It might sound crazy, but sometimes I forget I’m living in Peru. The part of Lima that fills my day-to-day world isn’t so different from any other city. “Home” is in the expat precinct, a clean, safe world of apartment buildings, multi-national businesses, chain-store shops and fancy restaurants, as modern and soulless as any other young tourist city. It’s the Surfers Paradise of Peru, equally vapid and self-obsessed as Australia’s beachside tourist centre.
I live in an apartment that would only stand out back home for the cheapness of the rent given the enormous size of the place. Each week-day I walk a couple of blocks to the express-way and take the city express bus to the financial hub a few suburbs north, then walk through the commercial zone and leafy-green residential strip to the Government Campus where I work. I sit in my partitioned space in our open-plan office and do a job that’s not all that different from the work I’ve done back home, bantering with my lovely, educated and passionate colleagues. At night I bus home again, cook dinner in my modern kitchen, mess about on the internet and go to bed. It’s a life so ordinary it could be happening anywhere, if it weren’t for the Spanish and the noise of the place.
I’ve stopped being surprised the little things that belie the big differences: the guns carried by the guards outside our offices who greet me each morning; the exotic fruits and veggies I buy in the market and eat every day; the blue-grey tanagers and vermilion flycatchers that dart through the parks and street trees… Life is just normal, day-to-day, in the part of Peru that is the least Peruvian.
I forget, until I step out of this bubble and suddenly find myself confronted by Peru. I walk along the coast until I reach Chorrillos, where the culture shifts between beaches and suddenly I’m back in Peru, with the music and chaos and exuberance of it all. I go into Lima Central and find myself gazing in wonder at the ebullient colonial architecture in all its pastel flounces and carved timber glory: Peru. Workmates take me for Friday night drinks to a non-tourist bar where the booze is infused with Amazonian plants and the fascinating aromatics combine with the alcohol in surprising ways and I find myself again in this country that I fell in love with 18 months ago.
The inner-south of Lima, the bubble-world I live in, is not my Peru. It’s clean and safe and easy, but it’s not the place that delights and challenges me and makes me consider leaving everything I know behind in search of its mad, beating heart. My Peru is in the glaciated peaks of the Andes, in the confrontation of sights and smells in the provincial markets, in the cheesy rhythms of huayño and cumbia music. Sometimes an echo sneaks into this bubble world, like tonight when someone is playing the quena – the hauntingly beautiful Andean flute – and the melody drifts through the urban canyon of my street. A sound that makes my heart feel like breaking. Peru…
Somehow my life has become ordinary, living in a place so completely extraordinary.
I need to do something about it.