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Christmas in Peru - Part I - Mesa Redonda/Mercado Central

Posted by Marco Antonio Mendoza Thursday, December 3, 2009

well its that of the year again, when the weather starts getting cold out and the days are short.  Snow begins to fall and families gather at a local tree farms to pick out their Christmas Tree....WAIT A MINUTE what am I talking about I live in Peru not Oregon.  Here in Lima the weather is just starting to warm up as we enter summer, and I have spent many Christmas's here in Peru with my family.  Instead of skiing and snowboarding in the mountains we head to the beaches during the days and scour the crowded bars and discotecs at night.  In fact, I believe I have even seen Santa himself bringing gifts to all the children wearing only a t-shirt and shorts.

With Christmas only a few weeks away the citizens of Peru and Lima are busy at work preparing their shops, decorating their homes, and most importanting spending their hard earned soles, on just about everything.  That's right its a sellers market this time of year and each vendor is clocking in some serious hours as the holiday spirit (also known as the seasonal capitalistic effect) is in full swing.  In Lima, places like Comercial Centrales (large shopping developments)  are at full capacity as shoppers flood the aisles and stores in search of the quintessentail gift (preferrably one that doesn't cost too much).

One of Lima's most popular and frequented Shopping Centers is none other than El Mercado Central de Lima (Central Market of Lima), located in the center of Lima.  Here Peruvians from all over the country come to Mercado Central to purchase merchandise of all kinds to take back to their towns and cities to be sold at markedup prices.  El Mercado is also the place where thousands if not millions of Limeños and Chalacos frequent on a daily basis, and with the holiday season already underway the Mercado is seeing tremendous numbers of shoppers than normal.  The large number of shoppers is so overwhelming that certain streets in and around El Mercado are closed off to vehicles so that the shoppers can walk freely in between destinations.  At times the congestion of the foottraffic can become so overwhelming its almost clastrophobia inducing, and it creates a haven for theives so shoppers and visitors need to be on guard.  Christmas its not just for shopping its also a perfect season for crime and the theives know it.  They can always be spotted among the crowd if you stand in one spot and observe the people long enough.  They often travel in packs like wolves or hyenas just sitting and waiting for that hapless, unaware and unsuspecting victim.  Once they swoop in for the kill its usually too late because by the time the victim realizes whats happen its all over and they are left shocked look on their faces.

In El Mercado Central exsists a street or calle called Mesa Redonda (Round Table),  located near the infamous Calle Capon or Barrio Chino (Chinese Neighborhood - Chinatown) Mesa Redonda was long known for its vendors of pyrotechnics or more commonly fireworks, and not just any kind of fireworks...Illegal ones, you know the good stuff (the kind of stuff you have to travel to Washington to buy and better).  Like most things in Peru (a good example is all of the pirated products that are proliferate in Lima) that are outlawed or illegal, have often if not completely gone unaddress or unenforced by the local law.  This fact has to do with Peru's economic position as a third world country, especially according to the World Bank, which has seen organizations like PNP (the Peruvian National Police) underfunded and underpaid.  This has resulted in police who have resorted to such embarrassing acts as taking bribes instead of issuing tickets or jailing potential criminals in exchange for a few extra bucks (soles actually).  All this being said Mesa Redonda was the place to go for all your firework needs.  Unfortuantely due to overcrowed shops which used just about any space available as storage for their merchandise, the street and its stores were hard to navigate.  Add thousands of Peruvians shopping during the Christmas season and it was just a matter of time before an accident happened, and then...one day, it did.

It was the christmas season of 2001 and the streets were crowded, it was late afternoon and the roar of thousands of shoppers echoed through the tight streets, then suddenly a long firework was light.  It screeched loudly through the air and then disappeared inside the top floor of a building.  Minutes later a fire began to brew as smoke began to billow and blanket the street below, then panic as several fireworks began shooting into the air in all directions.  Other buildings began to catch fire and the people began to stampede like cattle in the streets, some climbing over parked cars and knocking over other shoppers in a frantic effort to escape.  The crowded pandemonium created a bottleneck which caused several shoppers to end up caught in the fire.  The destruction from the fire was devastating and the death toll was horrifying.  By the time the carnage was over and the flames put out nearly 300 people had died and several hundred more injured.  In response (as is common practice in Peru, since change only happens when enough people die), the city of Lima and the Republic of Peru placed heavy restrictions and bans on fireworks vowing to never allow what happened that day to ever occur again.  The tragedy marked one the largest fires in the history of Peru.

The following videos are in Spanish but they showcase the true terror that occurred that night.











Today, the city of Lima takes the Christmas season serious as they crack down (well, sortof...) on local vendors in El Mercado Central and even have the city serenazgo's patrolling the streets with their very own pyrotechnic squad that comes complete with illegal fireworks sniffing canines.  Unfortuantely the shop owners of Mercado Central continue to disobey city ordinence laws and regulations by carelessly blocking stairways in shopping centers and obstructing exits with merchandise.  The uncertainty of whether or not the past will repeat itself lies uncertain.  The saddest thing is knowning that the potential for another disaster still exists.

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