Cierren Guantanamo Por Favor

19 11 2008

Today I was granted a day off work in order to urge President Elect Barack Hussain Obama to keep his word and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

In order to make the plea, myself and several dozen other like minded people from Amnesty International assembled at a pretty green park overlooking the Lima waterfront to dress in orange overalls, don white masks (cleverly, you’ll note, in the same fashion as prisoners at Guantanamo) – and enact a brief demonstration of why current president Bush’s government has acted to violate the human rights of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and why it needs to be immediately closed.

come on Barry, just close the camp

"come on Barry, just close the camp"

Several press-types from various tv channels and websites attended with all their crazy cameras and news reporters and there was even security guards and riot police who were standing by in case things got a bit rowdy. I did two interviews. The first one was in Spanish and the reporter soon got bored after she found out that I could barely say more than “Human Rights are Important” in my strained (but improving) take on Castillian. The second – for which I was chosen because I spoke native English –  I rambled on a bit about the reason why we were protesting and why a Scottish guy in Peru cared so much about an inhumane prison camp in Cuba. I have no idea where these will end up.

All in all it was a pleasant morning at the park was spent and George Bush will hopefully think twice before detaining people indefinately without trail and subjecting them to degrading, inhumane conditions again.

Our protest timing, far from being spontaneous, was in order to coincide with the imminent APEC summit which is being held in Lima. Several thousand foreign dignitaries – including George W himself – are descending on the city this weekend to chat about free trade and how to get richer during a financial crisis. It’s a pretty massive event for Lima – the government even granted two days holiday on thursday and friday, though this is probably to get as many people out of the city as possible so that the traffic has at least some chance of functioning whilst there are “real life important people” visiting. I’m writing a newsletter article on it at the moment so will post it as soon as it’s written – god bet you cant wait for that!!!!!!

So, I say to you Mr Barack Obama, if you stumble across my blog, let it be known that I urge you to close Guantanamo Bay as you have stated that you will. And, President George W Bush, should you chance a peek at this post, I’ll see you in court. At least you have the opportunity to go to court …

N.B. This all happened in Lima btw so is totally legit for a travel blog. Actually I dont even know if this ever was a travel blog, so it’s legit either way.


The City of Kings

19 11 2008
Lima from a 21 storey building, Miraflores facing Centre

Lima from a 21 storey building, Miraflores facing Centre

So last week was a run down of just some aspects of the city shown – in part – in the picture above. With a population 1.7 times that of Scotland, 42 times that of Aberdeen and 1678 times that of the Isle of Arran, it is by far the biggest place that I have ever lived. Travelling from one side of the city to the other is an eternity, even with the smaller of combis which are better adapted for zipping in and out of the relentless stream of honking (in both the sense of sound and of smell) traffic.

Even with it’s massive size, much of Lima still has a small town feel to it. There are noticable differences between the different districts that spread throughout the city making each part feel like a small city in its own right. There are richer districts such as San Isidro and San Borja – where the key financial institutions of the country are based – banks, large multinational businesses etc. –  and swanky resedential areas where all of the politicians have their houses built behind large walls and fences.

The district where I live and work – Miraflores – contains a large chunk of business as well though it also acts the tourist heart of the city, in that people spend the night here before heading off to Cusco and Machu Picchu. There are various classes of hotels, shopping centres, bars and restaurants that are largely tourist and backpacker orientated. The prices in many places are inflated in accordance with the fact that westerners are willing to pay more money for things. In fact it is usually the equivalent of the lowest of European and North American prices, it’s just that these are expensive in proportion to what things cost in other parts of Peru that are outside of the mainstream tourist flow.

Other districts are much in the same vein as Miraflores and the above as far as residential areas are concerned. Though not quite so touristy or finance orientated, there are many pleasant residential areas of the city where the middle class population of Lima live, where the main Universities are based and where various shopping districts are located. To the south of Miraflores is a district called Barranco, which has beaches and ideallic views of the Pacific and colourful colonial buildings crumbling at the corners. This has earned a reputation for being the bohemian haunt of the city with many artists and musicians residing there. It’s got the best night life as well with bars and nightclubs open til the morning – ahem, not that i’d know of course.

Moving outside of the districts where all of the money is, things start to get a bit more sketchy. There are less security guards and buildings are noticeably more dilapidated, many having fallen into disrepair. It’s also much dirtier as people are not hired to sweep the streets or water the parks or pick up litter (a chronic problem) outside of the “most important” districts in the city, which could be better described as the places where people pay taxes.

The centre of the city can be quite dangerous away from the heavily guarded government buildings and it is certainly not advisable to travel there after dark. It’s usually in such areas where the taxi driver advises you to lock your door in the event of him having to stop in traffic and theives storming the car (i’m told it happens).

Then – spreading around the kernels of wealth and economy – are the slums that have evolved over the last thirty years. I’ve only driven through some of these but the highways and main roads avoid the worst parts for sure. I’m sure I’ll get a proper chance to visit while I am still living here, but i’ll probably not be taking my passports/money/camera with me.

So thats a wee breakdown of how Lima works. I wish I had learned more but -as i’ve stated – this city is very big, and when working forty hours a week it is easy to fall into a comfort zone as everything i need i can have in Miraflores – with a quick taxi ride to Barranco every now and again.

For a repitition of many of these facts and statistics, check out Wikipedia, the most reliable and unbiased source of information that exists on all of the whole entire internet.


12 11 2008

Food in Lima is quite simply delicious. It is often argued by many ex-pats living here that Peruvian cuisine should be ranked amongst the highest in the world. Were I to attempt such a ranking:

1) Indian 2) Peruvian 3) Italian 4) Thai 5) Mexican

That looked like an attempt, but anyway, my point is that Peruvian food is exquisite. It just hasn’t been recognised worldwide yet. Not too many Peruvians travel the world to start restaurants or spread the word of their cuisine, although one celebrity chef is attempting this at the moment. Another reason: Peruvians have no confidence in their culinary abilities and don’t often see the need to share recipes past those in their families.

For me, aside from my friends here, food has been by far the best thing about the city. One of my friends at work recently wrote an article for our news letter explaining why it is thriving. Another article in “The Examiner” argues that Peruvian cuisine is set for world domination. Here’s my own summary of reasons why Peruvian food is excellent:

1) Seafood is fresh. The Pacific Ocean swells to the east and the same point of the coastline that makes clouds build up during winter has the effect of shoring up (is that a palinism??) the massive variety of marine life that originates in the Pacific. Fishing boasts dont have far to travel before they can find a catch to bring directly back to the city.

2) Peru is biologically diverse – jungle, mountains, coast is the basic formation from east to west and within these areas are different climatic conditions where a vast variety of wonderful ingredients can be produced. Many types of Potatos in the mountains – endless fruits and vegetables in the Amazon – fish and seafood on the coastline.

3) Varied traditions – The Inca empire and those before it were renowned for successfully managing food production and distribution within Peru’s diverse climate range. Their traditions have since been built upon by the numerous culinary styles of people immigrating to Peru from across the world – Europe, China, other Latin American countries – to create a fantastic fusion of different flavour combination and techniques

Maybe the best thing of all is that this food is readily available. All over the city there are markets and restaurants that provide a good range of Peruvian fare for very little. Lomo saltado is a popular type of stir fry with beef, onions and peppers which is rich and flavoursome.  Some of the more expensive restaurants – still the same price as budget restaurants in Europe – have absolutely wonderful dishes, with fantastic creamy sauces poured over generous cuts of meat or crunchy shellfish served fresh in a marinade of lime and chili.

And then there’s aji. Peru wouldnt be Peru without aji. This is essentially chili sauce which can range from bright yellow to deep red to rose pink. It has a really full pepper flavour and can be mildly picante or burn your mouth out. I eat it every single day, with tasty chicharron (lightly fried pork) sandwiches or mussells or anything that i’m eating.

Which is anything here, because everything tastes good 🙂

El Centro

11 11 2008

The centre of Lima holds many government buildings, churches, cathedrals and museums which are amongst the most old and beautiful in the city. It clusters around two main squares, the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin.

One one side of the Plaza de Armas is the Presidential Palace. The Palace is guarded by an array of armed forces from police men with assault rifles to large armoured cars.

Pres. Ally Garcia's bit

El Presidente Ally Garcia's bit

Every time I have visited the centre there has been a parade of some form. People in vibrant costumes, singing dancing or playing a swinging Latin American marching rhythm on an arrangement of brass instruments. Such parades seem to have a certain element of appeasement to them, to reinforce the glorious image of the Peruvian republic upon people. Much the same, I believe, can be said of the grandiose buildings, plazas and parks of the centre that are upkept to an overwhelming degree more than the vast majority of the city’s infrastructure.

In fact, come to think of it, Peruvian nationalism is very much used by the government to coat over many of the country’s problems. People’s attention is diverted away from the troubling life that so many people here lead by  When I first arrived here I was struck by the devout patriotism displayed at the Independence Day Parade (my first ever given that my own country is not independent) with Peruvian flags being handed out everywhere and regiments of the Peruvian army parading down the street.

The journalism in Peru could also be an indication of this. A prime example is the governments own news agency Andina which glosses over and avoidsmany negative stories whilst blowing what may only be temporary or slight positive data out of all context and proportion: Peru is great, trust your government, your life is good, there are no problems.

One glance at some of the poorer areas that cover the hills rising on the outskirts of Lima show that everything here is not really all well and good. In reality, it feels like problems with poverty can never be solved as the government simply does not have enough money. So politicians are forced to lie and say everything’s ok just to stay in power and earn their salaries. Behind closed doors they care only about their own wallets.

For people who do indeed live a comfortable life, this is an easy pill to swallow. For the vast majority of others, not so much.

Sunny sunny Lima

10 11 2008

Ok, this post was inevitable, so I thought I’d save it for the night this week when I got in late.

If there’s one thing that has changed alot in my time in Lima, it’s the weather. When I arrived it was cloudy. Extremely cloudy. There was no break in the cloud for up to months on end and neither sun, star nor blue sky crept into vision for even a second of this. Thisdoes tend to give the old optimism a good battering. I have often looked at the “buy one get one free” factor 30 jumbo bottles of suncream that I bought in my last day in Scotland and wondered whether I will ever take them out of their boots pharmacy carrier bag.

Another oddity: despite cloud persistence there had not been one drop of rain for three months in this city before the other day when it spat lightly for a good fifteen minutes. Sure, there had been a spot of mild drizzle, but this had never became heavy enough to constitute full blown drops of rain. The city is very humid – it is on the coast of the pacific ocean – but this humidity hangs in the air and forms into big thick clouds and mist that have absolutely no intention of turning into rain. The reason why the following is “necessary”:

Watering the grass

Watering the grass

Lima is in the middle of a desert, so in those areas of town where people are lucky enough to have earned the privalage of grassy areas, much water application is needed. So the grass gets watered.

The proximity to the worlds biggest ocean mixed with the cold Humbolt Current that flows just past the very tip of Lima’s coastline mixed with the city’s barren desert terrain mixed with the barrier that is formed by the nearby Andes all combine to constitute what is known as a “micro climate” which applies solely to Lima and is the reason for all the clouds. In as little as half an hours drive outside of the city it is possible to find places where the sun presides all year round. Of all the cities in South America I could have chosen to live… 🙂

But now, as summer approaches, Lima’s other season is beginning to become apparent, and it is getting properly sunny. With subtropical sun comes extreme heat, and as a result, today I am sunburnt. Might have to break open that sun cream after all…

The past

9 11 2008

It has been difficult for me to grasp the pre-Columbian history of Peru when living only in Lima, which is ironic given that the country’s history was one of the main reasons I chose to come here. I wrote my dissertation on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire earlier this year and it inspired me to see the ruins left by that empire and of the people who came before it. Only in Cusco, the Sacred Valley and the Colca Canyon have I been so priviliged as to see any pre-Colombian structures.

In Lima these aspects of the past are barely visible. One ruin – Huaca Pucllana – does stand out of the metropolis but it largely resembles a neatly crafted pile of dirt and it seems out of context with towering condominiums appearing whenever you turn your head. The only other remenants lie in the names of various aspects of the city. There’s Inca Kola (a bubblegum flavoured soft drink) and Inca Farma (a popular pharmacy) with some streets and universities being named after famous Inca leaders or scholars. These are just a few examples that display that people in Lima are aware of their country’s distant past.

But in truth it is of little concern to those immersed into the reality of a developing world city of eight million people in 2008. Lima is dominated by European descendants who care far more about aspiring to western values and glorifying the Peruvian republic. They seem very distant from the quechua speaking amerindians of the Andes who show much more nostalgia for Peru’s vibrant pre-Colombian heritage, or not so much nostalgia as a certain type of continuation of traditions.

Then there are the museums, which are pretty damn cool. Through these it is possible to catch a glimpse of Peru’s rich and diverse history that streches back thousands of years and contains numerous peoples and civilisations. Today I visited the Museo Nacional Antropologia, Arquelogia y Historia. This is the third of Lima’s museums that I have been to and they display an almost alien world to that of Lima’s urban sprawl. Beautifully crafted pottery with intricate colours and patterns; delicate peices of jewellery crafted from gold and silver; textiles woven with such precision; these remenants of Perus colourful past seem so far away from the unimaginative, unsubstantial and decadent cluster of buildings that constitutes most of modern Lima.

and more

cerámica chévere

The Eternal Dilemma of Buying Things

8 11 2008

I spent the day today clothes shopping. I ended up with nothing.

Shopping in Lima – true to the nature of the city itself – is crazy and completely uncontrolled.

Just about everything outside of the few main department stores is a pirate or a fake. In some parts of town, stalls sprawl across the pavements of streets with varying degrees of quality pirate movies, cds and computer games. Which is good if you want to watch a movie for next to nothing, but bad if you dont want this to be marred by disc skipping, audio problems and silhouettes of heads moving across the front of the cinema screen where the movie was recorded.

By and large, different districts of the city host clusters of stores selling the same type of good. There are areas where computer software is sold (pirated of course), there are streets of book sellers (many ringbound photocopies) and neighbourhoods of electronics stores (these dont so much have fakes as expensive imports for sale). Today I was in a clothes section of town: a street composed of near hundreds of shops dedicated to the religion of clothing. They are arranged in rather haphazard fashion, not one area of wall was wasted where a display or colourful entrance could be held.

a shopping street in Lima - blurred ... ahem ... to emphasise craziness ... yeah

a shopping street in Lima - blurred ... ahem ... to emphasise craziness ... yeah

After searching the entire street i could find no decent pair of trousers that was long enough to cover to my entire leg. The fakes were again plentiful: I lost count of the number of fakey brand names that i saw. Luckily it was easy to spot the worst of these when after just seconds of examination it was possible to pull threads clean from the stitches of the trousers. Even amongst the better quality clothes I could find absolutely nada, there are definite disadvantages to being tall, especially in a country where people are generally small.

I will probably have to settle for one of the main department stores – Ripley or Saga – for my trouser needs. These are located in more well off parts of town and have rather a more western mall-like feel to them but are markedly more expensive than their tiny-room-with-entrance-opening-onto-a-mobbed-street counterparts.

Walking down one of these shopping streets is an experience in itself. Today I was harrassed by people from all sides, thier favourite advertisment allure was the repeated shout of “Lacoste, ropas de lacoste, lacoste la mejor”. After I hazarded a mere glance ate one pair of trousers that a salesman was selling he tailed me for at least a minute as I tried to walk away, shouting at me to make sure that there was no mistake of what an unbelievable offer I was missing.

This is life in Peru: there is always a middle man who’s job it is to advertise and sell absolutely anything and everything to people walking down the street minding their own business: shops, buses, restaurants, candies, cigarettes, massages, chewing gum, casinos, empanadas, fruit, drugs, entertainment … you can see where i’m going with this. From what I can gather this culture is born out of the fact that there just isnt enough jobs to go around. People have to do anything to try and make money and creating jobs that purely involve selling things – anything – is one way to give paid, commissioned work to more people.

This works on many levels. At the top end you have a guy who stands outside a classy restaurant to try and lure you inside with special deals and a neatly prepared sales pitch in which he competes with other such fellows from nearby restaurants to win your custom. I have perfected the art of just plain ignoring these people and not reacting to a single word that they say, it just puts me off and makes me think “if your trying so hard to sell this place, it cant be very popular, which means it cant be very good”.

The sad thing is that at the bottom end of the scale many salespeople are children. It’s pretty heartbreaking to turn down a seven year old who is scurrying around the streets trying desperately to find somebody to give them money for some of the sweets or candies or whatever it is that lies in a tray held in place by a strap looping around the back of their neck.