Fear and Loathing in Lima

July 13, 2008

I was last in Lima 10 years ago. At that time, when I left the baggage-claim area, I encountered a pulsing throng of locals arranged in a semi-circle around the airport exits. My impression, at the time, was that a majority of Peruvians either drove taxis, exchanged foreign currency, or wanted to take me to a place where I could have “sexy time“…whatever that means. I had hoped that 10 years of economic reform and increased tourism would have helped to convey that most American tourists don’t want to leave a 10-hour flight, exchange some cash, and head straight for the nearest brothel. I’d rather shower first, or at least wash my face. Alas, though some things have changed (the semi-circle is now an irregular polygon), mayhem continues to rule the day. Unlike last time, however, I didn’t have to wind my way through the crowd to get into the other side of the airport. This time, I had a driver waiting for me from the hotel (compliments of my wonderful project director).

Riding to the hotel was a quick refresher course in why, excatly, acquiring a driver’s license in the United States is so difficult. Think about it: To acquire a firearm in the state of Missouri, you basically have to go to a dealer, sign a piece of paper attesting that you’re neither a convicted felon nor a crazed asylum escapee. You then wait a few days, and then you can personally own what is essentially the most-advanced death instrument in the history of humanity. But to get a license, you have to (1) attend class for 3-4 months; (2) obtain a permit, and log a certain number of hours behind the wheel; (3) go to the DMV, and take a written test demonstrating that you know the difference between a triangle, square, and octogon; and (4) drive with a state employee and avoid hitting stationary and moving objects for about 15 minutes. The whole process, for me at least, took half a year. But, I digress…

Driving in Lima, or more correctly, driving anywhere in Peru, is unlike anything you will ever experience anywhere. It’s kind of like driving in morning rush hour in Boston, but only if every single Bostonian woke up in the morning to find that his or her spouse had left them, then while walking to the car, stepped in a steaming mess left by their neighbor’s Great Dane. Lanes? Why, yes they are painted on the road, but they seem to be merely a friendly suggestion. Speed limits? I have yet to see any such thing posted. I would guess that posting a speed limit would, again, be taken as a pleasant recommendation, and nothing more. My driver, on at least two ocassions, clearly and intentionally drove down the wrong side of the street into oncoming traffic. Prior to this, I had actually thought it would be fun to play real-life Grand Theft Auto. But, it’s amazing how quickly you change your mind when you’ve had no sleep, you smell like airline chicken dinner, and you’re in a third-world country at 12 AM.

The grad student from UNM who was supposed to arrive an hour after me didn’t show up. Apparently he missed his flight somewhere along the route. Unbeknowst to me, he had sent several frantic emails to me and the project director, as if somehow we could have assisted him in finding Gate 9 at LAX, while we’re in a country where running water is a luxury. He eventually arrived a day late. A late-night knock on the door (which I, knowing he would arrive, had left open) was followed by a handshake and an introduction in which he used his full name. As in, “Hello, I am Jon T. Bullshitflinger.” I can see not using a fraternity name when you first introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Nutbutter!” Such things are usually best left until day two. But, I don’t think I’ve ever met another graduate student who has introduced themself by their full name…especially immediately after I opened the door to a cheap hotel room dressed only in a t-shirt and boxers.

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