The Fog in Lima
People say that the weather in Lima is horrible. As the 19th-century Peruvian poet Pedro Paz Soldán y Unanue put it:
The weather in whose atmosphere I am bathing
Is a remarkable weather, nothing more than
A soft malaise from January to January
And a feeling one is dying all year round.
It’s been unexpectedly warm in Lima for April. Conversations about the weather, which should be anodyne, a way to fill the void when there’s nothing else to talk about, have taken a slightly anguished turn. The question of whether winter will ever come keeps cropping up in talk shows and explainers on the radio.
I’ve only been in Lima in the summer months, from December to April, when it’s warm and overcast. Winters, from June to October, are mild (with temperatures between 12 and 19 degrees) but damp and foggy. It almost never rains.
Last December, Peru’s elected president, Pedro Castillo, was ousted and arrested for attempting to dissolve Congress to avoid an impeachment trial. More than sixty civilians died during the protests that followed his removal, but the interim president, Dina Boluarte, has refused to resign. A former president, Alejandro Toledo, was extradited from the US this week to face bribery charges.
My ‘aunt’ Edith (in fact the ex-wife of my mother’s second cousin) lives in Miraflores, an upscale district near the ocean. When she bought her upper-floor flat fourteen years ago it had a view of the Pacific. Since then high-rises have mushroomed and almost entirely block the view. If you go out on the balcony and look to your right you can just about see a tiny square of blue.
Early in the morning you can smell the sea. The building’s doorman told me it’s always like that. Soon, though, the traffic starts, its sound and smell covering everything. Lima is one of the most polluted cities in Latin America.
Teresa Cabrera Espinoza, a sociologist and poet who runs the blog LimaMalaLima (‘Lima Bad Lima’), told me about a meme that’s popular in the city, a still from Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite: a woman in the back of a cab is saying ‘Last night’s rain was a blessing’; the driver is thinking about his flooded semi-basement flat. The movie is set in Seoul but it resonates with Lima’s residents. Cabrera said she gets a sense of what the day will be like by how widespread the meme is in the morning.
Lima is located at the mouth of the Rímac river, on Peru’s arid coast. In the fancier districts, with their manicured lawns and even golf courses, you could forget it’s built in a desert. But the city has expanded far from the river into the foothills of the Andes and along the coast. The population of the metropolitan area is now more than eleven million. In the newer, poorer, less accessible parts of the city, people have no running water and rely on uncertain truck deliveries. When it does rain, the flooding and mudslides can be deadly.
The city is nicknamed ‘la gris’ (‘the grey’) because of the fog, caused by the hot coastal air mixing with cool, moist winds from the Pacific. In the warm months, it’s a strangely bright fog. For what it’s worth, I love this weather.
It’s different in winter. The fog can be so thick that my aunt can’t see the buildings across the street. Another relative told me that shoes at the back of a cupboard would turn green with mould if she didn’t air them every week. Pineapple rind put into water would start fermenting after one day. ‘Try it in London,’ she laughed. ‘Nothing will happen.’
In El Sordo Cantar de Lima (1993), a poetry collection that describes the experience of people who move from the provinces to the capital, Cesáreo ‘Chacho’ Martínez wrote:
There is no night and no day in Lima.
In the fog it’s difficult to know who is speaking to you, who loves you,
who spits on you.
Cabrera’s poetry collection Sueño de Pez o Neblina (‘Dream of a Fish or Fog’), published in 2010, portrays everyday life in Lima’s peripheries. ‘I’ve been imagining,’ she told me, ‘that the city is a place where we might be having a chat on a very cold winter morning – cold in Lima’s terms – and a fish might pass near us because of the density of the fog, or we could have gills, having adapted to the humidity, which is often near 90 per cent.’
For many people in the city, though, the fog is not a metaphor, as Cabrera emphasised: ‘The peripheries, especially the zones high up, where there are problems with access to water, housing made with very flimsy materials and where the level of humidity is even higher, are where respiratory diseases are concentrated, particularly among children.’
In central Lima, I saw few signs that the country had recently been shaken by protests. There were graffiti calling Boluarte an ‘assassin’ and denouncing a ‘genocide’; a burned out building had been condemned; armed police patrolled the streets.
Much of Castillo’s support came from rural areas and Indigenous voters. In Ayacucho on 15 December, the army – with new powers bestowed on them by Boluarte – fired live rounds at protesters, killing ten and injuring more than sixty. In Juliaca on 9 January, at least eighteen people were killed and more than a hundred injured by police. The protesters were demanding the dissolution of Congress, Boluarte’s resignation and the formation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.
The day after the Juliaca massacre the attorney general announced he would be investigating Boluarte and three of her ministers for genocide and other crimes. Congress has rejected all attempts at bringing forward a general election and her ‘temporary’ government could stay in power until 2026, when Castillo’s term was set to end. ‘It’s a difficult moment,’ Cabrera said. ‘We can’t see what is going to happen, we are too close.’ The fog, again.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.