by George Gemelas
In Peru, to drink water you must buy water. Water from the tap is unsafe. At restaurants, you must request bottled water, which usually cost a little less than $1.00. But the water one gets at restaurants isn’t enough; the canker sores that line my cheeks insist on reminding me that.
As a tourist, constant dehydration is a struggle. We Americans aren’t used to paying for water, and we aren’t about to start. I bought a 7 liter plastic bottle today, sin gas, and it has been my fuel for our daily treks. How can Peruvians keep track of ensuring there is fresh water? It seems utterly inconvenient.
Plastic bottles provide for water but create their own problems. Peruvian citizens are forced to buy water, but at the same time must discard bottles in a responsible way. Where could massive quantities of these bottles possibly go? The shantytowns of Lima, the extremely poor neighborhoods caused by rapid urban migration of the 70s and 80s, are covered in dust, the musk of swine raising, and those necessary evils called plastic bottles. The evils are flattened into the ground like receipts of memory, never degrading. In more developed areas, bins for metal, paper, and plastic are squished into corners on streets and in buildings. One of the most common jobs of those in the shantytowns is to pick up and turn in wastes like plastic bottles. They get around 1 cent for each collected.
Lima sits along the Pacific coast, and the ocean, with its evaporation, brings in much humidity. But Lima is a desert. The limeño desert is most evident when one exits the hub of the traffic and roads and buildings and people and feels the outskirts of the city, in those shantytowns. The shantytowns, which perhaps should be named shantycities for sheer size, were declared unsuitable for human habitation. It is miraculous that limeños have constructed an oasis of parks and trees that holds a population that exceeds that of New York City.
The humidity is deceiving. Many of frizzy-haired trip reporters have talked about how they forgot to anticipate such incredible levels of humidity, which reach 80-100%. The way the ocean currents and the atmospheric currents interact ensure that humidity is permanent, but rain itself seldom falls. Take a look at Miraflores, the municipality where we stayed, and you will find many palms and grassed areas that would beg to differ. A few years ago, there was a study that asked limeños what color they saw their city. They saw it as green. For a city built in the desert, water is very important.
Another unpleasant part of the water experience is seen in bathroom. No flushing toilet paper. The sewage system cannot handle it.
People drink water, throw away the bottles, drink more, forget about rain. Something about the miracle that is civilization in Lima, Peru, seems to wash away the knowledge that water in a desert can only happen because of the ingenuity of humans. But we citizens undoubtedly forget this. Understanding that water does not just come from a bottle, con gas, or spilling from a tap, is perhaps necessary to ensure that our cities back home don’t fester with the plastic evils. Understanding will demand for systematic improvement of water resources. In Lima, water is scare. I wouldn’t want it to become scarcer.