My first day in Lima, I woke up in a dustbowl. Far from the metropolitan district of Miraflores, Lima’s cultural hub most often seen by tourists, I’d found myself in the residential district of La Molina, in a third floor apartment halfway up a hill of crumbling shale. My driver Max, a Venezualan-Peruvian I’d met online, shook his head when I told him the address. This far out of town, he was just as helpless as I was.
Although many residents of Lima had extended countless offers of hospitality the moment Passion Passport announced I’d be receiving the fourth The Bucket List Initiative grant, it was one well-travelled Couchsurfing veteran and outspoken counterculture advocate that convinced me that accommodations were best. Jorge, an ex-airline employee who now runs a blog on gay culture, seemed like the ideal host, particularly for someone like myself who was looking to uncover a different side of the metropolis most travelers only see en route to Machu Picchu.
Lima, of course, is so much more than Miraflores. The thirty districts that hug the Pacific coast of South America make up the second largest city, after Cairo, to be built in a desert. But the district of Miraflores is to Lima what Machu Picchu is to Peru: a towering monolith whose shadow is inescapable. My friends who had spent time in the country previously were equally as confused as the locals when I told them that I wouldn’t be staying there.
“This country has a problem. It needs to diversify,” Max told me over lomo soltado – a Peruvian dish of fried beef, potatoes, tomatoes and onions. “There’s a reason all you hear about is about Cuzco and Machu Picchu. What about the North or the East?” Although he’d been born in Peru, Max had moved to Venezuela as a child to escape a rapidly crumbling currency. Twenty years later, he was very happy to be back in his country of origin.
“Things are definitely getting more modern,” Jorge asserted, “both in terms of opportunity an acceptance. Before there was not much of a gay community.” He said. “Now every weekend there is something to do.”
Variations of this conversation came up often. At first, Max’s comments about diversity seemed ironic given that the city is known for its multicultural origins. Moreover, the contrast he claimed was lacking appeared everywhere I went. The variety of features I saw in the street—European, Indigenous, Creole, and Asian—were so mixed, I was almost never assumed to be a tourist until a few words of mangled Spanish flopped sadly from my mouth.
That night, I met Pam, a Peruvian employee of the Qatari embassy, for drinks. Somewhere between my first Chilcano and my first Maracuya Sour, I decided to bring up Jorge and Max’s conflicting points on the modern Peruvian identity.
“We rely too much on Chinese and other foreign investment,” she said. “Things are changing here, but things will definitely get worse before they get better because we owe to much to other places.” She mentioned that she constantly battled with an old American contact over Peru’s status as a fully developed nation.
“What do you think?” Pam asked.
“I don’t know the technical definition of developed.” I waffled. “But based on my time in Lima, I’d definitely say that it is.” The amount of green space, free wi-fi zones, and public clean-up crews I’d seen while exploring the city’s many districts had already placed the metropolis among the most unique and hospitable urban centers I’d spent time in. “But with only three days of experience,” I said, “I need time to let this all sink in.”
The next day, I met three students in Barranco and asked them a variation on Pam’s question: Was Peru a fully developed country? And what did developed really mean in the grand scheme of the world?
“Well, I’m Floridian,” the stronger English speaker of the three answered. “But there’s not a lot for me there.” Ironically, he’d come back to Peru to seek those same opportunities his Grandmother had left the country in pursuit of years ago.
In his opinion, the main thing that separating Peru from the rest of the Americas was a rising middle-class. Perhaps the country was still developing, but the foundations for a healthy society had already been laid. Now, all that was needed was time.
“We have so many resources and so much promise. That makes us unique among the rest of the world.”