Peru: One year later

Why do we travel? What compels a person to leave the familiar comforts of home to strike into the unknown?

For most, I think, it’s pure boredom. You sit one evening absently eating mac and cheese and watching the news and think maybe a new exotic locale with winding dirt paths and spicy foods might cheer you up a bit.

For me, it took a job loss, a bad economy and the general sense that I had nothing to lose.

Regular readers know the story. I was a reporter at a U.S. daily. I was laid off. I sunk into deep despair, careening into a downward spiral of self-pity and Daily Show reruns.

Then, in the deepest dark corner of my gloom, a shining beacon appeared: A job offer in the dusty Latin American capital of Lima, Peru. I took it without question. The next day, I started this blog. In my inaugural post, I posed the following question:

… was it random chance that I found a job in Peru while idly browsing international job listings, or was it the grand narrative arc that would bring me from rock bottom into something amounting to self-actualization?

Well, some time has passed since then. What’s the answer?

Let me begin with a small caveat. Those closest to me know that I can be a heartless cynic. I don’t believe in ghost stories or hear voices in the wind. I hated The Notebook.  I think things are what they are, and nothing more.

But even the hardest realist might get a little choked up at what I experienced — that on my first night in Peru, riddled with the anxiety of a new unknown place, the very first person I met in the doorway of my new home would become the one I’d spend my life with. That her smile and laugh reinvigorated me and filled my heart with joy. That one year and four months later, we would be getting married in the only country we’ve known together.

It’s a story made to star Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, but it’s real life. Destiny or random event, I don’t really give a damn. I’m happy.

Thanks, Peru, for a great year.

Me and the special lady in Montreal.

On Afro-Peruvian music and the resilience of the human spirit

Alright, so I’ll grant that the complete moral hypocrisy of slavery was settled long ago, but in colonial-era Peru it was taken to particularly brazen heights.

Cotton barons who apparently had no qualms about taking fellow human beings from their families and forcing them into lives of servitude were outraged–outraged!–by the pulsating African rhythms and dances they saw slaves performing after long days in the fields.

So they did what any sensible tyrant would do: They banned “skinned” drums like congas–the source of the unholy gyrations–and wiped their hands of the whole matter.

But as any viewer of the movie Footloose would know, you can’t place a ban on the human spirit. You can’t ban dancin’! The slaves began playing chairs, boxes, donkey jaw bones–heck, anything they could find that made a nice noise. And out of this, a new form of music, Afro-Peruvian music, was born.

A performance at Noche de Percusión at La Noche in Barranco

I became fascinated by this joyous, pulsing, utterly unique musical form after a visit in February to a Noche de Percusión at La Noche jazz club in Barranco. The monthly celebration of Afro-Peruvian beats is put on by Rafael Santa Cruz, an internationally-known legend of the genre. It features  musicians from throughout Peru, but mostly from Chincha, the cradle of Afro-Peruvian music that served as the epicenter of Peru’s slave plantation culture more than two centuries ago.

I’ve been going religiously ever since, and am continually amazed by the volume, intensity and sheer spirit that can be wrought from the simplest of instruments.

Take the cajon. It’s little more than a hollow box, but performers played it with such intensity that it has become the undisputed national instrument of Peru. Its tinny high taps and deep bass slaps are like listening to the heartbeat of a nation.

ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-THUMP-THUMP, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-THUMP-THUMP 

Or the quijada, which is literally the jawbone of a donkey. Just this week, I sat transfixed at a monthly Noche de Percusión by a performer playing a quijada solo. Imagine a packed room going silent as a man plays a donkey jaw, and you’ll begin to better understand Afro-Peruvian music.

Truly, it’s some of the best live music I’ve ever seen, and I can’t really say I’m surprised. It seems throughout the world, oppression and pain breeds the best art.

Why is food better in poor, ethnic neighborhoods? Why does new music originate from the most poverty-stricken communities? Why do the best paintings come from the most troubled minds?

Maybe its because when others try to inhibit the human spirit, it only finds new avenues to come forward–stronger, bolder and more defiant than before.

Peru’s Split Personality Disorder

When you’ve been in Peru long enough, you begin to understand a type of split personality disorder rooted deep within the soul of this Andean nation.

As individuals, Peru’s people are without fail warm, friendly, and, mostly down for anything. Need directions? You’ll find someone on the street willing to help. Want to head to the beach and do nothing but eat ceviche, drink Pilsens and lie on hammocks for a few days? You’ll find a Peruvian friend or two willing to come along.

Go within the confines of a business, a government agency or any other type of organization, however, and you’ll see a different state of mind entirely. People who outside were perfectly pleasant and agreeable suddenly become officious and antagonistic–terrors of bureaucracy finding innumerable ways to throw roadblocks in front of whatever it is you’re trying to do.

The other day, for example, I was refused a bag of lettuce at a supermarket. That’s right, a market, presumably one which sells lettuce and other assorted food products, refused to sell a bag of lettuce to me, a customer in good standing.

The cashier couldn’t find a price, you see. And, honestly, she didn’t think I really needed lettuce anyway.

“But it’s a bag of lettuce!,” I implored uselessly. “I’m at a supermarket!”

“No señor,” she said, unmoved. “No se vende.” Not for sale.

It’s enough to make even a mild-mannered person red with rage, especially when taken with the easy-going nature you’re likely to find among your Peruvian friends. Take the following scene:

You: I know you have to work tomorrow, but tonight do you want to go out, get deliriously drunk, light some fireworks off on the street, and get some hamburgers while we watch the sun come up?

Peruvian Friend: Yeah! Let’s go, man!

And compare that with a routine trip to buy a random consumer product:

You: I would like to purchase this DVD player.

Peruvian sales rep: Okay. Just go to the back of the store, fill out these forms, wait in line for 45 minutes, and explain what you just said to me to our store’s sole cashier, who only accepts bills in denominations under S/.20. You do have your passport and an original birth certificate handy, right?

With time, I’ve learned to cool it over scenes like this.  Resistance is futile, especially when up against deeply rooted cultural mores.  Why do seemingly reasonable people follow rigid bureaucratic standards even when it’s against their own interests to do so? You got me. People here like Bon Jovi, too. Maybe, as a foreigner, I’m just not meant to understand certain things about this place.

So grab me another Pilsen, and maybe I don’t need a DVD player anyway.

Open Letter to Jimmy John’s

Dear Jimmy John’s:

How’s it going? It’s been awhile since I last gluttonously devoured one of your sandwiches.. erm… since we last talked. Say, I was thinking of sandwi… ahem… business opportunities in the developing world the other day and I thought of you. I’m sure you’ve been keeping busy expanding your sandwich empire across the continental United States, but before you build yet another franchise for some jerks in Minneapolis who only have to drive ten minutes for the nearest… I mean…  in a market that’s already saturated, you may want to stop and consider a property in an up-and-coming corner of the developing world.

Coming soon to a calle near you? A Jimmy John's in Willmar, Minn... as if the sandwich-rich city needed one with an Erbert's and Gerbert's already down the street.

Yes, of course I’m talking about Lima. You’ve likely heard about this Latin American city and its love of sandwiches. Heck, they ought to call this place Sandwich City for the passion its residents hold for meat and vegetables wedged between two slices of bread (and the money they dish out for it.. wink, wink… nudge, nudge). And property here is cheap, particularly in the hip, sandwichey district of Barranco. Come to think of it, a building on Calle Independencia directly across from an orange and white apartment complex would be an ideal place for a franchise sandwich shop.  I have no doubt your unique blend of quality subs and freaky fast delivery would be a hit amongst this neighborhood’s expat-who-hasn’t-been-home-for-eight-months-and-has-a-ravenous-desire-for-submarine-sandwiches demographic.

Anyway, I’m just an American in a strange land desperate for a salami sandwi…. I mean… a humble business observer doing what I can to guide sandwich capital to its most productive ends. Here’s hoping you heed my advice, and watch the money roll in amongst layers of mayonnaise, honey ham and fresh-baked bread.

You’re welcome.

Eric Ludy
Sandwich Business Consultant/Hungry Person

Should Peru Receive Foreign Aid?

Something is stirring in Peru’s self-image, and nothing could highlight that more than the response to Bill Gates’ assertion this week that development aid sent to the “middle income” country and others like it is wasted.

Rather than react with outrage, the response among many of the country’s top economists was ”good point.”

“What we don’t need is cash,” economist Elmer Cuba told El Comercio, pointing to the country’s enormous budget surplus. “We need help with the ‘know-how’, with human rights, democracy and gender issues.”

It’s yet another example of Peru’s complete identity change over the past growth-fueled decade. In the minds of economists, politicians and, well, everyone else, it’s a fatally flawed Banana Republic no more. Things are on the upswing. Poverty, corruption and poor infrastructure are no longer seen as facts of life, but as temporary problems that will be solved. It’s only a matter of time before they are, or so say the optimists.

Peru certainly has ample evidence to back up this newfound confidence. While growth in the developed world has buckled under the strain of financial crises, Peru has soared. In the last decade, its economy has tripled in size.  Average income is at around $10,000 per capita. That’s not buy a house with a two-car garage income, but it’s moving closer and closer to that every year. Gates says with its mineral wealth and ample agricultural land, Peru could soon be “as rich as a European country.”

So why should an up-and-coming country like Peru get development funds when less fortunate nations aid in sub-Saharan Africa are clamoring for assistance?

Gates said there is very little reason. Speaking in Spain yesterday,  he told leading officials in the country that it was hard to justify the $112 million in aid they sent to Peru in 2010, especially given the country’s own problems — with unemployment at the Depression-with-a-capital-D level of 22.9 percent.

Better to send those funds to countries with an indisputable need, he said.

But not all in Peru are sold on Gates’ assertion.

Ex-Minister of the Economy Pedro Pablo Kuczynski told El Comercio that ”you should take Bill Gates to the heights of Carabayllo and San Juan” before you make any sweeping claims about the end of poverty in Peru.

The two districts are among the poorest in Lima, with newly-built shantytowns that lack clean water, sewage and other basic infrastructure.

Kucyznski has a point. Official measures put 30 percent of Peru’s population in poverty. That’s down from 50 percent a decade ago, but still staggeringly high. And you don’t have to walk very far in this country to witness brazen examples of severe inequality. You know those cliched images of shantytowns with modern high rises in the distance? That pretty much describes Lima in general.

The real question, then, is whether Peru can solve these problems on its own.

For me, all indications say yes, if its willing to break itself out of the sins (read: institutional corruption) of its past.

Financially, this country is pretty well set to deal with it’s toughest issues of poverty. The money for schools, roads, bridges and new social welfare programs is all there.

But is the political will? I’m not so sure. For every crusader for good in Peruvian government, there’s a correspondingly brazen example of cynicism and corruption. Perhaps as a result of this, Peru is still way behind on matters of social justice. It’s record in a whole list of issues — social welfare, law enforcement, its treatment of criminal offenders, human rights and environmental stewardship — is negligible.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Progress takes time. What Gates pointed out so effectively yesterday was that with success comes a price.  The burden of solving Peru’s problems now rests squarely on Peruvians themselves.

Roadblock to Paradise

Good stuff yesterday from Peru This Week.

Returning to Lima after some years away, Roxana Garmendia surveys the coastline and concludes that it’s nice, but could be so much nicer.

I couldn’t agree more.

The view from the Santuaria Virgen del Morro in Chorrillos.

I’ve never seen an area with more unrealized potential than Lima’s Costa Verde. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful — all azure skies, stunning sunsets and rocky hills in the distance. As far as getting visitors to come goes, you’ve got an entire district of hotels filled with tourists eager for some R and R. Oh, and did I mention the stretch of coast is an international surfing mecca?

So what’s wrong with all that, you ask? Nothing, until you account for a problem that keeps rearing its ugly head in Lima: an abysmal traffic situation.

Lima suffers from a condition I’ll call Roadblock to Paradise Syndrome. It’s a malady that involves unfortunate barriers between nice places and the people who would love to visit them. Fancy a walk along Lima’s lovely coastline? Don’t expect a boardwalk. You’ll need to navigate around patchy sidewalks beside a major commuter highway, with trucks and taxis flying by at upwards of 70 miles per hour. Want to head down to the beach from your hotel in Miraflores? Even though its only a few hundred feet away, don’t expect to walk. You’d need to hike about a mile away to finally find some steps down the steep cliffside, after which you’d need to cross that same busy highway.

Roadblock to Paradise: The Circuito de Playas, a major highway popular with commuters, hugs the coastline in Lima. Photo by Ellie Watmuff

It’s enough to make a person not even bother. Case in point, every now and then I take a run from my apartment down to the Malecon in Chorrillos. It’s a beautiful walkway on the coastal cliffside with spectacular views of the ocean, Lima’s skyline and the giant, luminescent Cruz del Papa. I’m blessed to live near such a place. But every time I go there, I end up waiting ten minutes to find an opening to cross the highway that separates me from the boardwalk, and even then I’m dodging traffic.

When I’m over there, I often wonder why more tourists aren’t enjoying the area. Well, that’s why.

Now, Lima has more pressing problems than gringos having to wait to cross a highway. Basic infrastructure is lacking in wide swaths of the city. Many people lack access to clean water. Those things take precedence, hands down.

But these problems I’m talking about aren’t hard to solve. Put a stoplight and crosswalk on the highway near the Malecon, and suddenly you’ve got a pedestrian’s paradise. It’s that easy. Given access, it’s not hard to imagine people flocking to the area, bringing cash with them.

Playa Barranco, a popular summer destination for locals, but not tourists. Photo by Ellie Watmuff

And that’s just one place. Lima as a whole faces grave defects when it comes to moving people from the places they are to the places they want to be, as anyone who has taken the 45 minute death trip from the airport to Miraflores can attest.

That’s all the more aggravating when you realize that with just a few more traffic lights, sidewalks, and maybe some basic traffic law enforcement for good measure, many of these problems would magically disappear.

The Lima Nitty Gritty Tour, Part 2

Author’s Note: Too often in Lima, I meet tourists who view the city as a sort of inconvenient stopping-off point on their way to Machu Picchu. That’s really too bad, because underneath the capital’s obvious cosmetic failings is a bustling metropolis holding countless hidden gems.

Since seeing visitors stay in their hotels while a city full of fascinating sights, sounds and flavors goes on beyond makes me sad, I decided to draw up the Lima Nitty Gritty Tour. It’s two days of excursions to the oft-missed sights of the City of Kings. But I didn’t find these myself. I have lifelong Limeño and friend Enrique Guzman to thank for that. Best of all, he gives weekend tours. If you’d like a little guidance as you navigate these sights, shoot him an email at oso1826@hotmail.com. 

Day 2: Beach combing, black market and Pisco cocktails
On day one, I sent you into the heart of the city in the pursuit of culinary and cultural delights — taking a ride on a combi, plunging into the depths of the catacombs downtown. Day two is all about taking it easy. Peru’s massive capital may be pulsing with frenetic energy, but it also knows how to relax in style. The often overlooked coastal districts of Barranco and Chorrillos highlight this more chilled-out side. We’ll explore them a little today (and take an optional excursion to a black market for those who didn’t get enough thrills on day one).

La Playa Agua Dulce in Chorrillos is a popular hangout for Limeños looking to cool off in the summer months.

From Miraflores, hail a cab down to the Terminal Persquero in the seaside neighborhood of Chorrillos. As one of the primary fish markets of Lima, the place will be bustling with activity in the morning as restauranteurs clamor to get the fresh catches for the midday ceviche run. Amble past the displays and marvel at the sheer variety of mariscos freshly caught from the coastal zone around Lima. Peru is one of the world’s leading fish producers (some say the leading, but the numbers are hard to track), a result of the Humboldt current that brings cool, nutrient-rich water to the coastal region. Over-fishing and periodic El Niño disruptions do take their toll some years, however.

The morning's catch / afternoon's dinner at the Terminal Persquero de Chorrillos.

When you’re done checking out the market, head behind the vendor stalls to the sea and dish out three soles to walk out on the pier. It’s a good place to take in the seaside vibe (and for you amateur photographers, the antique fishing boats docked in the harbor make a great old-vs.-new shot when coupled with the modern high-rises of Miraflores as a backdrop). The fisherman out here will offer tours of the area on their fishing boats to tourists. Don’t expect a life vest. Aim to pay about five soles each, though you’ll probably be asked for a bit more.

After you’ve properly enjoyed your time on the sea, it’s time to head up to higher ground. From where you stand, you’ll see the Cruz del Papa. The giant luminescent cross is visible throughout Lima, and serves as a stark visual reminder to the fiercely Catholic Peruvian partygoers that ‘El Papa’ is watching everything they do. Since it’s so visible, it stands to reason that there would be a pretty good view of the city from up there. Let’s go have a look, but be warned, you’ve got quite an upward climb ahead of you.

The view from the Santuaria Virgen del Morro in Chorrillos.

From the market, take a right on the Circuito de las Playas, walk past the swanky Club Regatas de Lima, and hang a left on Choquehuanca. From here, it will be pretty clear how to get up to the cross: a steep series of stone steps zig-zag all the way up the hill. Climb the steps (if it’s hot out, be sure to take plenty of water) and take in the view from the Santuaria Virgen del Morro.  On a sunny, clear day, you’ll catch a stunning panoramic view of Lima and the beginnings of the Andes mountain range beyond (see above).

Optional excursion

Hanging around the beach in Chorrillos (especially in the balmy days of summer), you’ll feel a strong urge to stay. Feel free to give in and spend the day meandering down the coast and into the bohemian art stores and boutiques of Barranco. If, however, you’d like to try something a bit different, a trip to Polvos Azules should satisfy your craving. The massive multi-story market is a prime example of the veritable flood of consumer goods flowing into the developing world right now. It’s famed throughout Lima for selling, well, everything — and all at cut-rate prices.

To illustrate my point, when I needed hiking gear for a trek to Machu Picchu, I came here, and picked up some pirated DVD’s, a cheap bottle of wine and a power adapter while I was at it. It’s that kind of place. But be warned, Chinese knock-off brands prevail (Can’t dish out for a Sony Playstation? How about a Soby Playbox instead!). A must-see for lovers of bargains. The cab from Chorrillos should run you around S/.10.

Bohemian Paradise

If Limeños go to Miraflores to work, and the City Center to play out their often theatrical politics (an American should talk, I know), then Barranco is where they go to chill out. Home to artists, writers, poets and yours truly, the district is probably the most scenic and charming of Lima, and unfortunately, is often skipped by tourists. Back when Lima was more manageable in size, Barranco was a luxury weekend getaway for the capital’s top brass. The teeming masses have long since crashed that party, but the place still retains its own brand of laid-back charm.

Picture perfect: Colorful picture frames line an overlook in Barranco.

Start your tour of the district in the plaza, where you’ll find displays of public art, vendors selling a variety of hand-made crafts and colorful examples of late-19th Century architecture. After you’ve looked around for a bit, head south down the tree-lined Av. Pedro de Osma. If you’re hungry, stop by 301 Sur. The tiny, unassuming place serves up some of the best hamburgers and other creative sandwichey-type concoctions in Lima. If not, keep walking about five blocks before arriving at the ornate Museo Pedro de Osma. Housed in a beautiful white casona – the colonial mansions of the old Peruvian aristocracy — the oft-ignored museum hosts a wide collection of colonial art, including paintings of the Cusco school, ornate colonial furniture and fascinating 17th Century wooden sculptures of religious martyrs (including a graphic guts-and-all depiction of a beheaded John the Baptist). Admission is S/.10.

The Museo Pedro de Osma in Barranco. Photo credit: www.museopedrodeosma.org.

For a night out, Barranco offers something for everyone. La 73 Café on El Sol is a nice little place that serves up a variety of Peruvian classics with a contemporary twist — one of my favorite restaurants in Lima. For a nightcap, head to La Posada del Mirador and enjoy a Pisco Sour outdoors while taking in a stunning view of the Pacific. From the plaza, it’s just across the Puente de Los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) and down a narrow walkway past the Iglesia La Ermita. A good option for live music is La Posada del Ángel (Av. Pedro de Osma 164), a dimly-lit place with funky decor that features Trova, an acoustic songwriting style from Cuba, on Saturdays. The place mixes up good, inexpensive Pisco Sours, Chilcanos and other Peruvian classics.

Well, that concludes the tour. We’ve raced through wild traffic, tried lots of good food, traversed the sea on rickety fishing boats and made it through in one piece. It’s a lot to pack into two days, sure, but at least now you can show your friends pictures of Lima with the same gusto as those from Machu Picchu or the Amazon. Buen viaje!

The Lima Nitty Gritty Tour, Part 1

Author’s Note: Too often in Lima, I meet tourists who view the city as a sort of inconvenient stopping-off point on their way to Machu Picchu. That’s really too bad, because underneath the capital’s obvious cosmetic failings is a bustling metropolis holding countless hidden gems.

Since seeing visitors stay in their hotels while a city full of fascinating sights, sounds and flavors goes on beyond makes me sad, I decided to draw up the Lima Nitty Gritty Tour. It’s two days of excursions to the oft-missed sights of the City of Kings. But I didn’t find these myself. I have lifelong Limeño and friend Enrique Guzman to thank for that. Best of all, he gives weekend tours. If you’d like a little guidance as you navigate these sights, shoot him an email at oso1826@hotmail.com. 

Embarking on a spiritual journey to Machu Picchu? Not so fast, señor. Unless you’ve chartered your own private jet directly to Cusco, you’ll need to spend at least a partial day in Lima, the country’s not-so-beloved gateway to the more picturesque and charming spots of the interior. And while you could spend your time here huddled away in upscale Miraflores (where your hotel will undoubtedly be located), that wouldn’t be much fun, and it wouldn’t be much worth your time.

The grey haze of the garua hangs over Central Lima.

So swallow your fear, put on your adventure shoes, and get ready to plunge headfirst into the heart of Peru’s gritty, sprawling and oppressive capital. Cancun it is not, but you didn’t come to Peru to comb beaches anyway.

Lima: An Overview
Founded by a gold-mad conquistador on barren soil and and cursed since by centuries of corruption, foul weather and earthquakes, Lima has a much-deserved reputation for being rough around the edges. Its slums are big and threatening. The traffic situation is like a horrifying thrill ride with no safety rails. And the air on many days is choked with dust and exhaust fumes.

But for the adventurous at heart, the city offers a treasure trove of cultural sights, hopping clubs and some of the best foods available in South America. You just need to know where to find them. Read on for two days worth of gritty-esque activities to make Lima much more than an asterisk in your Peruvian adventure.

Day 1Combi Rides, Raw Fish and Beatles-Themed Nightclubs
Your first day in Lima is all about getting acquainted — with the sights, the nightlife and especially the food. Our day begins in Miraflores where, chances are, you arrived late the night before after a long cab ride from Jorge Chavez International. Grab a light breakfast at one of the many sidewalk cafes around the Parque Kennedy, and then head over a couple blocks to the intersection of Larco Avenue and Schell outside Banco de Credito. It’s an easy place to spot: You’ll find rows of the minibuses affectionately known by Peruvians as combis picking up passengers there.

For Limeños, combis are all but impossible to avoid. The aging, privately owned buses connect the city in a byzantine network of routes, and are at once noisy, heavily polluting, incredibly efficient, extremely dangerous and exhilarating. They also have quite a history intertwined with the city’s lively political scene.

While combis are heavily frequented by locals, they’re avoided like the plague by tourists. That’s a shame, because if combis are anything, they’re incredibly cheap. Just S/. 2 ($0.75) will take you all the way across the city. On Larco, you’ll find combis painted with a range of colors, with lists of street names printed on their sides. The one you are looking for is orange, yellow and white, with the street names “Arequipa, Wilson and Tacna.” Get on when it stops at the intersection, and ask the cobrador (the chap yelling at passengers to get onboard) to tell you when you get to Huancavelica and Tacna (“me avisas en Huancavelica y Tacna”). You’re headed to Central Lima, the city’s downtown teeming with government ministries and a plethora of interesting historical sights.

Central Lima

A throng of people heads down a pedestrian side street in Central Lima.

Get off the combi at the Huancavelica and Tacna, and head right (east) on Huancavelica for four blocks before meeting up with Central Lima’s grand pedestrian street, “Jiron De La Union.” Hang a left and meander past the many clothing shops, restaurants and street hawkers before arriving at the Plaza de Armas, the historical center of Lima.

Take some time to wander the plaza. The Cathedral, originally built in 1535 but reconstructed many times since, is worth a look. Head inside to see the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the notorious founder of Lima and conqueror of the Inca Empire. Do note that admission is a bit steep by Peruvian standards at S/. 15 ($5.50). Outside at the Presidential Palace, you’ll find the changing of the guard every day at 11:45 a.m. Depending on the day, you’re likely to see some sort of parade or religious procession as well. Lima loves a parade.

After soaking up the plaza, head over to Jimmy’s Bakery to grab a midday snack of chicken empanadas, a house specialty. To get there, walk past the Cathedral on Huallaga Street and go three blocks to Abancay Avenue.  The ordering system here is absurd: You don’t order at the counter like a normal establishment, but instead line up to buy a ticket from the busy bakery’s sole cashier. But the payoff is definitely worth it. For an added dose of authenticity, drop your inhibitions and inject lime juice from the bottle syringe-style into your empanada, just as the locals do.

Stomach filled, you’d do right to spend the next couple of hours exploring two fascinating, albeit a bit grim, museums.  The first on the list is just a block away from Jimmy’s. Leaving the bakery, take a left on Abancay and head up a block to the Plaza Bolivar. Here, to the right, you’ll find the Museo del Congreso y la Inquisicion in an imposing neo-classical building. The museum’s interesting bits showcase a dark chapter in Peruvian history: The local version of the Spanish Inquisition. Here, hidden beneath ground, accused heretics were kept isolated in dark dungeons, sometimes tortured before admitting the errors of their ways. The museum even has a collection of expressive and creepy plastic mannequins set up to demonstrate exactly what went on here.

Another absolute must-see is the Monastery of San Francisco (Convento del San Francisco de Asis). Constructed originally in 1673, the monastery is notable for its labyrinth of underground catacombs featuring piles upon piles of human remains, some of which are (rather disturbingly) arranged in geometric patterns. As Lima’s original cemetery, an estimated 70,000 people were buried here over the course of about 100 years. Other noteworthy sights here include a decidedly medieval library of ancient manuscripts that looks straight out of a Harry Potter novel, and a painting of the Last Supper by Diego de la Puente depicting Jesus and his disciples dining on Peruvian staples like cuy (guinea pig), potatoes and chili peppers. To get here, head north on Abancay outside the Inquisition Museum, then take your first left on Ancash. The monastery will be up shortly on your right.

Now that you’ve gotten a feel for the cultural sights of Central Lima, it’s time to move on to more culinary delights. Hail a cab and ask the driver to take you the the sixth block (cuadra seis) of Avenida Canada. At the end of the block, you’ll find Puro Tumbes, an unassuming cafeteria-style place that holds within the untold delights of Peruvian ceviche.

Ceviche from Puro Tumbes, an unassuming but tasty restaurant between the San Borja and La Victoria neighborhoods of Lima.

If you’re traveling into Lima, you may have heard about ceviche. The dish — raw fish soaked and “cooked” in lime juice — is a mainstay of Peruvian cuisine, some might say the mainstay. It’s unfortunate that a lot of visitors’ first encounters with ceviche is at one of the countless tourist trap restaurants of Miraflores charging exorbitant prices for lackluster fare. Puro Tumbes is not one of these places. It does ceviche exceptionally well. The place is owned by a family from Tumbes, a city on Peru’s north coast known for its exquisite preparations of the dish. If you’re with a group, order up a family-sized plate with a round of beers and dig in. You won’t be disappointed.

Head back to Miraflores to rest up. If the mood strikes you, hit up the tourist-frequented spots on Calle Berlin for a few drinks before heading over to the nightclub Help!, named after the Beatles album of the same name (Sargento Pimientos — or “Sergeant Peppers” — is nearby. Lima seems to have a penchant for naming nightclubs after Beatles albums).  True to form, the place doesn’t really pick up until after midnight, at which time it becomes an almost unbearably loud, sweltering mass of humanity. Dance until the wee hours. The place is open till sunrise.

Looking to see more? Next up… Day 2: Beach combing, Black Market and Pisco Cocktails

On the agony of defeat and the tragedy of the football fan

Bad luck was in the air in Green Bay on Sunday. I could feel it 4000 miles away from a bar stool in a Lima casino.

The spectacular decline of the Packer juggernaut against the upstart New York Giants played like a study in lost opportunity. A pass to Jermichael Finley with a clear path to the end-zone…. dropped. A solid run up the middle by John Kuhn… fumbled. A blind hail mary pass to the end zone by Eli Manning to end the first half… caught in spectacular fashion by a Giants receiver.

What was a season of hope and promise ended with a few dropped passes and a Manning brother having a particularly good day. I sank further into my chair as it dawned on me that I had just squandered about five months of perfectly good Sundays. Dozens of sunny afternoons spent in dark, dingy bars.

It seemed appropriate that I watched all of this from a casino, a physical symbol of hopes dashed. Oddsmakers gave the Pack a 75 percent chance of coming out a winner. The fact that the opposite occurred is just testimony to the fact that sometimes the odds don’t play out in your favor.

And the cheering throngs of New Yorkers surrounding me were a reminder that when things are down for you, they’re usually up for someone else.

A conversation with a Minnesotan named Kevin sitting beside me drove the point home.

“A lot of people who bet against the Packers are gonna make a lot of money today,” he said.

“Yeah but bookies are losing their hats,” I replied.

Kevin was a living example of the tragedy of the football fan. When he was about my age, the Minnesota native was a rabid follower of the Vikings. He watched throughout the 70′s as his beloved team played in and subsequently lost four Super Bowls. Bad luck, I guess.

Like a junkie fed up with the emotional highs and lows of his chosen addiction, he called it quits after that.

“None of this is worth the emotional energy you invest in it,” he told me sagely, as I held my forehead while the Packers gave up a final touchdown to seal their fate. “It’s just a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

As I left the bar through a throng of satisfied New Yorkers, he offered some further advice.

“You ought to go downstairs and bet a sol on one of the slots,” he said. “Who knows, you might leave here a millionaire.”

“Or I’ll lose and be even more demoralized than I am now,”  I replied.

“Nah, it’ll just confirm the defeat,” he said.

I took his advice and put a sol in the slot downstairs. I watched with anticipation as each row clicked into place and then…. nothing.

Defeat confirmed.

Better luck next year, Pack.

Turtle Lake, Wisconsin

When people in Peru ask where I’m from I say I’m from a cold northern place where the wind blows hard in January and your eyes tear up from the cold and the tears freeze to your face in the wind. I then tell them they really should visit sometime, to which I receive a polite nod and a “yeah… maybe someday.”

But I realize now that I haven’t done my homeland justice. I spend a lot of time here talking up places like Iquitos and Cuzco — places that already had quite of bit of exposure and aren’t really in need of much more of it. But I haven’t spent any describing the place I’m from, a relative backwater with very little in the way of praise, criticism or attention in general. So today I’m going to talk about Turtle Lake, the town where I was born, raised, deep fried and served with a side of cheese curds.

Main Street, Turtle Lake

Turtle Lake is a dot on the map, an unimportant stopping-off point at the convergence of two unimportant highways. Some people stop to buy gas here, most don’t.

It’s a town built by 19th Century lumbermen who stopped near the railroad to ship out logs to the booming industrial cities of the East. When the trees were cleared and the lumbermen left, the farmers came, and the farmers stayed. They were mostly from hardy northern places like Germany, Sweden and Scotland. They raised dairy cows and grew corn and alfalfa. Some founded cooperatives and made butter and cheese.

It’s a land of snowmobiles, bar tabs, cheeseburgers, pickup trucks and another round ma’am please thank you — a place where “to bullshit” is a verb. In the eternal Yin and Yang between “Red State” and “Blue State” America, this is decidedly red state, with a little of the old union blue mixed in.

Spare Time Bowling Alley, Turtle Lake

It’s a place of hermits and castaways, where artists and outcasts flee the city for the countryside.  Composers occupy old churches and schoolhouses. Non-conformists start communes and live off the land.

It’s a place where half the people you meet are still farmers. While Wisconsin hasn’t been spared the onslaught of consolidation and corporatization in agriculture, it has weathered it more that most. The “family farm” is a concept still very much in place here.

It’s a town where a scan down the high school football roster will show the same last names as the one from 1960. Here, your name means something. You can make your own way, but it’s always there, working to define who you are from the day you’re born. Cashiers you barely recognize will ask questions like, “How’s your grandpa?” This is a completely foreign concept to people from large cities.

Horseshoe Lake, a few miles outside of town.

It’s a vacation destination for people from “the Cities” (Minneapolis, St. Paul and their surrounding suburbs). Nice people, but with a tendency to say brash things like, “Yeah we love this place, but I can’t imagine what you do out here all year round.”

It’s a land of fish fries, french fries, cheese fries, fried cheese. Ask an expert what Wisconsin cuisine is, and he’ll probably tell you it’s steeped in a mix of unique heritages — from German to Mexican to Native American. Don’t believe a word of it. The cuisine of Wisconsin is batter and grease. And it’s delicious.

It’s a place that’s pretty nice to come home to after a few months away. Watching Packer games with the family. Heading to Spare Time Bowling Alley with some old friends.

It’s my home.

Thanks for learning a bit more about it. Hope you visit sometime.

Horseshoe Lake Drive, the old 'hood.