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Peru: City on a Binge, Lima

May 5, 2010

National Geographic Magazine once called Lima “a city on a binge.”  This was during the heady days of the 1970s and oddly prophetic of decades to come.  In the early days, the capital of Peru was still a run-down post-colonial town.  Street vendors choked the downtown old city, whose structures reeled from centuries of decay.

1) The Presidential Palace in 1967: Photo by Ken and Peg Herring

The civil strife of later years caused by the Sendero Luminoso had yet to materialize.  Sure, striking government workers and others were a regular fixture on the streets and the police, equipped with plentiful American and Israeli riot gear, frequently did battle with the crowds.  But still one had the sense that good times would eventually roll.

2) They used to keep Pizarro’s alleged mummy in the cathedral; it’s not there anymore as the body was later determined not be that of the assassinated conquistador: Photo by Ken and Peg Herring

And indeed they did.

3) City of darkness and light: the beach at Miraflores

On one memorable occasion around 1998 I flew into Lima and after the usual entry formalities exited the terminal to find a taxi to shuttle me to the central district.  Actually I was headed to Miraflores, the tony suburb favored by wealthy limeños and tourists alike.  As I was haggling with a driver, a young man in a snappy suit and tie approached me.

“Excuse me,” he said.  “Do you speak English?”  I squinted at him;  harmless enough and obviously an American, he looked lost if over-attired for arrival in Peru.

“Sure,” I said.  “What can I do for you?”

“I have to get to my hotel and this is my first time in Lima.  Frankly I don’t have the faintest idea how to hire a cab or get to the city center.”

“That’s fine. Want to split a taxi?”

“Wonderful.  I’d really appreciate it.”

In short order I bargained the price of the taxi to a reasonable sum, about $5.  The two of us got in the back.  “Where are you going exactly?” I said.

He named a hotel near the Plaza de Armas. I was familiar with the place from my days of living in the central district.  This would mean backtracking back to Miraflores and my own destination, but the fellow clearly needed help to navigate his way into town.

We took off and drove toward the city center, weaving through suburbs and slums.  Sometimes bandits followed airport taxis to rob the occupants but I saw no reason to worry this bright day.  I asked the guy what he was doing in Peru.

“I’m from the Inter-American Development Bank,” he said.  “Ever heard of it?”

I had the odd client from the bank in my travel business and I knew a certain amount about what they did in Latin America, mostly providing loan money for development projects.  Hence the name.

“Of course,” I said, “hasn’t everybody?”  The young man looked surprised.  Dressed informally as I was he probably took me for a budget tourist. I quickly explained that I worked with travel companies in Lima and continued, “So what’s going on that requires your presence here?”

He smiled and said wryly, “I’ve come to disburse money for a sewer line project in the city.”

“How much?”

“Two  hundred million dollars,” he replied without missing a beat.

“I see.  You don’t speak Spanish?’

“Not a word.”

“What happens when you give them the money?”

“They spend it on sewer projects.”

“I mean, do you stay to oversee the disbursement?”

“Um, no.”

“So you come here, lay a bunch of cash on the local government and leave?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

I considered my next words carefully.  “Doesn’t that strike you as taking a risk?  What’s to prevent local officials from ripping off the money?”

“That’s the point of our system. We don’t tell people how to spend money we provide, nor do we hover and micro-manage the loans.  We are all about empowerment, not old-style aid with strings.”

So that was that.  His story was an astonishing one.  To think that a reputable bank would send a kid to the capital of Peru with hundreds of millions of dollars to spread around with no questions asked, why, that was just incredible.  I wondered how I could get a piece of the action and carry on this binge in a personal manner.  But of course what did a mere travel consultant such as myself know that these high-powered bankers did not?

Meanwhile nearly fifteen years later, the majority of the city’s residents still live in squalid poverty.  Perhaps a few government-funded homes now have quick-flushing gold toilets.  We’ll never know.


4) Along the road from the airport to town – no partying here

5) With ex-military friends in Miraflores, 1998

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