Emerging from a clapped out bus into the sweltering and dusty Lima outskirts, I began to envy the air conditioned cocoon of my uptown home that I’d left that morning in order to visit one of the city’s fastest growing areas; the vast slum districts that encircle the city, euphemistically known as pueblos jovenes, the young towns.

Immediately, this 6 foot 4 inch, pale-faced outsider started to attract attention from the locals, congregated along the sides of unpaved roads, hawking drinks and roasting unidentifiable meat on open fires, while shooting bemused glances at this unfamiliar visitor. A gringo? Here?

Thankfully I was with Juan Gonzalez, a volunteer from SOLAC, one of the small number of organisations set up to relieve some of the worst hardships of life in this medieval world. A local hero in these parts, Juan walked me to the school that the organisation had built and introduced me to the caretaker and her eight year old daughter.

It was a Saturday afternoon and there were no children around, not even on the rusting playground that had seen many better days. “Everyone’s at work, even the kids,” Juan explained. “Around here, the only available work is making bricks and it takes the whole family to make enough bricks to get a good income.”

In this neighbourhood, known as Alto Peru, 50 Peruvian Soles per day (£12.50) is considered a good income for a family of eight people. For this, a family works a twelve hour day, from 4am to 6pm and produces around 1,000 bricks through a backbreaking process mixing the dusty earth with river water, packing it into moulds and laying the wet blocks out under the relentless sun. The youngest children are the ideal size to dart along these long lines of drying bricks, turning them regularly to ensure they dry evenly.

These brick makers construct their homes from whatever materials are to hand; mostly spare bricks, scraps of wood and corrugated iron. They live in the same dusty bowls from which they quarry the dirt for their trade, in some cases several metres below the natural ground level.

The Valbiva family is typical to the area. Originally hailing from Huánuco in Peru’s lush northern highlands, the two brothers give their names as Carlos and Johnny; false names in fear of repercussions from their landowner for talking with an outsider. Both in their early thirties, they made the long journey to Lima ten years ago, just two members of a mass exodus from the provinces to the capital caused by social unrest, successive economic crises and a long decline in traditional livelihoods among Peru’s largely indigenous rural communities.

“We were a farming family,” Johnny tells me, relishing the chance to describe his origins, emphasising to me that this place is not home. “But there wasn’t any work for us there. No work and no money. So there was no choice, we came to Lima.”

Carlos and Johnny did not come alone. The population of the Lima metropolitan area soared from 200,000 to eight million people over the last century and despite occasional attempts by various governments to reverse the flow, the semi-permanent pueblos jovenes, in the no-man’s land between city and desert, have continued to swell.

Arriving with little more than the clothes they were wearing, Carlos and Johnny consider themselves fortunate to have found a landowner who granted them permission to build a house in this dry, dust filled landscape. The cost of this sliver of land was a binding agreement to work for no one else, to churn out bricks and sell them exclusively to the landowner.

In this feudal system the landowner is lord, replacing the arms of the Peruvian state which barely reach into the outer fringes of its own capital. There are virtually no public services, scant medical facilities and no police presence. The landowners decide where a school will be built, a clinic established, or how much a family will be paid for their bricks. Just one thing is certain, the brothers tell me: “He collects our bricks every week and takes them on his truck. He gives us 50 soles for one thousand and sells them for 120.”

Johnny and Carlos married in Lima and between them the two couples have five children, aged between three months and 10 years old. With no savings or any form of social security, children are the only survival mechanism for families like this, someone to take care of them when they are too old to work. It is for this reason that even after efforts to prevent further internal migration, the pueblos jovenes continue to expand: an ever growing mass of people simply trying to provide for their own future.

But it is precisely this expansion that threatens the inhabitants’ own well being – as if living standards could fall any further. Lima, the world’s second biggest desert city, is watered by an inconsistent source of river water, originating from retreating glaciers high in the Andes. Exponential population growth has placed unprecedented pressure on the slum dwellers’ ability to find enough water to eke out a living in what would otherwise be a rocky desert.

And so these families of brick makers depend on thin channels of grey river water for their work and their sanitation. Drinking water is delivered by tanker twice a week but for everything else, washing, personal hygiene and mixing clay, inhabitants are in constant contact with the same filthy water that runs past factories, the city’s rubbish dumps and through the community’s open pit latrines. Illnesses such as polio, diarrhoea and dysentery are rife, outbreaks of cholera are not uncommon.

But what makes this barren, water starved world so unsettling for an outsider is the knowledge that just a few kilometres away, in Lima’s wealthy central districts, a different universe exists. A first world oasis in the heart of this third world city where clean running water is taken for granted, and climate controlled supermarkets sell imported Evian for 25 soles (£6) a bottle.

For Daniel Torres, the 25 year-old son of a high ranking civil servant, it is this version of Lima that is the natural habitat. Well educated and confident, he shows me a city that was unrecognisable from the world I’d visited just a few hours earlier.

“Welcome to San Isidro. You’ll like it here,” he said, grinning. “This part of town reminds me of Upper East, in New York. It feels classic, almost regal. There’s old money here, old families. It’s just a nice place, very well looked after.”

The reference to Manhattan was casual and natural. As he described his life in Lima’s most exclusive districts of San Isidro and Miraflores, Daniel outlined a story common to any of the Western world’s fortunate youth. Friendships and socialising, a college education in the United States and then career choices, a comfortable and happy family life.

But despite his privileged upbringing, Daniel remained acutely aware of the bizarre, almost unimaginable inequalities that exist within his own city. “We joke about ourselves, the middle classes, but no one laughs about the poor. It’s at the back of our minds but no one talks about that. It’s the big taboo.

“When we talk about Lima we don’t talk about the whole city. These neighbourhoods are what we consider to be our Lima. We live in a complete bubble, we don’t think of the rest of the city as part of our world.”

Perhaps it is natural that descendants of Spanish settlers should have a slightly disjointed relationship with their adopted land. “Our older generations identified themselves with the Europeans,” he explained. “Our grandparents felt Spanish, not Peruvian. It was only when the country – I mean, parts of the country – got richer and life became a lot better that people dropped this obsession with Europe. Now we have what we have in Lima and its good enough to recreate that world.”

But did this mean he could now identify with the rest of his city? “No. It’s a different world. We share a city, we share a country, but culturally, it’s very different.”

Ironically enough, it was only this absence of any shared identity that united Daniel with his fellow inhabitants of Lima. His eloquent explanations chimed with Johnny’s parting comments as I left the pueblos jovenes earlier that day.

“We don’t want to be here,” he told me, desperate to reinforce the obvious. “We can’t go back, but we’re still not Limeños. We don’t go into the city. It’s for white people, the gringos. We’re different.”

About the author

A Tale Of Two Cities

Matthew Barker

Matt has spent much of the last 10 years living abroad, including North and South America and SE Asia. He’s now back home in Sheffield, England, manning the fort at Horizon HQ and putting down some roots with his wife and their adopted Thai street dog.

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