Friday, July 29, 2011

A Grand Tour of Downtown Lima

July 24, 2011 – Not Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon in Downtown Lima

In Which I Appear to Be Very Judgmental and Don’t Tip the Mean Dog Man

Rodney and Larry are waiting for Katrina, Oswaldo, and me in front of the Basilica Cathedral of Lima. We’re only five minutes late. That’s early if you’re going on Peruvian time.
We greet each other South American style with cheek kisses and exchange how-de-dos. Perhaps it leaked out that I’ve been in Peru for two months and not yet seen Downtown Lima in the daylight, or more likely, I think, Rodney, who takes his friends on tours of Downtown Lima wanted to show us--his writer friends--around. Over the years he’s gleaned more city history than most Limeños know. His previously-toured friends have told him he should do his tours on a regular basis and make money while he’s at it, but he says he prefers to take people he knows and potentially likes, and do it only occasionally. It’s nicer that way. This I understand.   

K, O, and I haven’t been inside the cathedral. We eye the opening with curiosity.            

“I’ve already seen it,” Rodney tells us. “Go ahead and take a look around and when you’re done we’ll get started on the walking tour.”

Larry comes inside with us for a minute. We stick together at first and then we find our own areas of interest and part ways. The side rooms are full of pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the stories of the disciples, strange and grotesque images of the saints and their tragic ends, of the Spanish conquest, of gaudy, gilt-rimmed altars, and of graven images of the sacred ones.  

Mass is in process. The faithful line the pews and make the sign of the cross and mouth along to the Hail Mary. The words are intoned by two different men. The rhythm of their voices becomes nearly hypnotic, droning, and a little bit scary.

“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

More than the paintings and the garish statues, I like the arched structure of the ceiling and the intricate, grand doors with their great knockers. Oh yes, I know that sounds irreverent. But check out the doors for yourself and you’ll perhaps agree with me.
“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

I stand in front of the confession booth.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I think. I’m not catholic and I only know this confessional beginning from research I did for a novel a friend and I started to write before he moved to Afghanistan and I moved to Peru. I squelch more irreverence and pose for a more or less decent photo. The boy who runs in front of me looks like a karate kid turned into a ghost. Wax on, kid.
The place is almost too extravagant to be beautiful to me. I’m a minimalist these days. More of a Zen practitioner than a gold and ritual adherent.
I like the outside façade of the Cathedral better than the  interior.The saints and apostles that guard the front seem like old friends from my art history collegeclass days. “Hello, friends,” I say. The pigeons see them as friends too and I think to myself, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
I pause in prayer position and all the while in the background the voices carry on: “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.” Rodney laughs at me and says that my pose is very touristy. And irreverent, I think.
Rodney tells us that the difference between a cathedral and a church is all in the number of doors. A cathedral has three doors in the front and a church has less than three. In order to be a cathedral the cathedral-hopefuls have to get special permission from the Pope. I’m sure it’s all about how the request is worded, who the requesting priest knows and how much money is sent with the petition. A strange scripture comes to mind and I say it out in my head, “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus, “Not one stone will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.”

We walk past the Bishop’s palace. The balconies are ornate, enclosed and shout out exclusivity. It’s beautiful in a closed-in way. See, I love open balconies. The ones where you can sit and let the sun burn your skin and the air chap your face. These feel a little too rich for me. I have this aversion to being caged up; figuratively, imaginatively, literally, and all the other “ly”s you can conjure up. I don’t see freedom on the other side of that wood. Dear Bishop, I do aspire to be you.

Some police officers walk our way from the President’s Palace. In only days, Humala, the Peruvian President-elect, will take office and replace Alan Garcia.

Humala’s a leftist candidate who according to rumors has said he won’t take residence in the President’s Palace. Maybe it’s too much of an elitist move for him. Who knows if he even said that at all. Time will tell where he stays and what he does for Peru. I take pictures of the building and get amused by the Palace Guard who is blatantly listening to his iPod while on duty.
Downtown Lima is beautiful. This area is the oldest district of Lima and many of the buildings still show the evidence of the city’s colonial era. Oh, Spain, how you infiltrated Peru. The bright colors are both tasteful and refreshing. I could sit in the middle of the plaza and people-watch and building-watch for days. But today we keep on going.
Katrina tells Rodney of a man and his dog she’d seen when she and Oswaldo had come to the center of Lima only a week and a half ago. At that moment the man and his dog appear nearly out of nowhere. Katrina and I take our lives into our hands and run across the street to get pictures. We’re such precious tourists.

When the old man kicks his dog into a pose Katrina decides not to give him a tip for the privilege of photographing them. A passing Limeña tells us in Spanish that the man is requesting a tip. We, heartless wicked demons (“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”), pretend we don’t understand Spanish and recross the street.
We tour the Iglesia de San Francisco. The story of the reliquaries and the bones and the catacombs are told in another place. But I’ll say again that the way we handle our dead and death is still weird; delightfully and gruesomely fascinating.

Past more colonial buildings, past the Casa de La Literatura Peruana, past the building that Oswald, an engineering student, is doing his thesis on, past a quaint bar, past the decaying backside of the Iglesia de San Francisco, we go stare at the statue of Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. It’s huge. It’s so conquering. Pizarro has medusa-like snakes coming out of helmet. With that kind of viperous help how could he not have founded the city of Lima in 1535? Even his noble steed looks domineering and proud.
Pizarro named Lima the Ciudad de los Reyes (the City of Kings) and it became the capital and the most important city in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (I’m getting a lot of this historical information from Wikipedia and from what I remember Rodney telling us as we toured). I’m watching a kid walk underneath Pizarro’s horse’s belly as Rodney tells us that there might have been a mix up with statues and that this might actually be the image of Cordova instead of Pizarro. But damn, all those Spaniards look the same, right, so who knows?

We pass a building that reminds me of the Hall of the time-frozen Jinn in the Narnian book The Magician’s Nephew.

It even has a lamppost in front of it. I snap a picture and hope that maybe one day I’ll be able to travel by wardrobe and lamppost. Next best thing to that is travel by Lima transit. At least it’s just as exciting.

In front of the Santo Domingo Church Rodney says, “Once upon a time in Lima there was a little orphan boy. He didn’t have a place to sleep. He barely found things to eat. One cold night he tucked himself into an electrical box to stay warm. In the morning when someone started the city up, the boy was electrocuted. In response to his death several orphanages were started and boys were given shoeshine boxes so they could make a living. This statue was set up so that that one boy would never be forgotten.”

We continue.

On the street a blind man with a violin in hand dozes. Rodney puts a coin in the bucket at his knee and we all go on by. Awakened by the sound, the musician takes the coin out of his bucket, feels it between his fingers then takes his bow in hand and plays a song.
We pay two soles to get into the house of the Almirante Miguel Grau Seminario who was a famous Peruvian naval officer who had the nickname of the Gentleman of the Seas for his sense of chivalry and fair play. The house is an interesting museum with pictures, maps, facts, and really creepy larger than life mannequins.

At the Gran Hotel Bolivar we, like Ava Gardner, John Wayne and Orson Welles before us had, stop and drink a Pisco Sour. The hotel was built in 1924 and was the first

large and modern hotel to be built in Lima. It’s also supposed to be the home of the best Pisco Sours. Though nearly all Peruvian bars make this claim. For instance, just a ways down the road is Maury’s where there is a sign on the wall assuring all who enter that the best Pisco Sours come from behind their bar. If you come to Lima and go on the Downtown Tour with Rodney be sure to have him tell you the story of the racehorse and his night of drinking at Maury’s.

We pass back through the Plaza de Armas and Rodney stops me. “You’ll want to see this statue,” he says. “See what’s up on her head?”

I get up close and take a look. Of course, every goddess should have a llama on her head.
I think we’ve all had a great day. I’ve seen so much and, yet, somehow there is still so much to see of Downtown Lima.

Rodney, great guide that he is, knows that it’s good to end a day long city tour with a full stomach so we stop at the oldest Italian restaurant in Lima. One of his favorite places. We walk past the air drying strings of pasta, past the giant loaves of fresh made bread, past the bottles of wine that line the shelves inside and get settled in at a table. On a little TV across from us I watch Uruguay beat Paraguay in the Copa America 2011 while I sip my glass of vino tinto and eat oven hot bread.   

Here I have a lapse of reason. I order the spinach ravioli instead of just sticking with bread like I’d intended on doing. Up to when I moved to Peru I was a vegan and since I’ve been here I’ve been vegetarian. This is mostly for health reasons, but the longer I’m vegetarian the less appealing meat is to me, for a variety of reasons. In Peru, vegetarian often means just free of red meat and to this moment I’ve steered clear of all chancy meat-infused situations. Maybe here, on this day, on this outing I don’t truly care, I don’t know what is going on in my head, but I don’t ask the waiter myself if the food is really meat free. The others field the issue for me and have a discussion with the staff about the sauce and the meatiness thereof. 86 the sauce, we say to him. And a little bit later, I get spinach ravioli without sauce. Ravioli, even sin sauce, is pretty tasty, it’s hot, it’s filling. But then horrors! A few bites into the ravioli I have the faintest suspicion that there is some kind of beef involved. Surely not, I think in the hope of the blindly ignorant. I eat a few more pieces. Alas, I fear it is so. I stop eating.

Guilt plagues me. What have I done? Oh cow, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. May you have lived and died well.
Since I can’t get back quickly to the confessional in the Cathedral Basilica de Lima I just whisper these words under my breath, “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

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