Friday, November 04, 2011

A slow day in Lima

I stop briefly in the mornings at the marketplace back behind the Congress building in downtown Lima, Peru where I go have breakfast before heading off to do whatever silly stuff occupies my day thereafter. It's a good way to start my day, having custard in a cup, often times two. I get a stool outside a little stall, inside of which are a couple of ladies serving through the window. I get a glass cup filled with custard, smooth and sweet and creamy, the yellow reminding me of the sun that has recently begun to appear in the sky here, the cream and the sweetness, the silky texture of the custard reminding me of home. There are a dozen shops all selling the same custards there, and yet this one shop is my favourite because the girl who hands me the custard is so beautiful. I'll say she's thirty because she might be twenty or she might be forty. I know for certain that she is beautiful, and that is because I can see her smile, right now, in my memory. She has a smile that reminds me of love.

[Market photo to come]

I'm not a love kind of guy, as a rule. Not a custard kind of guy. I like coffee. The best coffee I have found in the city so far, and no coffee would be better, only as good, which is about perfect, is at Cafe Victor, close to the market. Who'd know? This place doesn't inspire confidence from the outside, like so much of Lima's exteriours. But a cup of cafe american is as close to heaven as I am going to get. A cup of coffee...

I came down to earth during that final black coffee. Then I knew who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. Or trying to do. Caffeine restored my anxieties; I was my usual paranoiac self.*

This place isn't all wonderful coffee and beautiful women with heavenly smiles. It takes a bit of experience to come up with this idea, and not of it is based on smiling women.

I haven't had any problems here, and I don't expect I will have. My life here is good and easy, a matter of shopping for small things daily, like food and odds and ends I might need during the day. Most of my day is about walking around and speaking to strangers and noticing things different from me and places I have been where normal is not what it might be here. I have some time to sit and watch a lovely young woman take a bit of time to have her boots polished.

Sometimes I encounter things that I can't immediately identify.

I had no idea on first walking past Tottus that I was missing a store the size of Walmart. Among other things, Tottus is as supermarket, which I noticed from across the street, not as I walked past and looked into the front where all I saw were plastic tables and chairs with some office workers having lunch. It's a good find for me given that they sell mixed salads and vegetables for two, meaning I can have it twice. The custard girl does smile at me, and she makes my heart melt; but she smiles at everyone, and that is why I am so taken with her; and she's not coming to my place to split a salad. Tottus, unsmiling, stands imposing on the sidewalk an doesn't inspire much love, I think, till one goes inside and finds a supermarket at least as good as my current favourite, MiMetro, once again a store one can walk past without realising it's a food store.  I don't know this city or the country or the people well, but I assume that they are family oriented and withdrawn, leading even major retailers to hunch and turn quietly inward.  I'm sure something terrible has happened to these people, some massive horror that tops all others, and now they live in relative quiet and peace. I see almost everyone smiling, just a little, a hint of happiness. And sometimes, like the custard girl, a real joy in the smile.

I too find joy, though I am no part of Lima or Peru or South America or any place or anything at all. I find joy in a sewing machine at the front of a shop on a busy street.

And if you look closely in the background here at the owner standing back in the shadow you will see he too is smiling. (Or was until I took his picture.)

Peruvians smiling. That has nothing to do with dentistry, I can assure you. I came across, on Emancipacion Street, a block of store-fronts and meandering malls given over to dental supplies and workshops making dentures and plates and selling equipment and so on; and in one I found a girl working some minor detail in clay or plastic, and when she noticed me she smiled too, the light of heaven all around her, like the custard girl. One might guess that I like this city, if only because I like being around these people who can barely understand my Spanish, who have no reason to like me, who have no reason to smile at the sight of me. And yet, they smile at me and seem happy in themselves.  I sit and drink coffee and worry about this. Maybe I'm all wrong about this place and these people. They seem happy. How can such a thing be real?
*Lawrence Sanders, The Sixth Commandment.  1979.

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