Notes on the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see | first hours

by | Aug 26, 2017 | What I'm up to

Landing in Lima was disorienting and smothering. It normally feels this way for Peruvians. We are either returning home from vacation or visiting family and friends we left behind in our motherland.

I had shielded myself from the reality of the trip by securing business class tickets and having minimal contact with my fellow passengers. I slept most of the flight and listened to music in the last hour of the trip. All window shades in my cabin were down. I closed my eyes and maintained a calm and unperturbed box-breathing rhythm. Twenty minutes, then thirty, forty minutes went by. I didn’t notice any of the mild turbulence the plane was navigating through as it descended over Lima’s port district. The random sequence of the music app selected a wonderful and spirit-filling piano rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Oblivious to the movement of the plane, suspended in a timeless dimension, I opened my eyes and saw all window shades open, and visions of picturesquely sad pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) with unfinished and crudely built homes. It is tempting but juvenile to complain about the display of dissonance and sub-development that welcomes the visitor to Lima, “the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see.”

I saw myself living my own version of the first chapter of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

Strangest, saddest city

I hopped on a taxi. The driver suggested we take a double toll road and save 30 minutes. He carefully presented evidence and logic to support his recommendation. It seemed that he was making a pitch to raise capital. That’s because he thought his client was a local. The double toll would add $3 to the cost of the ride, he finally revealed. Let’s do it.

We snaked through the various districts of my beloved city, gradually upgrading in terms of cleanliness, density, and affluence. Callao, Rimac, Santa Anita, La Molina. The driver talked about corruption, crime and, unexpectedly, women’s rights and abortion. I listened and couldn’t help but feel that the vessel that I had abandoned 16 years ago had not changed course. Poverty, ignorance, globalization, zombie institutions, and a succession of corrupt bureaucrats had eroded the moral compass of the nation. The friends and family members that I would see during my journey all seem to respond to a set of values that is dislocated from any idea of nation or collective direction. They all are, regardless of their level of wealth, trying to survive each day.

I knocked on the door of the old house. Ramon, the Peruvian Argos, and my mother, were first to greet me. The house was built in 1983 by my grandfather and in time it housed his mother, his three children, my father, my sisters and me, and four or five canines. Thirty four years later, only my grandfather, mother, younger sister, and Ramon dwell there.

Its architecture is modern, straight lines, sharp edges, smooth surfaces, and extensive windows and skylights. Renovations stopped twenty years ago. My grandpa is 87 and not interested in upgrades, my mother is reluctant because only a third of the house will be hers in the future. And thus, this one-time statuesque residence has turned into a museum. Collections of items brought by the tides of time are shuffled around for years. Some of them eventually find their escape to charity, others retreat to unvisited nooks, like my mini library shown in the picture below.

One book caught my eye. A History of the Japanese Immigrants in Peru. I always wondered why my great grandparents had decided to leave Japan and why, of all places, they settled in Lima. The book contained an appendix with a list of all the ships that had carried immigrants in the early 1900s. The plan for many of them was to spend a few years in Peru, send their children back to Japan, and later return themselves to the mother island. My grandmother had five siblings, three were shipped to Japan by the age of 10, the other three couldn’t go. The Second World War had hit pause on their plans. Forever.


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