January 15, 2015
Lima is a city of Circles and Squares, connected by streets. The oldest squares were laid out by Pizzaro, the central one being the Plaza Mayor, formally the Plaza de Armas. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beautifully restored.
Just to the South West is the Plaza General San Martin, with its fine old commercial buildings, including the Hotel Bolivar, a bit rundown but still grand looking, with a Kentucky Fried Chicken where its grand café should be. There is one strange feature of a statue in this plaza, the Grecian statue of freedom below General San Martin has a Llama oh her head. According to locals it was placed there because of a linguistic misunderstanding between the Spanish speaking person commissioning the work and the French Sculptor. This plaza seems to specialize in couples necking.
Just to West of these two squares are the newer, but more rundown 19th Century circles designed in French the Beaux Arts styles, the Plaza Mayo 2, with one of the main buildings recently gutted by fire and Plaza Bolognasi, another faded circle where young men dribble footballs as a form of busking.
We took a three hour bus tour of Lima on our first day here to get acquainted with the layout and mark places we wanted to revisit. There are, of course, too many, but we opted to spend the next few days in Lima on our own which is a good thing because taking a wrong turn and getting lost in the streets and finding your way back is the best way to see the city. A tour guide would never let you do this. The streets connecting the plazas each have specialties. One street is a printer’s street, with open front shops with all sorts of presses from modern computer driven machines to old Heidelbergs. They turn out everything from posters to books. In one shop I saw stacks of money. I stopped did a double take, the printer smiled. I took a picture, he kept smiling. “Dinero” he said. Looking closely, the bills look real enough but have in red, across the part where there should be a watermark the words “Sin Valor.” Without Value. A nearby street, according to the tour guide on our first day, specializes in forged documents so seeing money printed did not exactly throw me.
After printing we ran into the street of candles. There were displays of candles that ran for two blocks. That street ran into the display of, as Suzi puts it “religious stuff.” Candles, incense burners, statues, rosaries and blind people. This street had lots of people tapping white canes begging for alms. They were interspersed with the odd wheel chair person or a mother with a kid and a cup. Perhaps buying religious stuff puts you in a charitable mood. Religious stuff gave way to stuffing, a street of over-stuffed furniture. The street that surprised me, however, appeared to be the street of dental hygiene. There a dozen shops selling different colored dentist’s chairs along with other dental equipment laid out in cases. I must have seen a nearly a hundred different dental chairs. I googled it and according to UN figures Lima has just north of 7,800 dentists. So how many dentist chairs does one dentist buy in a year? Can Lima, or all of Peru for that matter, support twelve specialty shops selling dentist’s chairs? Dental shops s led to wheelchair, cane and crutch shops then to shoe stores, different streets for women and men. We had a great time wandering and wondering “what’s next.” It reminded Suzi and me of Tirana where there was the hardware street, the electronics street, the bike street, but we never saw a dental hygiene street, (although Tirana did have a lawyers’ street where they sat in lawn chairs with type writers on packing crates drawing up writs and wills) and never so MANY shops all selling the same thing in the same place.
Between Plazas Mayor and General San Martin downtown streets are both active run down. There are many fine old buildings waiting for restoration. According to the guide on the first day owners cannot afford to renovate them to the standards of the historical preservation authorities. There are many balconies that seem to be falling apart. On some we see “Adopt un Balcon” signs. And some have been adopted by companies, whose logos are on the sign similar to the “Adopt a highway” signs in the US.
One of the more pleasant thins to do in Downtown Lima is watching the Changing of the Guard, at the presidential palace, where the president doesn’t live. He has kids and would rather have them grow up in a neighborhood, fair enough. It’s scheduled for noon but as we left the San Francisco Monastery at 11:50 we heard band music. There is a concert for 15 minutes before the ceremony. We got to the Plaza Mayor and it was full of riot police with plastic shields talking on cell phones, texting and doing a little flirting. There have been some demonstrations during the changing of the guard and the police are there to prevent that. They are the most courteous riot police I have ever seen. They like you to take their pictures, they politely tell you where you can and cannot go, ask you where you are from. And they are polite to the locals as well.
At noon the ceremony starts with the two different groups of guards marching in to “El Condor Pasa.” At the same time the cathedral chimed 12 followed by a joyus noontime peel of bells. As the lancers marched in, at times hitting their lance buts on the pavement and shouting, the band started playing something that sounds like the entrance to a bull ring. I couldn’t figure out the tune, it was familiar. Partway through I got it and blurted out “Or Fortuna.” Suzi smiled, she had figured it out from the start. It was from Carl Orff and it sounded like the arrangement should be called Carmina Burana goes to the Bullfight. The Lancers have white uniforms jackets with red braid, epilates and pants, the colors of the Peruvian flag. They wear silver and gold “Conquistador” style helmets with ponytails that go down to their waists and sway with the goosestep. By now the lancers were kicking heels up to shoulder height and I expected the band to go into Offenbach. In about 20 minutes of pageantry the guard was actually about to change and the band hit the fanfare from “Rocky.” It was a kick. I mean really.
The Plaza Mayor is a wonderful place, day and night. People enjoy it especially in the cool of the evening, when the pageantry is over and people are savor an ice cream. It has a friendly feeling, a really good vibe.
Travel makes you look at things in different ways. As I stood at Pizzaro’s tomb in St. John’s Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor in Lima I was thinking about the interpretation in the museum in Manta on indigenous life and how the Conquistadors completely changed everything. I was thinking back earlier in the morning about some of the stories I heard about the tortures of the Peruvian Inquisition from the guide at the beautiful San Francisco Monastery a few blocks away. I contemplated the balconies in the Plaza just outside that were screened to hide women’s faces while they watched events. I thought about the forced conversions, the destruction of ancient articles of worship to the sun or moon. I wondered what, exactly was the difference between the Conquistador and the Jihadist. I asked Suzi and she said “Pizzaro won, silly.” Of course. But with the news of the attacks in France causing a new wave of fear and outrage (which we cannot escape, even at sea, the TV’s in the bars have BBC News) this visit has poignantly brought our own history into focus. People on TV are asking; What is it? What is special in Islamic Culture that…” The answer is nothing. It’s in all of us.
One good thing about Christianity is that, in order to enslave and convert indigenous populations from Northern Europe to the Americas it also had to incorporate their local festivals and customs into the church. Assimilation goes both ways. We know the real “reason for the season” we’ve all just celebrated, and at its core it is not Christian. While I’m not seeing any such accommodation or mutual assimilation with the current crop of jihadists it happened in the past, after all, what else is Sufism. So I enjoyed seeing a painting of the Last Supper at the San Francisco Monastery with Jesus eating guinea pig and potatoes. It gives me hope. I like that the rainbow flag of the Inca (which many mistake for the rainbow banner of inclusivity, even better) flies over the Lima City Hall looking across the square at the tomb of the Jihadist.