Christmas in July

Christmas Eve in the Midwest is a solemn affair. You sit around a crackling fireplace, mom puts the Mannheim Steamroller album on, and you enjoy a bit of quiet repose in the happy company of family. So when a Peruvian friend invited me to Christmas Eve dinner at his grandma’s house in Lima, I admit to expecting the same. Boy was I ever wrong.

Christmas in Lima is more like that other raucous holiday in America: the Fourth of July. All the ingredients are there: Sun, loud music, meat on the grill, drunk relatives. There’s lots of rum involved in the whole thing. Oh, and did I mention the fireworks?

I really should have known that in a country that thinks blaring J-Lo out of loudspeakers at 3 a.m. is okay, celebrating the birth of Jesus with a loud, illegal and highly dangerous fireworks display would be considered appropriate. This place is not given to solemn understatement. Yet I was still surprised to find my host completely ‘schwasted’ when I arrived at grandma’s house. And even more so when we immediately hiked down the street to an illegal street market selling cartloads of cheap yet highly potent Chinese explosives.

But we got through the night with all limbs intact. And wouldn’t you know it, lighting off massive fireworks in the middle of the street on Christmas Eve was, well, fun. It was all a potent reminder that the holidays as they are back home are not even halfway similar elsewhere.

At least one thing reminded me of home, though : Christmas Eve dinner. Though we ate it at 1 a.m. — not typical of any Midwestern households that I know.

Reminders of home: A full Christmas dinner in Lima.

So instead of waking up Christmas Day to fresh snow and presents under the tree, I awoke to a wicked gut ache after a night of excessive drinking and eating. Was it fun? Yes. Purifying in the spirit of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men? Absolutely not.

Feliz Navidad!

Worshipping the Sun God at Chincha

When I came to South America, I imagined I’d be spending a lot of time on sandy beaches. I figured my pasty-white Midwestern skin would soon turn into a perma-tan, that within a month I’d look like one of those beach bums in a Hollister ad.

Long story short: That didn’t happen. So far, I’ve spent more time in wool sweaters than I have in flip flops. I may have even gotten whiter. But summer is finally upon us here in Lima, and with summer, every Limeño with a couple of days free escapes the stifling city for the sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. I got my first taste of this tradition over the weekend — with a nasty sunburn to boot.

Me and some friends headed about three hours south of Lima to Chincha, a city of about 180,000 known for its Afro-Peruvian music and pleasant, uncrowded beaches. For lodging, our friend Diego graciously offered up his family’s beach-side villa — a low-key place a few miles outside of town on an isolated stretch of ocean. There, we spotted some dolphins, body surfed in some incredibly powerful waves, and drank cuba libres under the hot sun for two days. It was all I thought South America would be packed into one weekend.

A word to the wise: If you’re looking into a trip to Peru, you may have heard that the beaches here are a bit sub-par, even ugly. I found no evidence of this over the weekend. Sure,  Peru’s desert coast is decidedly un-tropical. And the sand here has more of a slate-grey tone than your typical Caribbean paradise. But the place had it’s own brand of stark beauty — like a study in neutral tones — and the sun shines and the palm fronds sway in the breeze here just as they do in Aruba.

I hope that stays a secret for selfish reasons, though. Best of all in our weekend beach trip? We had the whole place to ourselves.

Fine Dining with the Jet Set at Astrid y Gaston

I was reminded of two quotes upon entering the swank, upscale restaurant Astrid y Gaston over the weekend. One I saw on the wall of a youth hostel in Cusco: “Champagne lifestyle on a lemonade wage.” The other was by Ernest Hemingway. Living in Paris when the dollar was strong and the franc was weak, and able to dine on haute cuisine on a writer’s income, he noted how “exchange was a beautiful thing.”

Astrid y Gaston would be completely out of my price range in the United States. The restaurant, owned by famed chef Gaston Acurio and his wife, Astrid, is the creme de la creme of fine dining in a city that takes its food very seriously. The main courses look like works of art. The waiters wear pinstripe suits. There is a bread guy who — get this — explains the different types of bread at your table and offers suggestions on which ones to eat and in what order. It was only by two fortunate circumstances that I was able to come here: 1) A birthday gift of $75 with the condition that I eat somewhere nice, and 2) Exchange rates. A main course will run you about 60 S/. ($22). You can find a meal at Applebee’s for that price.

Full and happy: Me and the special lady after dining on a three-course meal at Lima's swanky Astrid y Gaston restaurant.

So what did we eat? For those of you with food envy, read no further. It’s about to get deliciously detailed.

Foie de pato

Tiradito

For starters, we ordered two dishes, the creamy foie de pato (duck rolls in a cream sauce) and tiradito, a dish similar to sushi involving thinly sliced raw tuna with a wide assortment of sauces. Both were heavenly, although the tiradito was a bit sweet for my taste.

 

Suckling goat

For my main course, I went outside my comfort zone and ordered the suckling goat. Before you say anything, I know that’s a baby goat (or kid, if you will). The poor guy never had a chance. Am I proud of the fact that it was unbelievably juicy and tender, topped with a subtle yet savory sauce that left me wanting more, and served with perfect complement of watercress salad, all washed down by a deep red cabernet sauvignon? No.

 

Devil fish

For her main course, my companion Caroline ordered up the devil fish, which I of course sampled from liberally. It was easily the best thing I ate all evening. How can I describe this dish to you in a way that  the picture cannot? It was a work of art. A symphony, if you will. And everything from the creamy glaze to the fresh mushrooms and corn provided a perfect musical accompaniment. The stuffed red pepper served on the side was also delicious.

 

Baked apple, eaten

Alright, so I ate most of the dessert before I remembered to take a picture. I couldn’t resist. Our order — a sort of Peruvian gourmet twist on apple crisp — was the perfect way to end an evening of total decadence. Just to give you a mental picture, it came out looking brilliant: Baked apple atop alternating layers of crust and chocolate, and served with delectable sides of caramel and ginger ice cream. It ended with what you see here.

 

So that’s that of my foray into fine dining. It was good while it lasted. If any of you out there are looking for a writer, say, a food critic, I’m your guy. I’ll work for food.

Interested in giving Astrid y Gaston a try? You can find it at Calle Cantuarias 175, two blocks off of Larco in Miraflores. Call ahead for reservations.

Iquitos: City of Magic, Mystery and Sweltering Heat

Note from the writer: After a long hiatus (what has it been, two months?) Roving Reporter is back with new posts. This week, I’ll be telling tales of my adventures to the Amazon rain forest and Machu Picchu. Enjoy.

Let me tell you about Iquitos.

Sitting hundreds of miles inland on the banks of the Amazon River and accessible only by boat and plane, it is thought to be the largest continental city in the world not connected by road.

Visitors stand along the Malecon, a popular Iquitos district overlooking the Amazon and home to many bars and restaurants.

It’s a place full of legend and superstition, where visitors seeking enlightenment travel thousands of miles to try the vision-inducing hallucinogen ayahuasca, and where vendors deep within a sweltering marketplace sell homemade cures for every conceivable ailment — headaches, bad luck, the fear of ghosts.

It’s a crumbling city filled with the charms of a bygone era, where restaurants and storefronts have overtaken the faded mansions of the rubber barons, the titans of industry who felt that the deep jungle was a perfect place for hallmarks of19th Century civilization like opera houses, gourmet French restaurants and even a tram line.

It’s hot.

I was immediately reminded of this upon hitting the tarmac on our plane from Lima. In Iquitos, the heat and humidity become part of you. Locals spend their entire lives knowing nothing but the beads of sweat on their foreheads.

We were met at the airport by Gart Van Gennip, a jungle guide, lodge manager and fount of knowledge of all things Iquitos. Van Gennip is a fixture of the tight-knit expat community here. A native of Holland, he came to Iquitos in 2006 to teach English, assuming he would stay for about a year. Five years later, and he is still here. He manages the San Pedro lodge, a quaint and secluded jungle lodge accessible by an hour-long boat trip on the Rio Nanay. (I’ll talk more about San Pedro later).

We had barely spoken with Van Gennip before we were off on a mototaxi, the customized motorcycles that substitute for cars in Iquitos. Only the wealthy and status conscious own cars here, the result of a road network that ends with the city limits. People in Iquitos wishing to visit the outside world will either need to take the weeks-long journey by boat, or an expensive plane trip. Because few here have the means to do either, many have never been anywhere else. The result is a unique and insular culture unlike any other in the modern world.

Van Gennip showed us around the city in several day trips from his lodge.  The Casa de Fierro (Iron House) on the main plaza was our first stop. Covered with shiny iron siding that bakes in the midday sun, the house was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) and displayed at the 1889 International Exposition of Paris. While the home was in no way intended for use in a hot, tropical climate,  the Iquitos rubber baron Anselmo del Aguila noticed it while perusing the exposition and thought it would make a perfect jungle manse, so he had it disassembled, shipped in pieces across the ocean, and reassembled off the main square of Iquitos, where it stands today. Did I mention the rubber barons could do pretty much whatever they wanted?

After the Casa de Fierro, we headed to the Museo Etnografico, a museum of Iquitos history located in the former governor’s mansion. The place is noted for its life-sized statues representing native tribes from the area. It also holds ornate meeting rooms where men smoked cigars and made important decisions amid stifling tropical heat. The wood paneling has begun to peel off the walls after decades of sweltering humidity.

On our last day in town, we ate a fine breakfast at the French-inspired Amazon Bistro before heading off to the Belen district, a crowded neighborhood beside the river known for its floating village — with homes that ride the waves during the wet season — and its labyrinthine market selling every conceivable thing known to man. A word to the wise: Some vendors in Belen are known to engage in a particularly nasty trade in which they illegally capture a jungle animal (say, a monkey) and display it in brutal confinement at the market. A tourist passing through is then coaxed to “save” the animal by purchasing it. The sale merely perpetuates the trade, however. Couple that with the sights and smells of a thousand different foods and products, and Belen certainly leaves an impression

The sun sets over the Rio Nanay near Iquitos.

Along with the sites, Van Gennip introduced us to a colorful cast of characters who have made Iquitos their home, the most memorable of which was the legendary jungle guide Juan Maldonado. A hardened, chain smoking guide of the old school, Maldonado works out of an old cafe and has been taking tourists on excursions into the rain forest since 1973. The tour he led to the Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) was worth it just for the harrowing tales of animal attacks and jungle survivalism he told along the way.

So Iquitos was a place unlike any I have been to before, but the trip into the jungle left even more of an impression. I’ll have more on that later this week.

Home Sweet Home in Lima

So my grand tour de Peru is finally over, and what a long strange trip it was. I scaled the Salkantay Pass, gasping for air at more than 4,600 meters above sea level. I explored the ancient Inca capital of Cusco tucked into the Andean highlands. I sweated for seven days straight in Iquitos, a rowdy jungle town on the banks of the Amazon River.

As you may have guessed, I’ve got some stories and pictures to share. I’ll have plenty to report through the week. For now, I’m just happy to be back “home” in Lima. The sounds of traffic and hazy skies never looked/sounded so good.

Como Siempre

It’s official. I’ve now been in Peru long enough to go into my neighborhood barber shop, say “como siempre” (the usual), and get the haircut I want. I’m not quite a Limeño yet, but some folks around here are getting used to seeing my face, at the very least.

It’s dawned on me that I’ve been in this city for nearly four months now. It took awhile, but I’m getting accostumed to this place — its rhythms, idiosyncricies, and chaotic transit system. It’s almost starting to feel like home.

I’ll be leaving my home base this weekend to head out for a two-week tour de Peru, taking the grueling 5-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Pichu, and then hopping a plane to Iquitos deep in the Amazon rain forest, where I’ll be staying at a secluded jungle lodge. I’ve been planning this trip for months. Can’t believe it’s already here.

So you won’t see any new posts for awhile, but rest assured that I’ll be coming back with some stories and pictures. Stay classy, readers. This is me signing off.

#OccupyWallSt Has Arrived. So Where’s #OccupyLima?

A lot has changed since I’ve left the States. The nation flirted with economic catastrophe during the debt ceiling debacle. The Detroit Lions became a force in the NFL (with a passionate-bordering-on-insane coach to boot). And unemployed youth have set up a modern day Hooverville on Wall Street, calling for jobs, campaign finance reform, and the return of Crystal Pepsi, among other things.

The best/wonkiest #OccupyWallSt sign I've seen yet. Credit: BoingBoing

In case you haven’t heard, #OccupyWallSt has snowballed into a real live political movement in the last few weeks. Protests have gone worldwide, with camps set up in such disparate places as Boise, Duluth and London.  Their demands? Nobody is quite sure — one columnist equated the movement to a primal scream –  but the gist of their argument is clear: Over the last decade or so, the fortunes of the middle class have steadily declined while the fabulously wealthy have become even more so. And the rich have done this not through good old fashioned hard work but through increasingly complex financial instruments that ultimately led to our current fiscal mess.

It’s a persuasive narrative, and whatever your political persuasion, I think you can agree that this is a good conversation for the country to be having. What led to this crisis, who caused it, and why is the economic reality so varied for different classes of Americans? These are all good, timely questions for us to be asking.

In terms of answering those questions, some facts are hard to dispute. Over the past few decades, we’ve gone from a country built on the foundation of the middle class to one where a typical CEO makes 475 times more than the average underling (It’s 12:1 in Germany, 50:1 in Venezuela). In the CIA’s measure of income inequality, we rank among the likes of Rwanda, Iran and the Phillipines (see the CIA’s inequality index with an explanation of its methodology here). Unsurprisingly, the egalitarian states of northern Europe leave us far behind when it comes to spreading the wealth.

In summary, when it comes to measures of raw economic might like GDP, America is undeniably ahead of the pack. Income equality? We’re a third world nation.

A map of the CIA's measurement of income inequality, the GINI index. A higher number = more inequality. Source: Wikipedia

Which leads me to my point: the conditions on the ground in Peru. I’ve discussed it before, this country is going through an economic boom of historic proportions, but a sizable proportion of its population has been left in the dust. More than 30 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty,  and just over seven percent are breadline, with incomes less than $1 a day. Granted, the condition for the nation’s poorest have improved over the last decade, but not as much as you might think given that the country’s GDP has tripled over that same time period.

So when will we see #OccupyLima? In a country with a history of popular protest, I’d say sooner than you might think. And with events moving faster by the day, anything seems possible. That said, I’ll hold out on any sweeping proclamations until I see tents outside Banco de Credito.

Combi Culture: The Chaotic World of Lima Public Transit

Among the world’s major cities, Lima is a rarity: It’s a metropolis the size of Chicago with no real public transportation system to speak of. That means no public trams, subways or buses in a place where only a tiny fraction of people own cars. Lima shares company with the third world likes of Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Dhaka, Bangladesh in this hapless distinction.

So how does one get around in this city, you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the combi “system” of Lima.

"Todo Arequipa!" A cobrador lures pedestrians into a combi in the Miraflores district of Lima.

You won’t go far in this town without a quick introduction to “combi culture.” Scores of old beat-up microbuses — mostly late-model Toyota HiAces and Nissan Urvans — race down major roadways, abruptly stopping at intersections to pick up new victims… ahem… passengers. These are the combis, and they’re everywhere; you’ll never have to wait more than two or three minutes for one to come by. 

The vehicles vary in size and quality, but all are manned by two-person teams: the driver and his trusty sidekick, the cobrador. The driver of course drives… wildly (he’ll often take off while you’re still boarding). Meanwhile, the cobrador lures passengers on board through shouts, cajoling and all other means necessary save for violent coercion. All in all, the system is mass chaos, but somehow it works.

Locals and tourists alike don’t seem to know whether to love the combis or hate them.  They’re at once noisy, heavily polluting, incredibly efficient, extremely dangerous and exhilarating. There’s no doubt you’ll get where you want to go cheaply and fast, but you’ll have to endure toxic fumes from poorly maintained engines and risk a potentially cataclysmic accident to get there.

And what’s interesting about all this is that it highlights a central debate in modern policy making. For Milton Friedman, free market types, it’s a major success story. Combis are extremely cheap and move people around efficiently, afterall. But for an environmentalist or urban planner, they’re a prime example of what not to do.

So how did Lima find itself with this anarchic system? The story is one of half-starts and could-have-beens, with lots of juicy bits of intrigue thrown in.  It’s worth telling in full here.

Tragedy in Four Acts: The History of Lima Transit

A comparison of Plaza 2 de Mayo in Lima, 1927 and 2010.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Lima looked nothing like it does today. The city was packed tightly around a central square with smaller towns like the port city of Callao and the resort town of Barranco surrounding it. Around 1904, urban planners got the idea to connect these far flung cities, building the city’s first electrified tram system. As the city sprawled out over the decades, it eventually engulfed these cities, giving Lima a ready-made urban transit system that could move people from one end to the other.

The tram system held fast for decades, until bankruptcy shut it down in 1965. That same year, plans were drawn up for a subway network, putting Lima in line with other major world cities that were building underground rail at the time. But the plans never materialized. Three years later, a military coup overthrew the government and dismissed the project, leaving Lima’s commuters to two decades of a haphazard and unreliable city bus system.

Street cars near the Plaza de Armas, Lima, circa 1960. (Photo by Life Magazine)

Finally, in 1986, it looked like change was afoot. The newly elected president Alan Garcia ordered the construction of a system of elevated electric trains. He only managed to get one line completed before Peru descended into economic chaos and he was booted from office.

In 1991, when the new president Alberto Fujimori took office, Peru was in turmoil. The country’s economy had all but collapsed into a hyperinflationary spiral. Corruption was rampant. Foreign creditors were knocking at the country’s door. Fujimori, taking the advice of the International Monetary Fund, opted to prescribe a harsh remedy: he sold off the state. By 1996, he had privatized more than 26 government agencies, including the country’s ailing national bus system.

The remedy put Peru on a more solid footing, but Fujimori had a new problem — what to do about the hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed government workers. His solution was brash and, admittedly, inspired. He opened up the country to the importation of hundreds of microbuses and taxis. The newly-unemployed government employees — many of whom held advanced degrees in fields like economics and public policy — snapped up the new buses and went into the transport business. Today Limeños like to brag that they have the most highly educated bus drivers in the world.

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, the brainchild of Lima's combi system. Currently imprisoned on corruption charges.

Ultimately, Fujimori’s quick fix solved two problems: rampant unemployment and the city’s lack of public transit. The plan went over well… at first.

Fast forward 15 years. Fujimori is in prison on corruption charges, but the combi culture he created lives on. Today, the same old combis from the mid-90′s are still here. Rather than buy new, combi owners jerry-rig quick fixes – making today’s combis notoriously unreliable, even dangerous. Breakdowns are common. Exhaust fumes dwarf any known emissions standards. And growing car ownership puts combis in direct competition for road space with private vehicles.

Something has to give, right? The city of Lima agrees. It’s currently in the process of building and expanding a new system of transport called the Metropolitano. The system runs like a rail system, but uses buses instead of trams. So far, the two open lines have been insanely popular. Plans are for the system to connect the whole city. Only time will tell if this actually happens, or if economic crisis/military intervention/corruption kill these plans once more.

I’ll leave you with a first-hand look at a combi ride in the Miraflores district of Lima. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Special thanks to Jair Zuta La Rosa for his insights and information on the wild history of Lima transit.

Herring Lovers Rejoice: Peru Pens Trade Agreement With Iceland

Finally, the brutal trade war that has for too long pitted the good people of Peru against their Icelandic brethren has come to an end. PeruThisWeek reports that effective Oct. 1, the quality goods of that sensible Nordic republic will be free and readily available on the streets of Lima. That makes this a good day for lovers of aluminum, ferrosilicon (?), fish and fish products (read: Iceland exports).

Peru is also considering similar agreements with India, Russia and South Africa. To that, I say sukriya, spasibo and thank you!

Psst… After the worst post drought in the history of Roving Reporter, I’ll have a lengthy history of Peru’s crazy transit system (or lack therof) early next week.

Street Dummies: Getting to Know the Creepy Mannequins of Lima

On the streets of Lima, they’re impossible to avoid: Lifeless faces that peer out at unsuspecting passersby everywhere from the bustling clothing markets of Central Lima to the artsy boutiques of Barranco, their unsettling grimaces and misshapen bodies frightening children and leaving adults with a lingering sense of unease.

They’re the mannequins of Lima, and though they run the gamut from youth in revolt rebels to businessmen, they all have one thing in common: They’re incredibly creepy. It seems no clothing shop in this town is complete without its own collection of just-life-like-enough-to-be-extremely-off-putting mannequins.

So before you come to Lima, read on to meet the cast of characters that you’re likely to see on any given side street. When you’re dealing with figures this terrifying, it’s best to come prepared….

Mad Men

Common in the upscale tailor shops of Miraflores, these fellas form the upper crust of the Lima mannequin establishment. With their slicked hair, pressed suits, and winning smiles, they could almost be in an award-winning AMC series, if award-winning AMC series featured men without pigmentation. How about Crash Test Execudummies? I’ve got that copyrighted, AMC.

Punk Rocker

Think Punk Rocker’s blank stare, clenched fists and jutted-out tongue are disturbing? That’s just what he wants you to think. It’s all part of his plan to freak out the squares and fight the machine, man. Me, I’m just put off that somewhere in the world there’s a factory turning out mannequins with their tongues sticking out.

Bald and Dangerous

There’s a strange trend in Lima mannequinery. A bunch of effort is expended on making these models look presentable — makeup is applied, trendy outfits are donned — but then the hair is left missing. Bald mannequins are nothing new, but bald mannequins with regular features everywhere else are just creepy.

Mad Max

The year: 2050. Nuclear winter has descended on the city. Radioactive mutants roam the the streets in search of blood and the remaining survivors cower in fallout shelters. Luckily, Mad Max is here to save us all. Don’t be frightened, kids. He’s one of the good guys.

Now that you’ve met the crew, you’ll be able to greet your new mannequin friends by name the next time you’re in Lima. Just don’t be offended when they meet you with a blank stare. That’s just sort of what they do.