Bernardo and I arrived Sunday night and were met by Scott Muller, who works for the Clinton Foundation here. They’re involved in projects that combat global warming. Part of that effort involves advocating for more efficient and sustainable transportation (that’s where I come in) and for use alternative energy sources (geothermal and methane from landfills are 2 possibilities there).
We checked into the hotel in Miraflores, the upscale district overlooking the beach and then we headed out to a local restaurant on some folding Dahon bikes we were leant. Chilean wine and local ceviche—one almost can’t go wrong food-wise in Lima.
One major strand of Scott’s lunch conversation was that Lima is in a real pickle. A former president allowed the importation of a lot of cheap used cars and combis to be used as taxis and buses to combat unemployment -also a kind of populist vote-garnering move—they now have one of the largest per capita taxi fleets in the world! All of these vehicles ran on diesel—really low-grade diesel. The emissions from these vehicles with their super low-grade fuel are 100 times higher than anywhere else. That combined with a few other factors—the extent of the sprawl here, the lack of transportation alternatives (like bikes), and more BRT bus lanes or rail—has resulted in a huge amount of particulate pollution. The pollution rose up, blew east and landed on the glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. One glacier in particular melted super fast as a result—it is now nearly gone due to rapid melting, and that particular glacier was the principal source of Lima's water supply. It took 200,000 years for the glacier to form— a generation to lose. They're now looking at plans to recycle wastewater for irrigation. I'll drink to that.
These places are being forced to take climate change and energy and water issues really seriously, if they don't they are totally fucked—if they aren’t already.
Peru also semi-privatized their water—under Fujimori or his successor, I'm not sure. This didn't raise any flags among the public here, until a Chilean consortium tried to buy the privatized part. Only then did the Lima folks suddenly realize their lives would be at the mercy of a gaggle of Chilean investors whose primary interest would be to see a profit on their investment. 1.5 million residents of Lima don’t have access to piped water.
In reference to the incredibly rapid melting glaciers in this area of the Andes, I was sent a paper detailing the issue. It's from some heavy-duty glaciologist, Lonnie Thompson, in Ohio. Having this stuff made concrete in a place like this makes your skin go all funny.
That, and some other similarly tragic stories, and one can see that places like this—rapidly expanding or already expanded urban regions in countries without deep pockets—are going to get hit by these environmental changes really hard and fast. It's going to happen way sooner than most of us think, and it's going to be more tragic than we can imagine. Lima is home to 8.5 million people. Can you imagine if a city that size that you know—Tokyo, NYC, Mexico City—were suddenly faced with having no water? The Peruvians have therefore been forced to initiate a lot of fairly innovative programs—more on that later. Many of the places on this tour don’t have the financial resources that the U.S., for example, used to have (the U.S., as we know, doesn’t have those resources either, not any more). In New York, we used to build massive and very expensive highway systems, tunnels, underground trains and Tunnel No. 3 to bring water from upstate. Europe and China are spending, or have spent, the cash to upgrade their rail and other systems, but I suspect the U.S. doesn’t yet have the political will to do that. War spending has taken precedence.
Anyway, many of these countries, not having funds to draw on, are forced to find cheaper alternatives, and to be somewhat more innovative and imaginative. Here is their relatively new BRT system-the Metropolitano, the high-speed bus line that goes from Miraflores and other districts into the center city—very quickly. We took it once—it’s fast and it runs on time. As in other cities, it eats up two lanes of an existing highway and the median strip, but runs as fast and efficiently as a train or subway—and is many, many times cheaper to install. The Metropolitano runs on 100% domestic source CNG (natural gas).
OK, one more bit from Scott’s lunchtime download—due to this same rampant use of low-grade diesel, the asthma and lung disease rate here is astronomical. As pointed out by the Mayor, three kids die daily from air pollution or some horrible figure like that. The fog + pollution combo is atrocious, and the new president, Ollanta Humala, is the first one to stand up to the various lobbies and say, “Look, this is happening—we need to respond to it and not just accept it as the price of rapid expansion.”
The car that Scott used to pick us up from the airport runs on compressed gas. They're trying to get a methane extraction system working here, as the piles of garbage on the outskirts of town generate tons of it. At a later dinner we met Matt Evans, a garbage expert from HDR Engineering in Minnesota. He stuck a tube into the landfill and lit it with a lighter and it burned. Needless to say, that same methane is currently leaking into the atmosphere, so tapping it is a great option. Not every landfill is a good candidate for methane extraction—some are too dry (no fermentation/breakdown) and some too wet (in danger of suddenly slipping and shifting), but the climate here seems to be suitable. It doesn’t pour rain very much in Lima, but the sky is light gray and overcast for many months of the year (a look that is referred to as “donkey’s belly”), and there is sufficient dampness to keep the breakdown of waste going.
Scott was an Olympic kayak guy, and later on he used to lead kayak tours in northern Greenland (!) for enthusiastic adventurers. Apparently there are Nazi weather stations up there that are completely intact.
The next day we agreed to go surfing—or have lessons, more accurately. The beach is right next to Miraflores. It’s below a crumbly cliff that runs along the coast—exactly as in Santa Monica.
There is a nice park and bike path that runs along the top of the cliffs, which is not of much use as a mode of transportation, but it is safe and scenic. We rode along it for a few miles to a lunch spot after surfing. There’s the beginning of a similar park n’ path down below, along the beach, but much of that awaits development. As with Santa Monica, much of that area was given over to a narrow highway that runs along the water.
It gets choked with traffic a few times a day, so occasionally there are murmurs about the road being widened. This, of course, would not solve anything, as it would cost a fortune and usurp public land from the beachfront. The few existing developed areas are hugely popular—people hang out, bring picnics and up above there’s a lovers park, too. In a country like this one where a minority own cars, usurping public spaces for cars is in effect privileging a minority of the population over all the others. It’s stealing from the lower larger portion to allocate the smaller wealthier group of car owners.
As we drove along a road coming in from the airport, Scott pointed out the streetlights, saying there’s a huge opportunity to switch out the sodium for LED lights. Then, further on, spying a clump of LED traffic lights, highlighted that they use 90% less energy than incandescent, and won’t burn out for +10 yrs. Here’s a quote from the C40 (a group of large cities committed to addressing climate change) website:
If all 220 million street lights around the world were retrofitted to more energy efficient technologies, we could reduce their energy consumption by 50 percent; cut carbon emissions by more than 40 million metric tons each year; and save approximately $8 billion dollars annually in energy costs.
The surfing was fun! It’s winter down here, so I’m happy to report that the wet suits worked. The “beach” is stony, so getting to the water was painful without booties. Surfing uses a whole different set of muscles and breathing than jogging, so after about 1/2 hour I was totally winded. This time, I managed to get one leg all the way up and the other part way—caught a couple of long rides, so I did a little better than my first attempt in Oz when a group of us went surfing on the last tour.
On the way back to our hotel (we biked to the beach), it was pointed out how far the water receded after the Santiago earthquake—about 1/2 kilometer, I think—and it stayed out for about 20 minutes. The expected tsunami never arrived (there are tsunami evacuation routes posted here). The crazy locals rushed out, scampering over the rocks to gather the fish that had been left flopping on the seabed.
Later, we got onto the ingredients in Inca Cola (which is foul, bright yellow, and tastes like bubblegum), and then ayahuasca and other hallucinogens found here. I was told that that one, at least, is bound to the culture—the preparation is elaborate and requires combining two substances derived from roots and vines—so it unlikely it was travel or be easily exported (though it will probably be synthesized). The name means “spirit vine” or “vine of the souls.” (I like that second translation better—it’s way creepier.) Speaking of synthesized, there was talk of other drugs that are sold as incense (K-2, it is called) in the U.S. and it’s catching on with teenagers in the meth belt. You can buy it legally. There’s also another substance being imbibed in the U.S. sold as “bath salts,” though the users and sellers know it’s not for getting yourself clean.
Bernardo and I rode off along the malecon on Tuesday morning, as I was scheduled to do a TV interview overlooking the water. The new mayor, Susana Villaran, dropped out of doing the intro at our presentation—which is a shame, as she's great and has initiated a lot of good projects, but my guess is she had to make an appearance at some football-related event, as the whole country was waving flags with Peru in the Copa America semi-finals. Even if they don't win, they'll be thrilled they made it this far. The “big” Latin American teams have all been knocked out—Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela— and Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay are left standing. It’s rumored that the superstar players on the other teams have forgotten it’s a team sport.
We rode back along the malecon to an early lunch at restaurant named Sonia—a little family owned place (Sonia is sitting a table near the entrance).
It’s in Chorillos—a less upscale neighborhood than Miraflores (which is nice, but Miraflores does feature mysterious casinos that we all think are mainly for money laundering) or more bohemian Barranco.
A street in Barranco, almost a Peruvian Greenwich village:
The place is all about seafood, of course. It seems the big chef in town—Gaston, who has several restaurants in Lima, two in Bogota and one in San Francisco (hint)—also has a cooking show here, in which he visits small family-run restaurants all over the country, highlighting unique dishes that each one features. Naturally, these places immediately become hugely popular. We had an early lunch so hardly anyone was there at first, though some North Americans arrived, so this place must be in the guidebooks or food blogs or something. Nothing spectacular, but really nice and totally unpretentious—they let us bring our bikes into the restaurant, and I don't mean into a back room—into the restaurant proper.
The meal was (as was typical with most meals in Lima), some assorted ceviches and then some cooked fish and shellfish.
Here is how the coffee is served.
You get a cup of hot water, and of course you immediately think "Uh-oh, here comes Nescafe," but, then comes this from the Peruvian science lab—super duper strong brewed coffee. You just pour a little in your hot water, and you've got a cup as strong or weak as you want it to be. It tasted great. Milk was not offered.
Sonia was not as good as the place the singer Susana Baca and her husband, Ricardo Perriera, took us to on Tuesday night. It’s called Rafael. It was described as "fusion," though what that meant no one could say, but you could sense Japanese influences (Fujimori, right?) with the local fish, ceviches and seasonings. Really amazing food, one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Apparently Rafael is a protégé of the well known chef mentioned above—Gaston, who put Peruvian cuisine on the world map not too long ago. Roberto, a local graphic designer who is also involved with all this transport stuff, said his kid, and many of the others his age, have two ambitions—to be a skater or a chef. Those are the only cool options here.
After dinner we stopped by Susana and Ricardo’s house and had a discussion that began with mention of the current generation of youthful protesters in Chile—kids whose parents were either too timid or too beaten down to rise up publicly. It’s a special moment. Ricardo asked me, “What happened in the U.S.?” He was referring to post 9/11, the Afghan and Iraq invasions and now the financial meltdown.
Wow, I thought—was that the last time I saw them? Susana was in New York, at a studio in what is now the meatpacking district recording a record, when the planes hit. I lived nearby, and after sorting out some family matters, I biked over (there were no cabs downtown) to see if they were all right. Did they want to go home and recommence recording at a later date? No, was the answer. “We’ve lived with Shining Path for decades. This is not enough to stop us.” They finished a beautiful record that week. I rode home and saw people sitting in a sidewalk café—oblivious to the cloud of asbestos and human remains that I could see drifting their way across a lovely blue sky.
I told Ricardo that since then there is a lot of wonderful work being done musically, though much of it isn’t massively popular. There is a lot of art being made too, though much of that world has to be taken with a grain of salt, as there is a lot of money and posturing there. I said that a generation of talented and creative graduates got seduced by the quick power and riches of the financial sector. A smart kid could make a fortune overnight and not have to really make or create anything. It was a waste of a generations’ talent, I told him. But there is still great stuff being made, sung, written, danced and created.
A few days after leaving Peru, I got an email from Scott notifying me that Susana was just named minister of culture for Peru.