It is a veritable Garden of Eden, the Spanish conquistador reported to the folks back home. Thanks to irrigation, Lima, the Peruvian capital city Francisco Pizarro founded in 1535, might still claim that title. Purple bougainvillaea bespeak a royal heritage.Yellow amancaes, red cannas and resplendent orange blossoms which I cannot identify disguise the coastal desert beneath this city of eight million souls. The city shivers from May until October under a damp cold mist the locals call the “garua.” But this is November and today the sun beams down from a clear blue sky.
Traffic lights abound in Lima, but many are broken and the rest are largely ignored. Cars, taxis and dilapidated buses seem to compete at every intersection with carts, pedestrians and ever-present covered vehicles that resemble Chinese rickshaws but with three wheels and a tiny gasoline motor. Drivers toot horns constantly in this capital the size of New York City, and assert their position by stepping on the gas. Surprisingly, we see not one collision during five days in Peru.
And the children. Everywhere children. Preschoolers to teens, all hustling to survive — selling chewing gum, trinkets, or a cloth swipe across your windshield — entrepreneurs born to abysmal poverty the likes of which one would search long and hard to find anywhere in the United States. Half of all Limenos live in shantytowns, sprawling conglomerations of rush-matting huts. Electricity, running water and sanitation facilities are luxuries many of these Andean migrants will never know at home.
But they can go to the Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, across the square from the Palace of Government, and many of them do. The Cathedral, filled with golden altars and crucifixes and plaques commemorating the saints. God owns the world, they understand, and heaven as well, and he deserves all the opulence mankind can muster. Ninety-two percent of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and many cannot read or write. The Cathedral is their architectural parable, and its stained-glass windows proclaim, however rudimentarily, the eternal Kingdom of God. Even amid the non-biblical traditions and the musty superstitions of the centuries, God who sees the heart still receives the devotion of each individual soul which prays in repentance to the man those crucifixes portray, which entrusts itself without claim of merit to him who conquered death and ascended to heaven for sinners around the world.