Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lima, Peru

April 18, 2008 Lima, Peru

In Cusco we had the choice of a good road bus- 36 hours, or an iffy road- 22 hours (if the road was open,) or third- a 1 hour flight to Lima. We took the flight. Our hotel in Lima had sent us instructions for the person waiting to pick us up. “Make sure and check the I.D. number!” I wondered just how many people would be waiting with our name that would hustle us off to God knows where and rob us. Our flight was met by Edwin, with the proper I.D. and soon our entire luggage went into a taxi for the 20 mile ride to the hotel, “Hostel de los Artes” in Central Lima. This turned out to be a charming old hotel with an indoor patio, TV in a common area and free internet. Added bonuses were the private bathroom and a good mattress. Since Lima Centro is inhabited by poorer people, crime can be a problem. At the corner of the block was the Central Police Station and both sides of the street were filled by police eating, talking on mobile phones or just getting their cars washed; the street was very safe.

One thing we’d noticed about Peru was how food was prepared. It is almost never served hot, just room temperature. Buffets can be breeding grounds for bacteria or worse. As a consequence, Ted (who’ll eat almost anything) developed a bit of traveler’s diarrhea. After two days, a few doses of Bactrim soon had him up and about again but with no desire to eat much of anything. The area around the hotel had at least a dozen Chinese restaurants called Chifa restaurants. None of them served food anything like Chinese elsewhere in the world. Bad! Bad! Bad! But cheap. There was one great seafood place where the food was good but relatively expensive. We found one restaurant that served omelets for breakfast, not typical. Peruvians, like most of the people in the world, eat the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all inedible as far as I am concerned.

Lima is a city of 7.5 million people, an old, dirty place with a few lovely plazas and many old buildings built in the old Spanish mode. Since the city has suffered numerous earthquakes, most of the buildings are about 100 years old. Our hotel and other old buildings have signs posted stating Tremor Safe. All over the city there is road construction going on which compounds and creates traffic jams. On the main or large streets there are four lanes of traffic. Buses only in the center two lanes and all other vehicles in the two outside lanes. Drivers prefer to drive at full speed, sliding to a stop only when the light is fully red not merely orange. As soon as the light turns green for the pedestrians, people run across like crabs on a beach, because very quickly the light turns red and the rows of charging cars and buses spring like greyhounds from the gate at the starting bell, honking at any stragglers in the crosswalk. We watched as one person; helping a blind man cross the street, pulled him the last few feet. As the cars careen around corners they blast their horns at all pedestrians crossing. Old and young alike, learn to run crossings. We didn’t actually see any accidents but I assume they pick the bodies up fast so as not to hinder the traffic.

Miraflores, an upscale beach community that long ago merged into Lima proper, is full of lovely homes, large hotels and numerous shopping malls. Burger King’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and numerous fast food places. It is lovely, expensive, and bathed by costal fog; cold at this time of year. Cliffs of land butt up to the shore and it is necessary to take a car or taxi down to the water or climb many steps down. The Pacific Ocean is so calm, with only a few swells, not really waves, lapping the shore. Beach sand isn’t sand, it is gravel. A park like area with several soccer courts and a few grassy places has been built on the shore and we watched as groups of soccer players kicked the ball around and a couple of would be surfers tried to ride the swells, such as they are. After wandering around and buying just “one more souvenir,” we returned to Central Lima, the broken sidewalks, lounging people and dirt.

Like all of South America, they love their statues and monuments to heroes of past wars on charging horses and of course, copies of old Greek or Roman figures. We walked around a beautiful park, completely fenced and closed so no one could enter and were reminded of an old joke. This park is yours, no running, no walking on the grass, no pets, no picnicking. Enjoy!

There is a long pedestrian only street between the two main plazas, filled with shops, lovely old buildings, fast food places and hundreds of Lima’s middle class buying or selling wares. It is a poorer version of Florida Street in Buenos Aires. At one end is a lovely park with the Cathedral, the Bishop’s House, a Government Building, a large arched building with museums and other display areas, coffee shops and several Army Tanks with armed military. It is a strange feeling to walk around a grassy park on a warm and beautiful Sunday, families with babies in strollers, lovers kissing, children skating and a tank with armed military on the ready.

Finally after two weeks in Lima, 6 months in South America, and 10 years on the road, it was time to settle down somewhere and return to a somewhat more traditional way of life. So we decided to head for Mexico and Puerto Vallarta.

Our flight from Lima to Puerto Vallarta ended up being over 28 hours mostly spent sitting in airports. The first airline we took was Taca to Bogotá, Colombia, a 2 ½ hour flight, where, for some unknown reason (maybe we looked old and pitiable) we were bumped up to Business Class. Real luxury with food served with wine, real cloth napkins and large and roomy seats. What a difference! Only problem was that, for customs reasons, we had to collect our luggage at the end and go through the entire rigamarole of Colombian customs inspection. We arrived at 12:15 A.M and found an airport with an army of cleaning crew and workmen. The waiting lounge is on the second floor but there are no public elevators and only one, closed, escalator. Behind glass doors there is an elevator for the handicapped and, by then, I felt we qualified. We talked a guard into letting us and our two carts full of luggage use it. We might have been able to sleep away some of the 8 hours there except for the welding, sawing, hammering, and vacuuming being done at night when the airport is nearly empty. In addition, though the temperature outside in Bogotá was near freezing, the A/C was on full blast as well. A handful of travelers, including us, tried to stretch out on the very uncomfortable wooden benches; the floor was more comfortable, at least until the vacuuming crew got to work. One restaurant where they charged the customary ridiculous price of $3.00 for a small bottle of water (like all airports) was open all night.

Finally it was time for the second leg of our journey on Mexicana Airlines to Mexico City, but at least our luggage would be automatically transferred to Puerto Vallarta and not need to be collected by us. But by now, we were carrying our heavy winter coats along with camera bags, assorted other bags, and finally our heavy winter shoes. Leaving Colombia is a chore in itself. First through immigration, then the customary security check where they saw something in my bag. After pulling my bag apart, they searched my little cosmetic bag and found the dangerous weapon, a two inch, hair thin, eyeglass screwdriver that had slipped through un-noticed by all the other airlines. Also, Ted’s two half-used bottles of water were confiscated. Now maybe, if we were terrorists, I could have overpowered the pilot with my mini-screwdriver and Ted could have mixed up some sort of bomb but it really is insane. Next we had to walk through the “screening room” which is a line up of armed police where we were patted down looking for what? That was only the beginning. Passports are checked as we boarded the plane which is logical. But why must we show the passports on exiting the plane? Could we have sneaked on sometime during the flight? Or maybe changed seats with a terrorist somewhere over Colombia?

Finally, after a flight of 5 hours we arrived at our second stop, Mexico City, which has an airport the size of many small towns, all behind glass and no air-conditioning or even a single fan though the temperature here was in the high 80’s. After going through passport control, we walked the several miles to gate 15 for our connecting flight. No signs, no information in any language and no clue about what was going on. After asking a man sitting at an unmarked desk, he sent us on to area “B”. There, everyone on a connecting flight sits around until the flight is announced over the loudspeaker system. It was already quite warm; some could even say “hot” and of course, we were dressed for cold Andean weather. The altitude was causing Ted’s barely calmed intestinal tract to writhe and coil like a ball of snakes in the sun. The eight hours before our next flight slowly crept by; our departure time was scheduled for 8:10 p.m. for arrival time 9:35 in Puerto Vallarta. Each gate at the airport feels like a mile from the next. We couldn’t find out which would be our departure gate until 7:45! I looked at the miles we would have to run, the pile of hand luggage, including the very heavy so called laptop computer, our coats and shoes and Ted trying not to vomit, and arranged for a wheelchair, if not for Ted, then for the stuff we carried. Finally at 7:45 our gate was announced. Gate 27, the last gate, at least five city blocks away with five minutes to board. Ted climbed into the wheelchair and I piled most of our stuff onto him. A young man pushed him as I followed along to the last flight of the day.

Finally we were airborne for an hour long flight. Arriving in Puerto Vallarta at 9:30 pm we had a grand surprise. Baggage claim was only a 2 minute walk from the gate and we didn’t have to go through any kind of customs at all. Also, Ted’s gut had stopped writhing. A short cab ride later and we were at our hotel the Posada de Roger about 28 hours after we’d left our hotel in Lima; the end of our last and single worst, day of traveling in 10 years.

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