A Fish in New Waters

Posted onMay 12, 2013

A Fish in New Waters


If I could see through the eyes of a salmon, perhaps I´d have a better idea of my first week here in Peru. I left the fresh waters of Philadelphia, to land in the vast ocean of South America, in the sprawling heart of Lima. The moment I landed, the newness hit me in the lungs like a wave of brine to the gills. Thousands of diesel and gas powered vehicles clogged the streets, as they churned and cycled what little oxygen was left into soot and fumes. Dark, brown people packed into aluminum, and steel tin cans, surprisingly functional after decades of abuse, in their daily commutes. Cell-phones and pagers, hawkers and ravers, bums and maids, a cacophony of the city en-masse formed of eight million people greeted me with a neurotic pensiveness that infrequently smiled.

As I waited for a close friend to arrive, I stayed with a Peruvian friend, an expedition partner from years before, in the middle class neighbourhood of San Miguel. I woke up to roosters crowing at 2:30 in the morning, just before the early ones rose for work. Later, construction work in the 3rd floor above me rousted me again, and in the blinking, smog filtered sun light through my window, I got up. Ice cream vendors dressed in bright yellow vests pedalled their carts through the streets, blowing on high pitched horns, while traffic and fumes slowly built up into a fevered mid day pitch. I helped baby-sit Gabriel, a rambunctious three year old kid, while his grandmother fretted about his hyperactivity. Then I explored the city, or worked out in a local gym while flirting with the ladies in the nautilus room.

In the evenings, I wandered into Miraflores, where foreigners, usually middle aged or older white men, dressed in tacky black t-shirts that said, “FBI: Female Body Inspector”, negotiated with much younger, dark skinned women for their bodies and company in Pizza Alley. Other times I joined my Peruvian friends for some salsa dancing, or we walked through Baranco, an ancient part of town next to the Pacific Ocean, filled with old colonial walkways, restaurants, bars, and shops. We conversed about South American economics and politics, and it inevitably lead to the American foreign policies, neo-colonialism, and the incumbent effects within their country. After those conversations, I lightened the mood with jokes and changed the subject.

Interestingly, unlike the first time I was in Peru, I didn´t stand out. When I spoke, I was greeted with a customary salutation. When I asked the cabbies or the combis for the fare, I got the standard local price. The same happened in the markets. In the clubs, I was asked if I was from San Miguel, or Capon, or one of the other local districts of

Lima. As the days passed with my friend´s family, I was treated as one of them. As always, I was patient, smiled frequently, and I always said “Please”, and “Thank you”, even if it was clearly their fault for an errant mistake. Still, familiarity extends further than the basic concepts of courtesy, but courtesy helps tremendously. Whenever I hung out with my American friends, I sometimes distanced myself from their constant judgement of the locals, the conditions, the service, and the water. Few things satisfied them, and in turn, I observed as their grating behaviour sometimes boomeranged back to them, and often with interest. Of course, as the standard rule of a bicyclist about to head into the back country for an extended period of time, I drank the local tap water, and within a week I was acclimated to it with practically no ill effects. My simple action, which was designed to get me ready for my journey, was met with shock from my American friends.

It finally occurred to me that my high level of adaptability passed me off as yet another limeñan, one who looked asian like many other Peruvians, and that I was no longer a foreigner to them. When I first arrived, five years ago, indisputably, I was a tourist who wanted to be seen as a traveller. Now, I was a local, a traveller still, and with it came both the familiarity and expectations that a local had with the people. Still, I longed to be the extraterrestrial again, as the explorer into the unknown. But until then, I enjoyed my new found intimacy with the people of Peru.


The author in red, while on a bicycle trip with some peruvian friends to the mountains