Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Long Road North Part VI: Lima

Cool cliffside restaurant near where I stayed with Kathleen in Lima that Kathleen took me to see during an awesome impromptu walking Geology of Lima tour. That bridge? The gap there was formed because there was a dike made of a more easily-erodible material that we could trace up into the beach and up the cliffs on the other side of the road. Neato!

Lima Part I: a not-so-warm welcome

I arrived in Lima after over two weeks of travel, of which over one hundred hours were spent on long-haul buses, all the way from the southern toe of the continent in Ushuaia, Argentina (or, if you're really counting, from the Antarctic Peninsula following a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage by ship). I was exhausted. But I had booked it north in order to arrive in Lima in time to meet up with my friend from grad school, Kathleen, who was in town for two weeks teaching an Earth History course at the university. After all that travel I was very excited to see a familiar face again.

After gathering my bags from the hold of the bus that had just taken me the 49 hours across the Antiplano from Argentina to arrive there in Lima, I asked the woman at the information desk (who, in contrast to every information desk person in the whole of Argentina, was very friendly and helpful) how to get a bus to where my friend Kathleen was staying in the Lima neighborhood of Chorillos. She directed me to a bus station across the street from the main terminal, which served a brand-spanking-new Metropolitano bus line, saying it was very clean and safe. Sure enough, it was equivalent to a nice light rail line in some of the finer public transit systems of the U.S. I was beginning to think that all of the safety warnings for Lima were grossly exaggerated, or maybe relics from a wilder time past.

Lima. Looks like L.A.

The only problem was that “Chorillos” was not one of the stops on the train map, so I asked a businessman standing across from me if he knew which stop I should get off at. I showed him Kathleen’s instructions, and he lit up when he saw the name of the restaurant she said she was near: Los Hornos. Sure enough, after 20 some minutes, the bus pulled up at a station across the street from a Los Hornos restaurant, so I got off. Except it didn't seem right. I sat down inside the train stop to get my bearings and was surprised that the train stations had free public wifi, so I pulled out my phone, got a GPS signal, and got thoroughly confused. My phone couldn't find the address she had given me and insisted that the restaurant across the street was the only Los Hornos in Lima, but I knew I was not in Chorillos. I asked a passerby who confirmed that I was still several stops away from Chorillos, the end of the line station. So I hopped back on the train to the end of the line and tried again. This time my phone was able to bring up Kathleen’s address, and it looked like I had overshot the jump-off-point by two stations. Back on the bus, back off, and I checked my phone map one last time to make a mental map of where I needed to go. Five blocks down one street, jog one block left, then right and two blocks down.

I couldn't wait to get to food like this: famous Peruvian ceviche (I did get some later).

I started walking. The sun was shining and I felt optimistic and excited: excited to be in a new country, in a busy big city, excited that I’d be seeing a friend soon. I was all smiles as I walked. Kathleen had said the neighborhood was swanky, and I wondered at her definition of swanky. It looked like a seedier version of the seedier parts of East L.A., but hey, I’m in Peru! I grinned and laughed out loud as I walked past my fifth market stall with stripped, freshly-killed chickens hanging on hooks from ropes across the front. I scouted out the little stalls selling food, making mental notes of the gloriously inexpensive prices for the Menu del Días, intending to come back for lunch after dropping my stuff off at Kathleen’s place. I wondered if it had been five blocks yet, the busy market stalls made it hard to judge where streets actually were. I kept walking, and started to feel like I had gone too far, I didn't recognize the names of what street signs I could see. I decided to quickly pull out my phone and consult the GPS.

I had had my phone in my hand for less than two seconds when I felt the shove in the back and the hand grabbing at my phone. I stumbled, clenched my hand tighter, holding onto my phone like it was a lifeline, and spun around to face my attacker. It was a skinny guy in a white shirt, not much taller than me, yanking hard at my phone. I yelled at him. He grabbed my arm. I grabbed his arm with my free hand and started to claw at him, still yelling. I wanted to kick, but I couldn't, I was too weighed down and off-balance with stuff. Then he pushed me hard and I fell sideways to the pavement, and in the split second that my grip loosened as I started to fall, he yanked the phone out of my hand and sprinted away. I looked up, pinned on the sidewalk by my heavy backpack, and saw him run off. I yelled for help: there were people all around, but nobody did anything until he had run off.

Post-mugging: a little scuffed up, but fine (pretty sure the guy lost more skin in the scuffle than I did).

Two women slowly walked up to me as I tried to pick myself up. One helped me to my feet. She asked me what I was doing there, “It’s not safe here,” she said. No shit, I thought. They took me around the corner to a police officer, who chewed me out for being in the neighborhood. “This is the most dangerous street in Chorillos,” she said, “What are you doing here?” I tried to explain that I was trying to get to my friend’s house, but now I didn't have the address and I was too shaken to remember it. I was sure I was within a few blocks, but didn't know where. She pointed me down the road to the police station.

One of the women walked with me to the police station and explained to the officer at the front desk what had happened, then disappeared, leaving me there to fend for myself. The officer told me to wait in the back office for someone to come take my statement and file a report.

About half an hour later, another officer showed up. He introduced himself as the captain, smiling broadly. He asked what happened and I explained. He repeated the street officer’s chiding about how I should not be in this neighborhood. It’s dangerous, he said. When I explained that I didn't know that, I thought it was supposed to be safe, I was trying to get to my friend’s house, he asked for the address. I remembered bits of it, and when I mentioned part of the street name he got furious and demanded to know the name of my friend.
“It’s a center for narcotics, half of the drug deals in Chorillos happen on that street. Are you crazy? You can’t go there.”
Great, I thought.

He must have seen the look of, “well fuck, now what” on my face because he softened.
“Smile, pretty girl, it’s going to be okay,” then he reached out to stroke my back, “You’re safe now. You’re safe with me,” he said, and winked.
That did not make me feel better.
“Do I give my statement to you?” I asked, as I pushed myself away from him.
 “You want to give a statement?” the captain asked, surprised. Why the hell else would I be here? I thought. “Okay, I guess.” And he called in another officer.
After another wait while the other officer got his computer booted up, which apparently was a half hour long process, I was called over to give my statement.

“Carie? Like the song? Caaaaaaaaaa-rie, Caaaaaaaaaaaaa-rie,” the captain started to sing behind me.
“30? So young?”
Marital status.
“I’m single, too,” with another wink.
After I had given the statement and asked for a copy, the captain told me to sit down with him at his desk and excused the other officer. He then started to go through a slideshow of his photos, hikes to a waterfall, him with his shirt off in the waterfall, 
“Oh, have you ever seen a cock fight?” I was slightly relieved that he meant chickens, but the images were still disturbing. “How long are you in Peru?” he asked.
“Three weeks. I am visiting my friend,” I replied.
“My gringa, Peru is wonderful, you will see. Please don’t think it is all like this today. Peru is beautiful. I want to show you Peru.”
I thought he meant photos and I smiled politely.
“You come with me, and I will show you Peru. He grabbed my hand and pulled me to him. I mentally freaked out but didn’t know what to do. I was in a police station surrounded by police officers all of whom had guns in their pockets. I was lost. I needed help to get to Kathleen’s place. But this guy is a creep.
He whispered in my ear, “Come with me, I will show you many things.”
I jerked back and exclaimed that I thought I knew a way to track down the thief: my phone has anti-theft software installed and with a computer, we should be able track the phone. I figured that would get him to think about something other than seducing me, would maybe get me access to the internet to look up Kathleen’s address or somehow contact her and ask her to come rescue me, and maybe actually track the phone.

Pretty view from a bar in Lima at night, looking out towards Chorillos.

The ploy worked, and the captain called in the station’s tech guy. We spent the next hour and a half trying to figure out how to get my pone-tracking app to work to no avail, all the while the captain would come by periodically and put his hands on my shoulders and rub my back and check in. When he wasn’t looking, I tried to signal to the tech guy that I was seriously uncomfortable, help, but he gave me a clear, “dude’s the captain, ain’t nothing I can do about it” look in response. I was able to get to my email, though, and shot a “PLEASE COME GET ME!” email to Kathleen, and looked up her address.

I told the officers Kathleen’s address and said I needed to get there, but they ignored me. The captain was determined to keep me there as long as possible. He had more slideshows that I needed to see.
“You come with me. I will show you Peru. You will be safe with me. I am a police captain. Nobody will mess with you if you are with me. I have guns.” He pointed to the gun at his hip, then winked.
“My friend has waiting for me for hours. She is probably really worried. Please, I need to go to my friend,” I pleaded.
“I will take you to your friend, but only if you will visit me. VISIT ME.” He demanded. Right, because hanging out with you in the police station is exactly how I want to spend my time in Lima?
“Here?” I asked, trying to show just how little desire I had to come back to the police station ever again.
“Yes, you will visit me here. And then I will take you to see Peru. You will be safe.” He paused for dramatic effect, put his hands on my shoulders, and winked again. “El único que no será segura es tu corazón." (the only thing that won’t be safe is your heart) I looked it up later just to make sure I hadn't mistaken the unbelievably corny line. How he managed to get that one out with a straight face I will never know.
 “I need to go to my friend.” Maybe tears will work, I thought. They weren’t hard to conjure up, stressed as I was. My eyes started to water.
“VISIT ME!” he demanded, shaking me. I nodded, and the first tear fell.
 “Good. Nonono, don’t cry, wait here, I will get a car.”
I was terrified and thought about bolting, but didn’t know where to go. I had Kathleen’s address now, but I didn’t know where I was or how to get there. And running from a police station seemed like a good way to get arrested. But I also did not want to get in a vehicle with Creepy Captain. I was frozen, not knowing what to do. I hoped that he would at least get me to Kathleen’s place and that I’d be safe once I was there.

He returned, “20 minutes, there will be a car,” followed by more photo show-and-tell and stories about how Peru is unsafe but I would be Safe With Him, and I was starting to wonder after 20 mins had passed if there was a car or if I’d be stuck there forever with him when a new officer walked in.

Much to my relief, he had been assigned to drive me to Kathleen’s place. The captain escorted me, hand on my back to the door, demanding, “Visitarme! Visitarme! VISITARME!” He blocked my way out the door.

It reminded me of my bus nightmare, and I had a flashback to the movie scene with the creepy guy yelling at the girl he had locked in his basement: Obedéceme! Obedéceme! OBEDECAME!”

But I was almost a free woman, so I smiled and said, “Si,” and he let me pass, giving instructions to the driver that if a blonde girl (Kathleen) didn’t answer the door at the address he was not to let me out of the car, and was to return me to the police station. I worried about that, because I wasn’t sure Kathleen would be home, she had left instructions that one of the kids or housekeepers would be there to let me in, but decided not to explain that point until I was in the car and on the road.

The officer drove me the three minutes to Kathleen’s door, who happened to have just gotten back from her work at the university and was standing just inside the gate outside of the house when I arrived. I was insanely relieved. The police officer briefly questioned her and Marta, the housekeeper and, satisfied that I wasn’t being dropped off at a drug den, excused himself politely and left.

Wow, was I glad to see this person (and needed that beer)!

Lima Part II: Let's try this again...

Needless to say, I didn’t go back to the police station. Marta, however, later said that she saw police cars driving past the house several times that day, which was unusual, and she thought it was hilarious.

I was determined not to let the mugging get to me. Later that evening, Kathleen and I went out with the kids of the house to go check out some of the nicer parts of Lima: Barrancos, a funky and pretty little artsy (the kids said “hipster”) part of town, and we watched the sun set over the beach and got ceviche, which I was pumped about because I love ceviche and Peruvian ceviche is awesome. The next day we went to the beach (bringing nothing with us but our swimsuits and towels so that there was nothing to steal), which was one of Kathleen’s first escapes from what she called the “Princess Palace”. Turns out that the reason she thought the neighborhood was swanky and safe was that she never left the safety of the beautiful gated home surrounded by tall walls that she was staying in except under the escort of the family chauffeur. Our beach trip was a glorious dash for freedom. We had a few more unescorted adventures, including a trip out for some lunchtime exploring, another for evening beers, and a fascinating adventure when I tried to buy a plane ticket to Cusco and it involved taking questionable taxis around town trying to find a certain bank and then handing over a fat wad of cash at the bank to a series of mysterious numbers that had been dictated over the phone and that I had copied down on a scrap of paper, hoping all the while that I wasn’t just wiring money to some gangster and would actually get a ticket (I did).

Adventures in Peruvian banking. Pretty fancy system, pretty weird way to buy a plane ticket.

But the highlight of my few days visiting Kathleen in Lima was when she asked if I’d be willing to talk about microbial evolution in the earth science course she was teaching at the university. Would I be willing? To talk to a captive audience about, like, my very favorite thing? Ummmm, let me think for half a second… We laughed at each other one night when, although we had planned to “go out” and “have fun” that night, we instead stayed in and ate bland spaghetti while feverishly working on our talks for the morning, the funny part being that we wanted to be doing that, that that was more fun for us than “going out”, because SCIENCE! We nerd partied until the wee hours of morning.

I hadn’t gotten to talk about microbes in what felt like a really long time (almost a year), my thesis having morphed to be about stromatolites = rocks, and my South America Talk Tour being all about stromatolites. But although as my friend Vicky says it’s a terrible abusive relationship, my heart belongs to the microbes. Prepping my talk was an excellent excuse to read back through way too many fascinating papers about photosynthesis and microbial evolution, and it was wonderful.

Teaching microbial evolution in Kathleen's Earth Science class

Class the next morning was fun (for me at least, not sure about the students), we ate lunch, hung out and worked in her temporary office at the university, went out for a final beer, and the next morning after a stroll down the coast we were driven to the airport together. And the driver got in a car accident right under the exit sign for the airport. Luckily we were able to get another taxi from there, but it was one of those moments. We had lunch together at the airport before saying goodbye, Kathleen flying back to her shiny new job in Chicago, me off to Cusco.

Sign on the way to the airport. Kraps crackers! Can't stop eating Krap! Oh, and watch out, prematurely balding kid, there's a pedophilic cephalopod right behind you.

Our taxi got in a car accident right under the sign for the airport. Nice.

Kathleen, thanks for letting me visit, it was great to see you!

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