Revisiting the Water Park

No tour of Lima would be complete without a visit to the city’s Magical Water Circuit. Indeed, the first time Ivo brought me here, I was dazzled. However, I mostly found the whole spectacle to be just that: a watery spectacle designed (pardon the pun) without a great deal of depth.

Visiting the park with my family again though, after about seven months of living in Lima, I found myself reconsidering what this park means to the city, and the significance it must have for the residents.

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Lima has not had an easy time of it. The Spanish stomped on them, Chile stomped on them, the U.S. didn’t do them any favors; hell, even earthquakes have laid the city flat at least twice. Despite all this though, the people have rebelled and rebuilt every single time. The result seems to be a city that has a profound pride in itself, and which wants very much to be paid the respect it deserves.

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In 1940, an earthquake destroyed the better part of the city. Forced to rebuild, regular labor jobs became abundant, and an avalanche of migration into the city began as natives left the mountains to seek out a better life. The population leapt from 0.6 million in 1940 to 4.8 million by 1980.

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As the population swelled uncontrollably, poverty rapidly became a profound problem; in 2004, nearly half of the country’s population was below the poverty line. The evidence of this poverty still marks much of the city. Beautiful historical buildings have been tagged in ugly graffiti and left to crumble and rot, and even the best areas simply lack the polish of equally aged European cities.  The inequality has created jarring inconsistency: just 5 minutes of driving can determine whether the roadsides are clean sidewalks or tangled messes of garbage. Even the violence that accompanied the poverty led those with money to isolate their homes within stone walls and high, impenetrable fences that remain in place today.

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In just the last two decades though, things have started to change for the better. In 1988, UNESCO declared the historic center of Lima to be a World Heritage Site. This major honor helped spark a frenzy of growth in the tourism industry in the 1990s, which continues to be developed.

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In addition, the city is still enjoying the effects of the economic boom of the 2000s. In 2011, it was ranked as one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Accordingly, also in 2011, it was found that only 27% of its population was under the poverty line; while this is still problematic, it indicates dramatic improvement.

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Now the city is facing a different set of growing pains, albeit more positive ones than those of the past.  Today the issues relate instead to accommodating and directing the sudden influx of wealth: The once empty streets are now packed with a bizzarre combination of new cars and death-trap taxis and old buses.  Massive hotels and offices have been erected with little consideration for overall city design and architecture.

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There is also the pain of outgrowing a long history of corruption. Under the watchful eye of Ciudadanos al Dia, an organization founded in 2002 to promote honesty and clean business in the public sector, the situation has massively improved. That said, the people still seem distrustful and overly cautious: Protests over government wages and even the most necessary employment cuts seem to be a daily affair, and the population is still suspicious of purchasing items or negotiating online.

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I suppose all this– the battle with poverty, the fight with corruption, and the wounded pride over years of both–has created a city that wants to be filled with beauty and professionalism again. There seems to be a growing desire, especially among the more educated, to have a city that visibly demands the respect the people want to receive both from the outside world and from other parts of the country.

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As an outsider, I feel this is evident primarily in the city’s latest (though still blossoming) efforts to institute street cleaning programs and to restore historical buildings. They have an uphill battle ahead of them– littering seems common practice for most folks, and the people seem heavily ruled by the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, with a depressingly low level of acceptance for what “works”. But efforts are being made.

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However, to bring it back to the Magical Water Circuit, this desire also seems evident in the creation of places like this. Ivo tells me that Lima used to be known as the City of a Thousand Parks, but that as it grew these enormous green areas disintegrated and disappeared. The water park seems like the perfect statement in this respect.
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It restores the green that the city had in its original heyday. Its sleek, impeccably maintained appearance clearly indicates the professionalism of the city. It offers the biggest and perhaps the best visual experience of any fountain complex in the world, which in itself demands respect. It suggests a city that is excited to step into an intelligent future, as opposed to one that is entangled in the worst of its past.

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Moreover, in a city that has been long divided by a severe wealth gap, it offers a massive public space that gives everyone a unified claim to something grand. In a sense, because it is not especially “deep”, it is all the more accessible. It dazzles tourists with the spectacle, creating a space that communicates the city’s potential. Simultaneously, it gives all citizens access to a much-needed place of innocent, child-friendly joy. This is especially significant in a part of the city that many people still advise avoiding after dark.

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So, while it’s true that the park is mostly flash, I think it must hold some positive significance for the residents, even the more critical ones. Parks of any kind are a place of peace and gathering, and a straightforward symbol of community organization and pride. In Lima’s case, it needed a park that could live up to its personality. Accordingly, the Magical Water Circuit is an enormous, dazzling spectacle that still operates with a sort of inherent calm and profoundly welcoming atmosphere.

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