Police protection in Peru
The sign in the median of Benavides Avenue is a standard red-slashed-circle with a picture of a horn in the middle of it. It’s meant to keep the teeming street in front of the Thunderbird Hotel quiet. The sign might as well be in Swedish for as much heed as is it’s paid. A quiet minute without a buzzing car horn is like the minute you think you’ve gotten your baby to sleep. It never lasts and it always hurts when it’s over.
The stop-and-go traffic is catnip for the honkers. Nothing can make the traffic go. The horns just make it louder. Worse, when the traffic stops, the police blow whistles to make it move again.
I stood outside and watched the street in front of the Atlantic City Casino squeeze itself to its absolute capacity. Drivers honked, although, as always, it was unclear why. Nothing moved more than ten feet at a time. Without warning (other than the plaintive cries of common sense) there was a loud crash and the sound of glass falling to the ground. I looked up to see two city buses so close to each other that one had knocked off the other’s side mirror. Glass was everywhere. I waited to see what would happen. Would the bus drivers fight? Would the ubiquitous police step in to re-direct traffic or blow a whistle?
No. The buses moved forward, one with a mirror hanging from its side. A police officer wandered by with the standard bemused look on his face. A jaywalker wove through the traffic and walked through the glass without even a tiptoe.
Life moved on.
In a city of eight million people packed into 8,000-person square miles, it sometimes seems there are as many police on the street as normal pedestrians. Unlike some of the other places you might have been or seen on the news, these cops aren’t slung with assault rifles. They aren’t even carrying standard-issue nine millimeters. They all carry six-shot revolvers. Many of them have holsters with six extra loose bullets slipped into them. It’s like a spaghetti western cast with whistle-blowing Mestizos.
It’s hard to say whether it is a comfort to have them around all the time. It’s certainly better than the alternative. Despite suspected international serial killer Joran van der Sloot being alleged to have kidnapped a girl from the very place I’m working this week, I’ve not once felt unsafe in Miraflores since I arrived. The police have something to do with that. With that understood, there are so many of them and so many six shooters on their belts, I sometimes wonder would happen if things went sideways for a second. If they all pulled their weapons and started shooting, there wouldn’t be any place to hide.
It’s hard to figure out what is legit and what isn’t here in Lima. Money changers line the sidewalks in little green vests with dollar signs on the their backs. They whip out calculators and big wads of American $100 bills. It’s possible to change money anywhere–hotels, casinos, and banks. What’s more, American money is accepted just about everywhere. It’s possible to get screwed on the exchange rate if you’re not paying close attention. Why anyone would change money on the street is beyond me, but some people must or the $-jacket people wouldn’t take up so much space on the street corners.
Shamus and I walked down to the Larcomar Mall (a painfully Americanized seaside collection of Tony Roma’s, Chilis, TGI Friday’s, etc) the other night for dinner. Along the way, we cut down a dark street about 8:45pm and walked by a large riot wagon full of police. They all wore riot helmets and held riot shields in front of them. It was as if they were ready to deploy at any moment for any thing. From all appearances, it didn’t look like anyone was going to fight over some ribs at Tony Roma’s, but the police were there all the same. I ate paella at a local joint, then turned down half a dozen taxi rides and what may or may not have been an offer of cocaine on sale. Like everywhere else I’ve been, the taxi drivers are the hookup for anything you need.
That’s where Lima law confuses me. The taxi industry is about as unregulated as everything else I’ve seen here. Any variety of car can be a taxi, from a slick Mercedes to a rusted Pinto. Airport warnings suggest tourists avoid the gypsy cabs and book with something more “official” inside. While that’s a safe play and one I’ll take every time, there are no official rides on the street. If you want to go somewhere that’s farther than walking distance, you have to choose from cars that look like the ones below.
It’s a choice I’ll have to make in about three hours when I make the journey back to the Jorge Chavez International Airport. Tonight, the redeye to Atlanta takes me home. I’m ready. Lima is an interesting city, made all the more attractive by its unique cuisine. I’m ready, though, to get back to a place where the taxis are all yellow, car horns are more rare, and suspected Dutch serial killers aren’t so close.