Sunday, January 29, 2012

By the Sea

Lima's western suburbs peer over steep cliffs that mark the division between terra firme and the Pacific Ocean. Miraflores, the most populous of a string of coastal settlements, that also includes Barranco, Magdalena and San Miguel, styles itself the go-to place for upscale eateries and night life. The pioneering Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, opened his first restaurant here. Miraflores was once the preferred residence for English expatriates. That community has now largely disappeared, its existence documented only by a few street names and the interdenominational Church of the Good Shepard at the boundary of Miraflores and San Isidro.

In 1975 my wife and I got a taste of ex-pat life at Pension Miramar on the Malecon Cisneros. The place was British to the core-- a pub with Guinness on tap and a dart board on the wall, manicured gardens with a parrot or two, and a no nonsense land lady who wasn't above throwing back a drink or a dart or two with her guests. Many of the other pensioners were regulars. I remember a Lancaster merchant, there for the annual cotton harvest and a group of civilian contractors teaching the Peruvian Navy how to use the advanced weapons it had purchased. Forty years on, I went in search of Pension Miramar and learned that it fell to the wrecking ball sometime in the mid 1990s when a plague of condominiums swept the Malecon. A gentrification has its upside, though, and in this case it is a reclaiming of public property in the neighborhood.

The twenty meters of land between the Malecon and the cliffs, once an illegal but unsanctioned waste dump inhabited by squatters, has been transformed into a ribbon of parks and running trails. One of these oases, christened Parque de los Amantes, is accessorized by a colossal statue of two figures entwined in an impossible embrace and, nearby, a red windsock. The statue inspires the lovers; the windsock marks a hang glider runway. For 150 soles, $55.72 by today's exchange, anyone with a desire to float with the thermals can do so-- irresistible, I thought, until I looked down.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" my pilot asked. My reply, something along the lines of "too old to crash, too young to die," drew nervous laughs from everyone in earshot. But I had come too far for anything approaching a dignified retreat. So over the cliff it was.

Full disclosure here. My parasail was the equivalent of a bicycle with training wheels. All I had to do was sit in a nylon sling and occasionally adjust my weight in response to the pilot's commands. The route traced a series of figure-eights, sailing out to sea and tacking back toward the cliffs. Negligible turbulence, nothing like my years of riding twenty-seaters in and out of Ithaca, New York, and the profound silence of flying at low speed without an engine are my clearest memories of the ten minute descent to the beach.

Now where is that Grand Canyon, again?