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Exploring the Shantytowns of Lima, Peru By MARTHA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 09, 2005

The people of Villa El Salvador and Maria must have been surprised to see a large charter bus negotiating their steep, narrow, winding streets. The shantytowns of Lima are not on the typical tourist itinerary. 

This June I spent two days, as part of a group, in Lima en route to the Andes and Machu Picchu. Two days in starkly different environments, each one representing one-half of Lima’s 10 million inhabitants. 

Central Lima resembles a wheel, at its hub Spanish influence with historic municipal buildings, churches and museums, the spokes sprawling ever outward in human and economic growth. Surrounded by Peruvians and tourists, the first day I toured handsome Plaza Mayor, Lima’s historic heart. Colonial architecture, brightly painted yellow as part of recent renovations—on one side the Catedral, another the Municipalidad, on the third the Palacio de Gobeirno—the three representing the influences of the church, the people and the government. Nearby, the Monasterio de San Francisco impressed me with its size and collection of art. Below ground, bones were sorted by type into wooden bins; these catacombs forming a solid base able to withstand the violent tremors of earthquakes. 

The Museum de Anthropology, Archeology and History in the suburb of Pueblo Libra artfully displayed the textiles, pottery and distinctive characteristics of Peru’s pre-Incan societies. At E. Copello the distillation of Guacamayo Pisco Puro was the main event; the process was explained and sampling was offered. 

One of thousands, I merged with the throngs, listening to the sounds of Spanish mingling with the horns and brakes of the endless procession of traffic. Serious young women in army green uniforms, the Policia Trafica, stood in its midst and patrolled the sidewalks.  

Lima bustles with few services: no rapid transit, no public buses, no city cabs. Privately owned cabs operate without a meter, minivans replace buses; one man drives, his assistant calls out destinations. 

Vendors take advantage of stalled traffic. They walk through lanes of cars hawking their wares. Twenty or more would offer anything from food, drink and toys to souvenirs. Others set up businesses along the streets. Anything broken can be rapidly repaired, as long as you supply the part. 

Banks, hotels, churches, museums and stores—all employ their own security guards, who take their jobs seriously, guarding entrances and patrolling the premises. Middle class neighborhoods protect their homes with ten-foot iron fences, two rows of pointed barbs adorning the tops. 

This area of Lima’s 43 districts represents almost five million people, 80 percent of whom are under 24 years old. Approximately 60 percent are employed in “steady” jobs, earning a monthly salary, health benefits and vacation. 

The remaining 40 percent are self-employed performing any job you can imagine: mechanic, plumber, brick-maker, moneychanger, vendor, and street cleaner. Their only pay is for the jobs they complete or the goods they sell. 

What of the other five million inhabitants, the most recent arrivals in this coastal desert? Since the latter part of the 20th century, a number of factors have created a mass migration of people to Lima. Villages destroyed by earthquakes, persecution by terrorists from groups like Shining Path, political unrest and extreme poverty; like a torrential flood they have swept people from their Andean villages onto unwanted, unoccupied desert lands, where they hope for a better life. 

For our second day in Lima, our Cusco guide Jose Correa asked if we’d like to see a different part of Lima. So we came to our navigation through districts of shantytowns resembling a biology lesson from the pages of Charles Darwin: evolution and survival of the fittest.  

From a collection of temporary dwellings, Villa El Salvador, at the top of the evolutionary tree, is today a middle class district. Using self-determination and Incan techniques of irrigation and organization, migrants claimed desert hills for their homes and their livelihoods. Hundreds of acres have been transformed into arable lands. As homes replace temporary shelters, they form blocks, then residential groups and finally sectors. Within sectors, schools are built, as education is a priority. Communal kitchens, health centers and sports grounds are established. Businesses are set up along the streets and evolve into industrial parks. A self-supporting community is born. 

In the business district, we visited a furniture shop and factory. Showrooms in the front displayed attractive, well-constructed beds and chests. Bright primary colors contrasted with the pale colored wood. Boards were sawn, sanded, assembled and painted in the factory at the back. Appearing under construction itself, no extra expense had gone to this area, which wouldn’t dream of seeking OSHA approval. Sections were open or covered with tarps, stairs were minimal and safety features non-existent, but the work provided steady employment and goods were produced. 

Still evolving, Maria is a mixture of both permanent and temporary homes. A group of women at a communal kitchen for one block invited us inside. They were preparing the daily meal consisting of three courses, soup, a stew with rice and salad. With donations of funds and surplus food, this meal cost one sol, equivalent to 30 cents, representing for many their only source of nutrition. Nearby they were establishing a church, a bare room with a simple altar, of which they were proud. 

In these hills tourists weren’t seen. Within our bus I felt over-privileged; the dollars in my pocket weighed like lead. Instead of enmity, we were treated with openness and respect. Residents and businesses were pleased that we showed an interest and were proud of what they had accomplished. I was moved and changed by what I saw, which is one purpose of travel. Later, throughout our travels in the breath-taking landscape of the Andeans, I would reflect back on what these migrants had left behind. 

While Plaza Mayor represents the historic heart of Lima, the homes of the shantytowns I saw represent its spirit. Migrants wait until they have secured the right to their plot of land. Once obtained, building begins. As money allows, rebar and bricks are bought. The walls go up one row at a time, with framework extending high above. The hopes of the Andean migrants, far from the highlands of Peru, are reflected by small piles of brick and rebar reaching toward the sky. Without government subsidies or aid, relying solely on themselves and their community, they survive and move toward a better life.