Peru is a country of about five hundred thousand square miles (1.3m km²) and has just under thirty million inhabitants, one third of them residies in Lima, or around it (depending on where one cares to draw the city limits).

We docked in Callao, one of Lima’s forty-three districts and a busy port. It was six in the morning. The whole night the foghorn had been producing its basal noise, presumably with a frequency that was in some way proportional to the thickness of the fog – or the wakefulness of the bridge officers. (I bet it was the former).

The Humboldt Current, who causes this pea soup of sorts, glues the fog over thousands of miles to the coastline, stretching from well into Chile to the Southern shores of Ecuador (equivalent to a fog from Oslo to Lisbon, and potentially stretching all the way to Dublin in summer). Our guide would translate this in straight and simple English: Lima is a city where it never rains and where it is always foggy; therefore the sun shines “poco”. He added “unfortunately” to the statement, which would prove to be his favorite word during the entire day.

Three hundred years ago Lima must, in terms of architecture, have been a pearl of capital city. What is now called the “colonial town” holds the forlorn promise of class and riches. The classical Spanish baroque style is in abundant evidence, mimicking in every street something of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, albeit embellished by the pure and varied palette of colors that reveal its profound “southern”-ness. The Plaza Mayor of Lima proper was occupied by hunger strikers, including their cardboard squats and babies to boost, who were demanding (at least) work. From closer range the buildings looked in obvious decline, and many in disrepair. That started in the eighties, and our guide added that the area was dangerous at night, unfortunately.

The neo-classical part of Lima is, in a less cozy but more monumental way, just as impressive. And it is well kept. That has everything to do with the simple fact that it is the place where the current powers hold office: the presidential palace, the mayoral palace, the “social club of Lima”, the cathedral and Episcopal Palace, the Franciscan Monastery, the headquarters of the banks, as well as related institutes and institutions. The parks, filled with perennial rainbows of blossoming flowers, give it all a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere.

It is safe too, a feature helped along by four kinds of police: the tourist police, the traffic police, the security guards and the military-like police. In front of the presidential palace that array of protection is further complemented by the ceremonial guards, as well as by Special Forces (with impressive firepower). Peruvians want to make sure that their President is truly safe, and this central square is appropriately called “Plaza de Armas”.

In terms of living comfort, Lima can actually be summarily categorized as four different cities. The smallest is the official Lima, described above. The second smallest is the rich Lima, occupying a nice stretch of ocean front, and sporting all the luxury hotels, designer stores, fine restaurants, .. all the modern works! Furthermore there is the poor Lima and the poorest Lima. I have no way of knowing which one of the latter is the “biggest” but surmise that the favela’s, hanging off the hillsides (much like in Rio) are tops in numbers. These numbers keep growing fast, naturally as well as through “immigration”, unfortunately. Noteworthy is that, in the poor Lima, the “less poor” (perhaps the well-off) secure their public streets at night by means of a steel gate.

The average annual GDP per head is five thousand dollars. (By the way, this compares with a salary of eight thousand dollars per month for one of Lima’s district mayors or any member of parliament). Thirty-six percent of Peruvians live below the (Peruvian) poverty line; twelve percent are labeled “extremely poor”. Estimates put the number of poor people in Lima province at 75%, unfortunately.

Effective health care is out of reach for most, certainly for those without a job, even if temporary! Even official burial can be a stretch. Education till sixteen is mandatory and, in the city proper, logistically possible, but higher education is, notwithstanding admission exams (the next ones are advertized country-wide on billboards for March 27th), only attainable for the rich (private universities, expensive) and for the well-connected (public schools, for free). The academically best students rarely make it to university, unfortunately.

Let me try and summarize the spirit of this country by what I witnessed at the Franciscan Church on Monday, February 28th. We had been visiting the 16th century Monastery, founded by the priest that accompanied Pizarro when he killed Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, I believe. Exiting from the well-kept monastery, I entered the attached church where, surprisingly on a Monday morning at eleven, there was a mass in “full swing”. The church was filled with kneeling people in the center, and a spate of ostentatiously praying believers in the aisles.

It was very quiet though, as the Consecration was in progress. I stood still myself, in deference for all this devotion. After they prayed “Our Father” – in real Spanish, which was a reprieve from all the other deviating idioms that I had heard until now – they wished one another “peace”; this is one of the more recent, worldwide innovations in the rite. As I left the church, I could not avoid thinking that, where poverty reigns, keeping the peace must be a priority. (Remember Egypt?!)

Outside of the building a long, long queue of people had formed, stretching for hundreds of yards. They were mostly women and children, all holding bouquets of colorful flowers. Flowers are cheap in Lima, they grow everywhere. But why are all these people here, and on a Monday? I asked the guide. Well, he replied, on the 28th of every month there is a special mass in this church in honor of San Juan from Somewhere (I forgot from where). That man is the patron saint for the “Lost Causes”, for those that are at their wit’s end, in utter despair, unfortunately. Although I was utterly stunned, I understood the logic: if there is nothing else to hope for, one can always offer a few flowers to gain the favor of a saint, every month again or, perhaps, only once a month. And in October they celebrate the big mass, to thank the saint for all the good deeds. It comes across as cynical, and I think it is, just as our guide sounded, unfortunately.

To be sure, Charles Darwin tells, mutatis mutandis, by and large a similar story about Lima and Peru in his travels on the Beagle. Moreover, he visited the land just after the revolution and the independence, which are times, one would think, that are full of energy and optimism. If those were still present at all then, they definitely were canalized by the military, the landlords (fundadores) and the church in the ensuing and unending power struggles. Darwin described Peru as the most depressing country of the continent. I agree, so far.

If you add the recent history into the picture, Peru made the greatest strides towards daily normalcy (eradication of the gruesome Shining Path guerilla)and economic growth during the presidency of Fujimori, from 1990 till 2000. He was a democratically elected president (who, no doubt, intended to change the constitution to get elected for another term). Today he is in jail in Peru, charged with corruption, authoritarianism and human rights abuses. I cannot pass judgment on his alleged crimes but I am unequivocally convinced that there are no other “powers” (be they oligarchy, military or church) in this dirt poor country that are free of those same (capital) sins.

Peru is, in the end, a very cynical country, from top layers to bottom strata, albeit in different ways, unfortunately. With new presidential elections coming soon, I will have to hurry to re-read Vargas Llosa’s “El Pez en el Agua” to appreciate better what I have witnessed here during these three short days.

Prinsendam, Day 58 – Thursday March 3rd, 2011

En route to the northern hemisphere, after one more southern stop