Peru’s central and northern coast has been hammered by heavy rains this month in what news media are calling a “Coastal El Niño.”
Summer 2016 was a proper El Niño year, and it was expected to be big. The government spent millions on preventive infrastructure projects, but the weather turned out to be moderate. This year came back with a vengeance as the heaviest rains in 20 years hammered Peru’s northern regions, resulting in overflowing rivers, mudslides and flooding.
The Creole elite in central Lima have not escaped unscathed. This is my story.
Residential water service is cut a few times every year in what seems to me a fairly regular part of life in Latin America. Most of them come with warning in advance. One day last year, the maidservant filled up our emptied drinking-water jugs which had not been taken out to the trash yet.
“Aw, you poor slum-dweller,” I thought as she showed me the four seven-liter bottles filled with tap water. “She thinks water cuts will affect us.”
I explained to her that the quinta (townhouse) we live in has a shared suministrazo (a big-ass water tank) for just five families. When the commoners have no water, we can still water our small garden, take long baths and even fill up the inflatable pools if we’re feeling saucy.
I ultimately fired that maidservant, and her replacement did the same thing in anticipation of the latest cut. I was at the hospital as wife delivered our third child. I found the water jugs on Saturday, March 18, the third day Lima went without water due to overflowing rivers.
Fortunately I wasn’t home during the previous to order the jugs dumped, because the big-ass water tank ran out of water on that third day. We had two unopened seven-liter bottles and three filled with tap water for over 24 hours.
I’m accustomed to taking two cold showers per day during the particularly sweltering summer –higher surface temperatures in the ocean are causing the heavier rains. But for over 24 hours, I couldn’t even take one! We had to save the water for the children, washing dishes and cooking pasta.
Above is a Wong supermarket, which serves the upper-middle to upper-classes.
At this point I went to the market. My suegro had come to Lima from Arequipa to help with the baby, so pisco sours were in order. Fortunately I went for limes before buying a bottle.
In a produce store I walked past a crowd of people picking through vegetables. I snatched a bag and filled it with limes. I brought it to the scale, where the manager gave me a funny look. She weighed it out and announced, for everyone to hear, “54 soles.”
That’s over $16. The other customers are watching to see what I would do. I laughed like it was a joke on the gringo. Really though, what’s the price?
She weighed it out and repeated, “54 soles.”
“How much a kilo?”
That’s $5 per pound, and two people need at least two pounds to drink pisco sours all night. Limes are usually four soles a kilo, or 50 cents a pound.
I asked why it was so expensive. Was it because of the rains?
“Son de Piura,” the woman replied. She didn’t say anything about the rains.
But I knew Piura was the hardest hit department in Peru.
I went to another store a few doors down. “Limon?”
“35 el kilo,” the reply.
I went into the general market and found an out-of-the-way veggie vendor who does less business because she shares a hallway with the fish. “Limon?”
“50 el kilo.”
I went to a mom-and-pop store near the house that sells limes. They might not be hip to the price spike like the bona fide produce vendors in the produce market. They were all out.
Suegro and I had to drink beer that Saturday. No pisco sours. The floods nearly cut off the lime supply. I didn’t ask around the ceviche restaurants. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Knowing you couldn’t get a pisco sour or ceviche in Lima … that’d be too much.
No water for over 24 hours, and limes didn’t start coming in for almost a week.
The struggle is real.
How to Help
This is a tongue-in-cheek piece, meant to call your attention to the thousands in Peru who need your help in the wake of the heaviest rains in decades. At the time of publish, the death toll stands as 90 and 100,000 people have been left homeless.
If you live in Peru, there are donation sites near you. But if you don’t live Peru, the easiest way to help is via the Peruvian embassy in the United States. They’ve set up a simple payment processor here:
Anything helps. After the rains are gone there will be years of reconstruction. People have lost their homes, their businesses and more.
The video below has become the signature image of the 2017 coastal El Niño. A woman escapes an overflowing river in Punta Hermosa, a beach retreat just south of Lima.