The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Things To Do In Lima, Peru

In my third South American mystery novel, The Surreal Killer, one of the detectives, Suzanne, goes shopping for baby clothes at the Mercado de Las Incas in Lima with several women she meets at a scientific meeting.  Two of these women worked as scientists from government agencies in Lima and are based (their physical descriptions and their willingness to adopt Suzanne and show her the techniques for shopping at The Inca Market) upon the actual Peruvian government scientist who hosted our group from the University in Montevideo and me in 2010.   We spent that week in Peru teaching a course to about 50 Peruvian scientists and engineers about analysis and toxicology of the Microcystins, toxins produced by Blue-Green algae that can contaminate drinking water supplies.  A highlight of the week was Friday morning’s session, when we presented a condensed version of the 1-week course over the World health Organization’s (WHO) broadband network, which reaches to 19 different Latin American countries simultaneously in real time.  The WHO regional network, called the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), hosted almost 500 participants in 19 different countries for our morning course.  It’s a strange feeling knowing that you are talking to almost 500 people as you deliver your lecture or discussion to a camera mounted on a computer.

Blue-green algae grow in lakes, reservoirs, and wherever else you might find slow-moving or stagnant water that contains the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients they need to make little algae from.  Some of these algae make powerful toxins that can kill people and animals.  The recipe for disaster is a body of water, sunlight, and nutrients from agricultural fertilizers or urban sewers.  This is a worldwide problem, including the countries in South America that my novels are set in, and just about everywhere else.  It's also an area in which my scientific colleagues in Uruguay are making a major contribution to developing new and better methods to test drinking water supplies for the presence of these toxins. 

The traditional Peruvian delicacy that tourists flock to in Lima is ceviche, fresh raw fish or seafood marinated in lime juice and seasoned with herbs like cilantro.  This South American spin on sushi is really, really good, especially when it is accompanied by a cold beer as a snack or appetizer before dinner.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between sampling the ceviche and worrying about whether the ubiquitous blue-green algae we were discussing in the course shared the water with the fish we were eating so cheerfully.  This may be one of the places that the new assays being developed in Uruguay for the algal toxins will have some direct relevance for tourists in Lima in the future.

My actual visit to the Mercado de Las Incas was with the real “Gerardo and Andrea” from my second novel, The Ambivalent Corpse, as well as another professor from The University of the Republic in Montevideo who was an expert on algae, and a graduate student from the university in Montevideo who taught the laboratory section of the Lima class.  I got a lot of help buying gifts for my wife, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter-to-be, who was about the same age as Suzanne's baby-to-be in the book.  The women from Montevideo were serious shoppers---things were cheaper by far in Peru than at home in Uruguay, so they stocked up on gifts.  I was guided in the Inca Market by real pros.  Several of the items Suzanne selected, or had selected for her, in the book were the same things that I bought from the Mercado de Las Incas in 2010.

On our last night in Lima, our hostess from the public health agency in Lima and several of the students invited us to join them at a "Folkloric" night club, where performers dressed as indigenous Incas danced, sang, made music, and shared the rich musical traditions and the folklore of the Andean cultures with the visitors to the club.  You didn’t need to understand all the words or the historical background to appreciate the spectacle that was unfolding on the stage.  Our entertainment was accompanied with liberal portions of Pisco Sour, the national drink of both Peru and Chile.  In fact, these two neighboring countries once fought a war over, among other things, bragging rights to who made Pisco, a local grape brandy, and who would own the region containing the city of Pisco (now and originally in Peru),

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