A Strange Creature
Trapped between the coastal desert and overwhelming Andes, the capital city of modern Peru is permanently wrapped in a humid grey mist that blots out the sun and dampens the spirit.
In 1919, Lima had an urban population of 173, 000. Today almost seven million people are caught in its dull labyrinth of sheer poverty, hectic traffic, pollution, and relentless expansion. More and more serranos leave their meagre mountain dwellings to search for a better life on the coast. Public transport vans and buses drive farther and farther from central Lima to tap the new influx of wealth, and the hardened ambulantes, or hawkers, follow them. Work is in high demand but in miserably short supply.
The creature Lima is today is very much a conquistador creation. The Incas who dominated Peru and its neighbours for a century prior to the arrival of the virtuous Catholics from Europe had mountainous Cusco as their capital city. Compared to this fascinating city, Lima, with its sick limbs dangling from every side, is a dismal failure. And yet it was the capital city of Spanish South America, the heart of what was ingenuously called the New World. The conquerors needed a naval base, so in 1535 Francisco Pizarro gave birth to Lima.
Historians claim that the society founded by the Spaniards had a rigid hierarchy based on race and wealth. The Lima of today is very much the same. People on the lower rungs must work hard to survive.
Peruvian women work hard, very hard. If they were paid justly, their lot would be much better than it is. The home for mentally and physically disabled young men where I recently spent three weeks employs eight women. Most of them work a minimum of nine hours a day, seven days a week. The cook earns the most: she makes less than ¤10 a week. Three of the women who do the laundry and have a forty-hour week earn half that amount.
And yet these are some of the lucky few. They have breakfast, lunch and sometimes even supper at the home, and take a large bag of food home every week. They are also given clothes and medicines. One of the cleaners spends four hours travelling to and from her workplace every day: it costs her ¤1.50 a week.
Food and transport are often as expensive as in Malta. Where they exist, facilities like sewerage, electricity and running water are often beyond the means of the average Peruvian.
Moreover, Peru does not have a national health scheme: doctors in Lima charge anything from ¤5 for a house call. Medicines are expensive too. Charitable institutions provide medical help to millions of Peruvians: their support is vital. However, with Lima's sprawling population, charity can't perform miracles, and it doesn't.
So Lima is really a dinosaur with poor health enveloped by what doctors consider to be a most unhealthy environment. And yet basic social services are unheard of.
The other side of Lima is San Isidro, Miraflores and the casinos where money comes cheap. It takes minutes to play away what the cook at the home for disabled persons earns in her 63-hour week. Its the Lima of nannies who are expected to wear a uniform: nobody wants them to look like one of the family.
The other, other side
In Lima, on buses, one often comes across people who are collecting money for some good cause or other. They first make a short emotional speech and then walk around with a big bag of sweets: whoever donates money is given a sweet.
Once on my way to the circus with eleven mentally disabled persons, I came across one such philantropist. His speech was something about people in need and Jesus Christ. I didn't gather much else and felt as immune to him and his cause as to the buskers on the London Underground.
Suddenly I realised that the man had approached one of the disabled persons in our group. Julian couldn't have said much, but for the simple man with the bag of sweets it was enough. He sighed sympathetically and, singling out the other disabled persons instinctively, gave them each a sweet for free. When that was done he got off at the next stop.
This strange creature is lovable after all.
Ó Adrian Grima
Published in The Sunday Times (Malta, 8 December, 1996)
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