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Documentary : Lima's Streets Are Both Mean and Vibrant : Sights, sounds, smells--a walk downtown, where well-to-do Peruvians seldom go, is an unforgettable assault on the senses. Just watch your wallet.

May 29, 1990|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — At the first stoplight, Lima engulfs you: Dozens of vendors sprint to the car, proffering plastic bags of drinkable water, toilet paper, electrical plugs and Band-Aids, sold one by one. Aromas from chicken grilling on the sidewalks and pungently sauteed raw fish compete with the hawkers' chants and honking horns for the attention of your nose and ears.

A stroll through downtown Lima is a riotous assault on the senses, and not least the eyes: a rainbow of faces, garments and wares that add up to pure capitalism run amok, but with its own zany order and a vibrance that often seems missing from the other, aristocratic Peru.

Many well-to-do Peruvians avoid the trip these days, and increasingly foreigners spend their time in the five-star suburban hotels, venturing into Lima only on tour buses. The reputation of the mean streets of Lima is sometimes justified. But if you leave your passport, wallet, watches, rings and necklaces behind, you can still breathe and feel late-20th-Century Peru.

The Via Expresa, a sunken four-mile-long highway that is one of Peru's few decent roads, is the concrete canal between the two lives that coexist in Lima.

The road carries you inland from the new American-style suburbs of Miraflores and San Isidro, with their shopping malls and walled-in modern houses, and dumps you into a throbbing square in front of the Sheraton Hotel, right into the convulsed heart of the Third World.

The City of Kings, conquistador Francisco Pizarro called it when he founded Lima in 1535. You have to scratch hard now to find remnants of that imperial heritage.

On both sides of the square, money-changers flashing pocket calculators trot alongside the cars, shouting the latest exchange rate and waving wads of dollars and the shrunken Peruvian currency, the inti. Some drivers stop; other customers, wary of being robbed, make their deals on the move.

Food stalls line the edge of the square, selling ceviche, the traditional dish of raw seafood steeped in lemon juice, and chicha, a rich purple beverage made from corn. Ice-cream sellers toot kazoo-style horns, Lima's ubiquitous, profane equivalent of the muezzins of the Muslim world.

Hundreds of people line up and wait stoically on street corners for either government buses or colectivos, the private buses that have largely supplanted the abject state transport system.

As the state has disintegrated in Peru in recent years, people have been left to their own ingenuity. The city, grown from just over 1 million in 1950 to more than 6 million today, is a testament to its people's capacity to survive.

Especially in and around the regal Plaza de Armas and the elegant Plaza San Martin, the city's two finest squares, the new Lima washes over you.

The smells are as powerful as the visual assault of the tumult. Chunks of broiled chicken and beef send up a barbecue aroma on some blocks, a welcome change from the garbage stench pervading many of Lima's poorer areas on the city's outskirts. The sounds, too: An ancient man and his wife, wearing Andean fedoras and ponchos, play melancholy mountain folk tunes on reed pipes. A hawker enchants with his sung praises for the medicinal qualities of a gooey resin from a cactus plant.

The descendants of the white colonial settlers have fled to the coast, abandoning downtown to the millions of brown-skinned highlanders who have spilled down from the villages of the Andes Mountains, victims of guerrilla war and decades of neglect. The fine old mansions are coated with soot from the traffic. Many now are crowded tenements, home to a dozen families.

But this new life is found not so much within Lima's still-handsome buildings as on its streets and sidewalks.

Since it never rains on this desert coast, the climate suits a streetside lifestyle. With a bureaucracy still rooted in Peru's Spanish past, the new Limenos have little chance anyway to move off the streets and into the mainstream economy.

So the main avenues have evolved into color-splashed bazaars of hawkers offering all of life's necessities, tax free, and many of its pleasures. The government occasionally tries to sweep the streets clean of vendors, but strength of numbers prevails. Nowhere else in Latin America has there emerged such a sophisticated parallel economy, with its own chaotic hierarchy.

On the bottom rung are those ambulantes , as the peddlers are called, who sell only what they can carry. One vendor, bedecked with dozens of leather handbags, resembles a movable Christmas tree. Others tote a few shirts or cans of shoe polish. They sidle away if the police get testy (or seek a "fee").

Higher up the ladder of ambulante well-being are those with bicycle carts, enormous flatbed contraptions that can convey an entire fruit stand or magazine rack to a chosen site, and later to an informal parking lot when the day is done.

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