La ciudad y los perros: A mutt snoozes in front of an assault tank guarding the Presidential palace in downtown. (Photos by C-M.)
For most of my life, I’ve been making regular sojourns to Lima to visit my father’s family, a collection of hyper-nostalgic oddballs and eccentrics that have always led me to believe that Gabriel García Márquez doesn’t write fiction. But on this occasion, on assignment for a travel guide, I really had an opportunity to explore the city. And explore it, I did — from ceviche dives in La Victoria to the skulls of saints at the Santo Domingo Church in downtown to the high-end lounges of Barranco, where Lima’s beautiful people arrive to sip coca leaf sours and show off their money.
Lima is no thing of beauty. It clings precariously to a set of dusty, desert cliffs and is bathed in a perpetual fog six months out of the year. Much of its architecture is unremarkable, an assortment of concrete bunkers that appear to have been imported from 1960s East Germany. It is grimy. It is noisy. It is relentless in its sensory stimulation — from the food, which comes in a rainbow palette of nuclear colors, to the infinite supply of smog-belching buses, each of which is armed with a guy that hangs out the window and hollers the route: Arequipa, República, Abancaaaayyy.
But peel away the top layers and underneath you will find a city that is a novel waiting to be written. (And it has, by everyone from Sebastián Salazar Bondy to Mario Vargas Llosa to Daniel Alarcón.) It is in Lima that 2,000 year-old adobe pyramids sit silently in residential neighborhoods. It is in Lima that Andean cuy is doused in soy sauce and served Peking-style. And it is in Lima that well-to-do tennis moms and Ayacucho grandmothers in big skirts and braids all come together. It is a city imbued with a legacy of plunder and violence, but which has inherited all the pomp of a former viceregal capital. It is both ridiculous and sublime; one of the most preposterous settlements on earth. So, in homage to Salazar Bondy, C-Mon presents: Lima, the Surreal.
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Mirrored windows, neo-classical mini-facade embedded onto larger sort-of neo-classical facade, chopped-up classical columns, Roman-style statues of naked people…and a Peruvian buffet! All for only S/35 (almost US$12). By jove, I think we have narchitecture! (Photo by C-M.)
Boobies!!! A whole wall of them. The piece is titled Muro, 2009 by Raquel Paiewonsky. (Photos by C-M.)
While my mission on this trip to Lima has been to eat and to eat again, I have managed to sneak in a few visits to art galleries between degustaciones. The best show thus far has been an exhibit of contemporary Dominican art that I happened to catch at the Centro Cultural de España on the Plaza Washington, near downtown. The show, Mover la roca (Move the Rock), features new works by the D.R. arts collective Quintapata, whose members are Tony Capellán, Pascal Meccariello, Raquel Paiewonsky, Jorge Pineda and Belkis Ramírez. Overall, a highly interesting show. And way better than the couch art I’ve been admiring at many of the city’s commercial art galleries.
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The Cine Tauro: Musta been something in its day. (Photos by C-M.)
Lima is not kind to its buildings. The city spends half the year moistened by a persistent fog known as garúa, under skies that look like styrofoam. There’s dust: a pervasive influx from from the surrounding desert, mixed with the soot produced by an endless parade of smog-belching buses. And there are regular earthquakes, end-of-the-world affairs that regularly clear patches of the grid.
Even so, the city retains some striking Modernist buildings. Even if, sometimes, they are little more than a shell. Above is the Cine Tauro, designed by Walter Weberhofer in 1960, residing on a grimy corner on the west side of downtown. This was where stylish limeños once came to see the latest releases, before heading off to El Chinito for over-stuffed sandwiches. The country’s economic crisis in the 1980s (aided and abetted by the internal conflict) sent the locals running for the suburbs. Now the Cine Tauro is a decaying porn palace, a spot where solo men pop in for a skin flick and a hand job. (Though, two years ago, artist Sandra Nakamura did use a piece of the sign as part of a temporary gallery installation.)
As the city works on restoring its downtown, it’d be nice if they didn’t forget about structures like this. Neo-colonial is nice. And it’s great to see the areas around the main plazas looking spiffy. But how rad would it be to catch a flick in this building? Preferably without getting stuck to the seat.
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Celestino Ccente, a campesino from the region of Ayacucho, after being treated for machete wounds received during an attack by Sendero Luminoso, 1983. (Photo by Oscar Medrano.)
There are exhibits that hit you in the gut like a sucker punch. Yuyanapaq: Para Recordar, at the Museo de la Nación in Lima, is one of them. Located on the 6th floor of the museum, a Soviet-style concrete bunker that lords over Avenida Javier Prado Este in San Borja, the show was put together by the Peruvian Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It explores the 20 years of violence, beginning in 1980, suffered primarily by poor campesinos throughout the country during what is euphemistically described as Peru’s “internal conflict.”
It’s difficult to sum up in a few sentences what exactly happened during that period. Like so much of Peruvian history, it is a fantasmagoria of violence and obfuscation. The conflict was a protracted struggle between two leftist insurgency groups — Sendero Luminoso and the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) — against the Peruvian government, which had little idea how to manage a guerilla war. Caught in the middle were tens of thousands of poor campesinos, who suffered massacres, torture and disappearances at the hands of the heavy-handed national police, in addition to the regular bouts of terror inflicted by the insurgency groups. (Sendero Luminoso in its later days was particularly renowned for its bloody tactics, especially against union leaders and other activists.) An exact death toll will never be known. Some estimates are as high as 70,000.
The exhibit, which consists primarily of black and white photography from throughout the era, was first staged by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission beginning in 2003 and has been housed at the Museo de la Nación since last year. It is absolutely breathtakingly riveting. If you’re anywhere near Lima, this is an absolute must-see.
Museo de la Nación, Javier Prado Este 2466 in San Borja. Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
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Captured warriors are sacrificed on a Moche vessel, crafted at some point during the civilization’s apogee from 1 to 800 A.D. (Photo C-M.)
At this point, I feel confident in letting everyone know that if you come to Peru and don’t make a significant pit stop of at least three days in Lima, you are seriously hurting. Among the incredible sights: the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, which has a spectacular collection of ceramics from various pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, most significantly the Moche, a culture renowned for their incredible portrait vessels. Think: Roman sculpture of the Americas.
The best part (in addition to the lovely on-site restaurant that serves a highly recommended ceviche) is the separate room that contains a trove of Moche erotic pottery — as in, lots of sculptures of people humping. My tour through the erotic gallery was heightened by a fellow traveler from Italy who spent the entire visit alternately exclaiming ‘Mama mia!’ or laughing nervously.
The museum is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Also: You can follow my Peruvian adventures on Twitter. Or check in with my buddy @hchuaeoan, who is Tweeting away about everything he puts in his mouth. I won’t say what.
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On Nicolás de Pierola in downtown. (Photo by C-M.)
Update: Just learned that this piece is by Seimiek.
Restaurante Royal. (Photo by C-M.)
Neo-classical silhouette? Check.
Garish color palette? Check.
Acres of reflective glass? Check.
Italianate balustrades? Check.
Fu lions? Check.
Narchitecture has been achieved.