I remember most vividly the coastline that stretches the Peruvian coast from San Miguel to Chorrillos. There, at the exit of Lima, the cross of Chorrillos towers over the city in white lights. A shining monument made from high voltage towers to welcome the second visit of Pope John Paul II in 1988. It was the last thing I saw when I went to bed at night, and the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning.
Set against the cliffside, the sunrise kept me from boozing at the local howff. With the pups in tow, I’d walk the Malecón when it was just bright enough to see the sea. Some days it was hard to find, other days it was clear. The high season was in full force, early January; the smell of fish heavy, the ocean air cool in the heat.
Every summer the hippies came in droves. Camper vans sat down the block from my apartment waiting for the next leg of their trip. Some plates from Argentina, others from Ecuador and Brazil. All of them tattered with torn bumper stickers promoting the freedom movement.
I envied them in some small way, wondering what it might be like to be young and free and temporarily delusional. The tourists were different in Peru, I thought. They were adventurous and experienced, dedicated to one peak or another in the far off places like Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley.
More than anything, though, I felt a bubble in Lima. I remembered the words of one of my Peruvian dates. “This is not the real Peru,” she said, twirling a spoon over her dish. “This is a whole different country.”
We were at Colonia & Co. on Avenida San Martin. A place reminiscent of the Yucatan peninsula with blue linoleum tiles and matching nautical dining chairs. On the menu were pancakes para ella y tostadas francesas para mi. The restaurant was rated a must-visit, and like most places in Barranco you had to wait a long time before the food was served.
Dressed in fresh white trousers, my Peruvian date was a fashion designer who made women’s sleepwear and worked out of a store in San Isidro, the commercial district. To work up an appetite, we walked from Miraflores to the Bridge of Sighs. Later, we drank gin and tonics and ate cow heart at Ayahuasca. All the while a movement was rising outside the city limits.
Another friend from Lima was in Italy for Pitti Uomo. Despite warnings from the media to avoid Peru, the political atmosphere seemed mostly in tact in the capital. You’d never know that a month prior the president was impeached for planning to dissolve congress. He was charged for conspiracy and rebellion after seeking asylum at the Mexican embassy. Yet in the Barranco district nobody seemed to bet on anything.
On the day of my arrival, some time in mid-December, the government called for a state of emergency. I was worried I’d be denied entry, flying from MDE to Jorge Chavez in a haze of uncertainty, but when I arrived in the country the border officials stamped my passport for the maximum allowance. “Bienvenido a Peru,” they told me.
Arrivals was a ghost town, nobody without a boarding pass got in or out. I met my driver in an old beat up Hyundai family van and drove through the dry city wasteland towards town. By late afternoon, I was settled among the pink hues of old colonial mansions between museums and galleries, a far cry from the outer boroughs.
From first sight, nothing seemed to be going on. Families were walking to the beach with towels slung over their shoulders. Electronic shops and veterinarians lined the strips to the main highway, open for business, and for a country in turmoil I’d seen little to suggest a political shuffle.
This was the capital, I was reminded. My elderly neighbour poked her head out of the window to clarify the difference. “Good morning, joven,” she called in Spanish. “Be careful of Cusco right now. Did you see the news?”
Further south people were experiencing a different story. Chaos was unfolding. In places across Puno, for example, people were dying in protests and bodies were piling up in the streets. The latest, accounting for nearly 60, had been shot point blank in the head with a beanbag round.
Dozens of deaths from aggressive policing and crackdowns with no repercussions, no answers. Since 2003 the impunity rate for the Armed Forces of Peru has stood at nearly 100%, a statistic that tops much of Latin America.
It was a different kind of violence here. It seemed more peculiar than terrorism, it was something sad and strange. From what I gathered, things like this didn’t happen so publicly. But similar to stories I had heard elsewhere in South America, it was hard to tell which stories were original and which were fabricated for the press. I was told not to even trust the comments on popular social media pages because it was unclear who might’ve been incentivized by the opposition.
Rumors of a campaign whispered around the district that the recently impeached president was the one coordinating this support. It reminded me of what my Mexican friends told me about AMLO during the controversial electoral debacle last year. One way or another, the rich and poor in Peru had very different stances, and I presumed the truth fell somewhere in the middle, or maybe it didn’t fall at all.
Another story I heard was of Jochen Wiese, a 30-year veteran at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some years ago, Wiese was reportedly sent to Peru by the UN to deter cocaine production by incentivizing famers to sow other crops such as cocoa, coffee, and palm oil.
In Wilfried Huismann’s documentary, King of Cocaland, the reporters alleged that the $100 million project was used to cover up the drug trade and that Wiese and UN representatives enriched themselves with profits. The documentary sparked an international investigation, and Wiese moved to Asia to propose the same operation. Today, Peru still stands as the world’s second largest producer of cocaine.
I sat in Dédalo many afternoons afterward, the café tucked inside a small gallery, and contemplated what exactly constructed a country. Aside from its gastronomical reputation and Inca wonders, the real Peru was hard to pin down. Like El Dorado, maybe the mystery was part of the allure.
On New Years Eve, I decided against that sort of subterfuge. I declined a party invitation to watch the fireworks on the Malecon. That night I slept with the windows open, the fan on high. The thunder of celebration raged on. The neighborhood children played on the terraces late into the night, and clueless foreigners sabered champaign bottles at Hotel B. I dreamed in the heat, remembering what Joan Didion had once written: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
And in the morning, everybody was gone. Not even the street sweepers made their rounds.
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