Nothing quite prepares you for it. I was expecting beggars on the street, people hassling, hoards of homeless, and there was that, but there were also endless shanty houses stacked with mud bricks with not-quite roofs perched on desert slopes that would never survive if it ever rained. Homes dotted in the middle of nowhere where people have snatched a corner to prop themselves and nest.
What got me most was the sheer vastness of it, people making their living however and wherever they can. In soil that has never seen rain, people have irrigated just enough to grow and sell watermelon or papaya on the side of the road. Chickens and donkeys and goats have been bricked in with nowhere to graze. I can only assume they are grain fed.
On the streets and along the roadsides, people sell anything they can get their hands on. They even busk and perform at traffic lights. In restaurants, entertainers do the rounds at tables asking for tips and flogging their CDs. Our guide tells us there is no taxation here, no welfare. People make do with whatever they can, because if they don’t work, they don’t survive. She also tells us not to buy from the children selling lollies on every street corner, who should be in school, and who could be using the money to buy drugs.
In Pisco, a town devastated by earthquake, there is no money to rebuild. Roads have crumbled and been upturned and cars swerve to avoid the piles of rubble. Our guide tells us this was chosen as our overnight stop in order to support the local economy.
Further south, in the seaside town of Paracas, the wealthy have built impressive beach houses. Their swimming pools lie empty, but over summer they will be filled as the people pile in. Paracas also suffered from the 2007 earthquake and the almost-tsunami, but there is money here to restore.
Along this part of the coast is a constant sea fog, but it never rains. In summer the fog will lift, and it will rain in the highlands. This is where the people get their water, as it seeps into the ground. It has been especially dry this year, and there is talk of a drought. It’s hard to say what will happen if the rains don’t come.
Meanwhile we’re paying to ride mountain bikes down the desert slopes in Lima, touring the coastal districts, experiencing the wildlife by boat and the historical culture by air, and today, lazing by the pool. I guess it’s all part of the experience, for us and for them.