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The View from Peru

Life in another country

I really meant to stick to the formula of at least two postings a month. But right after my first I took a long trip around South America, starting in Lima, Peru.  From what I'd heard, Lima was a sprawling, grungy city, your typical third-world hell-hole, infested with thieves and beggars.

Sprawling it surely is; no-one could say whether it had eight million or nine million inhabitants. But you can drive several miles, from the upscale district of Miraflores almost to the pompously-edificed center, and see little but broad tree-lined boulevards and bourgeois homes with leafy gardens.

Peru's middle class is growing. This was borne forcefully in on us our first evening, when Yvonne and I walked down from our hotel to the five-hundred foot cliff--not rock but clay and pebbles, detritus borne down from the Andes--that separates the city from the sea. There we found an enormous food-court, on several levels, linked by escalators, seething with smartly-dressed young people. The economy is booming, the mineral wealth that drew Pizarro supplemented by recent oil and natural-gas finds and managed with an efficiency that defies Latin stereotypes (Peru recovered from the recession well ahead of the U.S.). We dined in a large glass-enclosed restaurant while a full moon sank towards the Pacific. There wasn't an empty table in sight.

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But, as an English expat we met in a bar told us, "Peru is still fifteen years behind Chile". The wealth hasn't spread much beyond urban Lima--not to the poor in the shanty-towns that circle the city, nor to the high plateaus of the Andes, nor to the slice of Amazon basin that constitutes more than half the country. That was one of the themes in Peru's very first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Its title was La Teta Asustada--literally "The Startled Nipple", an expression as meaningless to English speakers as a literal translation of its Oscarized version, The Milk of Sorrow ("La Leche de la Tristeza") would be for speakers of Spanish . We watched it on TV right before the Oscars came on. During commercial breaks they showed footage of the crowds already packing Lima's squares, reporters thrusting mikes under their noses so they could say just how thrilled and happy they were. It was a shame--they really believed they had a chance to nail their first Oscar. Half an hour into the movie, we knew they hadn't.

The title derives from the fact that the heroine attributes her physical and psychological problems to having been breast-fed by a mother who was gang-raped and brutalized during vicious warfare between security forces and the Maoist guerrilla movement known incongruously as Sendero Luminoso-- "The Shining Path" (the film carefully refrains from saying which side was responsible, yet was hailed as courageous by some for even mentioning events that many Peruvians are still unwilling to confront).

That internecine strife is one reason why you can't make an honest film about working-class life in Greater Lima without using subtitles (another first for this movie). Refugees from the Andean areas where the worst fighting took place often have Quechua as their primary language. Imagine a contemporary American movie set in Chicago or New York where half the dialog is in Navaho and you'll glimpse one of the differences between there and here. But perhaps because of this, or because it was altogether too dark for an audience that reveled in Life is Beautiful, Peru's first Oscar nomination never had a chance.

Peru's interaction with the U.S. is subtle and complex, perhaps best symbolized by Cholo Potter and Los Cholimpsons--t-shirts and comic postcards showing Harry Potter and the Simpsons kitted out in full Andean-peasant gear ("cholo" in Peru is a pejorative term for highland people of mixed or indigenous descent). Or by Peru's response to the outposts of economic imperialism that cluster round major intersections, the McDonalds, KFCs, Burger Kings: a homegrown fast-food chain called Bembo's. I didn't find this edgy mix of fascination and mockery in Chile or Argentina. Maybe it's history. Chile and Argentina are countries with a shallow past, large parts of them settled only in the last century. Peru has a past as deep as Southern Europe's--the U.S. is but a pup beside it. That, given our current dominance. is bound to produce mixed feelings.

Think Peru, and you think Inca. Yet the Incas only occupied Lima for about seventy years. Romans of the continent, they did little beyond superimposing military might and bureaucratic organization on layers of civilization millennia thick. You get some sense of that in the Larco museum. with its tens of thousands of pieces dating back 4,000 years--jewelry, ceramics, textiles, almost all of an astonishing beauty and sophistication (http://catalogmuseolarco.perucultural. org.pe). The museum's overall impact is stunning, and raises questions about the relationship between utility and beauty that I'd like to explore at a later date.

And had you ever heard of Huaca Pucllana? I hadn't, but there it is, in the heart of Miraflores, a pre-Hispanic temple-cum-city-hall that predates Machu Picchu by almost a millennium. Lima has been almost totally destroyed by earthquakes three times. but the walls of Huaca Pucllana still stand. Imagine a library stack. Take out a book or two from each shelf. Push the books so that they lean a fraction to the left or to the right, alternate shelves in alternate directions. Replace each book with an adobe brick. Instead of fracturing, buildings like this roll smoothly with the tremors, surviving countless shocks. So much for "primitive" architecture.

So, all in all, Peru's very different from its stereotypes. But then, so are most countries, even after waves of globalization have washed over them--different from their stereotypes and also, for all the resemblances globalization brings, different in subtle ways from one another. We all badly need, from time to time, to be reminded of that.

 

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.

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