Riding the collectivos of Lima - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 1, 2013

Riding the collectivos of Lima

Colourful Lima, our introduction to South America
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THREE FLIGHTS, three continents and a visit to the London Science Museum later*, we are in Lima. It´s the capital of Peru and it lives up to its status by having a crowded and chaotic airport. For the second time on the same journey, we have had our bike boxes checked. The Americans opened and then retaped them in New York, leaving us a polite note thanking us for our contribution to global safety. And then the Peruvians demanded we surrender them again at Lima before sending them on to Cusco.

The problem, and the reason the airport was more than usually chaotic, was that we weren´t leaving for Cusco until the following day. For elaborate reasons in Spanish, we couldn´t do as we had in New York and leave the boxes with the airline. LAN had no way to do that. It didn´t, we learned, have "big boxes" for people like us.

I'm not going to spend time over this because I doubt you are thrilled but the problem was that, although we had the bikes with us, the airline documents showed they were with them. Nobody actually had possession. Purgatory is that intermediate step between heaven and hell and airports are its modern form.

Well, we got to Lima with the bikes left in paid-for storage at the airport and then we had one of those delicious choices that befall all people who tour rather than travel. We could take a taxi into the centre of town. Or we could pile into a collectivo along with the huddled masses.

Well, the world over, one taxi is like another. Except maybe in India. You take a taxi and you may as well be in your own car, except that it's worse because you have a stranger with you. And if you wanted to drive or be driven everywhere, well, you wouldn´t have become a bike tourist in the first place, would you?

So we walked through streets of flat-topped buildings painted in bright pastels. Houses mixed with hairdressers, of which there were a great many, and with the kind of place that can replace a radiator or find a tyre or repair a refrigerator. Many of the buildings had not only metal railings over the windows and doors but an entire metal cage that protruded on to the pavement.

"It reminds you that Lima used to be one of the most dangerous cities in South America, doesn't it?", Steph mused.

There were two roads from the airport: the busy main highway, with its billboards for electronics companies, and a secondary road which was once the main route. The lesser road, like the first, was divided down the middle. But instead of billboards for a modern age there were small workshops and crowded one-man stores selling more than the walls could contain. Lined just before a set of traffic lights were two small, weary and heavily lettered buses. Nothing glamorous: just the sort of thing that road-menders, say, use to get from one patch of crumbling tar to the next. These were the collectivos.

Collectivos wait for business. These were rather better-kempt than ours.
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"¿Para el centro?

," I asked, demonstrating (if it ever needed demonstrating) that I don't speak Spanish. And, as a bonus, showing that I have found the ¿ key on this computer.

" Si," a youth of maybe 25 said, along with much else we didn´t understand, and we settled into backward-facing seats only idly fastened to the floor.

The other passengers were ordinary to the point of being ordinary. Except for a proud-looking mother and a boy of about 10 who looked as awkward as any other 10-year-old who has been dragged through the hairdresser´s, washed behind the ears (in case potatoes grow there) and put into a school uniform he´d hoped never to wear at weekends.

Soldiers stand guard at Lima's government building
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And less handsome guards stand in wait round the corner lest the religious celebrations turn to mayhem and bloodshed...
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I thought no more of it. Except that after we´d stepped into a square in which every building had been painted blue and every pavement was occupied by shoe-polishers, fruit-squashers and more, and every shop sold musical instruments, we saw more and more of these poor self-conscious kids being dragged metaphorically by the ear. And, as we walked through workaday streets towards the main square, we saw adults in blue robes with white brading.

"If they weren´t the wrong age, you´d think it was a university graduation," I said, showing my talent for spotting what something isn´t rather than what it is.

We turned right through western shops and restaurants and into the main square and found a throng, a mass, of such people outside the cathedral which occupied one of the square´s sides. They were in the road, waiting for something to happen, and many more were standing around them and on the cathedral steps in similar bored expectation. Music came from the cathedral but the crowd was too dense to see why. We retreated to the street to admire elaborate designs and even cartoons painted on the road in coloured wood chips.

We heard someone speak French and asked what was happening. We were pointed to a guide, a short woman with a clipboard. It was the feast day of Lima´s patron saint, she said, but she didn´t go on to explain what was about to happen.

Celebrating Lima's patron saint - in very slow motion...
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Small boy: not sure why he's there but his mum was proud of him, no doubt
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"It happens every year," she added, as though feast days usually didn't. So we waited. Maybe something would happen. And after half an hour it did. Blue-uniformed officials lifted ropes to separate the throng from the participants, A television camera swung on a boom like a happy swallow. And incense began to cloud at the cathedral door.

Several hundred people pushed that way, we among them, although we didn´t know why. And then, wobbling through the door, carried on shoulders, came a religious ark of striking elaborateness. It bore a white disc marked "2", as though it had won a competition. A black woman wailed a spiritual, young girls in white walked backwards with incense, older girls in blue lent their support, amd a band that would love to slap its feet in the Mississippi mud followed with what only a slight nudge would turn into a Dixieland romp.

Surrounded by incense smoke and waiting for the procession to start, she smiled at us until we took her picture - and then smiled even more
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Coloured woodchip covered the roads
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It looked wonderfully good fun, although the yawns from younger participants suggested the hanging about hadn´t passed unnoticed. We watched, we admired, and we marvelled at the funereal pace. Thinking we´d seen enough, we found a restaurant and had lunch. When we came back, the procession had reached the end of that street, turned left and walked to the end of the next. And now people were taking off their robes and thinking about going home.

It was all so wonderfully South American - and this was only the first day.

* All right, I know you´re going to ask: we had a morning flight from Toulouse to London and then a late flight to New York. We filled the vacant time educationally

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