Went Outside 2: Peroutside

These puns will only get worse as the country names become less forgiving

Going Colombia to Peru you notice a lot of things. First off, and inevitably for an Englishman, is the weather. Bogota’s weather is really variably, but from Medellin north the weather in Colombia is just gorgeous. From temperate and warm in Medellin to the pleasantly roasting humidity of the Caribbean coast. Lima is different. Its much cooler and it is smoggy. Writing this from Bolivia I can see that the proliferation of private cars in Lima is a sign of its relative wealth, but its covered a city near the equator in a thick smog which leaves the city permanently washed out.

I also noticed many more Japanese car makes. Both Peru and Colombia share a Pacific coast, but Colombia clearly imports more US car brands. I checked. About 40% of Peru’s cars are imported from South Korea and Japan. 45% of Colombian car imports come from Mexico (producing US brands) and the US. Peru has long attracted Asian migrants in a way Colombia hasn’t, and hasn’t been so closely linked into the US economy. I’ve heard lots about trade gravity models in the wake of Brexit and how they predict the dominance of EU-UK trade over all others. Now, looking at Peru and Colombia I know its more complicated, geography is important, but lots else matters too, like migration and specialisation. I just hope that over the last 10 years the UK has been encouraging migrants from China, India, developing Asia and North America. Hopefully government policy hasn’t aimed at creating a hostile environment for these people. We should be fine.

Overall, Lima is not a very nice place. Barranco is pleasant but a lot of Lima is badly developed developing world city. Even the more wealthy parts of it are badly developed developing world gated communities. The sea front especially is depressing. There’s an expressway which cuts off the city from the sea front. Cliffs also cut off a lot of the seafront from the city, but its classic car-centric urban design to cut off a swathe of city dwellers from the coast. The result is a congested city with disgusting air and let’s just say I’m not a fan. The food is good, which you’d expect when nobody wants to go outside.

I’ve written about health and safety culture before. I don’t think its a result of getting rich, or causes people to get rich, but I do think its correlated with things that cause richness in societies, like planning, conscientiousness, being rule bound. So I’ve developed a metric. When you get into the back of a taxi, check to see if the seatbelt plug is trapped under the seat or not. Its a negligible extra effort to leave them accessible when putting the seat down but you’ll notice in rich countries you can use them, in poor ones they’re hidden. I need a time series for this, so please start taking notes.

Peru is diverse place without having lots of immigrants. It is also a diverse place in terms of its history, geography and cuisine. This is a very different experience of diversity to that in the UK. Prior to the Windrush generation the UK was very homogenous. There are lots of historians doing good work showing that non-whites and non-Britons are not alien to the UK as a nation, with some outsized contribution, but to the average Brit life was very homogenous. Whereas Peru has been a diverse nation for hundreds of years. There is still conflict, but the lines are less straightforward than white vs black vs ingidenous. One person described the rupture as Latin versus Andean, the Latins were fiery, quick, could dance, the Andeans were slower, considered and very much could not dance. This person also told me that Afro-Peruvians ate cats, so your mileage may vary on this schemea.

I’m also not seeking to mitigate the poverty of lots of indigenous people in Peru, similar to Colombia, whites have come out on top of the colonial millieu materially, and prejudice comes from that (and have caused that). But the other divisions in Peruvian society overlay this in interesting ways for a country with little recent mass migration.

It also helps that the geography is so diverse. In the north and east of the country, literally the Amazon rainforest. In the west central and south, deserty, almost as deserty as desert gets (that’s the Atacama in neighbouring Chile). In the centre, the Andes, which is variously impassable crag, verdant valley, steep hill, terraced terraformed farmland and everything in between. The Americas is all just a bit much. Peru packs essentially all your important climates into the same area in which Scandinavia merely manages sustained drizzle and the occasional moose.

Another difference which struct me was the fundamental continuity of British history versus the disruption in Peru. Pachacuti’s conquest of the Andes roughly overlaps with the English War of the Roses. The War of the Roses was a squabble on a small wool producing island in the North Atlantic, while Pachacuti conquered a vast territory on one of the world’s most interesting geographical regions. However, by the time Henry VIII was marrying Anne Boleyn aliens arrived on alien creatures covered in alien material using alien weapons with an alien religion and 90% of people died of alien diseases. It’s just unimaginable. I suppose the industrial revolution was similarly disruptive in the UK, but that wasn’t orchestrated by just 168 people.

Proofreading is also just not a thing in Peru. I don’t think its good in the UK, but I am amazed at how many glossy signs are produced for tour agencies with really basic spelling mistakes to later be corrected in pen.

I’ve also never appreciated the role elevation plays in shaping life. The Andes are a really amazing landscape, and they’re so massive. I’d always imagined some nice foothills flanking a long, large mountain range, but that doesn’t do the landscape justice. It is just astonishing in its scale and size and diversity. That word again. The Andes aren’t just a mountain range, they’re a force shaping civilisation. The people, food, climate, plants, animals, history, everything is shaped by the mountains and broad valleys and raised plateaus of the region. Its a bit exhausting seeing how great everything is the whole bloody time.

It’s also physically exhausting. You really learn to respect a set of stairs when you’re above 3,000 metres. Or a shallow incline, come to that.

A third of the 30 million Peruvians live in Lima, which is a huge proportion, dwarfing even London. It is also noticeably the wealthiest part of Peru, even if I don’t particularly like it. From the 1920s onwards when Lima started to industrialise it drew in rural, poor, indigenous populations and the city swelled. This is a Good Thing, even if it is ugly and they should have put a proper metro in.

Other cities in Peru, like Cusco grew to a separate beat. Cusco was the Inca capital and was shaped like a Puma. It was the navel of the world of the Inca, sitting at the centre of the four provinces that made up their empire. It grew precipitously from the Inca conquest, shrank with the arrival of the Spanish, slowly grew as Peru regained population and then exploded afer the discovery of Machu Picchu and the renewed interest in Inca which followed. It is now one of South America’s best, most beautiful and interesting cities. And you can still see it’s original Puma shape.

It is built in a valley in the Andes and today it creeps up its surrounding hills, at night producing a beautiful halo of bright lights. 450 years ago it was surrounded by terraces cut into the Andes for farming, a sight which I think would probably have been even more impressive. The below photo is from Pisac which gives you an idea of what pre-Colombian America looked like in the Andes.

As you can imagine at some point I ended up talking about autonomous farm equipment with someone I met at a hostal. She worked for a dealership for Mahindra & Mahindra who are a big deal in plant equipment. She mostly worked with small framers and even in India, with small farmers they are experimenting with autonomous vehicles. I cannot think of anything, literally anything with lower wage costs than small scale India agriculture, even there they are adopting autonomous and semi-autonomous machinery. She was very keen on the idea of a universal basic income, and I left the conversation more in favour of one.

There’s a simple psychopath test. You’re on a night bus. You’re texting people at midnight, for some reason. Is your phone’s keyboard making noises?

While staying in hostal someone who worked there asked me for a British band I liked to listen to and I panicked and said Ocean Colour Scene. I fear they’ll never recover.

While I was in Cusco there was a protest against violence against children. Apparently five children had been disappeared and they wanted this to stop. Your child disappearing, rather than turning up dead, sounds terrible to me. Worse than a murder. Especially since the leading local explanation was they’d been kidnapped for organ harvesting. Absolutely no idea one way or the other on this, but violence in Andean communities is apparently growing and that is one of the theories for some of it.

I’ve also learned another language. Well, some of one. Spanish is a fun language, I like its grammar. Getting rid of pronouns and modifying verbs is a good way to communicate. However, its also a little odd. I’ve learned lots of words, my understanding is now okay, even if my spoken vocabulary is basic, and yet I don’t feel any different. I thought I’d feel different with another language sloshing around inside my head but I do not. People speak and I vaguely understand what they mean even if I can’t pick apart the sentence and words they used. Is this how I normally interact with people? Do I ever actually listen to a whole spoken phrase and dissect it or do I assimilate meaning in English too? I don’t know, I’m not a linguist, but I can see why some people are.

I have developed a mnemonic to help me remember my passport number, it runs: Hitler Blair Hitler.

I will end with a domestic anecdote I was reminded of by the fizzy drinks here. The big local drink is Inca Kola. This is somewhat funny in itself because the home of coca’s most popular drink uses the other, African, ingredient in the world’s most famous soft drink. Another micro-digression, did you know Coca Cola is the only firm with a license to import coca leaves from South America? The same stuff Escobar processed still goes into Coca Cola. There’s a plant in Bostan that decocaineises it. This is identical to the cocaineising process but with waste products reversed. Anyway. Inca Kola is owned by Coca Cola because Coca Cola is not going to miss out on a lucrative market when it can just buy into it, which it did in 1999. It reminds me of Wotsits. In the UK we eat Wotsits, not Cheetos. This is very odd. Go to the rest of the world and they eat Cheetos. After a fruitless 1990s battle when Cheetos sought to ouster Wotsits from the nation’s cheesey grip. PepsiCo bought the rights to Wotsits from Golden Wonder and sureptitiously completed their world domination.