Sirens’ Song

When Carlo Ponti released Ulysses with Kirk Douglas as The MAN, I was 6 years old. Never one for understatement, Ponti’s over the top epic grabbed my entire being. The direct result of my watching his movie was that year or 2 later I took the plunge and borrowed both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the Bookmobile that parked in front of our house. Reading was my life back then and Homer, if anything, was even more captivating than Ponti and I devoured those 2 books. They were Adventure personified and I fantasized many incredible journeys growing up in those days.

At that age I had to be selective in my choice of adventures, since several of Ulysses’ trials were a bit too nuanced for a 1st-grader. I could understand his battle with the Cyclops; didn’t everyone have a monster under the bed? But the Sirens? I don’t know about you, but they looked pretty good to me! Yeah, there were some rocks and a treacherous sea, but I figured that there must have been some place to drop anchor and take up with all those beautiful women. Hmm, even at 6 years old…

Lima plays its own Sirens’ Song and I must admit the tune had its effect on me. After 3 months going underground in a full immersion, awash in diversions of every choice, I have only now been able to surface and take a breath, conceding that I was spellbound. But that’s not why I’m here in South America. I’m not ready to wash up on the rocks. At least not here, not now.

It will take me another month to wrap up some things. After that I’m gone. It’s been an instructional time here and I could easily call Lima home. The Peruvians that I’ve met are warm, open and love life. I’ve checked out a number of interesting and affordable barrios in several places around Lima and even La Punta in Callao.

As it happens I was in Callao the day before the US Embassy sent out an emergency alert, warning that the bordering city to Lima, the massive port of Callao, was declared a danger zone by the federal police. Finding the Christmas spirit, a number of armed robberies and fatal shootings convinced the police to close the city off and let the bandits fight it out. There really is a war zone there and if you do have the urge to visit, plan carefully. Anyway, I ate a fantastic ceviche in La Punta at a landmark establishment and truly enjoyed the day with one of my 2 Spanish teachers.

I’ve been working with Ely between her shifts in a casino as she scolds me into repeating, ever faster, corrected phrases that I had earlier botched. She’s a quick-witted soul who is striving to improve her lot. Having to quit attending the university when her dad walked out on the family, she’s been helping her mom raise her 11-yr old brother and will probably never have the chance to resume her schooling. Already in her 30’s she knows that time is not on her side.

But she speaks English very well and hopes to set up a personal guide service working through the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. The Club is always being asked for advice on things to do here and Ely is as good as anyone for revealing some of the treasures buried here in a city of millions (I’ve heard “official” population figures of anywhere from 8 to 10 million, but no one will ever really know).

Before he ran off, Ely’s dad was one of thousands upon thousands of independent taxi drivers in Lima. Unlike Ecuador, and especially Quito, taxi drivers in Lima are fully un-regulated and the single most dangerous form of transportation in the city. Every guidebook agrees with the US Embassy and warns about kidnappings, armed robberies and other delights when the unwary hop in for a frightening cross-town ride.

When we ride the taxis Ely does all the interrogation of potential drivers while I stand away from her with my back to the street. Gringos are always charged double. But we have no trouble. She is street-smart and knows where and how to move anywhere one could want to go, so she can spot a weasel and rejects most taxis.

Visiting, day and night, many off of the guidebook listings, we’ve used the taxis; independent, broken-down private buses; combis, which are minivans stripped down with miniature seats bolted in; an occasional city bus; the limited access Metropolitano bus-train and other, less traditional ways of going from A to B. I’m helping Ely draft a brochure for her services and it will be posted prominently here at the Club. I’m rooting for her to make it and I think she’s got the drive to succeed.

Jenny, on the other hand, is my academic teacher. One of the English and Spanish language faculty at a university here, she’s moonlighting and has been affiliated with the Club for several years. We visit museums, cafes, and some notable highland restaurants. Jenny’s been helping me to understand the immense social upheaval caused by decades of gruesome terror during the years of the Shining Path maoist guerillas. It’s not a pretty lesson and many of the photo-essays on display are very hard to stomach. Yet like the Holocaust museums, the belief in Perú is that if we continue to see we will continue to remember and we must never forget.

At the height of the insurgency, during the 1980’s and 90’s, the Shining Path took few hostages and wiped out entire villages and even regions of the country. They were such a destabilizing force that millions of indigenous families and whole pueblos fled the highlands to flood into an already over-crowded Lima. The city will never be the same.

The shanty-towns that crawl up the steep hillsides circling Lima are now home to a disturbing and restless population entirely unregulated by any standards. Up in the hills, the residents pay 5 times the cost of water delivered within the legal city limits. Water delivered in open barrels with E. coli and other biological goodies at no extra charge. Ahh, city life.

Once the home of the Spanish colonial Viceroy, Lima has been an upper-class city for hundreds of years, with the white criollos ruling a poor and backward country. This tight group of powerful families kept immense riches harvested from all parts of Perú. Even now there are wealthy sections of the city that steal one’s breath with their opulence. Billionaires? They’re quite happy here, thank you. For centuries Lima had a ruling class and an underclass and it was easy to distinguish who was who. Until the Shining Path butchered its way onto the scene.

Never a big fan of television, I watch even less here in Lima. But I’ve seen one commercial many times now and it, in a microcosm, is indicative of the immense social change. The opening shot is of a man stepping down from (what else?) an overcrowded city bus. He looks like millions of other Limeños, an ordinary sort dressed casually and walking purposefully while a voice-over begins extolling the virtues of building wealth. This everyman nods his way past street vendors, shoe-shine men, small shops and other scenes from the bustle of big-city life.

Eventually he enters a doorway and is handed a hardhat, walking past groups of workers in an ever-expanding view of a major construction site. He strides up to face a newly poured concrete pillar, gives it a hearty slap, turns around and gives the OK to the expectant workers. He smiles, they smile and then all hop back to building this skyscraper as the commercial fades to the investment logo. Everyone’s happy.

This man, short of stature with prominent indigenous features, looks like most of the people on the street and the message we received was to judge him by his performance and not his appearance. With so many waves of refugees fleeing the central mountains into Lima for 30 years, the power structure has undergone massive change. This man represents the change.

Whites, while still at the controls of the super-wealth, are no longer necessarily the ones getting things done on the ground. They are frequently no longer the major players nor the ones in charge of running the chaos of 21st Century Lima. It’s been a very painful growth and anti-discrimination signs and posters abound throughout the commercial districts. But discrimination still exists and the signs are simply the admission of a work in progress.

Which is about all that’s working now. Perú holds its general elections in 6 months. My friends tell me that this will be like all the previous pre-election times when all governmental offices essentially close up shop and go home. For the full 6 months. But for me, this was a boon.

Personal and family business mandated a quick spin back to US soil. So this past week I dropped in on my Tampa-based older brother and we connected with my younger brother too. It was great seeing both at once and we ought to do it more than every 1/2 dozen years or so. On my way back into Perú I made the obligatory stop at the immigration booth at the airport.

Known for a dearth of compassion, the airport office almost never gives out more than the standard 90 day tourist permit. Yet when I got to the front of the line and spoke, in Spanish, to the official I pleaded my case for an extended term. And when I asked the officer for the maximum time of 6 months (which is often granted at overland immigration stops but not at the airport), he just glared at me and said NO. But then he wrote 183 days on my passport, smiled and sent me on my way. I think that he was being filmed and wanted to project his limitless powers to the powers that be. Good Man, and by the way: thanks!

So his getting back at the system through his rebellious action gave me the opportunity to invest this wealth of days into a 5 month jaunt around what a number of anthropologists believe to be a cradle of civilization. I’m reading the book 1491 these days and it is riveting. The author is taking revenge on his grade school and high school history teachers by showing what the Western Hemisphere was really like before Columbus and his ilk set sail. To all of you who, like myself, were subjected to standard public school drivel, we’ve been lied to; big time.

New (though some of the conclusions are more than 30 years old) discoveries about just how large and complex indigenous cultures were have trashed what we learned way back when. Although way back when isn’t too far back since the author’s sons are receiving the same old lies. Those pesky Pilgrims were really far more doltish and the surrounding “Indians” were far more advanced than what I learned in Mr. Scandary’s 5th Grade history lessons. Though I did like his collection of old National Geographic Magazines.

I’ll hit the road soon. Though I make no promises, I believe that my posts will resume a more frequent schedule. I’m eluding the Sirens and making a break for the jungle in February. We’ll have to see. In the meantime, happy holidays for and to all. I never did like prepositions.

5 thoughts on “Sirens’ Song

  1. kmalivuk

    Thanks Roberta. I’m headed to a folkloric music/dance performance tonight with one of my Spanish teachers. Immigration gave me another 6 months to travel here in Peru. I’m taking them up on the offer…

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  2. lafille23

    I love reading your blog Karl! All your thoughts about Lima are so accurate in this post! I love the idea of the Sirens, it is eerily accurate. I feel like I will be exactly the same, in fact I could already picture myself here a long while. But i will have to stretch myself further from the bounds of Lima throughout this stay.
    I went to Obrajillo the other day with Josh and Aaron and that was beautiful! Nice to get out to some nature and greenery.
    I hope your travels are going well and I’m looking forward to reading your next posts about the jungle and your adventures there!

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    1. kmalivuk Post author

      Hey Sam, Thanks for the thoughts and congrats for starting your own blog! I ate up your entries and look forward to following your insights as well. Now that you’re on your way to Barranco, the change in scenery will bring new focus for you. It was a pleasure sharing space at the SAE/Lima Clubhouse and perhaps we can meet when I return, briefly, to Lima in early March. Cheers

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      1. lafille23

        well you are the one that inspired me to begin my own one so thank you! It is quite addictive once you get started!

        that would be great! Let me know your plans and would love that. Enjoy in the meantime 🙂 !

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