We are almost halfway through the trip. Dancing through the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro seems a long time ago. Antarctica in the distant past. How is it possible that this is a continuation of the same journey during which we gazed out over the Pacific Ocean from Valparaiso, Chile? Five months later and a fifteen hundred miles up the coast, we glimpsed the Pacific once more as we arrived in Peru’s capital city, Lima. From here on, the Pacific will be a steady companion, its eastern edges sketching out a rough map for us to follow. Floating in its current would eventually take us north, past Central America, past Mexico and California, past my home state of Washington and up, up past British Columbia to Alaska.
This deep into our travels we are tired, Magda’s stomach was continuing to rebel and neither of us had slept well for days. When we solicited our friends and family for help funding the Antarctic leg, our friend Carmen had told us she was donating a place to stay in Lima, her hometown. We knew a comfortable place to rest would be welcome at that point, and we were not wrong.
When we entered Carmen’s apartment I felt a weight drop from my shoulders, though it could well have been my pack hitting the polished wood floor. It was equipped with big windows and a sliver view of the ocean, a glorious full kitchen, and – I’m practically salivating as I type – a washer and dryer. The bed was comfortable and clean and we collapsed into it instantly, after dumping nearly everything we were carrying into the wash.
When we came to in the morning, a hot shower with deliciously powerful water pressure waited to scour off a layer or two of dirt. I took a pair of scissors to my beard and hacked at it like an Amazonian explorer wielding a machete. Despite removing several giant clumps, nothing much had changed by the time I was done. At least I felt lighter.
We wondered if Carmen knew how much simple comforts meant to us at that moment. Plush towels and a coffee press. Wireless Internet and cable tv. A comforting clean commode. On the second morning I cooked French toast, we drank coffee and watched Mad Men. Nothing had felt so normal in months.
Carmen’s friend Patricia picked us up and treated us to dinner at her fancy sports club. We hung out and drank Pisco Sours with a view of the ocean at night.
On our third morning, Carmen’s mother, also Carmen, picked us up and insisted on taking us to breakfast near her house. We were feeling like freeloaders in the midsts of this windfall of sudden generosity and insisted that we pay for breakfast. But Señora Carmen was adamant, and we suddenly realized Peru was like China in its aggressively wonderful hospitality. Politely declining was never an option.
In her new Peugeot that had a dangerous looking wound over its right headlight, Señora Carmen showed us the town. An 81 year old dynamo, she spoke non-stop and was so funny and interesting that I couldn’t help but prod her with questions, even though talking and driving was clearly a dangerous juggling act. We drifted across lanes. We stopped traffic to hear the history of buildings. When a chorus of horns let loose, Carmen put her finger to her lips and said, “shhh”, then broke into giggles. At one point the Señora jumped out and I drove around the block while she bought a cake. The other drivers suddenly closed ranks and gave me no quarter – it seems Señora Carmen’s sweet old lady routine was the ticket to battling Lima’s traffic. At one point she drifted in front of a enormous truck that was barreling unsafely down a city street. She smiled and said “excuse me!” in English, at a closed window, while the truck jerked to a stop with an exasperated exhalation of pneumonic breaks.
Later when we told Carmen what a nice day we’d had with her mother, she mentioned that driving with her could be an adventure. The next time we saw Señora Carmen I offered to drive, and she for once seemed happy to accept the offer.
We ate. It turns out Lima, and Peru in general, is a serious foodie destination. One of its best known restaurants is now 14th on a list of best restaurants in the world. While Astrid y Gaston was a bit pricey for wandering vagabonds, we ate our fill of delicious ceviche served from holes in the wall and relaxed in moody bars drinking Sangria.
We explored the city, but not with the ferocity we generally do. It helps to actually want to leave your hotel. In Carmen’s apartment, we felt like the city could wait and in fact it did, patiently, while we made ourselves at home and started feeling a bit human again. Fortunately many of the interesting sights were nearby so we took our time and wandered towards them on foot.
In the neighborhood of Miraflores there is a hill, an obstruction on an otherwise flat plane. For years the city was built up around it, chipping into the occasional batch of ruins unearthed during construction. What couldn’t be easily bulldozed was used as a quarry, as a motocross arena, as a makeshift cemetery. When the government got serious about preserving Huaca Pucllana, archeologists found the remains of a great pyramid, built by the Lima culture between 200 AD and 700 AD before they were taken over by the Wari. How could a pyramid be overlooked in the middle of the country’s largest metropolis? I can only guess that the domino effect of anti-indigenous sentiment had toppled its way into the 20th century, finally spending its negative energy in the early 80’s.
Let’s recap: Motocross. On top of a treasure of early American civilization. Now a fancy restaurant overlooks the excavated ruins, lit by romantic spotlights.
The treasures from Pre-Incan Peru were well plundered by the Spanish, but that which remained was immaculately preserved by the dry desert air. The Amano museum holds some of the best preserved ceramics and textiles from the area. Nazca, Moche, Wari are all represented in a diversity of pottery, some highly naturalistic, some disturbingly realistic. Faces of a lost people are beautifully rendered in clay, the brown skin as luminescent as in life. In another room textiles found in tombs are kept in flat file drawers. Their patterns are intricate repetitions woven with machine like precision. Thin threads turn in fragile helixes across the weavings. While much of the Andean weaving techniques have been preserved in remote villages to this day, the helix pattern technique sadly disappeared a thousand years ago. Unbelievably, many of the fabrics look like they were woven yesterday.
The weather patterns responsible for the perfect preservation keep the Peruvian coast unnaturally dry year round. More than once we heard that it never rained in Lima, but this reality was hard for a guy from Seattle to comprehend. I was thinking that “never” was another charming Peruvian exaggeration and that the occasional downpour must freshen up the place. Then I noticed there were no drains or gutters, no downspouts – because there is no need. It doesn’t rain. It mists though. As our visit put us in Peru in their winter, we were treated to the bizarre fog that sits on the city day and night, blocking the sun and occasionally misting surfaces with beads of moisture. It was an interesting phenomenon, but after a few days it started to dampen our spirits, if nothing else.
Normally we might have spent less time in Lima. With the apartment making traveling further sound less and less interesting, we stayed a week. Encouraged by the persistent mists, we eventually decided we’d have to move on. We bought tickets on an overnight bus north to Trujillo and spent a final day eating, gazing into the fog above the cliffs of Miraflores, and preparing again for life back on the road. We hadn’t found normal in Lima, we’d actually taken a break from it.