So far my experiences in South America have been incredibly eye-opening. First off, I noticed that for a city with over 8 million people it is relatively safe and clean. Everywhere I go I am treated very well. It’s obvious that I am a gringo, blond hair and blue eyes, but no one has tried to take advantage of me or rip me off. (Like so many other places I have been) The capital city, Lima, is a bustling center full of taxis and buses who somehow manage to keep moving despite a lack of traffic control. The honking of horns is at times deafening and most of the vehicles show evidence of mishaps (dings and dents) but no one seems too preoccupied with fancy cars here. The houses are modest and the neighborhoods a mix of industrial and residential. I was surprised when I accompanied my host, Ines, to the lumberyard and hardware store. I expected a journey by taxi or bus, but instead, we walked around the corner and into a tiny shop jam packed with just about everything you could imagine. A woman behind the counter took our order and returned minutes later with the required merchandise. We went halfway around the block and through a doorway into the Capenteria (lumber yard) where there was a mixture of new and reclaimed wood products. These are small locally owned and operated businesses each staying within their own specialty unlike the giant conglomerations we have in Canada.
When we finished at the lumberyard my friend and I rounded a corner at the end of the block revealing a large open market. Kiosks lined the street selling a variety of items and offering a full banquet of food choices. When we approached a stall selling fresh chickens Ines greeted the vendor by name and specified how she wanted her order chopped. (one leg with the foot attached, toes removed) Admittedly I was slightly grossed out, but after hearing stories of supermarkets changing the best before dates on factory grown meats, that had been sitting for who knows how long… well, this seemed a lot fresher. Instead of shopping for an entire week or month worth of groceries, the Peruvians buy what they need, as they need it. Fresh! Sure you can stock up on staples but why have bread in your freezer when you can grab a loaf off the corner that has come straight out of the oven.
Somehow we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that shopping for everything under one roof is easier. But is it really? And how much food gets wasted because we have a surplus that rots in the fridge? Personally I think running around a giant store with row after row of goods I’m not interested in, isn’t entirely convenient. People buy what they need, when they need it and they don’t have to drive across town to find it. Best of all the money spent stays in the neighborhood. It doesn’t go to some shareholder whose primary interest is to squeeze more profit out each transaction. In one store we received a coin that the next vendor pointed out as counterfeit. Ines knew exactly where it came from. We returned to the hardware store, handed him the coin and he promptly replaced it with a genuine one. Too many roof shingles from the building supply? They were returned within minutes with no explanation or paperwork required.
I’m sure many would argue that this system is outdated and archaic, but for me it made sense. A trip to the seashore for fresh fish convinced me wholeheartedly. I watched in fascination as a sturdy (strong as an ox from the looks of him) barefooted man waded into the ocean to receive the days catch from each of the returning boats. He hoisted the seafood onto his shoulder and plowed ashore where teams waited to clean and process it. I’ve only seen fresher fish when I caught it myself. No waste of energy transporting it to another location to clean and gut… sorted and stacked for sale within meters of the tide line. When I handed my money to the vendor it went into their pocket not someone else. Restaurants lined the shore competing for our business by calling out their specialties. No need to wonder where they got their ingredients from, you could see them grab the fish right off the pile and put it onto the grill.
Since being here I have enjoyed each meal knowing there are no preservatives, additives or colorants. Sure, if you want a big Mac you can drive downtown but there isn’t one on every second corner like home. Variety is offered by the uniqueness of the business owner, not in how many brands of ketchup or salad dressing they carry. Everywhere I go I see things that are the same but that look different. Three stalls sit side by side selling fried chicken but each offering a slightly different rendition. It’s refreshing to be in a place where everything is unique; not cookie cutter uniformity. Perhaps that’s comforting to some, but I prefer an adventure and Lima has certainly dished that up.