While we were planning for the trip, our friends had advised us to spend as little time as possible at Lima. As a result, we only allocated a full day to check out what Lima’s sights. While the modern-day capital of Peru had little to offer in terms of ruins, our walks around downtown Lima gave me the opportunity to see the tip of the socio-economic iceberg.
Also known as the City of Kings, Lima was founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro on 18 January 1535. For more than three centuries, Lima was the most important city and the greatest metropolis in South America. More than four centuries have passed since its founding as a Spanish city, and Lima has grown to become an expression of Peru’s mestizo heritage, with nearly one-third of Peruvians living in its metropolitan area.
I learned of the unofficial Peruvian social caste system when we brought our friendly Catacomb guide out for lunch. Europeans represent the highest and economically dominant caste. Mestizos are next in line with their mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent. Campesinos with their full-blooded Amerindian heritage are relinquished to the lowest rungs of the social ladder. While a number of campesinos eventually attain middle class status, others continue to live in shantytowns, locally known as pueblos jóvenes. These areas often lack utilities such as electricity and running water. The residents of these shantytowns are largely immigrants from other regions of Peru. Many of them are poor people of indigenous origins who arrived during the mid- and late-twentieth century after being displaced by terrorism, agrarian cities and general economic frustration. This was again reflected in the advice our friendly backpacker hostel owner Francis Chauvel offered us. “Don’t go beyond the river into the northern parts of the city. There’s plenty of pirahnas there.” Our group’s confusion turned into a mixture of surprise and sadness when Francis explained, “the kids there are like pirahnas. Once one of them manages to get you, a larger group will quickly arrive and relieve you of your belongings.”
While economic growth in the 1990s has resulted in improvement to Peruvians’ livelihood and standard of living, my short one-day stint in downtown Lima was still able to uncover these socio-economic potholes. Despite the city being the most developed of all of Lima’s districts, severe social and economic undercurrents persist. I tried to reflect these in Street soccer, Street hawker, Street procession, Street bum and Street elder. To an outsider, the disenfranchisement was too obvious to ignore.
One issue we had to grapple with throughout the trip was how touristy many parts of Peru had become. Poverty stands at 51.6%, and many Peruvians have since turned to tourism as their sole source of income. Our van had pulled up at a traffic light as we headed towards the airport to catch our flight to Arequipa on the morning of day 3. A teenage street bustler walked up to our van and began to play with his top. Sensing a photographic moment, I pulled out my camera and snapped several shots. What happened next for me was totally unexpected. The teen walked up to our van and stretched his hand out for a tip. My companions turned to look at me. I looked back stunned. Before I could react, the van pulled away, leaving the teen in the dust gesturing at us in a manner described by our driver as the Peruvian equivalent of the middle finger.
Yet all is not doom and gloom in the city that Francisco Pizarro once named Ciudad de los Reyes. My initial concerns about personal safety and property loss were unfounded. Despite standing out from the crowds like a sore thumb, a general sense of alertness and common sense was able to keep us safe throughout our entire trip. My camera equipment came back with me completely intact, as did these photographs which you now see.