I often meet people in Vancouver who say they would love to bicycle, if only it wasn’t so dangerous. But the truth is that most motorists in Vancouver are extremely careful NOT to hurt cyclists and pedestrians, and therefore, many people commute safely to work on bicycles for years on end, WITHOUT being mown down.
I realized just how careful Vancouver motorists are when I spent a week in Lima, Peru. Cyclists and pedestrians are an endangered species on the streets – if the pollution doesn’t get you, the motorists will do their best to mow you down.
This is my story of what happened when I tried to get around without a car in Lima, Peru …
On my first night in Lima there was no restaurant in my hotel, and I was starving, so I decided to embark on my Great Adventure of the day – trying to find dinner. I walked one giant block, on a dark sidewalk, next to a road that is exactly like all other Lima roads – multiple lanes of dueling, honking, clapped-out cars, almost all driven by male drivers who appear to be making a last-ditch attempt to prove their manhood by ruthlessly running down any pedestrian, animal, bike, motorcycle or car that gets in their way.
Crossing the street in Lima is scary even for the locals, who frequently run half way across, then run back again.
So basically, I get to the end of the first block, and I am afraid to cross the road. Actually, terrified. Although there’s a traffic light, the cars that are stopped are all aggressively revving their engines, ready to tear off at weird and angry angles the second the light changes. Actually, even before it changes. They start honking at the cars in front of them to start moving one second BEFORE the light changes.
So I decide to have dinner at the one restaurant that is on the same side of the road as I am.
At least that way, I will get there alive. The restaurant looks suspiciously upmarket, but I am hungry, wine-less and desperate. I go in and they look surprised to see me in jeans, cowboy shirt and sandals, but are very polite.
I bury my head in the all-Spanish menu, and realize with a sense of impending doom that I am in one of those gourmet restaurants where it takes an entire paragraph to describe a plate of food. I find those hard to understand in ENGLISH – in Spanish, I have no chance. For a few minutes I desperately read through every single item on the menu, trying to find ONE item that I can understand what they are talking about. So much for two years of trying to learn Spanish online. I see the word “pollo” once, which gives me hope because I know that means “chicken.” Unfortunately, the word “langostinas” is on almost every item, including the one that says “pollo.”
As I am NOT a sea food fan, that should have been my first clue that I was in the wrong place.
No one in the entire restaurant speaks a single word of English, but thanks to scuba diving holidays in Mexico I manage to get two things right: “Vino blanco por favor” (white wine please) and “MAS vino blanco por favor” (MORE white wine please). Those are the ONLY things I get right. The other diners peer at me from behind their menus and laugh – most likely at me – as I helplessly try to make sense of my menu. Finally the super polite waiter glides up and I think he says “uno suggestion?” Then he rattles on eloquently, and the only thing I am sure of is that he is talking about food. I keep nodding wisely and narrowing my eyes appreciatively, as if I have a clue what he is talking about. Eventually hunger wins out, so I abandon all pretence and helplessly point to something on the Starter menu.
My waiter looks politely surprised, which should have been my second clue, but he keeps a straight face and takes my order.
Then he brings me a spoon, which REALLY should have been my third clue. (My notion of appropriate implements of eating are a steak knife and a splash guard to catch the blood.)
Next, a very friendly young man brings me a selection of delicious breads, a bowl of butter and some salsa. He tells me a long story about the bread and butter, but I have not the slightest clue what he is talking about, so I nod politely and smile through gritted teeth. I start to eat the bread, hoping that I have not just ordered a 95 Soles bowl of bread.
Finally, with a flourish, a large plate is bought out. On it, six sea shells are decoratively arranged in a circle. On each shell is a snail, and each snail seems to have curled up and died after attempting to eat a piece of dried bacon. After dying, it appears to have leaked engine oil onto its shell. I think these may have been langostinas, whatever the hell those are.
I am very sure I don’t want to eat these critters, but by now, the very well dressed locals at neighbouring tables are looking at with bemused contempt, so I try to look sophisticated and slightly bored, as if I do this kind of thing ALL the time. I calmly pick up my spoon and nonchalantly eat the first of the dead critters.
I almost throw up, as it appears to be a dead, RAW thing with a rubbery exploding colon.
Yet I have to eat them, as they are the only protein on my plate. Then I discover the trick, which is to fill my mouth with bread and butter BEFORE eating the dead critter, so that the taste is disguised and the urge to vomit is not so strong. I get “mas vino” to help me swallow, still trying hard to look suave and sophisticated.
The waiter flamboyantly presents the menu for another round, but by this time, I have finally learned my lesson. I figure I have just enough food in me to last till morning, and I try to pay the cheque. I am gently led by the waiter into a ridiculously large tip (he knows a retarded gringo when he sees one). Then I make my escape, trying to look as if that has been as much fun for me as it was for the spectators.
Yes, it must be hard to live in a city where pedestrians and cyclists are targets, and the evening reminded me how grateful I am to live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, with its separated bike lanes and usually polite, respectful drivers.
All the same, I did meet a woman who commutes daily in Lima. She had steely grey hair, and apparently, nerves of steel too. I was incredibly impressed by her, and plan to post an interview with her soon.