It's a well-known tip: when you want to see if the turbulence you've just hit really was something to worry about, you look into the face of the air staff. If they look unhappy, then you should be too. On the journey from Lima's Jorge Chavez Internation Airport to the centre of Lima, I looked into the faces of one or two pedestrians that our driver almost decorated the front of our minibus with. I could see in their expressions that this was not standard turbulance.
We had read, and been told, that Lima was not an interesting city to visit - just another big city with all the disadvanges that go along with that. But having heard the same things about Auckland, and found them not to be completely true, we were prepared to suspend our judgement for a while. That suspension of judgement almost didn't last the trip from the airport. It was hard to avoid the impression that Lima was a grime-stained, bird-shat sprawl with the manners and menace of a scene from Blade Runner. Since then, we've spent twenty-four hours trapped under a low ceiling of impregnable cloud that doesn't have the decency to rain, rain, go away, but instead remains as constant and as endless as the equally grey sea alongside us. Judgement seems imminent.
I'm OK with big cities. I'm prepared for the trade-offs. People are busier, it's harder to get around, cities can start to all look alike sometimes. But on the other hand there's often more to see, beautiful architecture and an urban sophistication that shows in the way people dress and hold themselves. In Lima I feel like we've paid our money and are still waiting for the show. The place has been shook from head to toe by earthquakes, and the surviving buildings of any significance seem mostly to be based around the Plaza Major (also known as the Plaza de Armas). That wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for the fact that Lima measures about 100km from top to bottom, and about 50 km inland. Looking for beauty in a city that seems to be mostly made up of broken streets and sadistic traffic is a full-time job. I miss the blue skies and relative quiet of Cusco (and I owe you about 4 more blog entries on that wonderful part of the world).
But if a city lacks charm, you have to go out and make it yourself. Our approach, and again we have to thank my mother-in-law Livia for her excellent Peruvian connections, is to shun normal hotel life for 3 nights of monastic bliss. Just off Plaza Bolognesi there lies a fine but smog-stained building owned and run by the Salesian Order. Here, there is one bed per room on a long corridor of similar rooms. Cells if you will, but with the keys firmly in our own hands. The building is enormous and mostly empty, but if you find your way to the more important corners you will meet some extraordinary characters.
Padre Luigi has a long grey beard but the energy and mannerisms of a Roberto Benigni. He was born in Veneto and when he joined the order, he asked to be sent to India. The order had other plans. He has been living in the Equadorian and Peruvian jungle for the last 54 years, and is here in Lima for a while in order to complete the corrections on his translation of the entire New Testament into a language that most of us will never hear of, much less hear. Normally he lives with, and like, the people he ministers to. There is no electricity or anything else that remotely recalls civilization there. "It's a simple life" he says smiling, while I mentally conjure up images of the complexity of living without modern comforts. For 54 years.
Over in the infamous district of Callao lives another Salesian priest, also with some Italian heritage. Padre Lombardi is the director of a school for boys in an area of Lima best known for gangland murder. We went to visit him today (he sent a minivan for us, which took us into the heart of Callao and never even slowed down as it approached the large metal gate of the school, only stopping when that gate was closed behind us) and he showed us that there was more to Callao than hit the headlines. He took us to a tiny restaurant on the waterfront, owned and chefed by Señor Andreas, who specialised in ceviche. This type of dish has, as its main ingredient, raw fish. Nina (and Sara to a lesser extent) like sushi, but I wasn't prepared for the gusto with which both of them attacked the three extraordinary dishes that Andreas brought to our table, one after the other. Each dish was sublime. The first was similar to the Sardinian speciality called bottarga that I have come to love over the last 13 years, though it used the eggs of marlin or tuna rather than mullet. The second was a more standard ceviche dish, again from marlin and served with roasted maize. The last, named '20th of August' after the date of the establishment of the municipality of Callao, was spectacular. I wont try to describe it - perhaps Letizia will in a later blog (and I'll translate into English) - except to say that it was the most unique fish dish I've ever tasted and demonstrated that Señor Andreas is an artist. I'll try to pass along the name and address of this place for anyone out there interested enough in fish to brave Callao without the local priest's minivan.
We have two more nights here to see what else can be salvaged from this concrete tip. But the clock is ticking. The '20th of August', as well as marking the beginning of Callao, will mark the end of my family's journey, just a week from today as I write. Since leaving Cusco, we feel we are on the homeward track, stopping off just in Lima and Buenos Aires for rest. And yet it feels so strange to think that the 8 months have passed this quickly. During our remaining stay here in Lima and in BA I'll try to catch up with some memories and half-finished trains of thought. It might even be a case of writing from Ireland for a day or two after we get back.
After that, I'll have to decide what, if anything, to do with this blog that has been for me a very important part of this trip. Having acquired the habit of facing a blank sheet of paper on a regular basis, and somehow filling it with what I am told is occasionally entertaining details of our experiences, I will find it hard to suddenly stop. I think I'll miss the blogging as much as I'll miss the travelling.