Like many roads in Lima, Avenida Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, in the Ate district, can be treacherous for bikers. (Photo by Simon McGrath)
Brandon Quinn, an undergraduate at Boston College, is taking a semester off to work in Lima as a public security intern for the UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament, and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
By Brandon Quinn
LIMA -- On my first day at work in Peru, my boss remarked on my mode of transportation: "Be careful, kiddo. You’ve really got a death wish riding a bicycle in Lima.” She was basically correct, but at the time it seemed a worthy risk.
If there is one thing that has made me most frustrated with Peru, it has been my bicycle. My daily navigation of Óvalo Gutiérrez (a traffic circle that intersects four major roads) is like playing a real-life game of Frogger. And roadside biking is not particularly appealing in a city where cars drive down my 30-kilometer-per-hour neighborhood street at 90 kilometers per hour, and combis (microbuses) race one another from corner to corner to compete for passengers. So I am forced to weave around and dodge the meandering pedestrians on the sidewalk.
By and large, I live in a bubble of Lima, working during the daylight, and confined to my safe neighborhood at night. But my bicycle seems to break that bubble. For one, it is a more liberating means of transportation -- I am not just another one of 35 disgruntled passengers crammed into a microbus. Also, since it clashes so much with traffic and transportation norms, it seems to put me in vulnerable situations in a society where, at first glance, that ought to be avoided. It allows me to get to know the individuals who make up this society, the limeños for whom I can’t help but feel a special love.
I live in a shared house in the tourist district of Miraflores, about 3 kilometers from my job in the business district of San Isidro. Advised against public transportation, I made the hasty decision to invest in a used bike. I went to La Victoria, a district of Lima near the city center with a poor reputation for security, because a limeño told me you could get good deals on secondhand bikes there. Picture rows of bikes as in some of the scenes in the classic film “The Bicycle Thief” (I’m not saying they were all stolen bikes, but one can never be sure). I elicited a lot of funny looks being a gringo venturing there alone. Anyway, a couple saw me looking lost as I stumbled off the combi and were anxious to help me find my way.
Well, I should have settled for the cheapest bike for 45 dollars. Instead, I decided that since I had come this far, I would bargain. It only made the salesman run off to find a bike that he could not sell to anyone else. I followed him back deeper into La Victoria and watched workers tightening the loose parts on my 40-dollar bike complete with an electronic bell and a mirror. As a young child stared at me like I was the first gringo he had seen in his neighborhood, a sense of fear as an outsider overtook me, and I settled with the bad deal.
After I bought it, my discomfort had reached its peak, as it was close to sunset. As I was frantically asking the bike salesman for directions out of the neighborhood, he made the decision for me and put me and my bike into a cab. I ended up having a really nice conversation with this taxi driver. When I tell limeños I am here for four months, it really brings a smile, or occasionally a look of surprise, to their face. I suppose they see most people pass through to fly to Machu Picchu and experience the ancient Peruvian culture, which the taxista told me was lost on the day the Spaniards set foot. The Incans were an orderly people; “no sea ladrón, no sea mentiroso, no sea perezoso” (“don't be a thief, a liar, or lazy”) was a main foundation of Incan moral code, and this was replaced by what he referred to as the disorderly mess of Lima.
Some spots, like Parque del Amor, in Lima's Miraflores district, are perfect for bikers. (Photo by Brandon Quinn)
I am often frustrated with the chaotic rush of life in this rapidly growing city, characterized by interactions extremely lacking in common courtesy. Living in a house largely composed of expatriates, one easily gets caught up in complaining about Lima. I will admit that I had no qualms laughing the other day when my Spanish roommate started cursing out a driver on our street who started incessantly honking his horn at some garbage men doing their job. We even got nods of approval from the trash men. However, on a regular basis, their rants seem like a disturbing superiority complex. An Australian housemate said to me when I first arrived, “It may seem modern here, but everything’s backward. I like to say that in Peru what’s white is black and what’s black is white.” As if Peruvians are born with some kind of incompatibility with modernity.
Then I think of what my taxista said, and I am sure the phenomenon of disorder is not a Peruvian character flaw, but is related to the current social and economic structures. The foundations that Peru’s recently booming markets are built upon are different from America or Europe, and they create a different environment and shape the behavior of people. For example, many of Lima’s 8.5 million live in the outlying pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns). These often began as illegal mass land invasions by migrants from the provinces seeking new opportunities in Lima (Lima holds a third of the country’s population, as opposed to the 1940s when it held a tenth). This rapid change in the shape of Peruvian society presents serious challenges to maintain an orderly and equitable development process.
One day, I was on my way to work when one of the pedals of my bike popped off. So I dropped it off at a little bike shop for maintenance. The owner, Luis, showed me the typical concern and interest I get when I interact with Peruvians in a personal setting. They seem to want to make sure their society is treating me well. He has tried for nine years to make it to the United States, but he says they don't let in those who really deserve it. He only has one son, but he says he could never do what many immigrants do and leave their families behind. Despite his desire to go to the United States, you can hear the pride he has in his country -- its amazing food, people, land, and culture. He told me one thing Peruvian emigrants miss the most is the brotherhood and genuine concern strangers on the street have for one another.
For a foreigner, it can be hard to notice the true Peruvian culture if you just let the negative aspects of daily life here overwhelm your attitude. Sometimes it can be the smallest things that you find yourself complaining about. But if you take a step back and try to get to know the individuals in the society, it is easy to finish the day in a very good mood. I may not be riding my bike much anymore, since I crashed into a man who walked right in front of me after hailing a taxi in a split second. However, it taught me some valuable lessons, and now I know what to look for without my bicycle.
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