The Warm Up
Arrived in Lima on March 9 with my two sisters. Perfectly cool evening temperature. From the airport, lots of traffic – we were glad to have reached my apartment in Barranco after a full day of travel. The place is much more than I could have asked for – I have an office with a big desk and there is a roof terrace. Lots of wooden details carved on doors and tables. The smell of honeysuckle filled the air, and sirens of Serenazgo (guardians of the street) punctuated the constant engine hums and revs, as psychedelic purples pulsated on the kitchen window from the siren lights. The ceiba tree on my block showed its buds, ready for its next cycle - as if waiting for my arrival.
During my sisters’ visit, we ate lots of food- seafood, meat, coffee, chocolate, potatoes. Lots of fruit. Maracuyá pisco sours, chilcanos, chicha moradas. We didn’t know what chicha moradas were yet – but now I know that it’s purple corn juice, a sweet staple drink of Peru, and quite compatible with ceviche and spicy sauces. I sort of liked it then, but I love it now. Took them to Centro / the center of Lima. Plaza de Armas was closed, so we went to some spots I remembered from 2014. The gallery Centro Cultural Inca Garcilaso had an excellent exhibit of b&w portraits of Peruvian artists and writers. We walked through Chinatown, through super crowded streets for the experience, halfway crossed the also-crowded bridge to Rimac and noted the monopoly plantings of euphorbias adjacent to the train tracks, then rode the bus so we could endure the skilled-and-scary driving in Lima – buses and cars and motos and people within inches of each other.
The plants are incredible. There are poincianas, jacarandas, ceibas, schinus (aka Molle) with the occasional Araucaria. There’s a tree called meijo (Hibiscus tiliaceus) that produces both yellow and orange hibiscus flowers – the leaves are thick and rounded, and reminds me of coccoloba’s, but darker. Tecoma stans and Callistemon viminalis are much larger here and used commonly as street trees. Brugmansias are picturesque smaller trees with peachy-colored flower bells hanging – accompanied by multi-colored bougainvilleas, hibiscus, plumbagos, euphorbias, San Pedros. I spotted a cherimoya tree in my neighborhood and freaked out – a good reminder to look up while walking. That’s usually when I find gems.
My Spanish is not good. It’s humbling, frustrating, yet somehow refreshing to struggle with communication. Every thought and question requires so much effort mentally and physically. I find reasons to talk to strangers to practice. I’ve started to take classes to expedite the learning process. Improvement is certainly a process, a test of endurance. Some days are better than others - like in any language. Sometimes victories come from small stuff, like learning to use “que chevere” or saying “no te preocupes” without stuttering.
It’s exhilarating and comforting to live in a big city again - to be walking, taking public transit, to be awakened by cars, dogs, people at odd hours, to walk to the bodega in the corner for empanadas and soy milk. There are countless windows and doors to pass and peer into, usually obscured by bougainvillea or honeysuckle. Oh, the sweet smell of honeysuckle.
I live within a 5-minute walk to the Pacific Ocean. I pass through a house with the most purple bougainvillea I’ve seen yet, on a street that terminates into a series of stairs with murals, stone walls and pavers, that lead to a bridge that goes over the highway, which then leads to the playa, the ocean. It’s a workout and quite a spectacular set of framed views approaching the water. I’ve been running a couple times a week along the coast, usually to the fish terminal in Chorrillos then back. Most of the time, there are surfers that dot the ocean – from a distance, like ants swaying with, and forging against, the current.
I’ve been sketching. Sketching to think, to be still, to be present for sunset and the glow that follows - to see and connect with the pink as it turns amethyst. The sketches are, of course, in black and white. It’s a quiet way to be present in the presence of others.
There’s a mercado I often go to where there are little booths of anything one might need– from cellphones to socks to toilet paper to carrots to cow hearts to fish filets. I’ve been trying native varieties of potatoes. I’ve been trying as much fruit as I can. A few--but not an exhaustive list of--favorites: maracuyá - for the juice, acidic and super sour, perfect to mix in a dressing, and always in chilcano. Cherimoya - green on the outside with little eyes, inside there’s white flesh with a very sweet, syrupy, floral taste. I grew up with a smaller species in the Philippines called atis. Lucuma – the lucumo tree is native to Peru and the Andean South America. When ripe, the skin of the fruit cracks and peels off easily, revealing bright yellow flesh. The flavor is a marriage of mango and cashews. I blend it with a little water and it is instantly ice cream. Guaba - not to be confused with guava, looks like a gigantic legume. Inside the hairy green “bean,” are pieces of soft, white, fuzzy pods that are edible – very sweet (hence, the common name, Ice Cream Bean) and slide off easily to reveal a large seed, similar concept to a tamarind’s. Pitahaya - a yellow passionfruit that’s just delicious. The fruit can be eaten with a spoon and is so refreshing, like a sweeter and seed-filled version of aloe.
Early on, I took a trip to Ica and Huacachina with two friends (also Fulbrighters) for a few days – it’s about 4 hours by bus. Huacachina is an oasis town, very touristy, slightly study abroadish --but was relaxing and had great food. We walked up sand dunes for sunset and got a view of the expansive sandhills. Watched dune-buggies make their way up and down the slopes. In Ica, went to a couple of vineyards and tried varieties of Pisco – distilled grape liquor that originated in Peru and what’s most commonly consumed here. Had the best Carapulcra con Sopa Seca that I’ve tried to date – a stew of dried potato and peanuts with pieces of pork, served with spaghetti tossed lightly with a pesto-esque sauce.
There’s a good mix of Fulbright fellows here, primarily living and working in Lima. The range of specialties is wide – from Peruvian history of development to researching squash varieties. As a group, we’ve visited Pachacamac (pre-Hispanic archeological site), had a screening of a great book-adapted-into-a-film ‘Un Mundo Para Julius’ with the director, I’ve organized a cacao tasting at my neighbor’s chocolate and coffee shop, we’ve gone to see Encanto, the musical at a local theater. I’ve become quite good friends with a few of them, and have done a fair share of lunch meet-ups (Peruvians take almorzar seriously - and could easily be the most important meal of the day), long dinners, and drinking too many Pilsens and chilcanos.
I have, and have made, friends with Peruvians, some who are monolingual Spanish speakers. One time, my friend Eli invited me to her boyfriend’s family’s place in Chorillos, just south of where I live. I spent the entire day with them – her boyfriend cooked lomo saltado for us, and we watched youtube videos of Ollantaytambo (where the family was from), the Philippines, and Tucson so they could learn more about me. I made good use of “como se dice..” to learn new words. They sent me home with homemade mazamorra morada – a sweet gelatinous pudding made with purple corn and guindones (dried plum). I felt lucky to know such a welcoming family.
The documentary project is going well. The lomas (fog hills) are currently dormant because we’re still in the dry season (summer). I’ve been making trips to a few different lomas communities with one of the lomas leaders, Christian, who has introduced me to many others since my arrival. They are called lomeros/lomeras. What an inspiring group of people who not only protect the lomas, but provide awareness of this resource to the public and economic security to the neighbors of the community.
Some details - the physical: the lomas are steep, rocky, and as mentioned, currently dry. At Lomas de Pamplona, I saw some mitos (Papaya silvestre), trompeta (Stenomesson coccineum), and Tomate silvestre. The soil is primarily sandy, clayey, rocky. In Lomas de Paraiso, there are petroglyphs on the rock. At both Lomas El Mirador and Lomas de Paraiso, there are tara trees (Caesalpinia spinosa) that have been planted within the last couple of years as part of their restoration efforts. There are trails that have been blazed by hand, and stairs for the steeper zones. The views usually open up to the town immediately below - once-informal communities now defined urban neighborhoods and districts. At Lomas de Pamplona, at the very top of the lomas, there are abandoned walls and platforms, and recently-erected structures on another side next to power lines – these products are developed by the “invaders” or land traffickers who develop cheaply-constructed homes illegally on top of the lomas on dangerous conditions. Dangerous because they are at the top of the hill and during the wet season, erosion is prevalent. There are complicated networks of invaders and officials who govern these areas -- that’s another story and perhaps for another project.
To reach the lomas is a worthwhile preface. Working from the start - I typically take a taxi from my place in Barranco to a known point to meet with my lomero contact, Christian. Depending on which lomas we’re heading to, we would take the train or custer (a small bus, privately owned) and maybe another combi (a van) – or for El Mirador, we took a moto for 10 minutes. We’d get dropped off to a point, then begin to trek upwards. The landscape is vastly different from the Lima that I know, and what most travelers (perhaps even Limeños) know, or want to know. Dirt roads, small houses with no running water, many dogs. There are tanks on the street, rotoplas, that get filled up by trucks, which the residents purchase from a private water supplier. Most people are friendly, but it would be impossible to do this without Christian. Besides not having the knowledge of getting to the lomas (which is at the top- past the homes, through many stairs, where the natural begins, or where the development has ended), I would likely get bit by a dog or perhaps accosted by someone. It’s not a place that one just wanders into. There are exceptions – during times when there are “tours.” Many communities have group tours, recorrido turistico, to educate and show what an exceptional resource the lomas is for the neighborhood, the city, and ultimately, the country. It’s also a way to generate some income for the neighbors, as they are able to sell homemade food and snacks to visitors. I have taken the Sunset Circuit at Lomas El Mirador, and the views are spectacular- seeing the massive expanse of Lima from a high point. The entire journey is an eye-opening experience — the gradients of Lima, from the socioeconomic, architectural, and ecological perspectives are complicated yet visceral. The lomas as the catalyst for gaining understanding of how a vast percentage of Limeños are living. The lomas as the catalyst for using all modes of transportation in Lima, which happens to include trekking.
The social: the ‘Lomas in Lima’ includes many lomas communities located at various points of the city. There are challenges and initiatives/programs/ecotourist circuits in each community. Within the last month, several leaders from four communities have organized themselves into a collective group to visit each of their “home” lomas. The goal is to minimize the fragmentation of the social efforts, strengthen support and increase ecological connectivity, so that the ‘Lomas in Lima’ is truly representative of a large network of communities and ecosystem, not small individual zones exclusive from each other.
I attended and documented the first meeting / lomas meet-up at Lomas de Paraiso. There were at least 25 people in attendance. After brief introductions from each group leader, everyone headed to the slope to water the recently-planted tara trees. There was one long hose, connected at several points for extension, that filled a barrel. People used 1-liter plastic bottles as a watering jug. Slopes were steep, yet the group was in good spirits, working together to hydrate the thirsty taras. For some comic relief, one man wore a red hardhat and acted like a firefighter as he “hosed” the tree.
We then took a trek up to the top of the lomas. It was midday and the sun was blaring. I was carrying my camera and it was heavy. Once we reached the top, there was a nearly-360-degree view of the surrounding townships and the City. It wasn’t so easy for me to identify which direction the ocean was. It can be difficult to envision a body of water so near this dry landscape. The breeze up there was refreshing, and I kept remembering that one day soon, these desert hills will be verdant.
Even with my poor Spanish, I felt connected with the group. I was surprised to find that some people I had only met that day had already visited my website and seen my previous work. They were excited to share their own lomas community with me, and felt like we were a team working towards the same goal of preserving and celebrating the lomas. I’m compelled, even more now, to share and craft the narratives from the lomas in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and appropriate way.
I’ve met with specialists who are contacts prior to arriving in Lima -- botany professor, Asuncion, and founder of an NGO for children’s environmental education, Joaquín. Joaquín was in a film called “Beginning of Life 2,” which focuses on the importance (and current lack of) green space in childhood development. He's a strong advocate for including children's perspectives in my film. He connected me with my first lomero contact, Christian - an excellent one. Asuncion is a specialist of lomas vascular plants, and I’ve been reading his published work to prepare my knowledge of the species come wet season in a few months. He has provided me access to the herbarium at the Natural History Museum, which houses the largest collection of Peruvian vascular plant specimens – dried and pressed plants dating back to the 1920s. Really, it’s a dream come true – spending time at the herbarium to look at endemic species. I have my list of lomas species, but admit that I easily get distracted by other families and genus as well. For example– tecomas, peperomias, vacciniums of Peru! Those files are expeditions through deserts, mountains, and jungles.
I also met with another leader of an NGO which focuses on the socioecological resilience of urban landscapes. His name is Juan Diego, aka Juaneco. He filled in more of my knowledge gaps in the history of local efforts and current challenges in the lomas networks, and has been a valuable resource in sharing studies, more contacts, articles, and plant guides. As well, he has introduced me to ‘Juaneco y su Combo,’ a psych-chicha / Peruvian Cumbia band from Pucallpa, who I’ve been listening to a lot.
In mid-April, I went to Atiquipa, the location of the largest preserved lomas in Peru. The trip from Lima is worthwhile recounting: from my place on a Monday evening, I took a taxi to the bus station in La Victoria, in the center of Lima. I took the 7:30 pm bus headed to Arequipa. The route was along the Carretera Panamericana Sur, mostly along the coast. This highway goes all the way south to the northern tip of Patagonia in Chile. The bus arrived in Chala, a coastal town, at 5:30 am -- a 10-hour trip. It was still very much evening, but there were a few people on the street. I had my video equipment in a big backpack and was anxious about being alone in the dark. The cab I had arranged for couldn’t pick me up because it was an hour earlier than what I told him. He sent his cousin instead, and I just had to trust that I’d get to Atiquipa safely. Atiquipa is a 25-minute drive from Chala, through the winding Panamericana Sur. The light began to change from black to hues of blue. Crashing waves revealed themselves to my left, as did the silhouettes of mountains in front of a glowing peach-orange backdrop. I had witnessed the delicate yet rapid magic of light before sunrise.
We passed a sign for Atiquipa. The driver turned into another uphill winding road. I could hear birds and the breeze felt cool. We reached a road gate, which was the entry to the town. It was 6:05 am and the gate was still locked. Both mine and the driver’s cell phones had no service because in this part of the country, Bitel provided the service, not Claro (which was what we were using) – so we couldn’t contact Julieta, the leader of the Lomas de Atiquipa, who was also going to be my host. The driver parked the car -- we walked around the gate and up the hill. We passed mature olive groves and newly-planted euphorbias along the road. As we turned into the “main street” of the town, dogs formed their alliances and began to bark. The driver wasn’t bothered, so I wasn’t bothered. We quickly reached a small, single-story adobe home with weathered wooden doors, and knocked. Julieta came to greet us, still slightly waking up from her slumber. She greeted me with a big hug and we said thanks and ‘ciao’ to Luis, my driver, for bringing me there.
Julieta was a petite middle-aged woman, warm and charismatic. We walked through her fluorescent-lit home to get to the backyard, which expanded quite a bit. She recently built an ecolodge with 8 rooms and 3 bathrooms. The structures were made with wood. In the center was a large hut that contained handmade local wooden furniture, awaiting to be arranged in the outdoor terrace in progress. There were smaller huts and materials pending construction for outdoor kitchens, dining areas, and a meditation space. She walked me through the various trees and plants in the yard and shared their herbal properties – much of the information I could not retain being a bit groggy from my overnight trip. It was clear that this was a labor of love – a work in motion, but already emitted a holistic vision of a home. She believed that through tourism, more people in the town would value the resources they had, and benefit sustainably, economically. The borrowed view of the mountains facing south was powerful, tranquil. To the north, more mountains – the lomas with its ever-present fog at the top, as large birds floated in the foreground.
We went to the municipal building, which was only 50 or so paces away from Julieta’s house. The town is small, with a population of about 550. She introduced me to the mayor, Fortunato, and his assistant, Fabricio. The mayor was quite welcoming and had a big presence. He tried to tell me in English, in his loud and raspy voice, “you can stay!”-- which frankly, I’m still unsure was a statement or a question, but, nevertheless, I got to talk about why I was visiting and expressed how excited I was to be there. We then walked to the greenhouses, situated on a hill near the entry gate to the town. These were part of a recent project spearheaded by Julieta and were utilized for growing trees for restoration of the lomas. Two women watered the small tara and huarango trees – a vibrant carpet of chartreuse and olive greens.
The biggest challenge for the Lomas de Atiquipa, besides mining, is grazing. The issue stems from the lack of interest and effort from the people of the town to control the grazing, especially in the protected zones. The cows have free-reign over the lomas, causing much damage to the endemic species. In practical terms, there are springs, quebradas, whose water comes from the trees of the lomas, which are captured and condensed from the fog. The reason why this is important and relevant is that the water from the springs is fed into a pipe that’s directed into a large blue cistern for the town, which then flows into each household’s cistern for their use – primarily for sanitation and irrigation. With the continuous loss of species in the lomas, loss of biodiversity is not the only challenge, but also the reality of expedited desertification. These present long-term questions of sustainability, and certainly the necessity for education, planning and ecological restoration. In Atiquipa, there is still much of the lomas intact – just an imminent need for a concerted effort to maintain and strengthen this unique resource and endemic habitat.
Julieta had arranged for a municipal car and driver to take us atop the lomas. It would have been a 5 hour hike, which also sounded good, but, nonetheless, we rode up. From Julieta’s house (on the main street), the driver turned right at the terminus of the street. There were 4 or 5 men sitting around, chatting and relaxed. We said hello and Julieta introduced me to the group of amicable men. Later, I learned that they were ranchers – so most of the time, they sit around while the cows roamed and grazed, or, quite literally, til the cows come home.
Continuing the trip upwards to the lomas, the road had lots of switchbacks along steep hills overlooking more hills. Evidence of mining was present along the slopes, as large holes became more prevalent as we drove up. The driver was apathetic to the excitement I exuded, as Julieta explained the current efforts to restore the lomas. He drove fast and the ride was a bumpy one. It was apparent that we had gained a bit of elevation when the fog covered the windows of the car. There would be periodic clearings, just enough to notice the mature tara trees with tillandsias, then the trichocereus with tillandsias. I had to get out of the car to see this up close! I had never seen Caesalpinia species this large and robust. The tillandsias were blooming and I had only a ‘foggy’ concept of where I was – that I was at the top of the lomas of this small rural town on top of a hill over the Panamericana Sur above the coastal Atacama desert of the Pacific Ocean. That’s where I was.
The haziness of the fog added to the mood and mysteriousness of this place. I hopped back in the car to continue the drive further up. Once we reached the atrapanieblas (fog catchers), Julieta and I began our walk into the lomas forest. More cacti, taras, tillandsias and an endemic myrcianthes. The fog was intense and my hair was dripping wet from the condensation – the droplets were audible. My camera was wet from all the moisture moving through us. It was almost rainforest-like (or what I’d imagine one to be) with desert species. Pieces of cow excrements were scattered along the paths and soil. Cow grazing can be seen on chewed up pieces of cacti. The plants store so much liquid that the thirsty cows utilize them for hydration. The atrapanieblas were not functional at this time, from years of wear and tear —Julieta is leading efforts to reinstall these, but due to some local disagreements and issues with payment, the work has been delayed. From seeing these structures in person, I finally understood the process of catchment and how they’re utilized for such a valuable resource.
We made our way back down to town and passed the same group of men sitting around, but there are more of them. We had a simple meal of rice and olluquitos with chicken. Olluquitos are tubers, similar to potatoes, but not as creamy and with more bite. We had locally-sourced and extracted olive oil – from the olive groves down the street. Earlier, it was stewed local seaweed and native potatoes sprinkled with cancha (corn nuts). Always had instant coffee with every meal. Julieta began each meal with a prayer and thanked the lord for my presence and my help with highlighting the value of the lomas, and this place in particular. Afterwards, she shared several books of Atiquipa plants, and articles about the lomas. I slept well that evening.
The next few days were as productive and exciting as the others. We visited the grade school – which was only one class, with one teacher and twelve students from 6-13 years old. I introduced myself and the project, and explained why I thought Atiquipa was important. There were lots of enlarged eyes, surprised and curious why someone from afar would travel to there to make a film. There was so much energy in the room. I interviewed each kid about what they knew, loved, and hoped for the lomas – what the Town of Atiquipa meant to them. I knew that some of them will be the next generation of lomeros and lomeras.
This morning, a large ceiba tree on the other side of my terrace started to leaf out. Fresh little neon greens. I drank my coffee while watching birds fly to and from the branches. A pair of small blue birds amongst bright leaves watched the other birds.
This is my 8th week here. There’s a mountain of work ahead with reviewing more footage from the past few weeks. I went to Lomas de Ancon, a 3-hour trip from my place, with a group of lomeros/as. A long journey that started at 5am. Once we got to the base of the lomas, we trekked uphill for miles on sand. It was a tough, hot hike, especially with my heavy equipment. Inevitably gained enough elevation that the clouds of fog were underneath us, and so was the town of Ancon. Blue mountain ridges peaked above the fog. The scenery was electric and the single file of our group provided a humbling scale to the majestic landscape. We saw one Tillandsia latifolia on sand – we had only scratched the surface with our tired legs. Our guide, Rolando, brought us to one peak of the sand dunes, and demonstrated the proper way to sandboard down the slope. I was pressured into doing it, which I was glad for. It was fun - and it’s a neat catalyst/activity to get people to hike through this amazing preserve. Afterwards, we walked back down to the town for some lunch and group activities. We visited a playground with minimal play equipment – it was certainly utilized by the kids, and was inspiring to see how much impact public spaces make, especially to children. There was an 85-year old man who I complimented for his gardening skills – he asked if I wanted to see the trees in his yard, and of course I did. A few members of the group went to check it out – he had many trees: guaba, limon, mandarina, two platanos, and a lucumo. My heart was warm.
On Sunday, there was a volleyball/futbol tournament in the neighborhood adjacent to Lomas de Pamplona to celebrate Labor Day – always on May 1st. I went with Christian, my lomero friend, to get to know the neighbors. Many of them are lomeros/as– guardians of the lomas. This was my third visit to Lomas de Pamplona. This time, I felt well prepared with dog food (necessary to distract mean, barking dogs, especially up steps) and had a general ease with the place. There were three journalists from Italy filming as well, as they were doing a feature on the neighborhood for the RAI network. I captured them capturing Christian watching people watching the tournament – oh, the layers. It was interesting to watch their process-- it reminded me of working for a documentary with a crew. Much more efficient with more technical bodies involved, and a lot less room for error. They knew the shots they wanted and directed the scenes. They’ve been filming for two weeks, and are only here for a few more days. What I had, and have, instead of more bodies, was time – the time to stay and return to the neighborhood and get to know the neighbors, to witness the landscape change from dry to verdant. To be present not only for filming, but for the non-production time it takes to get to know this place. Not only to wrap up the project, but to learn and understand how to best capture what’s special about this community, this resource -- to get to something that I didn't already know from this very smart-world we live in, where answers exist within our palms.
I stuck around and hung out with the señoras frying pollos and picarones (Peruvian doughnuts) and the kids who wanted to know more about the lomas efforts. Eventually hung out at the volleyball game and watched some really great players from the neighborhood work it. I went home remembering the names of at least 10 neighbors. I told my family and boyfriend about them and how much fun I had. Always, after filming at the lomas, I’m exhausted and sore. A full day, full-on workout – the kind that knocks you out at night.
I couldn’t be more thrilled and grateful to continue what I’m doing.
*Credit to John Sihua Photography for the images from Lomas de Ancon