From LarcoMar to Avenida Venezuela.
Over the past three weeks, I've heard a number of North American Jesuits who've spent substantial time in Peru comment on how living here has changed the way they look at life in the United States. Though I've only been here a short time, I've sensed subtle changes in my own perceptions as well. Though the differences between life here and at home are more immediately striking, the unexpected similarities are significant as well. In some ways - too few, I'm sure - I feel that being here has given me a little better sense of the problems that Peru and the United States share as well as the unique dilemmas that countries like Peru face in an increasingly interconnected world.
This weekend, I made a couple trips in the company of other novices to Miraflores, a posh Lima district about half an hour away by bus from scruffy but decidedly middle-class Breña, the area where we live. A couple of the novices have dubbed Miraflores "the Birmingham of Lima," noting that the Peruvian municipality and the Detroit suburb offer a similar combination of well-tended parks, walkable streets and high-end retail. Of course, the differences between Miraflores and Birmingham are very many - one of the most striking being that Miraflores is perched on a series of bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean (which is a lovely sight to behold in spite of the winter fog). Built into one of these bluffs is LarcoMar, an outdoor mall which is billed as "the best center of tourism and entertainment in Peru," which I suppose is true if your idea of tourism is ordering American fast food in Spanish and if your idea of entertainment is watching Cuando un Extraño Llama at a multiplex. I don't mean to sound harsh in my judgment of LarcoMar, as I've enjoyed my two visits to the place. The presence of American icons like Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut and Starbucks and the architectural feel of a suburban shopping mall make LarcoMar a soothing remedy to the feelings of culture shock and homesickness that gringos in Lima sometimes face.
Though comforting in certain respects, going to LarcoMar can also be somewhat disorienting for an American Jesuit who has had the opportunity to get used to the rhythms of life in a place like Breña. After dinner on weeknights, I often join a group of my fellow novices for a walk down the Avenida de la Republica de Venezuela, a busy commercial street right around the corner from the juniorate. Avenida Venezuela is lined with small stores selling everything from staple food items to paper products to pets. In addition, sidewalk vendors offer a plethora of goods that range from bootleg DVDs to fried chicken to underwear - there's even a man with an old bathroom scale on which passersby can weigh themselves for a small fee. In terms of atmosphere, shopping on Venezuela seems to be almost as far from LarcoMar as one can get while remaining within the realm of commerce. There are things one can buy at LarcoMar that one cannot buy on Venezuela and vice versa. In a nearly absolute sense, the goods for sale on Venezuela are a lot cheaper than those found at LarcoMar (to offer but one example, a single-scoop ice cream cone costs fifty centimos on Venezuela and four soles at LarcoMar, the former being about seventeen cents in U.S. currency and the latter being roughly $1.33). Though the low prices on Venezuela are a bargain by American standards, they can still be a pinch in the pocket for Limeños, even putatively middle-class ones.
Experiencing both LarcoMar and Avenida Venezuela in the same day leaves me with a profound sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, I wish that the poor who make up a majority of Lima's population had greater access to the goods and services available to a select few in enclaves like Miraflores. I wish the same were true in metropolitan Detroit, which has more in common with Lima in terms of economic and social inequality than many Michiganders would probably care to admit. At the same time, contrasting my experiences at LarcoMar and on Venezuela also makes me pause to wonder about the negative consequences that greater access to the riches of American commerce and culture could have for people in places like Breña. I fear that a stronger national focus on global economic integration and development of the kind that might improve the material well-being of many Peruvians could come at the loss of particularly distinctive cultural and national identities. Do economic gains outweigh cultural losses? This is a question I often ask myself, a question I've yet to answer. If you think you have an answer, feel free to share it in the comment box. As far as I know, your guess is as good as mine. AMDG.