Lima has been the wealthy capital of Peru since the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century. The urban area boomed in population in the 1980s, often with the very poor, when the radical group Sendero Luminoso terrorized the countryside. The country is peaceful today. Often, I’m told, the view from this height is foggy, but today you can almost see the breakers on the Pacific shore, miles away.
10:00 a.m. Drive down to the center of Lima and find a place to park in a lot marked on its pavement with a giant “S,” a sign for “Security,” one place to run to when the earth begins to shake, a place less in the shadow of tall buildings than other spots. We are, after all, standing on the Ring of Fire that rims the Pacific.
Nearby spreads the historic square with centuries-old buildings marked with graceful arcades, and ornate balconies fretted with wooden screens, a throwback to Arabic architecture, an accommodation for women who might watch the life of the streets without being seen. I nod to the only Peruvian alpaca I will see on this trip, standing stuffed and wearing sunglasses outside a shop. Step into the cool cathedral where Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who, like it or not, brought Europe to the Incas, , is buried. The side chapels are some of the most magnificent I have ever seen, proof of the wealth and artistry of early Lima.
12:00 The brass band has been playing rousing music until this moment, the changing of the guard outside the National Palace! Dressed in Wilhelmine uniforms, the troop goose-steps around and into place, a reminder of the pre-World War II German roots of much Latin American military training. Locals gather, tourists lift their smart-phone extenders for the picture, fathers hoist kids on shoulders. Everyone wants to see.
2:00 Walk from the center along streets closed to traffic – the mark of a civilization – past the elegant old train station that once brought passengers to the center of the country. In a scene now largely gone from my own country, kiosks offer a dazzling variety of publications, and invariably, readers stand around for free to scan the headlines. Small shops sell a variety of coca candy and coca teas, a way to enjoy the benefits, medicinal at least, of the mother of cocaine without chewing the leaves. In the Church of Saint Francis, marvel at a “half-orange” wooden cupola, another reminder of Arabic Spain, and step into the library, its shelves lined with hand-bound volumes, its air redolent of the spirit of Borges and Ruiz Zafón and the long-ago monks who sat in the window seats to catch the light. A couple of huge liturgical volumes are open, the writing black and red on creamy vellum. I imagine the vellum pages at night, re-constituting themselves into the animals from whose skins they were tanned and pounded, hints of words on their hides but otherwise relaxing as animals will until the dawn comes and they turn into books again. Down, down into the catacomb where the bones are buried of some 25,000 limeños who died (often of cholera) before burial in churches was outlawed and cemeteries built on the edge of town. Some 50 years ago archaeologists sifted through the remains. The scientific mind at work: they piled them by categories, so that the visitor sees well after well of femurs, toe-bones, skulls. The piling is done with respect, the light low.
5:00 Meet friends who live in Lima in their neighborhood café, like a small Starbucks without the branding. The coffee is rich without being overwhelmingly strong. Peruvian coffee – I never knew.
10:00 a.m. next morning A museum, of course, Larco, the pre-Columbian cultures displayed in all their intricacy and majesty. I could imagine the kings and priests wearing the gold costumes and headdresses, glinting with blinding beams, connecting them to the sun. So much more familiar am I with the Maya, I am looking for their writing until I realize they had none – the Maya were the only indigenous culture on the continent with a written language. That does not mean the ancient Peruvians’ pots, weavings and other artifacts do not communicate. I was sorry to leave. I could have read them and watched them for hours more.
2:00 Lunch in the gardens, alongside the erotica wing of the museum, where nothing is left to the imagination. The waitress brings me a foamy pisco sour in which coca leaves have fermented for a month. Tasty. The storeroom of the museum, which is open to the public, is every bit as fascinating as the rest of Larco, with the curious twist that the clay objects are assembled not by culture or age, but other categories: snoozing men; pots decorated with spiders; spondilus shells; nursing women and monkey masks. The storeroom seems inspired by the same impulse that moved the archaeologists to separate femurs from skulls from toe bones in the catacombs of St. Francis Church, the impulse to categorize, to impose order where it does not exist.
5:00 At the ship, crew take in the lanyards, the artisans who have camped on the dock for two days pack their wares into huge plastic bags, and wave to passengers waving back from the decks. The horn blows and the ship moves. I climb to the very top deck near the crow’s nest and watch one of the mates take down the standards– the Peruvian flag, the Dutch flag (the ship’s home port is Rotterdam), the blue and white banner of the ship’s company. We are sailing into the fog. I can make out eighteen ghostly fishing boats – I counted – with their bows turned toward us, moving on the swell, a goodbye salute.