An Irish buddy lives in Lima’s northern district of Comas.
I live in Lince, just south of downtown Lima. He often comes down my neck of the woods to drink. But I have never trekked up to his stomping ground.
Having children was my excuse. Comas is 25 miles away, which might not be a big deal in the States where everybody has a big comfortable car to visit friends and family. But in Lima that means one to two hours on public transportation.
I finally decided to go after being impressed with an Arequipa restaurant at Lima’s 2015 Mistura festival. I ordered a chupe de camaron (Arequipa-style shrimp chowder) from a place I had never heard of. It turned out to be better than any chupe my Arequipeña wife had ever tasted. I asked the guy, where in the hell is this restaurant, Olla Arequipeña? I’ve never heard of it.
Comas, he says. That’s why I had never heard of it, and my excuse to visit Gerry in Comas was born.
I decided to eat a proper Arequipa lunch on my birthday, which was months ago. So I rounded up the wife, mother-in-law and two babies and boarded the Metropolitano, Lima’s bus rapid transit system, heading north.
Note: I can’t remember why I chose the Metropolitano, which makes sense for one person, but with the family I obviously should’ve taken a taxi.
My wife and mother-in-law were less than enthused for the trip. While Callao, La Victoria and San Juan de Lurigancho would the most renowned for crime, Comas is one of Lima’s poorest districts. So it’s up there, and telling two women from Arequipa that we’re going for lunch in Comas would be like taking two American women to the Bronx or Compton. They have heard of the place.
We were given priority seats given our two babies, so it should have been a comfortable ride. But the women started getting antsy on the bus ride after passing the Rimac river, with views of the Rimac and Independencia districts.
We had to get off at the northernmost station, Naranjal, and take a feeder bus the rest of the way. We were allowed to jump the 50-yard line, again given our two babies, but it still took a long time. Then we were on the feeder buses heading beyond Independencia.
The area didn’t look like Lima anymore. It wasn’t a concrete jungle. It started to get more grassy. For the entire ride, we saw a mountain range on the right side with informal shantytowns crawling up the slopes. Shantytowns built into the side of mountains are the poorest neighborhoods in Lima and many of Latin America cities.
As in most of Lima’s lower-class districts, mototaxis seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation. There were more of them buzzing around than proper cars.
By the time we arrived at Plaza Vea, the meeting place, the wife wanted to leave. We had already arrived. It was now time to order a proper Arequipa spread, but she decides she wants money for a taxi to go home with her mother and the two children. She had actually woken up very early to go to school that day, and breastfed twice with no nap. I realized all this later.
But at the time I was pissed. I gave her 100 soles and said I’m coming home when I want, not when she wants.
Gerry, his wife and I took a mototaxi to Olla Arequipeña. I was surprised to see it was just one in an entire strip of Arequipa restaurants. There were at least five, if not ten. Each one had waiters outside trying to beckon you into their establishment.
Gerry and his wife had a doble and fried trout, respectively. They thought everything was amazing, which it was. Shrimp was out of season, so I got the doble as per my usual. The queso helado dessert tasted better than what you’d find in Arequipa. And the chicharron and fried trout would be contenders. We were drinking Pilsen since the establishment did not serve Arequipeña beer, which sucks anyway.
After lunch we took a mototaxi to Gerry’s place, which I had not seen yet. He has his own house on a street that would be considered middle-class in Peru (nivel socioeconomico C), albeit in Comas. Before he lived in what would be a poor part even for Comas, and he said it was wild.
It’s not one of the cerros, but it’s a poorer area, mostly migrants from the highlands. His block would have a pollada or birthday party every week, and the men would be drinking and blaring cumbia or huaynos until dawn. He said it was actually safer in the poor part because of justicia popular – vigilantism. He has a video he has promised for Expat Chronicles in which the watchmen caught a thief. He was stripped and beaten by the entire neighborhood.
Note: Gerry should be reading this. How about that video?
He and his wife left that area some months ago. Three years and never a problem. Then on the middle-class street, they were robbed within a month of moving in.
We had a few beers at his place until I said I wanted to take a walk and have a look around. As Gerry and I stepped outside, I sprung it on him – let’s go get some weed. He agreed, but being married he’d want to keep it quiet too.
First we hit the liquor store for another round of beer. I ask Gerry where the local hooligans hang out, but he’s somewhat new to the neighborhood so he’s not sure. We go walking towards an area where there are a few parks and public spaces.
I was surprised at the overgrowth of the fields and empty lots. In the heart of Lima where I live, the municipalities send lawncare crews to trim and care for the grass in any parks, plazas or avenues. So I’m used to seeing perfectly manicured grass, even if there is some litter or dog shit. Comas looked a lot more like some small town in north Florida, with foot-high grass in all the medians and most parks.
We passed one green space which I wasn’t sure if it was an empty lot or a park, but the locals had converted into a recreational youth soccer field.
As we were walking, we agreed it was no big deal if we couldn’t find weed. But if we did, we weren’t going to fall for any bullshit. No giving the money upfront and waiting somewhere for them to come back. I don’t give a fuck if we get ripped off on the price, I just don’t want to give my money away for nothing. We have to see weed in order to hand over any money.
Gerry agreed. No weed in sight, no money!
We came to two small plazas with overgrown grass separated by a narrow, one-way street. On that street was a mototaxi with smoke billowing out of both windows of the cab. A youngish fella stood outside the passenger’s window, another guy stood behind the cab, and there were two people in the back seat of the cab.
We approached and the smell of weed filled our nostrils. A stout, Indian-skinned guy in his 30s with no shirt on stepped down from the mototaxi, blowing smoke from his mouth and nose as he put out the last of what they were smoking. I noticed the two-inch scar on his forehead.
I said we’re looking to buy weed. We had twenty soles to spend.
The Indian said he could get us weed, but he’d have to go get it and come back. We couldn’t go with him. And our commitment was put to the test, just a few minutes after making it.
The temptation of weed was too much to overcome. I handed over the money. The Indian said he’d be back in ten minutes. Then he and the mototaxi driver, who hadn’t said a thing, took off toward the mountains.
The younger guy talking from outside the mototaxi was left behind. He was in his 20s with long hair, fairly white skin for the area. I got the impression he hangs out at this park all day looking for a free toke.
The other guy was older. His face was scarred in a few places. He never came within thirty feet of us.
Then another dude appeared out of nowhere. Wearing a track suit and a more mixed complexion, he bee-lined over to us and asked our new friend to introduce us. This new fella was a fast talker. He kept trying to drop his English on us, which amounted to “Yes” and “business.”
“Yais, yais,” he would say, then point his thumb as his chest to indicate himself. “Beez-nais.”
And the whiter guy says we’re looking to buy weed. The businessman says he knows who to call, El Chino. He’ll call El Chino right now, and he’ll come. He gets of the phone over my protest.
Meanwhile, Gerry starts getting itchy feet. He says the Indian certainly isn’t coming back.
I ask the young guy, is he coming back?
No, the reply. He’s not coming back. That’s how Peruvians are. Everybody’s looking to cheat.
The businessman seconds that notion. That’s how Peruvians are. But not him. He’s about business. “Beez-nais.”
“He’s not coming back,” Gerry says again. “Let’s go.”
I argued that the Indian said he needed ten minutes, of which only five had passed. Let’s at least give it the ten minutes he asked for. Then we’ll go, OK?
You see, Gerry doesn’t want to make too many of these friends in his neighborhood. I know exactly how he feels because I go out of my way NOT to be known by the equivalent crowd in Lince. What crowd? Basically unemployed young men, aged 20 to 30, who hang out in large groups to drink and smoke weed, whenever they have money that is.
Not that I’m afraid or even that I don’t enjoy the company of these types. If anything they’re my crowd. We’d get along too well. And Gerry is like me in that sense. But I don’t want the element in my exact neighborhood – where I keep my home and family – knowing too much about me, where I live, who my wife is, who my children are, etc. Generally a good strategy for gringos living in Latin America.
But I’m not in my neighborhood. I’m in Comas, very far away. So I’m happy to be mixing it up with this crowd. But Gerry is getting antsy, as I would be if we were doing this in Lince.
Even when far away, I still use my stock answers, my lies. What do I do? I’m an English teacher. Telling the local ruffians you teach English in a country which has seen a decent influx of gringos tells them you don’t have much money. They know you’re not living much better than them.
But then they’ll always ask you how much for a class. Always. The key here is to quote way more than they can afford without breaking the illusion that you basically live the lifestyle of an average Peruvian.
I’m talking away when there is a pause in the conversation. Gerry reminds me that the Indian is not coming back. So let’s go?
Finally I ask Scarface, who is still maintaining his distance, apparently inspecting the grass and curbs of the street. Is that guy coming back with hierba or what?
The young guy and the businessman both insisted he wasn’t. The businessman said he would by the weed from El Chino, and he would treat us. Since we didn’t have any more money, it was on him.
Scarface didn’t reply. He avoided the question and ducked out of the scene. I got the impression he didn’t want to speak against the Indian.
The sun started going down. As soon as ten minutes had gone by, Gerry suggested we go. Our beers were almost gone. I had started to believe him. Two more guys showed up to what was becoming a growing circle of dudes standing on the street in Comas. I agreed we should go.
We left, dejected, and I vowed never to hand my money over without seeing the weed first.
Just as we were halfway through the plaza overgrown with grass, a mototaxi pulled up and stopped, honking the horn. The Indian hopped out and yelled, “Oye, ¿adonde van?”
Our spirits were lifted as we ran back. I told him we thought he wasn’t coming back. He shook his head as if to say, “Absurd.” Or maybe annoyed with the cynicism of humanity.
I told him everybody in the crowd, who was about to get high for free, thought he wasn’t coming back. I half hoped he’d give them a slap afterward. The Indian is my new friend.
So let’s roll a joint!
One of the last two arrivals, a gangly dude with long hair under a well-worn ball-cap, produced two papers. I felt the weed in the bag. It was stuck together in buds. I would have to sit down to break it up and roll it.
One of the other guys held his hand under the bag, to catch any weed that fell. He’s implying that I should roll this joint while standing. Another offered his hand so Gerry could roll one too. This seemed a local custom, a polite gesture, to hold your hand out for the joint-maker while he makes a joint.
But I had been drinking for hours. It’s now dusk on some side street in Comas with five locals we’re treating. Somebody else has to do the grunt work.
The businessman and the taxi driver got to work rolling two joints. Two other guys held their hands out underneath so no weed was lost.
The gangly dude asked for some beer. The Indian and the young guy who waited with us from the beginning shouted him down, “Es personal.”
Gerry and I are somewhat oddities in Peru in that we drink the 22-oz. beers straight from the bottle. Peruvians will share these bottles, pouring the beer into Peruvian-sized glasses — six-ounce glasses if I had to guess. But obviously you can’t expect us to drink out of glasses like that, unless maybe it’s whiskey. So we drink from the bottle, which may be seen as vulgar by Peruvians. Who cares? But these fellas in Comas caught on quick.
Then another mototaxi came rolling by. It was El Chino, according to the businessman. He ran off to tell him his services weren’t needed. El Chino left.
The joints were lit and we’re passing around, having a laugh. At some point the issue of cocaine came up. Then someone mentioned crack, or “pasta” in Peruvian slang. Somebody indicated the gangly dude’s friend as a fan of crack. He may have been the whitest of all, a little overweight and needing a shave. Kind of a slob. Everything that came out of his mouth after that point had something to do with crack, or going to get crack.
The joints ran out. Gerry and I decided to have another one. So we set the gangly dude up to roll the last one.
I assumed that the Indian had certainly “pinched” the bag, or taken a bit if not half off the top before giving it to us. And I calculated that the two guys who rolled the joints had probably pinched a crumb or two, and the roaches conveniently disappeared.
You learn these tricks in junior high and high school, when you’re broke and every toke counts. But these guys are all in their 20s, maybe their 30s. I don’t give a shit about the crumbs or the roaches, or the initial pinch off the top. I would’ve paid 50 for what we got. I just wanted to get high, get rid of the evidence and split. So did Gerry.
I look at the gangly dude rolling the joint. He’s taking his time. I knew these kinds of potheads in school, the kind that worship weed. He’s admiring the joint, making it perfect. Enjoying the process. No doubt he has pinched more crumbs than anyone, and he has a roach in his pocket. Dweeb.
“Oye huevon, ¿estás haciendo una obra maestra o que?” I say to him.
The Indian shouted at the gangly dude to hurry the fuck up. Everybody else in the crowd followed his lead, scolding the gangly dude for taking so long.
We lit the second joint and I started talking about Comas. I spun a proper yarn, but sincerely. I said I’d had a great time, and I had. I ate at the best Arequipa restaurant I’d tried so far in Lima, and I felt that was an honor for Comas.
They talked about the cerros, the mountains where the real bad slums are. Each cerro has a name.
Gerry mentioned the part of Comas where he used to live. They all nodded in respect at the name.
About that time we took our leave.
We stumbled back to the liquor store for more beer. I noticed people staring at us. I hadn’t felt that in a few years. I felt that when I first moved to Peru in 2008. But something in Latin America has changed since then. At least in Peru and Colombia. People don’t stare anymore. They’re used to gringos. At least in Lima, Arequipa and Bogota.
But not in Comas. It was like going back in time with the people staring.
The liquor store manager offered up a sample of something special that just came in: uvachado. It’s a grape-based liquor they drink in the jungle, believed to be an aphrodisiac. My marijuana-inspired senses enjoyed the sweet flavor and I bought the bottle. When I sobered up, it was hard to drink. Too sweet, and somewhere between a fortified wine and a sweet, syrupy spirit. But I’ve heard from a friend in my neighborhood who is from Tarapoto that it was a good uvachado. I found it online here: El Aguajal. They have a location in London.
I went home soon afterwards. But I saw Comas, and I enjoyed it very much.
What’s the moral of the story? Crooked operators like my old landlord and many others in Latin America give a bad reputation for corruption. But people take it too far sometimes. They assume everyone is corrupt, when they’re not. Of all the people who should not have honored the deal, you’d think the Indian wouldn’t. But he came back.
It’s usually not the gringos who think the worst either. It’s the Peruvians/Colombians/you-name-it themselves who have the lowest opinion of their countrymen.