When I first moved to Lima I was near broke, living on Faucett Ave. in San Miguel, eating chicken soup and bananas that I bought for a sol in the market by my house, and going to teach rich people in the tall office buildings of the banks and extraction empires of San Isidro. I had lost my computer, my clothes, and I had to learn to navigate the city and survive. The traffic was crazy, like it still is, but the city was alive with colors, smells, movement, and life that was different from the world I knew. I fell in love with the place, its craziness and its warm people. There is a hidden energy that runs through its streets, that energizes me, and that keeps bringing me back.
I spent a lot of time in the internet cafes where I could write and look for work. Those cabinas were filled with every variety of people: gamers, businessmen printing documents, kids looking up porn in private partitions like the stalls of a bathroom, and girls chatting. On one of those days I stumbled upon a blog, the Streets of Lima. I remember reading diatribes against the rich school where the writer, Walter Rhein, was working, and about the racism inherent in private schools where foreign teachers so easily find work. He wrote with a singular wit and clarity that made me laugh and sad at the same time, and that elicited a plethora of comments agreeing and disagreeing.
I had forgotten about that blog, and a lot has happened since then. But I recently read Walter Rhein’s book, Reckless Traveler, and it brought back the Lima that I knew and loved. The novel is a montage of seemingly random stories from a life abroad that come together in a coherent narrative about life. The book takes you from the everyday reality of a foreigner living in Lima, to the not so ordinary—meeting President Garcia face to face when he was still on top of the world, Venezuela when Chavez was still president, about terrorists, ayahuasca, or hiking the Inca trail with Olympic champions. Rhein leads you through the mundane and extraordinary with convincing humor. At once it’s a very American book, from an American perspective, yet at the same time Rhein gives a broader view of the world and of life.
Lima now has a silence unbecoming of a metropolis, as the curfew keeps everyone in to try to stymie the coronavirus. The smog has cleared, the horns died down, the combis are in the garages, the prostitutes aren’t on the streets, and the ingenious street performers are hidden. Downtown isn’t packed with passersby crossing Puente de Piedra Bridge to Rimac, going home amid the car horns and chaos. Somehow it isn’t the same city to me. The energy I love is tired of sitting around. People need to work, and the virus doesn’t seem to be abating much. But reading this book it reminds me that Lima is still here. The people are still here, still warm, and it’s still a crazy city full of all walks of life.
Top image by Faviola Torres