By Guy Wilson
A very wise Italian explorer named Antonio Raimondi once referred to Peru as “a beggar sat atop a chest full of gold”. Whether he imagined that his metaphor would still be totally applicable 130 years after his death, is highly unlikely. In the two months I spent last year in Lima on my Year Abroad, I became increasingly disillusioned with dreadful infrastructure and widespread poverty.
Sitting in the back of my host family’s Toyota 4×4, as we weave ritually and precariously through the dusty streets of Lima, I am uncharacteristically silent. “You are quiet today, Guy” smiles the host mother, who is normally used to my babbling on in Spanish at every possible opportunity – you can’t improve your language skills if you don’t speak! But here, I’m absorbed by what I see, and not in a good way. My nurtured, westernised eyes gawp at another shabby Limeñan roadside of helpless beggars and shoddy architecture. I feel appalled – perhaps even angry. I knew that Peru was relatively un-developed, but this shattered my every expectation – particularly when flourishing Santiago in neighbouring Chile could be mistaken for Madrid.
It shouldn’t have come to this; I reflect in my room in Lima. This is a country replete with valuable natural resources: oodles of petrol and natural gas. It was even caressed by its doting creator with three extremely diverse natural regions: the coast, the rainforest and the mountain. All of these offer a distinct contribution to agriculture and make Peru an unrivalled space for ecotourism (let me tell you!). If those weren’t enough ingredients to bake a delicious cake of never-ending national capital, then a favourable geo-strategic location (for trade and more) in the middle of South America, facing the Pacific Ocean with proximity to the Asiatic market, should damn-well provide the buttercream icing. Unfortunately, plainly put, Peru and its political leadership have made dire use of all such resources.
This is a country replete with valuable natural resources
When Spanish colonisers appropriated Peru, they centralised all economic productivity in Lima, and to this day the country has struggled to rectify its centralised economy. You can imagine why, therefore, I expected a city which partially resembled a European capital, given its claim to a hefty portion of Peruvian wealth. When I first laid eyes upon the third-world, airport district of Callao, I realised I had been only too ignorant. With no insult to the Peruvian people intended, I was utterly dismayed by the lack of infrastructural development in Lima. It saddens me that decades of inept presidential leadership and destructive levels of political corruption has doomed this country to a state of economic backwardness, from which there appears to be no obvious immediate escape route. Before I bore you with my moralist spiel on the injustice of a Latin American economic catastrophe, let me delve into the jolly depths of everything I found hopelessly wrong in the city of Lima.
Traffic in Lima is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Car journey times work differently in Peru. I found this particular equation useful: whatever Google Maps says the length of your journey is, add an hour and a half – that’s how long you’ll be driving for. A capital city with no other methods of public transport besides taxis or buses – and which makes no attempt to promote cycling – is asking for congestion on its roads. ‘Why haven’t they built a metro?’, I hear you ask. They are actually doing so currently, but have already been building it for several years. My prediction: it will be unveiled by 2025. Manual labourers in Peru are many things, but they are not efficient. When it does finally arrive, its scope will be infuriatingly minimal – covering only the most central districts.
Road systems are poorly structured and traffic lights are often broken, forcing many police to pose as traffic wardens – the same police that should be responding to secondly reports of violent crimes throughout Lima. Unsurprisingly, a broken road structure with suffocating bottlenecks breeds forceful and abrasive driving. Everyone’s favourite unwritten law of ‘every man for himself’ has developed some awful driver habits. Those joining the main road from a junction tend to place themselves in between the main traffic flow until they are allowed in. Effectively, “go round me and veer onto the other side of the road, or let me in”. Indicators are now redundant and have been replaced car horns. I’ve learnt the odd handy pointer for my Peruvian driving test; two beeps of the horn mean ‘I’m turning left or right’ – five beeps of the horn: ‘I’m about to cut you up’. The noise on main roads teleports me back to the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa and that mind-numbing cacophony of vuvuzelas – particularly offensive to my innocent English ears.
The cars making up these insufferable jams are out-dated, MOT-less and probably emitting fatal toxic exhaust fumes. Look at the roadside and you’ll see a pervading yellow curb with dull and grubby paintwork after years of exhaustion. You’ll quite probably also see a member of the council sweeping up leaves off the pavement with a 1990s wooden broomstick, fit for any kind of witch. Look up above the roads and you’ll see a spaghetti-like tangle of telephone wires. I pity the poorly paid electrician who has to fix anything up there – it must be like trying to entangle 17 pairs of giant, same-coloured earphones, but up a fearfully, high (and most likely wooden) ladder.
Renovation and improvement are quite simply unheard of. The Peruvian state budget has never been significant enough (or wisely distributed enough) to invest in improving or modifying infrastructure. As my host father once told me with visible irritation: when something breaks, they put a temporary plaster over it. Replacing it isn’t in their DNA. That, of course, is conducive to more financial strain in the future and a forever stagnant infrastructure. The streets of Lima show me what 1980s London might have looked like, but dirtier, less civilised and with a muted buzz of activity and productivity.
Renovation and improvement are quite simply unheard of
I realise now that I take accessibility to clean and affordable water for granted. People in Lima are threatened by a water shortage every day. It rains less than an inch per year in the capital, meaning that they are wholly reliant on three of the national rivers of drinkable water. While most are assured of a steady water supply, the quality and price of the product are highly variable and generally unsatisfactory. Poorer citizens without running water (about a sixth of the inhabitants in Lima) depend on expensive private truck deliveries and that water’s often contaminated. Middle-class citizens with running water, meanwhile, will pay less than a tenth of the price paid by the poor for their deliveries. If it seems unfair, that’s because it is.
But the privileged can’t expect a pristine product either. My host family, for example, had to boil running water to get rid of bacteria, just to make it drinkable. Imagine the feeling of immense tediousness when you’re itching for a glass of water on a stodgy Lima day and you can’t because the water dispenser’s empty. You need to boil it and it needs to cool down – so hold that thirsty thought for two more hours, soldier. I’m pleased to say that Lima’s water utility company is in the process of a $7 billion investment in water infrastructure. “About time!” is my imagined response from most of the city’s inhabitants, sick of sleepless nights over the most basic of human needs.
My two months in Lima have been memorable and fascinating. This is down to the people; the incredibly positive and friendly people. It’s also down to the amazing food, vibrant culture and exotic climate. And yet unlike Madrid – where I spent the winter part of my year abroad – I simply could not, and would not, live here. Aside from a constant fear for my safety and the backward, stubbornly engrained societal attitudes of racism and elitism, the gloominess and shabbiness of the infrastructure leaves too much to be desired. Maybe I sound pompous. Maybe the essence of a middle-class Englishman is too strong in me. But upon leaving, I had this overpowering urge to see a line of clean, well-cared for and properly furbished buildings. I wanted to drive on roads clearly marked by conspicuous white lines. I wanted to drink clean tap-water, as and when I pleased.
My Year 6 students at my Lima school best summarised my feelings when they told me about their future dreams of living in the United States. ‘Why? Tell me why you want to live there’, I probed them, like any annoying teacher tries to draw as much detail as possible from a disinterested pupil. All of them were clear in their answer: “It is more organised”. That might seem to you an overly intelligent observation from an eleven-year-old. In fact, it’s a very clear one when you experience both urban Peruvian and western civilizations. I can only hope, as I write in the faraway land of my home country which I so grateful for, that Peru will escape its never-ending rut – that the wonderful people I met will realise one day the eternal joys of a developed infrastructure.
Image: @danielcgold via Unsplash