If You Meet a Lion, Just Pretend Nothing Happened

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If you meet a lion on your way to the toilet block,” I was told, “whatever you do, don’t run. Only food runs. And don’t turn your back on it either. Walk slowly, back to your tent, zip it up and pretend nothing happened. Just remember that you’re not their main source of food. And make sure you have your torch with you at all times.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face a lion without it,” I said.

The Serengeti is just south of the Equator and the nearest town is hours away, and when the sun sets it just drops from the sky and the darkness is suddenly total. The piercing whistle of ten thousand cicadas stole the silence, and birds sporadically cackled and whooped as I zipped up the tent and turned in for the night.

There was nothing to stop the animals coming into the campsite, no fence, no hedge, no one ready with a tranquiliser gun, just in case. Two separate herds of elephants had wandered through that afternoon and trumpeted, stamped and flapped their ears if anyone went too close with a camera. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed around the edges. Baboons were all over the place.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I made the long, lonely walk to the toilet block, surrounded by the buzzing cicadas. A glow worm would have been disappointed with the light my wind-up torch gave out. The oinking grunts of the wildebeest were close at hand but they were out of sight. They sounded to be inches away. If they were nearby then, surely, so were their predators. There might have been a lion a foot from me. Remember that you’re not their main source of food. Not their main source!

Don’t run…don’t turn your back on it…walk slowly back to your tent. It is easy enough to say; but if the yellow eyes of a 400lb lion had blazed at me through the night, I would undoubtedly have turned and run, in any direction but the right one.

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Baboons began barking. It is a horrible, heart-rending sound: a sound of terror, a sound of unbearable pain. Or so it seems, at least, when you hear it when out, alone, in the sinister East African night. “If the baboons are barking,” I recalled someone saying, “it means that leopards are close”. So leopards were out there somewhere, as well. The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked, a bird trilled, but still I saw nothing. I would not have seen anything, even if something was there. With my useless torch, I would have fallen over a leopard before I saw it.

The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked and something howled. Hyena? Jackal? I didn’t know what it was but quickened my step until I was all but jogging and reached the toilet block and shut the door and flicked on the light and met an enormous spider.

I got back to the tent and fell into an uneasy sleep, until I was jerked awake again by the gurgling roar of a territorial lion. I would, I supposed, get used to all this in time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Keeping it Capsule

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An alley led through to the cheaper restaurants, a few hostess bars and the capsule hotel I was looking for.

I took my shoes off at the door and put them in a locker. There was a sign with a tattooed man crossed out. It technically meant what it said: that you were not allowed in if you had tattoos, but what it really meant was that you were not allowed in if you were a gangster. The yakuza famously have full-body tattoos.

I filled out a form at the desk and paid, and they handed me a pair of pyjamas, a towel and a plastic wristband with a locker key folded inside. It looked like something the courts would impose on you for a minor criminal offence.

Capsule hotels are aimed at salarymen who have got too drunk at corporate events to find their way home, or would not be let in by their wives if they did. But they are used, much like hostels, by anyone who wants a cheap place to sleep in the city. The other guests were all Japanese, and sober; but it was still a bit early.

There was a vending machine in the lobby with everything a guest might need in the morning: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kit, clean underwear and headache tablets. The inside of the lift was papered with flyers for food – to soak up the drink – coffee – to sober you up – laundry – in case you had made a mess down the front of your suit – and massages – in case you could not make it to the hostess bars round the corner.

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On the upper floors, there were beer vending machines and rows of desks with power sockets and partitions, so that sozzled salarymen could set up their laptops and bash out emails they might suddenly remember in the morning, with a stab of panic, as they open their eyes experimentally and start to work out where, why and how.

I changed into the pyjamas, which were made of brown corduroy and reminded me of the jacket my middle school art teacher wore, and shut my clothes and daybag up in the locker. The backpack had to stay out in the corridor.

There were sinks and toilets on that floor and a communal bath in the basement. It was the usual Japanese set up, with sit-down showers around the wall where you scrubbed yourself up before soaking in the hot tub. There were sauna rooms, too, and because it was all-male they had televisions inside screening football, instead of that soothing music which is supposed to evoke temples and beaches.

The capsules were arranged like train station lockers, stacked two-high in parallel rows with a walkway of perhaps two metres wide between them. Some of the guests had left their screens open and, with the rows of feet, it was hard not to think of a morgue. There were rubberised steps and a chrome grab handle to get to the upper capsules. It was like climbing onto the back of a truck. I would not like to try it if I were in no state to get myself home.

The capsule was much nicer than I had imagined, though. It was more cosy than claustrophobic. There was enough room to sit up and read, and a decent light to read by; and there was a television, in case I wanted to watch people being loud and hysterical in a language I did not understand. It was quiet enough with the screen pulled at the end and the sliding door shut on the communal area; but I wore earplugs anyway. Some of the drunker guests who arrived in the early hours made enough noise to wake me up as they tumbled in, but I slept at least as well as I ever do in hostels.

© Richard Senior 2015

Byron Bay: If You Can’t Surf or Skate, Do a Handstand

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No one in Byron Bay seems to do what parents call a proper job.

They run craft shops and galleries, surf shops and skate shops. They play Spanish guitars on street corners for dollars. They make and sell funky jewellery. Or they sit on the rocks and sketch. In their spare time, they surf. Everyone surfs. Old men, surf. Teenage girls, surf. Little kids surf.

You are never more than six feet from a surfboard. They are on sale and for hire in the shops. Strapped to the top of Volkswagen campers, slung in the back of vans, poking through the hole where the window used to be in an old Holden estate. Laid out in rows on the beach.

I watched the surfers riding the swell and gliding right onto Main Beach, or else falling headlong into the waves, then getting right up and trying again. It has got to be the coolest of sports.

But if the surfers are cool, the lifeguards are cooler, strutting about the beach, looking as if they have been carved out of marble. Those who are neither surfers nor lifeguards find their own way to be cool. One spent a day on the beach doing handstand after handstand. Another stood facing the sunbathers, juggling four balls without pause for a morning. He was not after spare change: just showing off.

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One evening I saw a guy on a mountain bike pop a wheelie and sustain it all the way down Jonson Street. A unicyclist passed him, going the other way. Guys in their twenties and thirties skate barefoot round town on old-fashioned downhill boards. I saw one the other side of 45 skating down Marvell Street. Even he looked cool.

Jonson Street, Marvell Street, Tennyson Street, Burns Street: it was all, apparently, a misunderstanding. Captain Cook sycophantically named Cape Byron after Vice Admiral The Hon. John Byron, whose grandson, George, would become a famous Romantic poet to help him pick up girls. But a clerk in Sydney assumed it was that Byron, and named the streets of the town after all the poets he had heard of.

I am not a surfer and I have not skated since I was 15, and I have never learned to ride a unicycle; so I went sea kayaking instead.

I paddled hard through the waves the surfers are there for, let them lift me up and carry me over and slap me back down at the other side; then again and again, until I was through and into smoother water. I spotted a pair of dolphins out to the left, leaping joyously out of the ocean: a wonderful sight. They slipped under the water and disappeared and I paddled on round the easternmost point of Australia.

The sun was hot, the sky was clear and it was hard to think of a more perfect morning.

© Richard Senior 2015

Potosí: Rich Hill, Macho Beef and Altitude Sickness

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Un Potosí is a Spanish idiom which loosely means a fortune. It is credited to Cervantes, who had the mad Don Quixote say: “the mines of Potosí would be insufficient to pay thee”. He was alluding to a city four hours southwest of Sucre, where Bolivia’s Central Highlands blend into the Altiplano. 

Nowadays it has the look of an old, unloved Rolls Royce, curbed and keyed, filled with junk, but still nonetheless a Rolls Royce. The buildings are painted in blues and reds, yellows and greens, muted now, but obviously striking once. The pompous columns, the intricate doorways, the heavy iron grilles on windows all sing the same song. The words are on the coat of arms:

            I am rich Potosí

            Treasure of the world

            King of all Mountains

            And the envy of kings

The King of all Mountains dominates the city, visible from every street. Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), it is called, because it is laced with silver. It is popularly said that the Spanish shipped out enough of it to build a bridge to Madrid. They shipped slaves the other way, from Africa, because the indigenous workforce kept dying and they still had targets to meet.

The mountain is like a honeycomb, now, after five hundred years of unconstrained digging; and engineers worry that the whole thing might collapse. But the miners are fatalistic. They have to be. They work with hammers and chisels, picks and shovels, breathe the foul air, and carry rock on their backs to the surface. Wads of coca leaves and cheap, strong alcohol get them through the day. They are all likely to be dead before 40. Even if they avoid the frequent cave-ins and runaway trucks, silicosis will get them anyway.

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Agents all over town arrange tours of the mines, with a stop at the market to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite as presents to give to the miners. Some dismiss it as voyeurism, others think it educational. I was not sure what I thought, but on balance I was minded to go.

Altitude sickness decided the point in the end. It crept up on me during the bus ride from Sucre and left me unable to do much except read and drink coca tea. At 4,090 metres above sea, Potosí is higher than most of the Alps; but the guidebooks overreach themselves when they call it the highest city in the world. It was not even the highest I had been on that trip: El Alto is at 4,150. But altitude sickness is hard to predict. It gives no credit for being fit and healthy, nor for being used to altitude. It can do anything right up to killing you of pulmonary edema; but in my case it was much like a hangover with laboured breath as a bonus. I was fine by the time I went to dinner.

Pique a lo macho is aimed at men with Popeye arms. It seemed the right thing to order in a tough guy town like Potosí. The cook sautés strips of beef with garlic and cumin, adds beer and reduces it, then tosses with slices of onion, tomato and chilli, balances it all on a plate of fries and garnishes with hardboiled eggs. Finishing one alone has about the same significance as eating three Shredded Wheat. It means you are a greedy bastard.

The beef was tender and the flavours were good but I could only manage half. I am not at all a tough guy. I like cats and poetry and even wear a coat in winter.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Hostel Environment

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I was woken at six by the sounds of five people simultaneously stripping beds, emptying lockers and stuffing things into backpacks. Zip – rustle – bang! – thwock – zip – rustle – zip – clang! – zip –  thump, thump! – crackle – zip. 

But they whispered so as not to disturb me.

I had the dorm to myself for most of the morning until a big scowling bloke burst through the door. “Hey, mate; how you doing?” I said, and he glared and said “all right, mate” in a sepulchral tone which made it sound like a threat. Then he collapsed on his bunk, groaned and muttered, jerked and bucked and I wondered if he was drunk, or insane.

I left him to it and he was asleep by the time I got back in the early evening, and I crept around the dorm to be quiet, but I was obviously not quiet enough. “Fuck! Fuck! Fucking-fuck!” he said, as the sleep began to wear off, Then he sprung upright in the bunk and said, “Fucking-fuck, mate! Fucking-fuck!” as if I had just crashed into his car. It was some of the most creative swearing I have heard since a farmer near the village in which I grew up paused to swear in the middle of saying the name of the nearest town.

So I left in a hurry again and went up to the roof terrace where they were having a barbecue and stayed up there until late. Then, at four in the morning, Fucking Fuck’s mobile rang at the volume of a fire alarm and he took the call, had a loud conversation, stumped out and slammed the door.

I went back to sleep for ten minutes or so until I was woken by urgent hammering. I guessed that Fucking Fuck had forgotten his fob – I had done it myself a few times – but it was another, much older guy, who might have been Fucking Fuck’s father. “Is Andrew up yet?” he asked loudly, as if it were quarter to ten. Then he invited himself in and shouted “Andrew! Andrew?” prompting groans and sighs and symbolic turning over from all around the room.

I told him that Andrew had left already and I never saw either of them again.

© Richard Senior 2015

Of Poop and Parties: San Pedro de Atacama

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They were full of shit.

The islands to the south of Peru were thick with seabird guano. It made excellent fertiliser, and Peru millions. They exported it all over the world. In 1864, the Spanish used a flimsy excuse to occupy the islands, and Peru, Bolivia and Chile went to war with them and won. It was the first time that nations had fought over bird shit.

Then, when saltpetre from the Bolivian desert became even more marketable than seabird crap, a Chilean company secured the right to mine it free of tax. But Bolivia reneged. Talks went nowhere, and they ended up at war. Peru joined in on the Bolivian side. But Chile resoundingly won and shifted its border hundreds of miles north through Bolivia and into Peru. Bolivia lost its saltpetre deposits and coastline; Peru lost some of its guano. There is bitterness about it still, 130 years later.

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The Chilean army marched on San Pedro de Atacama in 1879 and Bolivia never saw it again. It is an arty, bohemian enclave now, a charming place. Adobe shoeboxes with peeling whitewash and beaten up doors line the main road and half a dozen side streets. The shops sell copper jewellery, textiles and indigenous art. Alternative types sit in the plaza in the shade of the trees overlooking a cute little colonial church.

Two jeeploads of us arrived from Bolivia and, whether it was the waves of positive energy the hippies claim to feel, or the stupefying sun, or just a sense of release after three days driving across the altiplano, everyone seemed to be in a party mood. We went out en masse to eat, swapped stories about scams and overnight buses, and stayed on until late for cocktails.  Some peeled off to their hostels, and the rest of us went looking for a club.

But San Pedro is not as liberal as it seems. There are no clubs, no late bars; in fact, no bars at all outside of the restaurants. There is nowhere to drink legally after one in the morning, and nowhere where it is legal to dance. I discovered that later, though.

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Some locals invited us to a beach party, which was a puzzle because San Pedro is a long way from the coast. Or at least it would have been a puzzle if any of us had been sober. I was not happy with the idea of following them out of town and down a dark lane and away from any houses; but dozens of gringos joined the procession, travellers who had stopped off on their way north or south.

We bought beer from a guy who had stockpiled a few crates and was selling it off can by can, and we plodded up and down the dusty hills, shouting and giggling and talking crap, and the drunkest of our crowd fell over a lot, until we eventually got to the ‘beach’. It was a quarry. The party was a hippie with a Spanish guitar and a bunch of his mates quietly singing along. It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan. But it was all there was in San Pedro.

There was an earthquake next morning which shook the town and knocked things off shelves, but no one who had been to the party noticed. I stumbled out into the blinding sun and trudged in agony to the restobar on the corner, where I ordered two cafés con leche and a medium-sized pizza for breakfast.

My head throbbed, my stomach churned and my mouth felt lined with guano.

© Richard Senior 2015

Dingoes and Dad Jokes on Fraser Island

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Fritz was from Austria but had lived in Australia for decades. He was a likeable bloke, although his jokes were all terrible, and he told them relentlessly and we were stuck in a jeep with him all day.  Troy, who drove the other jeep, was as Australian as Vegemite and didgeridoos. He was a big man with a bush hat and mirror shades, and a head full of imagery like “as busy as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition”.

We trundled off the ferry as it docked at Fraser Island and cut through the rainforest, where Fritz pointed out scribbly gums and funnel web spiders’ nests, then stopped at a lake where the sun arranged shapes on the water and the others swam and I sat on the bank and got bitten by sandflies. Fruit, cheese, biscuits and Fritz’s bad jokes, then back in the Land Cruiser, back through the rainforest and onto the beach and a fast run down the creamy sand, watching out for the plane which uses it as a landing strip.

The sky went into a sulk and flung a few minutes of rain at the windscreen. We slowed to look at wild dingoes loping guiltily along the beach and stopped to photograph the wreck of the Maheno, a grand Edwardian liner which slipped its towline and beached on its way to the scrappers in 1935. No one could be bothered to shift it from there and it has been left to decompose.

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Then back in the jeep, speeding down the Seventy Five Mile Beach, slowing to bounce over half-buried rocks, then taking a hill at a run. The sky had cheered up by then. Sandwiches, crisps and beer for lunch.

“Grab some more food, mate,” Troy said.

“No I’m good, mate.

“Another beer then.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Does your husband know you’re out?”

We stopped again in the afternoon to clamber up rocks and look out across the frothing ocean, and get bitten by more sandflies; and then again to laugh at a tour bus which had got too close to the water and sunk up to its axles and was listing hard to port. Then hurrying to catch the ferry back to Hervey Bay.

© Richard Senior 2015 

Faded Huế

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The arches of the Trường Tiền Bridge soar and dip over the Perfume River, where barges which look two centuries old chug back and forth throughout the day, towards and away from the watercolour mountains far off to the west, and where, of an evening, traders spread their goods on blankets laid out on the bank, and street food vendors light their grills and the flames dance and the smoke coils up and the shrimps sizzle and scent the air, and big neon signs flash adverts from the opposite bank, and lights along the span of the bridge sweep from white to purple to yellow to blue to red to green and white again.

Huế was the capital for the Nguyển dynasty which ruled Vietnam from the start of the nineteenth century. A matryoshka of citadels, one inside the other, led through to the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor lived with his concubines. There were moats and bastions and multi-tiered gateways; and palaces and temples, and gilded columns and carvings and fretwork, and cylindrical tiles surmounted by dragons. It was a place of exquisite beauty.

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But the city was bombed and shelled and shot at by three different armies in the French and American wars and much lay in ruins when the bell clanged on the final round of the Battle of Huế, which the US Marines won on points.  “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?” asked a Marine captain, echoing what another officer had said about Bến Tre further down south a month before.

There is not a lot left of the Forbidden Purple City beyond the stumps of shattered brick which poke from the grass where palaces used to stand, and a portentous flight of steps bookended with dragons which carries you up to an anti-climactic flower bed laid out in the broken foundations.

Elsewhere in the complex, the buildings have been carefully restored and rebuilt. The work is ongoing and, while I was there, men were tearing tin sheets from the roof of a ravaged temple. Enough has been done to evoke the majesty of the Imperial City that was; but there are still dozens of buildings blackened by napalm, pierced with shells, pitted by bullets, untouched and left to decay since 1968, when the battle staggered to its wearied close.

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I spent a good two days wandering the site and – away from the parts which have been freshly restored – I was often alone and there was at least a moat and a two-metre thick wall between me and the bustle of the modern town outside the citadel and the only sounds I could hear were the chirping of birds, the chatter of cicadas and leaves gently falling from the trees.

I strayed into courtyards which time had grassed over and poked inside buildings which looked long forgotten with roofs sagging inwards and rotten doors hanging off hinges. I was not at all sure I was supposed to be there, but there was nothing to keep me out. In one quiet corner, I happened upon an elephant, chained up like a guard dog and left unattended. It huffed and stamped its foot in warning.

In the late afternoon, I left the citadel and made my way across the bridge and back to the hotel with the closing scene of Full Metal Jacket screening in my head:

“We hump down to the Perfume River to set in for the night… I’m so happy that I am alive….”

© Richard Senior 2015

A Bus to Puno

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The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop.

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Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.

 

But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.

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I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

Landscape image: Shutterstock

A Perspective on Lima

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Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.

Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.

The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.

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I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.

Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.

The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.

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In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.

My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.

The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.

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The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.

(c) Richard Senior 2014