I was scared of dentists and the dark
I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations
Oh, all my friends are turning green
You’re the magician’s assistant in their dreams
I will forever link this song to a magical night in Lima last week. My husband Giovanni and I decided to go to a famous Chifa restaurant, which blends Chinese and Peruvian culinary traditions. I love to cook and eat and was very excited. We had to take a cab from the street because the hotel was incapable of calling us an affordable car service. We read that it is not safe to hail a cab from the street. Things happen.
Things happen. Lima is crazy congested. As the taxi stood idling in a bottleneck, we saw two men cramming large sacks of paper into a mid-sized car. Once the car was completely packed, one of the men then crammed the other man headfirst into the car. The second man was eventually stuck horizontally between the paper sacks, his face squished against the car window.
Our driver didn’t know where he was going. He kept mumbling, “Más o menos…” On the expressway people drove like maniacs. Worse than New York, if that’s possible.
After 45 minutes we arrived at Chifa Titi. It was spectacular, with glimmering disco columns, mirrors and something I only vaguely remember as glistening purple. There was an aquarium with a large suckerfish stuck to the side of the glass. An old lady with blonde-dyed hair and dark sunglasses sat at a table with a tiny old man. They seemed to be regulars; the staff eagerly gathered around them. The food was amazing. Fresh and unusual. We ordered Chaufa, fried rice with wild mushrooms, served in a little bowl; with it we had a huge portion of vegetable stir-fry with cashews and duck breast with fresh pineapple. The food had depth; it was crisp and colorful. You need good quality ingredients, and you need to know how to cook a vegetable to exactly the right consistency to achieve Chifa Titi’s results.
After we ate, we asked the owner for a cab. He told us one of his staff would hail a cab from street. “Is it safe?” I asked again. “All we can do is write down its registration number before you get in. But things happen,” he said. When we got out into the dark, a black car with tinted windows stood in front of the restaurant. The car, the waiter said, had just dropped off patrons. We got in. The tinted windows didn’t feel right to me. The fact that the man didn’t turn around to greet us when we got in. He didn’t speak. He took a route through dark alleys, away from the congested expressways we had taken to the restaurant. I had no idea were we were. For 15 endless minutes I felt like we were driving around in circles. I asked Giovanni if he felt safe. He said yes, but didn’t sound very convincing. He pointed at the pictures of two babies stuck to the driver’s console. “Look!” he said.
Do people who love their babies rob and murder, I wondered. “Speak to him,” I whispered. I have always found safety in talking to strangers. Once you begin chatting, the other person becomes more predicable. Not safer, just easier to read. As a result, my strategy has always been “tell me, tell me, tell me.” Giovanni is different. He mostly keeps to himself; talking to strangers strains him.
Just then a beautiful, soothing song came on. “Just tell him I like the music,” I said. “Mi señora…” Giovanni began. The song was “Riptide” by Vance Joy.
“My wife likes the music.”
The driver seemed relieved and started talking about the radio station, doble nueve. It has been around since 1979. They play a lot of lounge music. Next thing we knew we were all talking, switching back and forth between English and Spanish. We drove past prostitutes a couple of blocks from the main square, and the driver asked me to roll up my window. Things happen here. When we arrived at the hotel, the driver got out of the car, and we shook hands.
We hired him the next morning to take us to the airport. His two babies are now 6 and 20 years old. He once rescued a sick street dog, nursing him back to health by cooking him dog-biscuit soup. To hail a cab from the street isn’t safe, he said.
One hour later we read that 41 percent of store owners in Lima have been victims of robberies, and 12 percent have been robbed at gunpoint.