Lima sprouts from the arid Atacama Desert, which, seen in the morning light, is a vast brown expanse tinted with pink. I look through the window of the plane as it slices through the thin layer of mist and touches down at Jorge Chávez International Airport. Lima is a modern metropolis with skyscrapers designed by internationally known architects like Hans Hollein and Arquitectonica. The city sprawls along new roadways lined with gigantic shopping malls, cineplexes, and Starbucks. But despite these developments, the peculiar mood of Lima persists: its unexpected rhythms, its air filled with the weight of humidity, the scent of its lush flowering trees, its extreme contrasts between affluence and poverty. Limeños adore their city, so I am not surprised when I hear an immigration officer tell the family of four ahead of me in line—an Americanized Peruvian couple taking their children to meet their country—"You are crazy! How can you have stayed away from this place for so long?"
When I was a young woman, I left Lima to study in the United States, and today I live in New York City. But Lima is in many ways still my home. Over the past 40 years, I've never failed to make an annual pilgrimage back to the city that influenced so much of my youth. I go to get warmth from those I love and left behind—these trips have become the essential glue of my life, connecting the cultural differences that make me a gringa and a Latina. A city of 1.2 million when I was a teenager and more than 8 million today, Lima is where I acquired a taste of what a real metropolis could be. My parents and I lived in Tacna, a much smaller coastal city to the south. We came to Lima to eat in the restaurants, visit friends, buy books, experience neon signs, and indulge our senses.
I have seen Lima through dictatorships, terrorism, blackouts, revolutions, and its many peaceful moments. The history of Peru has been a troubled one, beginning with the brutal destruction of the Inca culture by the conquistadores in the 16th century, continuing through the republican period up to the present. Various governments have left their mark on Peru in ways that showcase the stark contradictions of the country's political life. Its history is filled with presidents like Manuel Ignacio Prado, who disappeared from office with the nation's war chest, and Fernando Belaúnde Terry, whose plan to cut roads into the Amazon jungle turned into a pipe dream, abandoned for lack of funds. In recent years, Alberto Fujimori, the well-known Japanese-Peruvian president, is an example of the extremes of Peruvian politics. Democratically elected and popular with the working class, Fujimori succeeded in controlling terrorism and presided over years of economic stability, only to later fall into the infamous Latin American trap: he turned himself into a dictator by cracking down harshly on left-wing opposition groups and by changing the constitution to allow himself a third term. After fleeing to Japan in 2000 to avoid arrest on charges of corruption and human rights violations, Fujimori is making a bid to return to office. The current president, Alejandro Toledo, whose popularity rating has been as low as 8 percent, shows no sign of rallying the support needed for reforms. Elections are around the corner, and there are no strong candidates in sight.
As the largest city in Peru, Lima is the country's promised land, and a sense of unlimited potential drives the city, though population growth has stretched its ability to cope with the heartbreaking poverty of the majority of its people. Many newcomers have settled in the sprawling pueblos jovenes, or young towns, hastily-thrown-together living quarters that cling to the hillsides as if tossed there like handfuls of pebbles. Still, after several years of relative calm and prosperity, Lima has become one of Latin America's great capitals, and in spite of the city's staggering urban evolution, its intangible essence remains—the important things haven't changed.
Avenida Arequipa, one of Lima's most notable thoroughfares, is my preferred route into the city. The purple-tinted jacarandas that divide it are still there, but the street itself, like almost every part of Lima, has been through many transformations. Forty years ago, this was Lima's most elegant residential boulevard. Though just a few blocks from the city center, it was considered a suburb: Avenida Arequipa was lined with mansions that stood on the large lawns like gigantic wedding cakes. The architecture—Neoclassical to Tudor to Spanish—was a testimony to the imagination of people who had amassed their fortunes mining Peru's vast reserves of gold, copper, and silver. If there were gates, they were decorative; Lima then was a quiet, gentle city. The postwar period brought terrorism, violence, and long periods of unrest, and Avenida Arequipa was walled off by security guards. During recent, better times, some families have sold their homes to capitalize on the high price of real estate, and commercial buildings have sprung up in their place. The last time I was there, one mansion disappeared overnight: its owner, eager to profit but under pressure from a landmarks preservation group, had the building imploded.