Getting to know Lima

Living and working (or going to school) in another country is a wonderful experience. It allows for a more relaxed pace than tourism and therefore more of an opportunity to learn about the people and the way of life in another place. It should come as no surprise that this will not be about the subtleties of cerviche or some of the other Peruvian delights. I am an observer of behavior; I don’t let my local illiteracy get in the way.

There is no better way to get a sense of your surroundings and see people in action than to watch and be involved in traffic. Each place has its own rules and customs. Those of you who have traveled outside of N America and W Europe have some idea what I am talking about. Lima is no different. Although I don’t drive here, I walk a lot and each day we ride a bus more than 45 minutes to and from UPCH. When I can, I ride shotgun.  This is a wonderful vantage point from which to observe Lima’s own brand of chaos and convention.

As in the US, there are traffic control lights to help manage flow. On the whole, people obey intersection lights much like we do, pushing the late green to early red. Curiously, there are also traffic lights in some of the traffic circles (rotaries /roundabouts). A stream of traffic can be stopped right in the middle of the circle by a red light to allow a fresh stream of vehicles to enter it. This system works surprising well during rush hour. Eventually everyone gets in. Getting out is a different story.

Where there aren’t traffic lights or where bottlenecks occur, police officers help control the flow. Without exception each one that I have seen is a young and attractive woman. Each wears her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, covered with a hard hat. All of them wear a crisp tan uniform that includes very tight-fitting jodhpur-like slacks. None is overweight. Whether they are stationed in curious little elevated booths located off to the side of the road or standing out in traffic, with whistle in mouth they have a remarkable degree of control. The other night I walked up to a usually busy intersection and found it completely gridlocked. The intersection was uncontrolled – no traffic lights or stop sign . Blaring horns and flashing headlights were no more effective here than anywhere else. But then, one of these traffic control officers materialized out of the darkness on a small motorcycle. She drove it onto the sidewalk, pulled it up on its stand, and went to work. Wading into and contributing to the cacophony with her screeching whistle, this young woman took control. With her arms waving and pumping she muscled and finessed the traffic back into its usual disorder. In less than 15 minutes she left as stealthily as she had arrived. It was a scene out of the Lone Ranger. Where does this control come from? Perhaps these women appeal to a secret desire to be controlled by mother or some sort of mistress in the uniform of a disciplinarian. All they need is a riding crop.

Traffic flow and navigation are mysteries to me. What they do and how they respond probably says something about Limeños (not Limones, those are lemons). In heavy traffic, the goal for all of us is to get ahead to get home.  The goal may be the same in Lima but drivers here have their own unique twists. In Lima, the concept of yielding does not seem to exit. There are very few such signs.  If they are observed, they are not obeyed. Size and position rule. Opportunity is also important. Drivers straddle lines, signaling in one direction while veering subtely toward the other. I don’t believe that these are acts of willful deception.  Rather, they seem to indicate that any action is possible. As a result, very close calls occur moment to moment but actual collisions don’t seem to. I have not seen one despite MANY opportunities. The most amazing move, however, is the right hand turn from the far left lane, turn signal optional, direction unimportant. Although these turns feel and look impulsively dangerous because of how abruptly they are executed, I have come to realize that this and other similar tactics are neither.  As traffic creeps slowly but surely forward en masse, no one yells, gives a finger or otherwise expresses anything other than determination and resignation. 

The concept of pedestrian right of way is simple to understand here, there is none. Size and speed matter. Horn toots and flashing lights somehow modify intent and meaning but the subtleties of these messages escape me. Most turning vehicles (and all taxis) accelerate as they approach uncontrolled intersections. These attitudes help to define the concept. At an intersection, drivers look past you to oncoming traffic. If there is space, they continue accelerating into and through the turn as they move ahead. Although crosswalks are not demarcated by the familiar thin, double, parallel lines that run perpendicular to the flow of traffic, they have what I thought were the other style. At many intersections, whether or not controlled, they have wide and fat, white parallel lines painted parallel to the flow of traffic, marching from curb to curb like a column of hypens in tight order.  Many are preceded by a broad, white line.   At home, these mean traffic must stop for any pedestrian in the area bounded by them. Not here. As best I can tell, their purpose is to highlight a person crossing the street by offering a contrasting background. It is like shining a different color light on a target from behind for better visibility. Again, I have never seen anyone hit. I don’t’ push my luck.



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