11 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 12: Lima's New Path

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: The scene at the mall

In a park in the thriving Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there's a massive statue unlike any other I've seen in a city park: a much-larger-than-life couple making out. I mean, they're really going at it, in a way that would make you avert your gaze and think, "Get a room!" if they were actual sentient humans. Their much-larger-than-life arms are around each other, the man's much-larger-than-life shirt is removed (and, ahem, get your mind out of the gutter--I did not look at the relative sizes of anything else).  

Welcome to El Parque del Amor, dedicated in 1993. 

It was toward the end of a bike tour of Miraflores that we stopped here. Our guide, Jose, said that the statue and the park--which also features walls with mosaic inlays of quotes and poetry celebrating love--were inspired by the fact that coiled lovers are a frequent scene in Lima's parks. Other sources trace the origin to an observation from the Peruvian poet Antonio Cilloniz: "In the cities, they do not build monuments to lovers" but only to warriors. 

In either case, the citizens of Lima seem to be following instructions. As we biked out of the park, we went along a narrow path lined with eight benches. Seven were occupied by couples in getting cozy--and on the eighth sat a well-dressed young woman who seemed to be waiting expectantly.  

On one side of the park, there's a deep, wide ravine spanned by a bridge carrying cars and pedestrians across to the southern part of Miraflores (you can see the bridge in the background of the photo above). The sides of the bridge are hemmed in by tall walls of thick, transparent plastic, which curve back over the sidewalk, forming a partial tunnel that looks a bit like a massive hamster Habitrail. The barricades were erected to prevent jumpers--the bridge had become infamous as a suicide hotspot.

As Jose put it while we stood in the park: "If things don't work out here, you go over there."

It's the easiest cliche in the travel-writing playbook to juxtapose a place's contrasts: its old and new, its simple and extravagant, its melancholy and joy. Sometimes, there's no escaping this observation, though; to do so is to miss a genuine story.

In Lima, this sort of thing is everywhere you turn. Some are more telling than others. Other cities have their  romance/despair dichotomies, although Lima's park and bridge are particularly potent versions. And while it's initially amusing to see teenage boys skateboarding in a park that has floral re-creations of the ancient Nazca Lines, it's ultimately not especially interesting.

I mean, what's the story? "DUDE! Old ... and new! In one place! Where's my camera?!" There's no link, though, no accurate metaphor to be read into the scene; no narrative thread. It's A plus B without equaling C.


But in Lima, very often, the ubiquitous combinations tell all kinds of nuanced stories. Like the trees in El Parque Olivar. The area was a thriving olive plantation in the early nineteenth century, and after the Peru won its independence in 1821, the fleeing Spaniards chopped down many of the trees. But from these stumps grew new trees--often gnarled and Dr. Suess-looking, but objectively beautiful in their own way. 

Today, it's a preserved green space, one of the city's most beloved, where families go for picnics and tourists go for bike-rides. From an act of conquest grows a space of respite. That's a nice story. 

Far more powerful, though, are the scenes that show the ongoing reconciliation of a painful recent past--just as I saw all over the place in Berlin, where flashy billboard rise directly over somber monuments and Checkpoint Charlie, that potent symbol of Cold War division, is now, to a large degree, just another kinda cheesy tourist trap.  

Back in Lima, see if you can spot the telling detail in this photo: 

What you see here is the LarcoMar mall, which is built below street level, wedged into the cliffs of Miramar. This isn't the greatest photo, but if you click for the larger version, you'll see that the storefront in the middle of the image is Tony Roma's, the American restaurant chain. 

Keep looking for the telling detail.

Upper left. There are three people. Above them: a beaming cross. 

That cross is 50 meters high; it's on the hillside far in the distance. It was erected in 1998 on the occasion of Pope John Paul's visit to Peru--and it was constructed using materials from electrical towers that had been destroyed by the Shining Path, the militant group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and may be, as The Economist recently noted, "Still smoldering." 

"The terrorists used to bomb power facilities often," says Jose. "I would have to do my homework with a candle. My mother would be cooking in the dark." 

This not ancient history. Jose is fairly young, around thirty, and his memories of the Shining Path are vivid. He doesn't seem haunted exactly, but deeply frustrated, his typical smile and gleaming eyes turning into a more solemn mask. 

Things are different now. Not perfect, by any means. But connect those dots--the blackouts, the cross, the mall--and you have a complicated story that has unfolded over a short period of time, and continues to play out each and every day. 

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