Then we got to the fruits and veggies and color burst all around us. Lorena got us sprigs of something deeply aromatic called ruda (with a perfume so sharp and clean that we could breathe it in through our masks; glorious). She told the woman we wanted four bunches; I said we’d be happy to share our ruda—just give us one bunch. No, no, said Lorena—make it two. She wanted a bunch for herself…which is a pretty good indication that this was a nice purchase.
We stopped for a smoothie made with lucuma. What is lucuma, you might wonder? (And why is my computer omitting the accent I’ve deliberately put in?) I’m trying again: lúcuma. Fooled it.
Lucuma had a texture like an avocado. Lorena had bought one for us to try plain before it came in the smoothie. It was an unusual taste; not unpleasant. Sort of pine-ish. And then? The Reaction. Lucuma coats and dries out the mouth. It’s like the clay feeling my teeth get after I eat cooked spinach, but magnified so dramatically that I was left sitting on a little stool by a little counter, hooting my astonished amusement like a loon.
The smoothies were more tasty. (What ISN’T made better by the application of milk, sugar, and a dash of cinnamon?) The taste had morphed to something close to caramel. Interesting. Thanks, Lorena!
From there we walked into Chinatown and had some pork shumai. That wasn’t as much fun as the alleyways we went down. Clearly these were places where innocent tourists peering at their fistful of coins would be robbed. And possibly enslaved. And off we went. The day was overcast and misty and the street was paved in some kind of super-slick tile that held a thin skim of mud and rain in a frictionless substance. Nobody said “Oh, dear—watch where you’re walking!” The city did not send out workers with industrial solvents to un-slick the streets. I find it delightful (because I tend to be able to stay on my feet) to realize that unlike Fairfax County, Virginia, most of the world is not made up of lawyers lurking behind corners in the hopes that someone will fall over and decide to sue.
Where next? I think the following food was from a street vendor. His sign read “Chocol con queso.” (That’s not exactly right, but it’s close.) The best I could do was imagine that someone wanted to pour Velveta on a chocolate bar (Hershey, PA meets Philadelphia, PA), but it turned out to be one of the FOUR THOUSAND VARIETIES of potato grown in Peru, cooked to Finest Baked Potato consistency and served with a slab of salty fresh cheese on top. Two salsas (neither of them picante, thank you) added flavor and color; one green and one yellow. I don’t know what they were, although I think the yellow one was peppers. I CANNOT digest peppers and don’t like their spice, but I’m determined to try everything on this trip—and whatever it was, it (a) was awesome and (b) did not repeat on me. Victory!
We had a churro from a tiny store; the Peruvian churro is (surprise!) filled with something very sweet. I’m used to the churros at the Price Club; this wasn’t that. Twig and Rusty were murmuring about getting full, but I plowed industriously ahead and dogged down that churro.
We were standing on the sidewalk, gnawing on warm sweet pastry, when I asked Lorena why so many people were standing around in front of San Francisco church. Turned out that they were waiting to join a protest. What kind of protest, we asked Lorena. Corruption (that was the short form); the current president wasn’t going to last the year much less the rest of his term. We’d seen VERY bored police all over the place, leaning on their riot shields and watching YouTube videos on their phones.
“Are we expecting trouble?” Twig asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said happily. “Would you like to try some ceviche next?”
The ceviche was heavenly and the riot did not break out. We were grateful for both things. Then we got coffee for Rusty and tea for me and parted from Lorena. Twig got us to a museum in a repurposed bank (the collection of precious metal artifacts from earlier civilizations was housed in the enormous vault; it was a cool building). Here is a photo of the original version of Jayne Cobb's hat. Ain't it fetchin'?
For our last push, we toured San Francisco.
The church also featured a monastery (still active, but not in the parts we toured). It was plush as only the Catholics could be in earlier days—but all that gilt and opulence was leavened, of course, by frequent (and frequently bloody) scenes of crucifixion There were long hallways in a cloister tiled in the most gorgeous Sevilla tiles, and a Moorish-influenced dome over the grand staircase…but also on the grand staircase was an altar that featured a 3D rendering of Christ’s head at just about eye level; he was crying bloody tears made of glycerin so it was particularly realistic and gruesome. I don’t ACTUALLY mean to disrespect anyone’s faith when I repeat my oft-muttered thought of “Fucking Catholics…” but seriously, man. They’ve got a lot to answer for. It’s a particularly bloody religion, and the desire to worship just how gruesome Christ’s death was? That seems…sado-masochistic to me. Shudder.
The church itself was notable mostly because all the statues in the side chapels were dressed in luxurious outfits of fabric, like the entire church was an enormous dollhouse. At some point, those robes and dresses must get dusty. Is there an official church dry cleaner who spruces things up? What do the statues wear while the robes are being cleaned? Do they have more than one outfit? Or dressing gowns? Where are those dressing gowns kept—is there a special closet? Does it have a Latin name? The Dollhouse Clothes Closet but in liturgical Latin? Who changes them? Monks? That seems racy; quite a few of the statues are of women. Would Brother Esteban really be the right guy to remove the Virgin Mary’s heavily-embroidered cloak and robe? Would he have to do it blindfolded? Is she like a Barbie under her robes, or just a mannequin frame? Is she pose-able? Can you bend her arms like Malibu Barbie? I need more information.
We toured the catacombs, which were…sad. People were buried in levels. After a while, the levels were full but more people wanted to be buried there (an estimated 40,000 in all). So some poor schmuck was sent into the pits to stir things up and retrieve any bones that were left (predominantly skulls and femurs) and then they were piled up in pits. The top level was arranged “artistically,” possibly to fool the descendants that their ancestors’ remains were still being honored. But…herringbones made of femurs seems a tad arts-and-craftsy to justify the desecration of Great Aunt Maud’s corpse.
The ceilings were often so low I had to double over to go through doorways. Rusty, at 6’4”, had it worse than me. Still, HE never hit his head on the ceiling and I did. Ouch.
It was while in the catacombs that I realized I was tapped out. The day had been LONG ENOUGH and now I was surrounded by skulls and electrical conduits into a once-black space, and grates into the church above, including one at a staircase decorated with more skulls. “This,” said our guide, “Is known as the Children’s Staircase, because unfortunately, sometimes children die, too.” (Spoiler alert.) “And people in the church often throw down candies through the grate for the children, which then have to be cleaned up.”
This is distressing on MANY levels. In the parlance of my childhood, I needed an orange soda, stat. My energy and my spirit were at shoe-lace level, and Twig and Rusty confessed to being done as well. We tried to get an Uber back to the hotel, but Uber left us spinning and spinning. Finally, Rusty stepped into traffic and flagged a taxi LIKE A MAN and I was pathetically grateful.
Back at our posh little enclave, I took a nap and we all met up for dinner in the sushi bar downstairs. Then Rusty and I went to the casino, which was startling and entertaining. We lost big at blackjack but pulled ahead on the slots. It’s very challenging to play even the penny slots when you can’t figure out which button will let you cash out… Still, playing penny slots in a place where a centavo is worth…hang on… one sole is worth 26 cents so a single centavo is worth .0026 cents. A quarter of a penny. Wait—I had a sentence going on there: Still, playing penny slots in a place where a centavo is worth a quarter of a penny did very little to dispel my belief that I was playing with Monopoly money. I have a stack of coins that I’m going to leave for the housekeeping staff when we check out tomorrow; total value is 37 soles, 70 centavos. Just about ten dollars. That would be just too little were we on the East Coast of the US…but let’s remember that a 45-minute taxi ride only cost 20 soles.
It's very confusing. I hope I’m not insulting anyone.
Definitely time for bed. Tomorrow we’re going to take it easy; we’ve got the whole day to do whatever we want. The people joining us on the Lindblad tour will almost certainly be flying in tomorrow, arriving at 10pm. They’ll be met by Julio the Lindblad expedition leader (we met Julio last night when he appeared at our hotel room doors with the nurse for the COVID testing; he’s very sweet). Then Julio will walk them all across the street from the airport to a hotel that almost certainly HAS to be better than it looked when we drove past it yesterday…
So our plan is to check out of luxury town, spend the day farting around, check into the airport hotel, do SOMETHING about dinner, and then meet the tour group on Sunday morning at the gaggingly early hour of 6:20 for a briefing. After that is our flight to Cuzco…
…so what do we do with our day tomorrow? We believe we’ve seen about all we care to see in Lima. Twig wants to find her way down the 50 foot cliff to the beach; I’m betting she’ll have to take a taxi to get there. Rusty and I plan on sleeping late, and then he and I will repeat this morning’s breakfast in the hotel’s coffee shop. He had a mocha that pleased him so greatly he ordered a second one, and I had a perfect and very French croissant. I’m up for that again tomorrow!