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In Lima, a tale of two cities

Two girls operate a mobile kiosk on the side of a road. One of them is sitting on a plastic box next to a stack of bottled lemonade, shaded by a red Coca Cola parasol. The other one is walking along the curb with a small crate of plastic bottles to be sold to people passing by in cars.

This is supposed to be a story about human connection.

In a city of walls, gates and guard posts, the paths of the rich and the poor rarely intersect. It might happen when the children of two very different families race around the same playground. When a black limousine stops at a red light and a teenage street vendor hands a cold bottle of water to a middle-aged businessperson heading to what they think is an important meeting. Or when a student living off their parents’ money watches a penniless surfer conquer the waves.

The spaces that make these encounters possible—the street, the beach, the public library—are small in number and they seem to be shrinking, not just in Lima but around the world. On top of that, it appears that more and more often, people merely catch a glimpse of somebody else’s existence before they return to where they feel they belong, or from where they can’t escape.

After this depressing turn, the story is supposed to end with a series of pictures, a juxtaposition of lives that tend to pass each other without leaving a trace. Redemption is near. Humanity is possible.

So much for the outline. What’s missing is the fact that every story has a narrator, and in this case the narrator is sitting in an Uber, driving to the Museum of Contemporary Art for an exhibition about Peruvian punk culture.

What I see of this city, I see through the lense of a camera sticking out of the open window of a moving car. I see towers of glass perched on a sea of red bricks, as if someone wanted to build an exclusive second layer on top of long-established neighbourhoods. I see a huge highway that cuts right through the centre, as if something had torn this city apart to allow easy transit without actually having to pass through the crowded streets.

I also see my own place in this landscape, and I realize it’s much closer to the office buildings and the well-manicured lawns than it is to the humble unplastered family home. That huge highway, it was also built for someone like me. The more space I claim for myself, the more I take away from somebody else, and the two worlds move farther and farther away from each other.

I’m not the neutral, passive observer I’d like to be.

Once I’ve soaked up the Miraflores vistas, I start looking for a public wifi network to organise my ride back. It takes longer than I expected and in hindsight, I can’t say for sure if it is the signal coming from the luxury hotel or the shopping mall that finally works. It’s a long drive that takes me far away from the city centre, but when I get back to the busy, unpolished street where I’m staying, I feel right at home.

As far as redemption is concerned, my outlook has become a little less bright.

In what appears to be a family trip, a man rides a motorcycle with a two-wheeled cart attached to its front. There's a second person riding the motorbike and two children are sitting in the cart, drinking from plastic cups with red straws to refresh themselves on a sunny day. Two boys race along the pavement in front of a typical Chinese-Peruvian Chifa restaurant. The older one in his Crocs-style shoes is running from the younger one who is kneeling on a red plastic skateboard. Both are laughing heartily. A public servant wearing an orange reflective vest and carrying a clipboard with a blank sheet is walking past a red wall that features a large, clumsy graffiti roughly resembling a face. A young boy is riding his red scooter along the pavement in front of a shop that sells cleaning supplies. His shirt features two Minions from the Despicable Me movie franchise and a Spider Man mask is dangling from the handlebar of his scooter. What appear to be a mother and her young daughter work at a small roadside shop that sells magazines, balloons and beauty products. The girl is biting her lower lip and smiling as she seems to try and catch her mother's attention. A sulky expression crosses a man’s face as he leans against a wall, holding but almost dropping a red balloon. He is wearing a chequered shirt and a brimmed hat. The wall is covered in posters carrying various political messages. There are almost a dozen posters protesting the privatisation of Lima's water supply. A single poster, half torn off, objects to the alleged teaching of the 'gender ideology' in schools. A young man wearing fitted jeans, shiny leather shoes and a dark grey shirt walks along the pavement in an upscale neighbourhood of Lima. He is passing the tall wooden gate to a three-storey, colonial-style villa, painted all white and shaded by a number of trees in its extensive, enclosed garden. A young man leans into the open door of a bronze VW beetle parked close to the beach. There's a surfboard and wetsuit lying on the roof of the car, and a towel hanging from the door on the passenger side. About two dozen people have come to a rocky pier that stretches from the beach promenade into the sea. Some are sitting on the rocks, others are standing around in small groups as high waves crash onto the edge of the pier. A man and two girls make a stop on a pedestrian bridge overlooking the beach. Shielded from the sun by a pink parasol, they look at the calm ocean underneath a clear blue sky. A man selling D'Onofrio brand ice cream on the beach is standing next to his shining yellow bicycle with a cooler box attached to the front and a large parasol spanning the entire vehicle. As seen from above, a number of limousines are parked along a dirt road leading to a gravel beach. Framed by the yellow blossoms of a cliff side bush and a row of palm trees, a handful of people are staring into the distance as grey, foamy waves crash onto the grey beach.
Florian Lehmuth
31 March 2018

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