Waiting in Line

I've been in Peru for ten days. This trip has been different than the others. Not only has the language course I'm taking been immersive, so has the time outside the classroom. My friend, Teresita, has been my host for the last few days. She moved down here after spending four years in Fort Lauderdale. For the last few days, I have been staying at her family's house in La Molina, an "upscale" suburb located in the dry sandy hills outside Lima. The language school has been closed for the weekend through Monday and Tuesday, in recognition of Peru's Independence Day (July 28, 1821). So, I decided to hang out with Teresita. I'm going back to Lima today… back to the family I've been staying with via the home-stay program at the school. What has made this trip different from any of my many previous visits to Peru has been the fact that I'm not a tourist nor around any tourists. I'm living the daily life of an urban, middle class Peruvian and getting to understand this culture in a new way.

I never realized this before, but a great way to learn about the disposition of a people is to wait in line with them. I was forced to do this last night when Teresita and I, and Teresita's 21-year old sister, Maria, went to an Independence Day festival in downtown Lima. The mass of humanity was startling... the crowd numbering at least three-times that of a big college football game in The States.

The first thing we did was to find the end of the line, which was about ten blocks from where we got out of our taxi. The line, easily a mile long, wrapped around the huge Parque de Exposicion. With remarkable patience and good humor, the people in line waited, shuffling forward occasionally as the line slowly progressed. But, lines of such length exhibit interesting dynamics. Periodically we would be at a dead standstill for several minutes, yet there were moments when we had to run to stay closely behind the people in front of us and keep our place in line. For me the two-hour experience was like a pleasant nightmare. Looking down the broad boulevard I could see no end to the line, plus across the street another endless line for the other entrance on the opposite side of the boulevard. Yet, the people seemed to tolerate the wait well, evidently never "blaming" the faulty organization of the event planners whose process of getting people into the park while collecting 4 soles (about $1.50) from each person was pathetically inefficient and would have caused incessant whining (and maybe even a lawsuit or two) in an American context.

As our section of the line approached the gates of the park, the experience intensified. The people in line had to act in unity to prevent cheaters from breaking into the line. The situation progressively became a war between Good and Evil, as scores of people unwilling to play by the rules looked for opportunities to cut in line - a tactic usually met with sharp rebuke from the abiding.

Closer to the park entrance, Peruvian police in full riot gear (helmets, shields, clubs...) threatened the barbarian horde that was either sneaking, rushing, or attempting to bullshit their way into the front of the line. Behind us, a brief skirmish broke out between line-waiters and a would-be line breaker. A gentleman involved rightly slapped the face of the lady who was insisting she should enter the line.

The line continued to fuse into one, principled living organism. Oddly, once we arrived within a few feet of one of the three little ticket booths, there was a total standstill. All but one of the booths had run out of paper tickets. Instead of letting the long-suffering patrons through to revel in patriotic glee, the paralyzing bureaucracy, so typical of many third-world countries, prevailed “No documents? No entry!” Now, the already arthroscopic pipeline into the park was constricted to the one booth that still had the little paper "Admit One" tickets, like the kind you get to board the bumper cars at the State Fair.

Alas, we eventually made it inside the park, a stunning place and a stark contrast to the madness on the streets.