“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
PERU IS ON THE west coast of South America with Ecuador and Columbia to the north, Chile to the south, Bolivia to the south-east, and Brazil to the east. To its west is the Pacific Ocean. It’s a huge country with 29m people and it’s diverse, both geographically and ethnically. Geographically because Peru has flats near the coastline, the sierra highlands in the Andes itself, and jungle in the Peruvian section of the Amazon rainforest. Demographically, the largest of the ethnic groups (at around 45%) are people of Amerindian descent, followed by the Mestizo (at 37%) (Mestizo refers to the people of mixed ancestry of the Amerindians and European settlers), then people of European descent (at 15%), with Japanese, black, Chinese and other peoples (at 3% in total). Amerindian refers broadly to the peoples who inhabited the Americas before Columbus arrived in 1492; a group that was and is still incredibly diverse. Where did they come from? Their origins are still contentious with many believing the New World migration theory which suggests that mass migration took place over a previous land bridge where the Bering Strait now is between Russia and Alaska. In Peru, the major Amerindian peoples are the Aymara and the Quechuan.
Founded in 1535 by the Conquistadors as Le Ciudad de los Reyes (“The City of the Kings”), today, Lima is one of the biggest cities on the South American continent. Any hint of a culture shock upon landing in Lima was drowned out by an overwhelming excitement at being in a completely new country on a completely new continent. Our driver had no English and we had no Spanish but no matter; soon we were speeding towards the hotel (where we were to meet the rest of our tour group) with the mighty Pacific Ocean to our right. Despite not having had much sleep during the 20 or so hour flight from London, we were keen to see as much of the new city as possible; we dumped our bags and headed straight out to the surrounding district of Miraflores for some pastels and some delicious local beer (Barena). In a bar near our hotel, we puffed on fat Cuban cigars, listened to salsa music and toasted the beginning of our journey. The bar‟s owner, Marcello, was a brilliant ambassador for his country. Marcello loved cigars because they were adored by his heroes: Churchill, JFK and Che Guevara, whose portraits held places of honour behind the bar. He was a real lothario and proudly showed us pictures of his many conquests and regaled us with bawdy stories about his colourful love life. “Hey! You like cigars?! I like you! You like girls?! I like girls! Here are my girls! Look at this photo…she‟s much more beautiful in real life…she is beautiful!” His recruitment policy was to bring women from abroad to work in his bar whispering to us that the most beautiful and most loyal barstaff were Cuban women (perhaps for the benefit of his Cuban barmaid, who was pretending not to listen) and that, whilst both were very pretty, the main difference between Peruvian and Cuban women was that Peruvians have large boobs whilst Cubans had large rears; we promised to look out for this. He later introduced us to his sharp-suited aging father whom he maintained taught him everything he knew about women.
The next morning, we jumped on a bus into the city centre. We had no idea of how to get there but no matter; a small, battered minivan screeched to a halt next to us and a young guy literally pulled both of us on. “Where you go?” “Er, the centre, er, el centro?” “Si, si, centro!” That was lucky then! Buses here are impressively aggressive; one person drives, another person touts for business, which entails pulling people on board! It‟s a race and a competition for the bus staff because if they don‟t get the next customer, because they weren‟t forceful enough to impose their destination on them, then the bus behind will pounce on the missed business opportunity.
Lima, in the squintingly bright summer sun, looked dusty and still under construction; the roads into the centre were slightly potholed and the pollution was visible as a thin haze which hung over the streets. We strolled around the narrow streets hunting for interesting snacks and took every opportunity to whip out our little phrasebooks to practise even the most rudimentary of Latin American Spanish. The centre itself, with its colonialist architecture, was charmingly impressive but it had an unmistakable air of decline. It‟s hard from this to see how Lima won its moniker, “The City of the Kings”.
That evening, we met the rest of our tour group in the hotel, who would all turn out to be really great guys: Hadley, Fiona, Judy, Kelvin, Priscilla, Nus, Miral, Emma, Alexis, Rich, John and Rhodine. Here, we also met our guide, Jose Arnaut. Our first impressions of him weren‟t overwhelmingly positive; he seemed stern and schoolmasterish. “We will meet in the lobby at 3.15am; do not be late. Do not leave anything here. Get an early night. I see you tomorrow.” Jose was a Peruvian Amerindian, one of the Quechan people; he was about 5 feet 6, with a solid, well-fed belly. Before leaving, he gave us our first taste of the Peruvian national drink, the famous pisco sour cocktail. It‟s Peruvian rum mixed with lime juice and a whisked-up egg white served in a short glass and doesn‟t look that appealing. However, in the spirit of trying everything whilst travelling, I downed it; it was pretty tasty and like drinking citrusy foam.
After the meeting, Grant and I were joined at the bar next door by two guys from our group: Rhodine Agetzis, a photographer from Melbourne, and Jay Miyagi, a tattoo artist from LA. Unfortunately, it turned out that Jay wasn‟t on our tour (though he‟d come with us to Cusco); he was on the abbreviated trip to Machu Picchu by train, then he was off to the Peruvian jungle. Here, we wolfed down the Peruvian national dish cerviche: sliced raw fish marinated in a citrus (normally limes) juice and finely chopped chilli; it‟s effectively semi-cured fish. If prepared well, the taste is somewhere between sashimi and Swedish fish dishes such as herrings cured in dill, vinegar and sugar. The fish in cerviche is sliced slightly more thickly than it is with sashimi. It‟s absolutely delicious but that particular dish would prove to be a mistake as we would discover the next morning! Mistake isn‟t really the right word though as I‟d decided that along with the spirit of trying everything, I wouldn‟t worry about contracting food poisoning; instead, I‟d just carry some Imodium around with me. People kept telling me that Imodium isn‟t particularly good for you (and they‟re probably right) but it‟s a small trade-off when you‟re halfway around the world and possibly never to revisit: you really might never see this type of food again; so don‟t worry about the consequences – just eat it!