CS gas up the nose is unpleasant, especially over breakfast. But there we were in a hotel in down town Lima, crammed into its tiny cafeteria sipping tea, eating toast and smelling trouble. Yesterday we’d been caught in the crunching jaws of a riot: the people versus the army, which started just one block away from Peru’s presidential palace. Our only defence was our British passports and a big, fat streak of craziness. But being a few inches taller than the locals - and somewhat paler - we knew we were immune from the waves of banners and batons swirling through the streets that flattened anyone too slow to get out of the way.
Peru is a fabulous country: it has history, ruins, steaming jungles, barren deserts and topping them all, the Andes. To fly over these mountains and see the snow covered peaks marching off to the horizon is both breath taking and humbling: you realise how insignificant humans really are.
Back in Lima we were trying to get away from a fellow traveller who’d been haunting many gringos like ourselves for the last few months. Being caught with him in a riot and insisting on treating it like some sort of improvised street theatre was a cruel trick, but we were fed up with him and he deserved it. During the month or so since he’d arrived, he’d broken the unwritten traveller’s code of failing to take responsibility for himself.
He could only manage one word in Spanish, cerveza – beer! Even the simplest task, like ordering food, had to be done for him.
Peru is also a country of extreme poverty and wealth. At the top, the few live a life enviable even in the west. Almost everyone else is scraping by, scratching a living from the fields or begging by the roadside. It’s a common sight to see dirty, barefoot children of all ages cleaning windscreens at road junctions. Adults of all ages have worked up a number of scams that range from showing you a good place to eat – and then dining with you at your expense – to outright robbery. Some of these people you have to admire for their audacity, cunning and charm, while others are just plain, old fashioned criminals.
Instead of running away from the truncheons, fists, gas and screams, we ran through them taking our gringo with us. He wanted to go to the post office which is just off one of Lima’s two main squares, the Plaza de Armas, behind which stands the presidential palace. This was not the place to be right now, not that you could get near it with the police and army beating anyone stupid enough to get in their way. In the plaza it was strictly a uniforms and tanks day.
Charging through the melee we shouted to ourselves that we were British, after all our passports could stop bullets and made us almost invisible. That’s how it seemed to us anyway: we weren’t the ones being chased and battered in this keystone cops riot.
Seeing shop shutters rolling down we recognised safety and dived under one. As the metal crashed to the ground behind us we realised we were in a tiny hairdressers along with several other unexpected clients. Customers and staff turned and looked at us nervously. We smiled, then peered back through the metal to see our gringo running around in blind panic. As amusing as this was, we decided to rescue him.
Not that we were intent on being too nice. Having next to no cash we needed to get to the bank anyway and it was about to shut for the day. Gathering him up, we shouted above the noise as he freaked out at us. But by now the adrenalin was flowing like white water. We didn’t care what he was going through, we were going to make the most of his terror and push him as far as we could. He was already one foot over the edge.
Half a block on we found the bank was temporarily shut. It was amazing that, in amongst the screaming and the beatings, some people were still going about their business. It wasn’t that they weren’t scared, just that they had something to do and they weren’t going to let a full scale riot get in their way. We joined the locals outside the building and rushed its doors as soon as they creaked open. Our gringo, realising that this wasn’t the post office, started ranting about our trickery but we just joined a queue and waited. Once we had our money we promised to take him straight to the post office, knowing full well that life for him was only going to get worse by doing so.
Though we weren’t in favour of being robbed we happily went to cafes and restaurants with total strangers. We got a lot from it. We learnt how one boy, arriving in Lima without family or money, sang in cafes for food and change, or a clip round the ear. As a young adult he’d somehow learnt the basics of seven languages. His survival depended on being able to befriend travellers and he became an unofficial tour guide to Peru’s political and economic situation. He introduced us and many others to the country as experienced by the locals. Intelligent and resourceful, it was a pleasure to know him.
He took us to the shanty town built up on a hillside over-looking Lima. To go there alone would have been almost suicidal but with him we were safe. We walked past hundreds of homes, the better ones made of breeze blocks, with solid roofs and sporadic supplies of electricity and water.
Back on the streets we were struggling through a wall of people resolutely going in the opposite direction. I don’t know if they thought we were mad or just plain crazy but they didn’t try to stop us. Here, life is cheap and if someone else is getting a baton across the head or is being robbed then at least it’s not happening to you. So what if a few gringos get in the firing line, well, let them. It’s everyman for himself.
As we got nearer the plaza it became harder and harder to get through the crowd but eventually we made it to the corner of the square. Tanks and personnel carriers had staked it out and the thick line of action man troops made sure that no one got any further. We looked at our gringo and had other ideas.
The poorer homes in the shanty town were just an enclosed space made of anything that could be used as a wall or roof and likely to collapse during the frequent minor earthquakes that ripple through the city. Back home we wouldn’t have housed chickens in them but here, entire families occupied one or two tiny rooms. Still, it was better than sleeping out in the open, in doorways, by the side of the road, or the bus station toilets.
Across the square, lay the post office, our final frontier. It would take us a couple of minutes if we ran fast enough: was he ready? We could tell he thought we were suicidal. Taking this to be a yes, we started forward but were stopped almost immediately by the soldiers and ordered back. Their word, underlined by the rifles they held across their chests, was a clear warning that needed no translation. Turning around we realised that our gringo, crazy as he was, had seen sense and abandoned us: at last! Feeling the tiniest bit responsible for him we slipped back through the riot, past the camera crews filming bodies on stretchers and water cannon busily scattering everyone else, and made our way to the post office. But he wasn’t there. Standing outside the dusty old colonial building we wondered about his fate and if he’d taken anything away from this experience.
Frankly we didn’t care and sincerely hoped that was the last we’d ever see of him. It was.
Turning to more immediate problems, like food and drink, we surveyed the carnage around us and set off towards lunch. CS gas still hung in the air but the pace and density of the violence had dissipated. It’d been about 30 minutes since the riot started but it felt like only five. In some ways life was just about back to normal and, if you didn’t look too hard, it seemed more or less like any other day. But a few blocks to the south we could still see people fleeing a couple of prowling water cannons.
No matter how pretty a picture the tourist guides paint of Peru, on the ground there’s grinding poverty and military backing for the government of the day. Though the army are pretty effective in maintaining law and order in the capital they are also there to fight the Maoist guerrillas whose domain is the countryside. Caught between the two, powerless and penniless, are the poor. Their only choice is to flee the fields and head to the cities. Here they might find a job, there are plenty of servants in Lima living a full Dickensian lifestyle, or beg.
I saw children picking up rice that had been thrown at a wedding: after all, it is food isn’t it? The happy couple emerged from a church within site of the presidential palace, the rice was thrown, flashlights burst and family and friends smiled in their finery. As soon as they’d left, a hoard of grubby human rats, perhaps as old as seven or eight, though some obviously only four or five, ran in and hoovered it all up. Not much of a meal but at least they were smart enough to know it would be there.
In places like this there is no safety net; when you fall you don’t stop until you literally hit the ground. Poverty and hand to mouth living is everyday life for about half the population. The campesinos who somehow get themselves into Lima have only the clothes they sit and beg in. Their lives are dirty, empty and pretty hopeless.
Somewhere in all of this I saw myself and my life back in England. Divorced parents, children’s homes, long term unemployment: all stood in perspective as begging eyes caught mine and peered into my soul. Not giving was not an option.
And when I gave I received: in Zen Buddhism they say, “The giver should be thankful.” Now I understand why.
As we started crossing the road panic blossomed out of nowhere and we were running again looking for a place to hide. Almost immediately we saw a large café with it’s shutter rolling down over it’s blue-framed windows. We dived in. Customers, sitting at their customary places at the counter, glanced at us then turned back to their conversations: we were of no concern to them. The whole situation was gloriously surreal.
Outside chaos and fear ruled and time flashed by: inside it was unhurried and calm - a place for slow conversation between friends. We were safe and in the perfect hiding place. Sitting down to tea, coffee and cakes, normality resumed.