Monday, June 5, 2017

5 Pros and 5 Cons of Lima, Peru

I can't believe the time has come to write my Lima pros and cons list, or how long it's been since I last blogged! The truth is, since I've been here in Lima, almost all of my free time goes to writing fiction, not blogging. I've written two novels in the last two years, not including rewriting a different book and months and months (and months) of revising. Back when I started blogging, it was the way to be involved in the writing community, and was almost expected of new writers. Those things don't really hold true anymore, but this site is like a diary of our adventures overseas, and I'm not ready to give it up completely.

So, without further ado, here are my 5 pros and 5 cons of being posted to Lima, Peru, as an American expat with the U.S. embassy (including some of my favorite places to eat/visit/explore):

FIVE PROS OF LIFE IN LIMA (in no particular order)

1) The culinary scene
Lima is touted as the culinary hotspot of South America, and it's not hard to see why. There are some true world-class restaurants here, and while they might not be for everyone (see my review of Central here), there's no denying that chefs in Peru are creative, ambitious, and use the fresh ingredients available here to take traditional Peruvian cuisine to new levels.

I'm married to a foodie (albeit a gluten-free foodie with weird eating habits) so we've been to some of the most renowned restaurants in Lima. We both hated Central (too experimental, even for John), but he loves Maido, a Japanese restaurant consistently ranking in the top 50 world-wide. His favorite dish  - maybe ever - is the sea urchin ceviche. Our favorite restaurant in Lima, both for food, service, and atmosphere, is Rafael. Not as well known as places like Astrid y Gaston, but just as good (according to John), it has a side menu that changes constantly, as well as MY favorite dish in Peru, the brown butter scallops. We're going there for our last dinner out in Lima, if that gives you a hint of how much we love it.

Closer to home, aka La Molina, we really like Nanka, although their menu is getting old after so many visits. I love Burrito Bar and La 73 in Barranco, and for home delivery, EVEN IN SOL DE LA MOLINA, you can't beat bocadio.com. Highly recommended.

As the saying goes, it's all relative, and if you haven't been posted to a place with really bad food (aka Russia) or you don't happen to like seafood, Peruvian food might not be for you. But if you like fresh fish, exotic ingredients, and affordable meals out, you'll be thrilled with Lima's cuisine.


Maido and it's iconic rope ceiling

2) The people

Once again, maybe it's because we came from Russia, but we have found the Peruvian people to be generally friendly and helpful (as long as they're not behind the wheel of a car). I've heard it said repeatedly that making good friends with the locals is difficult for expats, but I think that depends on who you're trying to be friends with. For me, I haven't made good Peruvian friends mostly because of the language barrier and the class difference (the people whose children go to the American school are living in a different world than we are). But I blame that more on my own issues than the locals. We've been invited to playdates with friends of both Jack and Will, and have been welcomed into many Peruvian homes for birthday parties. And I love my Crossfit La Molina coaches! I think if we'd been in Miraflores and I had spent more time out amongst the locals, I would have made more friends. But in terms of general interactions, I have no complaints. Even out where we live, where not many people speak English, I've been able to communicate and accomplish everything with very few "expat moments." I'm grateful for that (and for my four years of high school Spanish!).

3) The travel

Traveling within Peru isn't always easy, but we've seen some amazing things in our time here. Highlights for me are the Sacred Valley (one of the most beautiful places I've ever been), Colca Canyon, and the rainforest. Huaraz was also amazing, but very challenging with small kids. Altitude affects everyone differently, and it's even affected me differently on different trips to the same altitude. So take the Diamox if you can, stay hydrated, and no matter where you travel in Peru, be careful about what you eat. Intestinal troubles have definitely put a damper on a few of our trips here. But enjoy the cheap regional plane tickets and reasonably priced hotels!

This pygmy marmoset in the jungle was one of the highlights of Peru for me

4) The weather

You'll hear Americans complain about the weather in Lima, particularly if they live on the coast where it's gray 9 months out of the year, but I have been so appreciative of Lima's consistently pleasant climate the last two years. Again, it's all relative (see: Yekaterinburg), but never needing a coat or rain jacket or having to stuff my kids into snow gear has been a blessing. I'm going to miss that in Serbia! We've also had few problems with hay fever (even for Jack, who developed asthma last summer in Montana but has never had an attack here!), probably because there aren't a lot of plants growing out here. Lima isn't the prettiest city - lots of dirt hills and cactus - but I have certainly appreciated not being on year-round allergy medication.

Barranco is by far my favorite part of Lima!

5) The cost of living

Personally, I think Lima is really affordable. Being with the embassy certainly helps - hello Amazon Prime! - but even the fancy restaurants are cheaper than their American equivalents, by at least 10 percent, sometimes more. Groceries cost us about the same as they would in America, and travel within Peru has been very reasonable. Gas is insanely expensive, but you're rarely driving more than a few miles (even if it takes two hours). Taxis are cheap and plentiful. My Crossfit membership is about a third of what I'll have to pay in DC. And domestic help is very affordable. Having an empleada has been life changing.


FIVE CONS OF LIFE IN LIMA

1) The traffic

Oh, the traffic. This is far and away the biggest con for me. I never imagined in my life that it could take two hours to go ten miles, or that it would be considered normal. Unless you live near the embassy in Surco, you're in for an awful commute. The only saving grace for us has been that John can ride his bike to work, but the route is over a giant mountain, and as he's nearly been run over several times (and hit three times), it's not exactly a great alternative. It has taken people up to two hours to go the six miles from where we live to the embassy. After the summer, when school was back in session, it was taking me more than 30 minutes just to go 2 miles. It can be infuriating if you're trying to get anywhere at a certain time. I avoid going to Jack's school like the plague because it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and is right next to the Circle of Death, aka the world's worst cluster f*ck of a traffic circle. I swear I've lost a year off my life every time we've driven through it. Fender benders are pretty much inevitable, and you can expect the other driver to get out and berate you for money even if they're at fault. Taxis are cheap but consistently bad, even with Uber. No air conditioning or seat belts, drivers who have no business using a manual transmission, and horrible exhaust fumes are all standard. It's a toss up of what's worse - risking an accident in your own car, or putting your life in the hand's of a taxi driver. It also drives me insane that people don't use car seats (or even seat belts) for their children, even infants.

2) The pollution

The air quality in Lima is bad, no two ways about it. There are no emissions tests or requirements here, and even though diplomats can't bring in cars more than five years old, some of the hoopties I've seen literally held together with tape have to be 30 years old or more. I don't want to think about the amount of crap John has inhaled on his bike commute over the last two years.

Dirt hills aren't pretty, but they can be fun to hike!

3) La Molina

Hindsight is 20/20, and as I've complained here before, I will forever regret living in La Molina. Granted, I didn't know we would be in the furthest reaches of La Molina, or that the traffic would be so horrible, or that there would be few restaurants and virtually nothing to do out here. But I've learned my lesson. I will be visiting Belgrade prior to moving there so this doesn't happen again. Everyone has different priorities, and I have friends who love living in La Molina, but if you care more about being able to walk to a cafe or get together with friends or visit museums than you do about having a yard (and ours is pretty small and pool-less anyway), live anywhere but La Molina! When I think about all the things we missed out on by being so far away from the culture and vibrancy that make Lima a great city, I want to scream. Not to mention the trips out there just to see friends on a Saturday night (those two-hour horrific cab rides I mentioned). The kids and John weren't as affected by it as I was, considering they're at school or work all day, but for me, it's been miserable. The only good thing about La Molina is that I have a couple friends who live out here, and Crossfit La Molina!

4) The food

While Lima's culinary scene may be fantastic, grocery shopping kind of sucks. We have gone two or three weeks without being able to find fresh milk (we aren't ultra-high pasteurized folks). Things like bread and bananas might be unavailable for days at a time. And the produce, though plentiful, is not always great. Forget about the broccoli (worms). I once thought there were no bad avocados in Peru. Turns out we'd gotten here during avocado season. Most of the time they're not great. The "pre-washed" spinach is a lie. The dearth of good frozen options has me longing for Trader Joe's. If you can handle the chaos and smells of the mercados, you can get a lot of produce for super cheap. And I will miss the fresh mangoes and everything passionfruit-flavored. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't freaking thrilled at the prospect of shopping in an American grocery store again.

5) The cost of international travel

We had really hoped to see more of South America during our time here (or, uh, any of it outside of Peru) but international travel here is expensive. $500 a person to go to Chile or Argentina was just out of our budge as a family of four. I recommend doing what our friends did and using an R&R cost construct to get around South America.


So there you have it! We leave in three weeks and will spend two months traveling across the U.S., a year in Alexandria, VA, and then it's off to Belgrade next August. Thanks, Lima, for being our home for two years. It hasn't always been easy, but I will miss you all the same.