Lima, Peru—There are certain similarities that unite many of the developing world’s mega cities. Driving into Lima from Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez, the first thing that you notice is the billboards.
These testaments to globalization crowd the highway in a race to the sky. Most sit on poles several stories tall and stretch hundreds of feet across. They advertise cellular phones, fast food restaurants, and the latest American action movies.
My impression of Lima is that the nearly eight-million strong city is quickly escaping the mediocrity that these billboards represent. Compared to Tegucigalpa–the capital of Honduras where I had just come from–the streets of Lima are clean, the threat of crime is low, and the cuisine is delicious.
Tegucigalpa held a vibrant energy during the day. But into the night, most locals disappeared with the sun, leaving tourists only warnings of thieves.
In stark contrast to Tegucigalpa, Lima comes alive at night. In stylish Miraflores district, teenagers line the sidewalks and wait for admittance into flashy discos, young families gather in grand plazas and play until long past Canadian children’s bedtimes, and coffee shops fill with locals to create a noisy chatter that spills into the streets. In nearby Barranco district–something of a bohemian outpost–the scene is quieter but still alive. Couples walk well-lit streets and fill tiny cafés while street artists pack up their work to complete another day.
In Miraflores, I met three notable Peruvian biologists for an interview in a trendy Middle Eastern restaurant. The men drank red wine and commented on the pleasantness of the night. They joked about their favourite Seinfeld episodes and debated who was the real genius behind the show–Jerry or executive producer Larry David. (It was finally agreed that the show’s popularity was the result of a Lennon-McCartney type of partnership.)
Upscale Miraflores is something of a jewel in Lima but many neighbourhoods I visited shared its modernity and warmth. Walking the eclectic city’s streets, I’ve seen every sign of a burgeoning middle class. Public art is common but avoids false bravado, beaches are crowded with suffers and bikini-clad women, and upscale supper clubs dot the waterfront.
In the Middle Eastern restaurant, the biologists explained to me that the last decade has been a period of tremendous growth for Peru and especially Lima. The population and economy have increased together in leaps and bounds to create a middle class with disposable income.
The global financial crisis will test all of this, the three men agreed. Peru has so far held off the sharp economic declines suffered by such Latin American countries as Bolivia or Ecuador, but the country’s rate of economic growth is slowing and nobody feels financially secure.
In 2008, Peru’s economy grew an impressive nine percent–the largest growth rate in South America for that year, according to CIA Factbook. But one of the scientists told me that the latest economic projections for 2009 forecast a growth rate of just four percent.
This week, the billboards that line the airport’s highway into Lima remain filled with advertisements. But the Peruvian intellectuals I drank with repeatedly raised the question of how long it will be that way.
Travis Lupick was in Honduras as a recipient of the Seeing the World Through New Eyes fellowship, funded by the Jack Webster Foundation and CIDA.
Read more stories from his trip:
Doctored crops stir Latin American debate (April 16, 2009)
B.C. aid helps Honduran kids (March 26, 2009)
Discovering "mass food production" in Honduras (February 13, 2009)
A walk through the poverty of Honduras (February 12, 2009)
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.