Inca Kola: The Curious Peruvian Cola

What is that strange yellow beverage everyone is drinking?

It’s the first question a Peruvian food newbie asks when confronted with Peru’s ubiquitous soda: Inca Kola.

It’s a drink people either love or hate, but personal preferences aside, it has an interesting history in the annals of the global carbonated beverage world. It really is the tale of the little cola that could.

What many may not know is that the extremely sweet (some say the taste is similar to bubble gum or pineapple) and brightly yellow soda (some say it looks like, well, I’ll let you figure that one out) is one of just a handful of locally produced colas in the world that was never able to be beaten by the world’s number one soft drink: Coca-Cola.

Despite years of trying to dominate the Peruvian market, Coca-Cola finally gave up and decided it had to buy a share of Inca Kola because it simply couldn’t outsell it.

It was back in 1910, when a young English couple arrived by boat in the port of Callao to start a new life in Peru. Settling in Rimac, one of the most historic districts of Lima, José Robinson Lindley and his wife Martha opened a small shop where they sold homemade carbonated beverages.

In 1935, Lima was celebrating 400 years since its founding, and the Lindleys decided to produce a unique drink to commemorate the event and their new homeland.

José Lindley had learned of a concoction based on hierba Luísa, lemon verbena, and began experimenting with different mixtures, fussing with the ingredients and the levels of carbonation until finding just the right formula. Thus was born, Inca Kola, a fruity soda that was launched with this catchy slogan:

Inca Kola, sólo hay una y no se parece a ninguna.
Inca Kola, there is only one, unlike any other.

Isaac Lindley, José and Martha’s son, improved the technology and expanded Inca Kola’s reach in the Peruvian market. Within a few short years, Inca Kola was the leading bottled beverage sold in Peru, in part because it appealed to the Peruvian sense of national identity. After all, how many sodas are named after the Incas?

For years, Coca-Cola and its arch-rival Pepsi tried to dominate the Peruvian market, but despite their vast resources, they were never able to overtake Inca Kola as the preferred soft drink of the Peruvian public.

Inca Kola cleverly marketed itself as the nationalistic soft drink option, and Peruvians drank it by the gallons. Knowing the Peruvian market, Inca Kola targeted small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, offering incentives and marketing assistence. Partly due to national pride, partly due to its sweet flavor, and partly due to its cost (less than its rivals) Inca Kola became the leader of the Peruvian soft drink industry. One of its key marketing strategies was to convince Peruvians that Inca Kola was a much better complement to Peruvian food than either Coke or Pepsi.

Finally, in 1999, Coca-Cola and the Corporación José R. Lindley entered in a strategic alliance whereby the multinational purchased 50% of the company for a rumored $300 million. From its small, almost artisanal origins in Rimac, Inca Kola now has the largest soft drink bottling plants in Peru. Wherever you go in Peru, from coastal beach towns, to Andean villages thousands of feet above sea level, to the hot steamy jungle towns, Inca Kola is still the preferred soda of Peruvians.

Peruvians love their Inca Kola. There is a sense of pride that a soda in a small, poor country was not able to be overtaken by the most important beverage company in the world. Fast-food restaurants like the Peruvian company Bembo’s switched from Coke to Inca Kola, and even McDonald’s had to come to a unique agreement with Coca-Cola to allow both beverages to be sold in its restaurants, something unheard of in the fast-food restaurant industry. Inca Kola was like the persistent lover that had come into the marriage between McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. In Peru, Big Macs are eaten with Inca Kola, not Coke.

What has really surprised me is that in the past few years, Inca Kola is now available in many Latino-oriented supermarkets here in Los Angeles. Any Peruvian restaurant in the United States worth its salt sells Inca Kola. And, Inca Kola is now bottled at a Coca-Cola plant in New York state. This is due to the deal the Lindleys made with Coca-Cola.

Inca Kola has a mystique in Peru and I’m sure dissertations have been written about it. When the partnership between the two companies was clinched in 1999, the Lindleys came out winners. Not only had they earned an incredible sum of money, they were also awarded bottling rights at their plants for all Coca-Cola products sold in Peru, and Coca-Cola agreed to use its formidable marketing muscle to expand Inca Kola into markets outside of Peru.

For those who read Spanish, there is a great excerpt of an article in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra by Marco Avilés and Daniel Titinger (who allowed me to translate, The Ceviche Route in an earlier Peru Food post).

They tell the story of M. Douglas Ivester, Coca-Cola’s CEO who arrived in Lima in 1999 to work out the final details in the new joint venture. As part of the ceremonies, Ivester had to drink a glass of Inca Kola at a press conference which became a Peruvian media frenzy. It was the symbolic defeat of Coca-Cola in Peru. Quite simply, Coke was not able to convince the Peruvian public that it was a better soft drink. The next day’s newspapers all had photos of Ivester splashed on their front pages with the caption: Coca-Cola’s President Toasts with Inca Kola. In the cola wars, the Third World David had beaten the First World Goliath.

Rumor has it that Ivester hated the taste of Inca Kola, calling it too sweet, and some have less than kindly attributed this statement to him: Looks like pee, tastes like bubble gum.

That may be the case, but 28 million Peruvians can’t be wrong.

Written by Alejandro Garcia

Addicted to Manu

Manu Chao saved my life.

The story begins in early 1999 in Peru, when I moved there to go to school and be near my family. Life in Lima was easy to adjust to. I had been there before, knew the city, loved the food and spoke the language. But there was one thing I couldn’t quite understand: the music.

When my father emigrated from South America to San Francisco in 1962, he brought with him lots of music. By the time I was born, our living room was filled with stacks and stacks of scratched 45s and LPs bent at the edges because they had been smuggled in the corners of fake leather luggage. Thanks to my father, the soulful voices of Jesus Vasquez, Lucha Reyes and the gut-wrenchingly beautiful guitar work of Los Embajadores Criollos made their way through customs and into my heart. These people weren’t just musicians; they were teachers. They taught me poetry, Spanish and all about a land that, at that point, I had felt little connection with.

While packing for my move to Peru, I purposely avoided bringing a single CD of my own and instead left lots of room to bring back modern versions of what my father had found.

But by the end of the first week I nearly went crazy.

I had spread the word to my cousins and friends that I was looking for the best new Peruvian music. Invariably, they’d play back songs sung in English. Much of it was from the ’80s — Simple Minds, the Cure, Duran Duran. None of it was Peruvian.

After I insisted that I wanted something in Spanish, they finally delivered a stack of CDs and tapes of “rock en Español.” It was good stuff — Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Babasonicos and Andres Calamaro. But it was all music I already knew. And it was all from Argentina.

I tried the live route, but Lima is a city that lives and dies in the dance clubs. What little live music I found usually featured bands covering songs by … Simple Minds, the Cure or Duran Duran.

Seeing that I was clearly suffering from serious music withdrawal, a friend at my school knew I needed help — fast.

“I know a guy,” my friend said, using words that even in Spanish usually lead to a dark alley. “He’s got what you’re looking for.”

Two hours later, after school, I met this friend at our city bus stop. It wasn’t dark and it wasn’t in an alley. It was hot as hell, and we were at the front entrance of the university.

“This is your man,” he said, handing over a bootlegged 60-minute cassette with one side labeled “Manu Chao,” the other “Clandestino.”

I took the tape, thanked my friend and hopped on the bus. Popping the cassette into my Walkman, I expected to hear either a sappy love song or maybe a salsa version of “Girls on Film.” But within the first few seconds of Chao’s choppy acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics about an immigrant suffering from shame, condemnation and shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” I knew I had found what I was looking for.

For the rest of that year I lived in Peru, Chao’s “Clandestino” was all I listened to because it was all I needed. Not having any artwork or pictures on the tape to know for sure, I pictured Chao as a combination of all my heroes — Che Guevara, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Emiliano Zapata and my father. His songs, sung in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese, were the perfect soundtrack for what I was seeing and feeling on that bus ride from school — from the hot Latin American sun burning the vinyl seats, to the guy next to me smelling of tequila and seafood. Chao sang about my frustrated friends who had no idea if they could ever find a good job but knew how to forget about it at night and have a good time anyway. He perfectly described the lady from the Andes who lived her life on the floor of my bus stop. And Chao sang about all of this within two or three songs.

Because the first song on “Clandestino” has Chao shouting something about Peru and perfectly describing the country I was living in, I assumed he was from South America. But after checking the Internet, I found out he had been born in Paris, where he was raised by a Basque mother and a Spanish father, both of whom had fled Franco’s dictatorship.

Chao spent much of his youth hanging around the subways of Paris, where he met other musicians and formed bands influenced by punk rock, North African music and Bob Marley. They started a band in the ’80s called Mano Negra, which had some success in Europe and Latin America. I checked out some of the music, and it was cool — but it didn’t speak to me the way “Clandestino” did.

What made “Clandestino” so special was the way Chao recorded it. After Mano Negra split up, Chao meandered around the world for about eight years carrying just a small four-track recording machine and acoustic guitar with him. He spent much of the time in Latin America and recorded sound effects such as city buses and conversations in the street and sampled them into his solo songs, making it sound as if the song were being sung from the back of a bus in Latin American traffic.

“Traveling is my school of life,” he said in the only interview I’ve ever seen of him. “And that was the best school you can have.”

After recording “Clandestino,” he released the solo album in 1998 and said he expected “only his Mommy” would buy it. By the end of 1999, more than 4 million copies had been sold, and Chao was getting ready to play concerts to more than 150,000 people in Mexico City.

But in early 1999, when I was first becoming addicted to his music, it felt as if only a few people cared as much as I did. Convinced that Chao would be embraced by my Peruvian friends as their Bob Dylan, I always played “Clandestino” at our weekend parties. But instead of looks of approval, I’d usually get frowns from my friends, who would insist I put Metallica back on, or at least some salsa.

Outside my small circle of friends, the people I could tell did dig Chao were taxi drivers. Living in Lima means living in a taxi much of the time. Because of my addiction to “Clandestino,” I would only board taxis (usually old Volkswagen Beetles) that had cassette players. My drivers would usually be irritated that I insisted on playing my music, but if I offered a little extra cash, they’d deal with it. Within 30 seconds of Chao shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” each new taxi driver would suddenly get a rush of adrenaline and start driving faster. Sometimes they’d pretend they knew the song, even when I could tell that they were hearing it for the first time. That’s what good music is supposed to do to people.

Invariably, the taxi driver and I would be so engulfed in Chao’s music we’d forget where we were going. On one occasion, we missed the turn to my home and ended up lost in a very sketchy barrio. As the driver attempted to make a U-turn around a dead end, three thuggish dudes holding sticks and rocks in their hands approached the car and forced us to stop. The windows were down, and Chao’s music blared out, describing the dirt roads, poverty and frustration that was staring us in the face.

With a rock still in his hand, the leader of the pack approached the passenger side of the car where I was sitting and said in Spanish, “Hey, isn’t this a Manu Chao song?”

I nervously nodded my head.

“I love this song,” he said, smiling and singing along. Then he let us go.

Chao, who lives mostly in Spain these days, has since recorded two other full-length CDs and one live album, each critically acclaimed by my soul. Last year, in his spare time, he helped produce and record an album for the blind couple from Mali known as Amadou and Mariam. The album, “Diamanche a Bamako,” is another lifesaver.

by Delfin Vigil

Taxis in Lima, Peru

I was just getting ready to write about the incredible experience of riding in cabs through Lima, when I ran across this article which is so accurate and well written, that I rather pass it along instead of bothering you with my lack of articulation….

by Travis A. Smith

There is one taxi driver for every man, woman and child in Lima. They range in size from station wagon down to circus clown transport. You can identify a taxi by its propensity to slow down and draw near as you walk down the street, similar to a beggar asking you for change; also, they all have a colorful sticker in their front window in one of several biohazard fluorescent colors. In order to be licensed as a Lima taxi driver, there is a test that consists of a) finding a store that sells the brightly colored sticker, b) counting the correct change to buy it (change counting is a critical taxi-driving skill), and c) surviving the drive home.

Taxis are inexpensive; a trip across town cost between 8 and 12 soles (like dollars, but smaller), plus about three weeks off your life from the sudden burst of adrenalin caused by fear and elation as you weave through the matrix of one-way streets. You know that scene in the matrix where Keanu Reeves stands in an empty void, and says “We’re going to need a lot of guns?” Enormous rows of shelves leap into existence and sweep by him on each side; if he had been standing to his left, he would have been plowed into oblivion. Yes, it’s kind of like that.

Driving in Lima — let me rephrase that, because I would never, ever, ever drive in Lima despite being a long-time fan of the demolition derby — being driven around in Lima, is a never-ending, long-form game of chicken. Almost all streets are one-way, so that at every intersection, the driver only needs to watch for oncoming traffic from one other direction. I did see stop signs, but I never, ever witnessed one being heeded. In fact, the signs seemed mainly to indicate that there was no need to stop; most taxi drivers sped up at those places. Every intersection became a test of timing like that old Dragon Slayer video game where you had to make a quick combination of right, left, forward, stop, to avoid various crushing boulders and walls. Big vehicles, like trucks and buses, were more commonly treated as dumb, slow obstacles as opposed to being seen as metal death dealers deserving of extra respect. Several times, a taxi driver decided the best way to get out of a traffic jam was to drive in incoming traffic. And I saw an ambulance tired of being stuck behind stopped cars and suddenly drive the wrong way around a four-lane-wide traffic circle downtown.

Priority between two equal streets is decided, and this is completely true, by which driver honks his horn first. It is much more important to be able to hear than to be able to see, because seeing a sudden oncoming hazard didn’t seem to have any effect on the driver’s decision to go or stop. One night, my taxi driver actually got out a small flashlight during the drive and used it to look at the dials in front of him — I guess his night vision was a little lacking.

My personal best time for summoning a taxi in Lima was 8 seconds from the time I exited a building, but the record among my friends was even quicker — taxis will often lurch at you as you open the door to leave a building and will also even pursue you into supermarkets and up stairs.

However, no matter how dicey the taxi situation may seem, it’s far superior to the bus system. I never took a “combi” bus, but I do know several things about them. First, all buses are owned by private companies or people. Second, there are no pre-defined routes or stops. Third, each bus has a guy, or in some cases, a skimpily-dressed girl, who hangs out the side door and yells out the destination of the bus, exhorting people to take that particular ride home. Sometimes, the bus drivers change their mind about their destination in mid trip, in which case Spanish-speakers will know to transfer to another combi, and non-Spanish speakers will end up being driven to a pig-rendering facility.

Taxis have no meters so you must tell the driver where you want to go and agree on a price before you get in.
One thing I’ve learned very quickly is to never ride in one of those Daewoo Tico taxis. CNN described it this way in an article 2 years ago: “Being out in Lima’s chaotic traffic is often like being caught in a stampede of elephants, and Peru’s most common taxi — the Daewoo Tico — is the scurrying mouse underfoot.” Update on that article: the Tico is still alive and well! My guess is that every 2nd taxi is a little yellow card box on wheels.

Posted by Wolfy Becker

Inca Kola: The Curious Peruvian Cola

What is that strange yellow beverage everyone is drinking?

It’s the first question a Peruvian food newbie asks when confronted with Peru’s ubiquitous soda: Inca Kola.

It’s a drink people either love or hate, but personal preferences aside, it has an interesting history in the annals of the global carbonated beverage world. It really is the tale of the little cola that could.

What many may not know is that the extremely sweet (some say the taste is similar to bubble gum or pineapple) and brightly yellow soda (some say it looks like, well, I’ll let you figure that one out) is one of just a handful of locally produced colas in the world that was never able to be beaten by the world’s number one soft drink: Coca-Cola.

Despite years of trying to dominate the Peruvian market, Coca-Cola finally gave up and decided it had to buy a share of Inca Kola because it simply couldn’t outsell it.

It was back in 1910, when a young English couple arrived by boat in the port of Callao to start a new life in Peru. Settling in Rimac, one of the most historic districts of Lima, José Robinson Lindley and his wife Martha opened a small shop where they sold homemade carbonated beverages.

In 1935, Lima was celebrating 400 years since its founding, and the Lindleys decided to produce a unique drink to commemorate the event and their new homeland.

José Lindley had learned of a concoction based on hierba Luísa, lemon verbena, and began experimenting with different mixtures, fussing with the ingredients and the levels of carbonation until finding just the right formula. Thus was born, Inca Kola, a fruity soda that was launched with this catchy slogan:

Inca Kola, sólo hay una y no se parece a ninguna.
Inca Kola, there is only one, unlike any other.

Isaac Lindley, José and Martha’s son, improved the technology and expanded Inca Kola’s reach in the Peruvian market. Within a few short years, Inca Kola was the leading bottled beverage sold in Peru, in part because it appealed to the Peruvian sense of national identity. After all, how many sodas are named after the Incas?

For years, Coca-Cola and its arch-rival Pepsi tried to dominate the Peruvian market, but despite their vast resources, they were never able to overtake Inca Kola as the preferred soft drink of the Peruvian public.

Inca Kola cleverly marketed itself as the nationalistic soft drink option, and Peruvians drank it by the gallons. Knowing the Peruvian market, Inca Kola targeted small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, offering incentives and marketing assistence. Partly due to national pride, partly due to its sweet flavor, and partly due to its cost (less than its rivals) Inca Kola became the leader of the Peruvian soft drink industry. One of its key marketing strategies was to convince Peruvians that Inca Kola was a much better complement to Peruvian food than either Coke or Pepsi.

Finally, in 1999, Coca-Cola and the Corporación José R. Lindley entered in a strategic alliance whereby the multinational purchased 50% of the company for a rumored $300 million. From its small, almost artisanal origins in Rimac, Inca Kola now has the largest soft drink bottling plants in Peru. Wherever you go in Peru, from coastal beach towns, to Andean villages thousands of feet above sea level, to the hot steamy jungle towns, Inca Kola is still the preferred soda of Peruvians.

Peruvians love their Inca Kola. There is a sense of pride that a soda in a small, poor country was not able to be overtaken by the most important beverage company in the world. Fast-food restaurants like the Peruvian company Bembo’s switched from Coke to Inca Kola, and even McDonald’s had to come to a unique agreement with Coca-Cola to allow both beverages to be sold in its restaurants, something unheard of in the fast-food restaurant industry. Inca Kola was like the persistent lover that had come into the marriage between McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. In Peru, Big Macs are eaten with Inca Kola, not Coke.

What has really surprised me is that in the past few years, Inca Kola is now available in many Latino-oriented supermarkets here in Los Angeles. Any Peruvian restaurant in the United States worth its salt sells Inca Kola. And, Inca Kola is now bottled at a Coca-Cola plant in New York state. This is due to the deal the Lindleys made with Coca-Cola.

Inca Kola has a mystique in Peru and I’m sure dissertations have been written about it. When the partnership between the two companies was clinched in 1999, the Lindleys came out winners. Not only had they earned an incredible sum of money, they were also awarded bottling rights at their plants for all Coca-Cola products sold in Peru, and Coca-Cola agreed to use its formidable marketing muscle to expand Inca Kola into markets outside of Peru.

For those who read Spanish, there is a great excerpt of an article in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra by Marco Avilés and Daniel Titinger (who allowed me to translate, The Ceviche Route in an earlier Peru Food post).

They tell the story of M. Douglas Ivester, Coca-Cola’s CEO who arrived in Lima in 1999 to work out the final details in the new joint venture. As part of the ceremonies, Ivester had to drink a glass of Inca Kola at a press conference which became a Peruvian media frenzy. It was the symbolic defeat of Coca-Cola in Peru. Quite simply, Coke was not able to convince the Peruvian public that it was a better soft drink. The next day’s newspapers all had photos of Ivester splashed on their front pages with the caption: Coca-Cola’s President Toasts with Inca Kola. In the cola wars, the Third World David had beaten the First World Goliath.

Rumor has it that Ivester hated the taste of Inca Kola, calling it too sweet, and some have less than kindly attributed this statement to him: Looks like pee, tastes like bubble gum.

That may be the case, but 28 million Peruvians can’t be wrong.

Written by Alejandro Garcia

Addicted to Manu

Manu Chao saved my life.

The story begins in early 1999 in Peru, when I moved there to go to school and be near my family. Life in Lima was easy to adjust to. I had been there before, knew the city, loved the food and spoke the language. But there was one thing I couldn’t quite understand: the music.

When my father emigrated from South America to San Francisco in 1962, he brought with him lots of music. By the time I was born, our living room was filled with stacks and stacks of scratched 45s and LPs bent at the edges because they had been smuggled in the corners of fake leather luggage. Thanks to my father, the soulful voices of Jesus Vasquez, Lucha Reyes and the gut-wrenchingly beautiful guitar work of Los Embajadores Criollos made their way through customs and into my heart. These people weren’t just musicians; they were teachers. They taught me poetry, Spanish and all about a land that, at that point, I had felt little connection with.

While packing for my move to Peru, I purposely avoided bringing a single CD of my own and instead left lots of room to bring back modern versions of what my father had found.

But by the end of the first week I nearly went crazy.

I had spread the word to my cousins and friends that I was looking for the best new Peruvian music. Invariably, they’d play back songs sung in English. Much of it was from the ’80s — Simple Minds, the Cure, Duran Duran. None of it was Peruvian.

After I insisted that I wanted something in Spanish, they finally delivered a stack of CDs and tapes of “rock en Español.” It was good stuff — Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Babasonicos and Andres Calamaro. But it was all music I already knew. And it was all from Argentina.

I tried the live route, but Lima is a city that lives and dies in the dance clubs. What little live music I found usually featured bands covering songs by … Simple Minds, the Cure or Duran Duran.

Seeing that I was clearly suffering from serious music withdrawal, a friend at my school knew I needed help — fast.

“I know a guy,” my friend said, using words that even in Spanish usually lead to a dark alley. “He’s got what you’re looking for.”

Two hours later, after school, I met this friend at our city bus stop. It wasn’t dark and it wasn’t in an alley. It was hot as hell, and we were at the front entrance of the university.

“This is your man,” he said, handing over a bootlegged 60-minute cassette with one side labeled “Manu Chao,” the other “Clandestino.”

I took the tape, thanked my friend and hopped on the bus. Popping the cassette into my Walkman, I expected to hear either a sappy love song or maybe a salsa version of “Girls on Film.” But within the first few seconds of Chao’s choppy acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics about an immigrant suffering from shame, condemnation and shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” I knew I had found what I was looking for.

For the rest of that year I lived in Peru, Chao’s “Clandestino” was all I listened to because it was all I needed. Not having any artwork or pictures on the tape to know for sure, I pictured Chao as a combination of all my heroes — Che Guevara, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Emiliano Zapata and my father. His songs, sung in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese, were the perfect soundtrack for what I was seeing and feeling on that bus ride from school — from the hot Latin American sun burning the vinyl seats, to the guy next to me smelling of tequila and seafood. Chao sang about my frustrated friends who had no idea if they could ever find a good job but knew how to forget about it at night and have a good time anyway. He perfectly described the lady from the Andes who lived her life on the floor of my bus stop. And Chao sang about all of this within two or three songs.

Because the first song on “Clandestino” has Chao shouting something about Peru and perfectly describing the country I was living in, I assumed he was from South America. But after checking the Internet, I found out he had been born in Paris, where he was raised by a Basque mother and a Spanish father, both of whom had fled Franco’s dictatorship.

Chao spent much of his youth hanging around the subways of Paris, where he met other musicians and formed bands influenced by punk rock, North African music and Bob Marley. They started a band in the ’80s called Mano Negra, which had some success in Europe and Latin America. I checked out some of the music, and it was cool — but it didn’t speak to me the way “Clandestino” did.

What made “Clandestino” so special was the way Chao recorded it. After Mano Negra split up, Chao meandered around the world for about eight years carrying just a small four-track recording machine and acoustic guitar with him. He spent much of the time in Latin America and recorded sound effects such as city buses and conversations in the street and sampled them into his solo songs, making it sound as if the song were being sung from the back of a bus in Latin American traffic.

“Traveling is my school of life,” he said in the only interview I’ve ever seen of him. “And that was the best school you can have.”

After recording “Clandestino,” he released the solo album in 1998 and said he expected “only his Mommy” would buy it. By the end of 1999, more than 4 million copies had been sold, and Chao was getting ready to play concerts to more than 150,000 people in Mexico City.

But in early 1999, when I was first becoming addicted to his music, it felt as if only a few people cared as much as I did. Convinced that Chao would be embraced by my Peruvian friends as their Bob Dylan, I always played “Clandestino” at our weekend parties. But instead of looks of approval, I’d usually get frowns from my friends, who would insist I put Metallica back on, or at least some salsa.

Outside my small circle of friends, the people I could tell did dig Chao were taxi drivers. Living in Lima means living in a taxi much of the time. Because of my addiction to “Clandestino,” I would only board taxis (usually old Volkswagen Beetles) that had cassette players. My drivers would usually be irritated that I insisted on playing my music, but if I offered a little extra cash, they’d deal with it. Within 30 seconds of Chao shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” each new taxi driver would suddenly get a rush of adrenaline and start driving faster. Sometimes they’d pretend they knew the song, even when I could tell that they were hearing it for the first time. That’s what good music is supposed to do to people.

Invariably, the taxi driver and I would be so engulfed in Chao’s music we’d forget where we were going. On one occasion, we missed the turn to my home and ended up lost in a very sketchy barrio. As the driver attempted to make a U-turn around a dead end, three thuggish dudes holding sticks and rocks in their hands approached the car and forced us to stop. The windows were down, and Chao’s music blared out, describing the dirt roads, poverty and frustration that was staring us in the face.

With a rock still in his hand, the leader of the pack approached the passenger side of the car where I was sitting and said in Spanish, “Hey, isn’t this a Manu Chao song?”

I nervously nodded my head.

“I love this song,” he said, smiling and singing along. Then he let us go.

Chao, who lives mostly in Spain these days, has since recorded two other full-length CDs and one live album, each critically acclaimed by my soul. Last year, in his spare time, he helped produce and record an album for the blind couple from Mali known as Amadou and Mariam. The album, “Diamanche a Bamako,” is another lifesaver.

by Delfin Vigil

Taxis in Lima, Peru

I was just getting ready to write about the incredible experience of riding in cabs through Lima, when I ran across this article which is so accurate and well written, that I rather pass it along instead of bothering you with my lack of articulation….

by Travis A. Smith

There is one taxi driver for every man, woman and child in Lima. They range in size from station wagon down to circus clown transport. You can identify a taxi by its propensity to slow down and draw near as you walk down the street, similar to a beggar asking you for change; also, they all have a colorful sticker in their front window in one of several biohazard fluorescent colors. In order to be licensed as a Lima taxi driver, there is a test that consists of a) finding a store that sells the brightly colored sticker, b) counting the correct change to buy it (change counting is a critical taxi-driving skill), and c) surviving the drive home.

Taxis are inexpensive; a trip across town cost between 8 and 12 soles (like dollars, but smaller), plus about three weeks off your life from the sudden burst of adrenalin caused by fear and elation as you weave through the matrix of one-way streets. You know that scene in the matrix where Keanu Reeves stands in an empty void, and says “We’re going to need a lot of guns?” Enormous rows of shelves leap into existence and sweep by him on each side; if he had been standing to his left, he would have been plowed into oblivion. Yes, it’s kind of like that.

Driving in Lima — let me rephrase that, because I would never, ever, ever drive in Lima despite being a long-time fan of the demolition derby — being driven around in Lima, is a never-ending, long-form game of chicken. Almost all streets are one-way, so that at every intersection, the driver only needs to watch for oncoming traffic from one other direction. I did see stop signs, but I never, ever witnessed one being heeded. In fact, the signs seemed mainly to indicate that there was no need to stop; most taxi drivers sped up at those places. Every intersection became a test of timing like that old Dragon Slayer video game where you had to make a quick combination of right, left, forward, stop, to avoid various crushing boulders and walls. Big vehicles, like trucks and buses, were more commonly treated as dumb, slow obstacles as opposed to being seen as metal death dealers deserving of extra respect. Several times, a taxi driver decided the best way to get out of a traffic jam was to drive in incoming traffic. And I saw an ambulance tired of being stuck behind stopped cars and suddenly drive the wrong way around a four-lane-wide traffic circle downtown.

Priority between two equal streets is decided, and this is completely true, by which driver honks his horn first. It is much more important to be able to hear than to be able to see, because seeing a sudden oncoming hazard didn’t seem to have any effect on the driver’s decision to go or stop. One night, my taxi driver actually got out a small flashlight during the drive and used it to look at the dials in front of him — I guess his night vision was a little lacking.

My personal best time for summoning a taxi in Lima was 8 seconds from the time I exited a building, but the record among my friends was even quicker — taxis will often lurch at you as you open the door to leave a building and will also even pursue you into supermarkets and up stairs.

However, no matter how dicey the taxi situation may seem, it’s far superior to the bus system. I never took a “combi” bus, but I do know several things about them. First, all buses are owned by private companies or people. Second, there are no pre-defined routes or stops. Third, each bus has a guy, or in some cases, a skimpily-dressed girl, who hangs out the side door and yells out the destination of the bus, exhorting people to take that particular ride home. Sometimes, the bus drivers change their mind about their destination in mid trip, in which case Spanish-speakers will know to transfer to another combi, and non-Spanish speakers will end up being driven to a pig-rendering facility.

Taxis have no meters so you must tell the driver where you want to go and agree on a price before you get in.
One thing I’ve learned very quickly is to never ride in one of those Daewoo Tico taxis. CNN described it this way in an article 2 years ago: “Being out in Lima’s chaotic traffic is often like being caught in a stampede of elephants, and Peru’s most common taxi — the Daewoo Tico — is the scurrying mouse underfoot.” Update on that article: the Tico is still alive and well! My guess is that every 2nd taxi is a little yellow card box on wheels.

Posted by Wolfy Becker

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