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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Then there are the full-fledged stores-on-the-sidewalk that have taken over every major avenue in the traffic-choked, square-mile heart of the old city. Block after block, these table stands pack both edges of the sidewalks, leaving only a narrow path for jostling pedestrians and browsers.

The forced intimacy makes for ideal conditions for pickpockets in Lima. Packs of “piranhas,” groups of street children as young as 7 or 8, roam and set upon strollers in some sections.

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Like any sensible person venturing into downtown Lima, you will leave wallet, watch, passport and dollars in your hotel, carrying nothing you cannot afford to lose. Lima’s reputation has grown so bad that gringos rarely meander the streets any more. A pity. This walk lets you experience what Lima has become.

Jiron Lampa, one of the major avenues, reveals the sophistication of the vibrant “informal” world. This is the hardware district. You can buy all you need to build and outfit a house.

Stall owners offering seemingly identical stock sit idly on stools awaiting buyers. Electric plugs, wire, circuit breakers, copper tubing, locks, window frames, toilets and, yes, kitchen sinks.

In another section, whole streets are filled with stalls selling watches, with watchsmiths installing new batteries and making repairs on the sidewalk. Elsewhere the specialty is sneakers; further on, it’s used books.

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Near the government buildings, men sit behind ancient manual typewriters on impromptu desks, ready to type out a bureaucratically correct document for any formality. They are more than mere outdoor typists, since they know the intricacies of the moribund state and the demands of its clerks.

The merchants in the established shops along the streets ought to be furious at this invasion of vendors selling goods at far below the retail cost, paying no taxes or rent (beyond protection money to the informal organizations that maintain a modicum of order).

In fact, the street merchants often are hawking the same stuff as that being sold legally indoors across the sidewalk. Some merchants have consigned stock to the vendors for street sale in return for a cut, expanding their retail reach and avoiding taxes in the process.

The street life is one reason why Peru’s tax intake has plummeted from 20% or so of the gross domestic product a few years ago to about 4% now, further weakening the state. Of course, hyperinflation of 30% to 40% per month hasn’t helped either. The informal sector accounts for nearly half of all economic activity.

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The police do try to maintain some order, and when on foot patrol in the capital they travel at least in pairs and often in larger groups. One recent day, they had reconquered a portion of Jiron de la Union near the Plaza de Armas, site of the presidential palace and therefore a security concern. Armored water cannon vehicles stood poised at the edge of the square. Police wearing riot helmets and bulletproof vests barred all pedestrians from the square itself.

Peru’s guerrilla war may be largely in the mountains, but it sometimes feels very close to downtown Lima. A few dozen blocks away, halftrack vehicles stood guard outside a court where a suspected guerrilla chief was being tried. Army and police vans filled with men holding AK-47 assault rifles cruised the streets.

The ambulantes had re-established their foothold higher up the Jiron de la Union as police looked on. People had set out scales on the sidewalk (the street economy has progressed into services as well as goods) and were offering to weigh passers-by for 1,000 intis, now worth about 3 U.S. cents. Three policemen weighed themselves. They did not pay, but neither did they shoo the scalers away.

Some narrow, heavily trafficked streets have signs with a cross through the letter A, and the words No Ambulantes.

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The government once attempted to restore order by shifting all the ambulantes to a single open-air market a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, called Polvos Azules (Blue Dusts).

The block-square market is thriving, but the flood of newcomers has retaken the streets. The market’s suddenly respectable tenants, meanwhile, have hired security guards--to keep out newer ambulantes who try to wander into the alleys selling goods from their hands.

A fair portion of the street life serves others in the street business. Beach umbrellas are a big seller, for example--not for the beach but to provide shade for sidewalk stands from the midday sun.

A man sidles up: “You want nice slender young girl?” Getting bumped and jostled is also part of the experience; when it happens, check your pockets.

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The financial district is informal Lima at its most advanced. It is known as Ocona Street (Peruvians use the English “street” rather than calle for this one, since it’s their Wall Street).

Along a road where exchange houses once flourished indoors, money traders with shoulder bags packed with currency make sometimes huge transactions, no doubt laundering thousands of dollars of Peru’s coca dollars in the process. Some money dealers sit on stools under signs saying, “I Buy Damaged Dollars and European Currencies.” An estimated $5 million changes hands here daily.

Young men use walkie-talkies to stay in touch with the moguls who follow the volatile trends of the inti against the dollar. Guards hover around their masters, eyes scaling the crowds. This money market is not only for foreign exchange but for financing, since loans from banks are vanishing under the weight of inflation and impossible interest rates.

Ocona Street is closed to traffic, a pedestrian mall of money dealing.

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You can still escape, slipping into the splendid, faded Hotel Bolivar on the Plaza San Martin, cool and often darkened by Lima’s constant blackouts.

From the glassed-in terrace restaurant over a $10 fixed-price lunch, you can watch the swirl of Lima from a safe distance. But it’s not the same as becoming part of the chaos, even if just for a while.


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