Impromptus

Lima Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

Before I leave for Lima, Peru, I contact a friend who grew up there. “Above all,” he says, “eat.” (No problem.) “Escoffier said there were three great cuisines: French, Chinese, and Peruvian. Everything else was a derivation.”

Well, then.

I have never much liked lima beans. (We get the name from the Peruvian capital.) But I know they have more than those . . .

En route to Lima, I transfer in San Salvador. And I can’t help thinking of the drama that took place here in the 1980s. The FMLN, and all the American “liberals” who supported them. ARENA, the right-wingers. The stirring, brave, and democratic president, José Napoleón Duarte — who kissed the American flag on the lawn of the White House.

I remember pictures of Salvadorans lining up to vote, despite the fact that the FMLN was bombing and killing them. The same thing happened in Iraq, years later.

I think of the Reaganites such as Elliott Abrams who worked to democratize Central America. Little thanks they got, at least from the New York Times (to use a shorthand). I think of Felix Rodriguez, the ex-CIA agent who went to El Salvador in order to help them — to help them avoid the fate that befell his native country, Cuba.

In fact, I e-mail Felix, right in the airport.

Anyway, lots of thoughts (and a very good quesadilla).

On the plane, we fill out a form, in anticipation of Lima. One line says “Passport” or “Identification Card” or “Safe-conduct” (actually “Salfe-conduct,” in a misspelling).

“Safe-conduct!” I think. I haven’t heard that term since the last time I saw Tosca (which was recently, as it usually is).

The Lima airport is named after Jorge Chávez — an aviator who died in 1910 when attempting to be the first to cross the Alps in a plane. He was 23.

Should you name your airport after someone who died in a crash? Anyway, Chávez is a remarkable figure, rightly remembered and honored.

Outside the airport, there are flags of many nations, and the first I see is the Japanese — which is fairly appropriate, I think, given the Japanese population here, and the rise of a Japanese-Peruvian president in 1990 (Fujimori).

I spot John Lennon Park — and think once more about the incredible reach of the Beatles (which has always been somewhat mysterious to me).

When you go to a place, I find, stereotypes come alive. And you realize why stereotypes were formed in the first place. The South American women who are refined, elegant, graceful. The men who are maybe a little vain and proud (along with some of the women, naturally). It’s all very pleasant to behold.

Notable is the racial and ethnic diversity, of course. We Americans — United Statesians! — learn that we are a nation of immigrants. Very true. But other nations are nations of immigrants, too.

I remember noticing that people with foreign roots were rising to be heads of government, or heads of state. Fujimori, for one — remember they called him “El Chino,” though he was of Japanese parentage?

And remember Carlos Menem, the president of Argentina? Armenian-Syrian parents. Remember Pierre Bérégovoy, the prime minister of France? Ukrainian father.

I’m talking about people at the top, mind you, not the masses below. But, as Hernando de Soto points out to me — I have come to Peru to see and write about him — no nation is a nation of immigrants like the U.S.

At breakfast, there is a magnificent spread. Within this spread are grapes the size of tennis balls and papaya juice the thickness of chowder.

There’s also chocolate milk — a very civilized thing to offer for breakfast, I think.

I discover something odd: It never rains in Lima. I mean, like, never. A lady gives me a geological explanation, but I can’t quite repeat it. Apparently, Lima is the second-driest city in the world, after Cairo.

A funny question occurs to me: Can you buy an umbrella in Lima? For the sun, maybe.

But look: It is rarely sunny here, I’m told. There are about three months of sun, and the rest of the year is cloud and mist. I get the geological explanation for this, too — but, again, can’t repeat it.

My friend says to me, “No sun, no rain, and earthquakes — that’s Lima.” There are earthquakes or tremors here all the time. In buildings — a two-floor restaurant, for example — you’ll see signs with a big letter “S.” I believe the letter stands for “Seguridad,” or “Safety.” You’re supposed to stick close to that sign if you don’t have time to evacuate the building.

(I believe I have that right — don’t take my word as gospel.)

A piece of local intelligence: A lower-floor apartment or office costs more to rent. You don’t necessarily want to be on a higher floor. And are you worried about the view? Well, there’s that cloud and mist, so much of the time.

The coast reminds me strongly of California. In one stretch, I could be in Santa Monica. Where’s the pier? De Soto points out to me, “Well, it’s the same coast, just 4,000 miles to the south.” Now that you put it that way: True.

It can be an adventure to cross an intersection, or, even more, a traffic circle, on foot. I guess you just kind of wade in, boldly. I remember the advice an Egyptian-American friend gave me, as we were in Alexandria, and, later, Cairo: “Don’t think. Just cross.” Harold Hill, from The Music Man, had his “think system.” This was a “don’t-think system.”

Here is an interesting street sign: “Guillermo Prescott.” A striking combination of names. Later, I go in search of this figure. From Wikipedia: “William Hickling Prescott (May 4, 1796 — January 28, 1859) was an American historian and Hispanist . . .” Nice.

Here is another street sign: “Dos de Mayo.” It occurs to me that every date is significant, to someone. I mean, not just personally — birthdays, wedding anniversaries — but politically, historically.

So, do you want this journal in one part or two? One longish thing or two shortish ones? Let’s go for the latter — and I’ll see you tomorrow.

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