Sunday, July 30, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

Lunch at Astrid & Gastón

Last week, leading up to my birthday, I followed Liz's suggestion and treated myself to lunch at Astrid & Gastón.

Astrid & Gastón, the brainchild of pâtissière Astrid Gutsche and chef Gastón Acurio, is consistently ranked as one of the world's best restaurants. It has been on the San Pellegrino list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants since the list was launched fifteen years ago. (It is currently ranked #33 in the world, and #4 in Latin America.)

Liz and I have eaten there previously, treating ourselves to the tasting menu, when the restaurant was at its original home in Miraflores.  A few years ago Gutsche and Acurio moved it to the Casa Hacienda Moreyra in San Isidro.

Originally, the idea was that the space would hold two restaurants: one with a more casual vibe, and another which would be the actual Astrid & Gastón.  That scheme has been dropped and, although the two different dining spaces remain, the same Astrid & Gastón menu is offered at both.

This time around I ordered a few dishes à la carte.

House-made breads with, from L to R, guacamole, smoked tomato butter dusted with tomato ash, house-made butter.

Scallops with a pesto dressing and dusted with apple ice.

Sea urchin roe on toasted brioche.

Roasted guinea pig with corn cream, huacatay sauce, quinoa, and purple corn humita (basically a sweet tamale)

A couple of mini desserts that came with my coffee.

Of course, everything was delicious and the service was great. I left there a pretty happy guy.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cave With A Creepy Mystery

The area near the town of Mala had at one time been somewhat remote, mostly agricultural land but is now being urbanized and my cousin's bought a plot of land nearby.  That led to my uncle exploring a cave he found while hiking along one of the area beaches.

He mentioned to me that there were some interesting remains in there that he thought I should see, so off we went this morning. After driving south of Lima for about an hour on the Pan-American Highway, we pulled off the road and headed down a dirt track toward the sea near the mouth of the Mala River.  Rounding a large stone outcrop, we came to the cave entrance.

The cave had been carved out of what long ago had been cliff at water's edge, but is now a hundred or so yards removed from the breakers.  Stones eroded from above have built up at the entrance, meaning that to approach once has to climb up the debris pile, and that the cave floor then slopes sharply down from the entryway.

Upon first glance, the impression is one of moist disarray. Slime and mold cover the floor and lower walls, and there are a number of plastic bags and empty bottles. Clearly, people have used the cave as a place to party, drink, and -one surmises- get high.

But, then, there's the bones:

At first, one might think that someone died in there, maybe of an accident, or an overdose or alcohol.   That would explain one corpse, but one person would not have two different -sized femurs from the same leg.  In fact, once one learns to distinguish the mold-covered shapes, one sees that the floor of the forward part of the cave is littered with femurs, ribs, and other bones. 

Counting femurs and sets of hip bones, we were able to determine that the cave holds the remains of no fewer than four individuals, at least three of which are piled in one corner of the alcove.

Given the conditions in the cave, the bones are clearly not ancient, but a several decades old at most.  [11 Aug. 2017: This would be supported by something I just noticed: The skull in the photo above appears to have what may be a bullet hole in the back.]

Unless the people were walked up to the cave and killed in situ, we were, then, looking at a body dump. But, whose? 

The physical effort required to haul a corpse up to the cave would be daunting, to say the least, indicating whoever humped them up there must have had help.  Serial killers?  A criminal gang, perhaps? Of course, it also crosses one's mind that they might be individuals who "disappeared" during the war of the 1980s and 1990s, or who died in police custody at some other time.

It is likely that, with a condominium going in next door, it won't be far long before the bones are removed and disposed of or interred with but cursory attention from the authorities, if that.

I expect that the answer to the riddle of the bones in the cave will never be known.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

40th Anniversary of the General Strike of 1977

Last week I attended a commemorative meeting marking the 40th anniversary of the nationwide general strike of July 19, 1977.

At the rally at Plaza San Martin, the previous week, someone had handed me a flyer for the event, and it immediately piqued my interest because I distinctly remember the strike.

At the time, Peru was ruled by a military junta presided by Gen. Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Morales Bermúdez and his allies had, a couple of years earlier, deposed his predecessor, Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado.  They then set about undoing the structural and social reforms initiated by Velasco. They introduced monetary adjustments which dealt severe blows to people's standard of living, at the same time that they froze wages and let prices rise. They countered protest of these measures with states of emergency, night-time curfews, jailings, exile, and worse.

I was in grade school at the time. I remember that things were tense in the days leading up to the general strike, and everyone wondered how big the walk-out would be, how successful.

I have vivid recollection that on the morning of the 19th Lima, then a city of almost five million people, seemed absolutely silent and still. Not one store was open, not one bus or taxi circulated. No one, it seemed, went to work that day. 

Photo from a display at the event.

Speakers at the event, held at the headquarters of Patria Roja --one of Peru's largest communist parties-- explained how 23 unions had decided to work together and established a unitary struggle committee at a secret meeting at the offices of the water utility workers' union.

They talked about how the struggle committee --which even included the government-sponsored state employees union!-- reached out by word-of-mouth to other unions and tried to bring them on board, first to the idea of a national one-day general strike, and then to the specific date.  All of this, of course, had to be done clandestinely.  The risks were highlighted by the fact that 18 unionists had already lost their lives to the repression in the first half of the year.

As it was, the government arrested many top union leaders and leftist party leaders in an effort to thwart the strike organizing and to cow the movement into submission. It did not work, of course.

The strike was nearly total and paralyzed the country. The people, and specially the working class, had flexed its muscle. In one day the military lost all claim to legitimacy and popular support.  Within a year it had begun the process of transitioning the country back toward representative democracy, with elections to a Constituent Assembly.

Those were heady days, which I well remember. We all, even us middle-class children, felt that the return to democracy was also our victory.

However, as Alfredo Velásquez --then head of the public school teachers union (SUTEP), and part of the joint struggle committee-- explained, the workers' movement paid a heavy price for having spearheaded the opposition to the military regime.  On the day of the strike a number of workers and peasants lost their live in Lima and in other cities, including 13 marchers who were gunned down in the Lima district of Comas.  In the days following the strike the military government passed a law authorizing the summary firing of workers, and in one swoop over 4000 unionized workers were dismissed, decapitating nearly every industrial union in the country. It was a blow, Velásquez said, from which the Peruvian labor movement has never recovered.

Unionists who participated in the strike pose for a group photo.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lamp of the Three Graces

In downtown Lima, the Lamp of the Three Graces has stood at at the intersection of Ave. Nicolás de Piérola (also known by it's older name, La Colmena) and the Jiron de la Unión, where Nicolás de Piérola meets the Plaza San Martin, since 1915. Three Graces in fact predates the plaza itself, which was inaugurated in 1921, for the centennial of Peru's independence.

The lamp consists of a bronze sculpture of three women standing back-to-back around a central post which bears two rings of light globes.   It is an approximate copy of a famous marble sculpture, now in the Louvre, by 16th Century French sculptor Germain Pilon.  However, instead of supporting an urn for the heart of King Henri II of France, it holds a light fixture.

According to research by the author of Lima La Unica blog, the lamp was cast by the Val d´Osne foundry, which was located in Osne-le-Val, France. The Fonderie Val d'Osne became one of France's most important "art cast iron" foundries.

The Three Graces originally were located in the patio of the Principal Theatre. In 1889 it was moved to the Plazuela de la Merced, where it stood until it was moved to its present location.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lunch at Kong restaurant in Chinatown

Yesterday, following a tip in the El Rico Dato FaceBook group in my search for soup dumplings, I took myself out to lunch at Kong restaurant at Paruro street in Chinatown.

Kong is a newish addition to Chinatown dining options. It is a small but well-appointed space that's clean and pleasantly decorated (and it has nice, clean bathrooms, which is a nice plus and a bit of a rarity in downtown).

Kong serves dim sum all day in addition to a few main dishes.  The offer goes beyond the usual chifa staples of fried rice and chi jau kay, and they don't offer a set-price lunch combo like many other places.  Nonetheless, that the menu is not super extensive, as in some restaurants, and the presence of some images in the menu booklet, makes ordering relatively easy. 

Prices are pretty reasonable. I walked out having enjoyed four dim sum plates and a pot of tea for about 20 bucks.

Of course, I ordered the soup dumplings (xiaolongbao or siu long pao).  Xiaolongbao are steamed dumplings filled with broth.  They are a southern Chinese specialty often associated with Shanghai, and are surprisingly difficult to find in the US -even in the San Francisco area- so getting them was a rare treat.  They are tasty, but especially, they are fun because they are so different to other buns or dumplings.

Another fun treat was an order of zu chai pao, sweet buns colored yellow and shaped like cute little piglets. They were filled with a sweet paste with pecan bits and were a nice way to end the meal.

Jirón Paruro 836

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rally against pardon for former dictator

"Peru against the pardon"

Coincidentally following my attending a Thursday-evening colloquium on the right to protest, on Friday evening I exercised that right as a Peruvian citizen by adding my voice to a protest in downtown Lima against President Kuczynski's even considering pardoning or commuting the prison sentence of former dictator Alberto Fujimori.

Fujimori, who was elected president in the 1990 elections, dissolved Congress in April 1992 and, in a "self-coup", abrogated the democratic order and assumed dictatorial powers assisted by his sinister intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

The coup was initially widely welcomed by a public weary of political gridlock, economic crisis, and a spiral of criminal and political violence that seemed to be inexorably leading to a national debacle.  Soon, however, the nature of Fujimori and Montesinos' "firm hand" became clear as the press was threatened, muzzled, or bought off, human rights abuses mounted -including the forced sterilization thousands of poor women- and government corruption became the norm. Fujimori unleashed a secret military death squad against opponents who could not be cowed or bribed, and Montesinos went as far as installing kilns on the grounds of the ministry of defense in order to secretly  dispose of the remains of prisoners brought in by the death squad.

The whole apparatus of violence and corruption was propped up by a taylor-made constitution and a coterie of pliant Congresspeople. In time videos were leaked revealing the scope of the bribery and corruption of politicians and public figures. The country was fed up, the proverbial rats deserted the sinking ship, and the regime came tumbling down in November of 2000.

Fujimori was arrested in Chile in 2005, extradited to Peru in 2007, and convicted of human rights abuses in 2009.  He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Nevertheless, his administration is widely credited with controlling inflation and stabilizing the economy, advances in infrastructure, and bringing an end to the Shining Path insurgency.  He thus retains a margin of popularity and many still regard him as "Peru's best president".  His children -Keiko and Kenji Fujimori- head a political party premised on his legacy, and which has continually pushed successive presidents for a pardon or commutation of his sentence.

It seems that this time, in the politically weak President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the fujimoristas -who control Congress- have finally hit on a national executive who would seriously consider granting their request presumably in return for political an legislative cooperation.

As on other occasions, when the idea was publicly floated human rights organizations, political parties, labor unions, student groups, victims' relatives, and other indignant citizens, took to the streets, taking over the Plaza San Martin to make our voices heard demanding that Fujimori be made to serve his entire prison term.

Marchers carry photos of some of the victims of the "Grupo Colina" death squad

"La Cantuta" National Education University students' banner bearing the images of the nine students and one professor
killed at Fujimori's order in the 1992 La Cantuta Massacre.

Relatives of Javier Rios, an 8-year old boy killed along with 14 adults in the Barrios Altos Massacre in 1991.

Human Rights Colloquium

Well, most of my early days here so far have been spent partly in recovering from the travel and getting some basic things squared away.  However, on Thursday evening last, I attended a colloquium on human rights and the right to protest at the nearby Hotel Meliá. 

The colloquium was hosted by the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (Association For Human Rights, APRODEH), which has been one of the leading defenders of human rights in Peru for many years, including right through the internal war years of the 1980s and 1990s. The colloquium featured a panel of speakers from human and civil rights organizations from Peru, Mexico, and Colombia.

The similarity of the challenges faced by critics of governments across the continent in trying to exercise their right to social protest was striking; as was the similarity with the challenges faced by critics in the USA.

Across the continent, members of civil society wishing to exercise their right to public protest -a right enshrined in international law and in the constitution and legislation of every nation- face an ever increasing set of obstacles.  On one end, there has been a trend toward requiring previous notice of the intent to protest, the requirement that time, place, and manner of protest be pre-approved by the government, and holding organizers responsible for the actions of any and every individual who attends.  On the other end, there is the tendency to view critics and protesters as an "internal enemy" of the state, and thus to use heavy-handed responses to protests.  Particularly after 2001 there has also been a trend toward applying anti-terrorism legislation to social protest situations, thus turning many activities that are part and parcel of street protests, and which had not previously been considered illegal in and of themselves or aren't illegal outside the context of a protest, into criminal offenses meriting prison terms.

 Needless to say, it was an interesting event, with much to reflect on.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

In Lima ...

I’m in Lima and, oddly for mid-winter, the sun is shining this afternoon.  Taking advantage of that, after lunching at my uncle’s house, for my first outing of this trip, I walked the few blocks over to Plaza San José, the main plaza of the Lima district of Jesus Maria, and made my way to Heladería Palermo.

Palermo is one of Lima’s most venerable ice-creameries. It’s been there since the 1950s, and in it’s heyday of the 1950s to 1970s people would come from all over Lima for a cone during the summers.
I remember having to stand in a line that went out the door on a hot afternoon the first time my parents took me there.  Back then the ice cream was made on-site –the machinery was visible behind the counters- using seasonal fruits.

I don’t think that it is still made there, but it might be.  The back part is now blocked from view, and I forgot to ask.  The ice-cream, however, still as good as ever, with native fruit flavors such a camu-camu, aguaymanto, guanábana, lúcuma, and maracuyá.