Lima is an undulating surface, a breathing organism composed of a thousand tiny parts. On a map, the size of Lima is dwarfed by the enormity of the country, of the continent itself, kind of like an ant hill in the scope of a desert (in fact, Lima is in the middle of a desert—it is the second largest desert city in the world, behind Cairo). Bend down and close one eye, however, scrunch up your nose as you take a closer look, and the city focuses into a vast, teeming world of bodies. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around, when I stop to try. That driving down the Pan-American Highway along the jagged, cloudy coast from one end of the Lima province to the other would take the greater part of two hours, no traffic. That in the States, you can get to whole new cities within the same amount of time; in Europe, whole new countries. That the largest district alone is home to one million inhabitants, five times the size of my own beloved metropolis.
The city feels like a contradiction, much of the time. It is vast here, and crowded, a fact that inevitably ushers in predictable side effects, but Lima somehow remains impervious to overarching stereotypes. The walk to work in the morning is a cacophony of brain-jarring honking, the language drivers use to communicate their impatience, their friendly greetings, their malevolent greetings, their boredom. But I can stroll through a maze of streets in various neighborhoods and not see a soul, lights quiet in every building. Where is everyone? I think. Where are 9 million people, if not here? There is an atmosphere of dirtiness that hovers over just about everything, and yet the sidewalks and parks of my district are very consciously immaculate: flowers bloom in unnecessary, though appreciated diamond shapes in the middle of highway islands; grass is trim and perfectly angular around every edge of landscape; city workers take their time painstakingly scrubbing out trash cans and raking fallen twigs. The water here is a terrifying, living fiend, a silent powerhouse roiling with enough force to immobilize grown men, but the fruits of this country are bright and huge, bursting with color and juice and flavor, unhampered by GMOs. I’ve seen slums pushing up the sides of distant hills, so poor that even public education is out of reach, and I’ve seen five story malls made of glass or built into cliffsides overlooking coastal vistas.
Lima confuses me with its absence of smokers and beggars. It surprises me with the sudden appearance of construction sites in the middle of a now-gaping sidewalk (construction that often continues well under a midnight moon). It frustrates me with its magic act inventory—my favorite grocery store items stocked for a few days and then suddenly gone for weeks at a time, only to show up on the shelves later, unabashed. I will become a quick-handed hoarder, stashing absurd amounts of lemons and soy milk.
I think what catches me the most is the general apathy of Limans. I do admire how laid-back they are about everything; when they honk at impossible traffic, they don’t honk with anger, it is the simple and calm stating of a fact: I am here, I am not slowing down, I would really rather you didn’t cut me off but it is expected and I will remain unsurprised, unfazed. They ride on overflowing buses decades old, or perhaps they walk; they show up each day at jobs they like or they hate. They go out to eat and lounge in parks and swarm the beach. They live and die in Lima. But it doesn’t strike me as a positive kind of relaxed, a hippy or surfer or rasta go-with-the-flow. It feels more like a grim acceptance, a lazy contentment, a firm stoicism. I am perfectly willing to concede that I haven’t, after all, hung out intimately with very many Peruvians. But so strikes me the heartbeat of Lima.
Language is, unsurprisingly, where it’s at for me. The corner of my paper brain has been dipped into a pool of new language and I am predictably and serenely gathering it into my fibers. I could sit in that stifling box of a room at the Spanish house and turn out little kid exercises complete with cartoons and dialogue bubbles for hours. I pepper my short, middle-aged, and excitable Peruvian tutor with questions, and, happy to oblige, he jumps up from his chair and scribbles vocabulary and pronunciations on the white board, giggling and apologizing all the while for his corny jokes. Then we sit and drink anise or coca tea, and sometimes he’ll ask us about our lives or philosophies, slowly and in Spanish. I know that in part, he’s encouraging us to use the few words we’ve stockpiled, but I can also tell he likes us and simply wants to know. His tone is professional and casual, but I never miss the curiosity that tilts his chin, the inquiry brightening his eyes, the high peak of the question mark at the end of his sentence.
I like when he gets shy about using what little English he knows; his voice gets softer and quiet. He’ll turn turn to us, lean in close and almost whisper the elusive word with his eyebrows hunched in uncertainty. My favorite is when he asks us to repeat difficult pronunciations like follow and humor and scrutinizes our lips. He claps and rejoices if he understands or learns something new, and shakes his head at confusing things like homophones (piece and peace). I’ve come to realize that if I had students like him, or a class like ours, I would find incredible satisfaction from teaching English. I love this damn language to a delirious depth. Or any language, for that matter.
I wish that I could report that I liked my job, my raison d’être ici, if you will. As I sit on a blanket in the grass and eat my lunch every day next to my roommates who preen and nap in the sun, I think about how disappointing it is that the reason I chose to go down this road is the very worst part of the trek. It is simply a matter of switching perspectives, I suppose, but it doesn’t make the fact that this is necessary any less regrettable. One month in, and this gig has perhaps sunk the final nail into my 9 – 5 (or rather, 8 – 6) coffin. It’s not the worst thing in the world; my optimism and practicality reign supreme in the darkest of hours, regardless, and there are many things about my life here that I deem satisfactory, if not wholly awesome. I am, after all, in South America. I still like to zoom out on the map in my brain and watch my little black dot, my minuscule silhouette poking around south of the Equator.
And then of course, there is Spanish, and there are my friends. Language and people, the two largest motivating factors behind my existence, my real raisons d’être. Communication and sharing, you could call them. Empathy and generosity. Understanding and love. I like to don rose-colored glasses against the harsh glare of disillusionment, especially when it blazes fifty long hours each week, to hold out in the hope that I don’t fully understand all the reasons why I’m here, but I will, sometime.