Dogs bridge class divide

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The Independent Online
PERUVIANS celebrate birthdays with flare and Hobbes is no exception. To celebrate this year, he and a group of friends scoffed down cakes, hotdogs and lots of sweet potatoes - on all fours. Hobbes is my overweight labrador retriever.

In only a year of living with me, Hobbes has made a name for himself in my neighbourhood, Miraflores, a rather hip district of Lima, by begging for food, doing tricks and just being himself.

Miraflores is home to only 150,000 of Lima's 7 million people, but is the whole city's preferred night spot. It boasts some of Lima's best five- star restaurants and hotels and the bulk of the art galleries. Nearly every street has an eatery, coffee shop or bar, the choice spans from the quaint Cafe Voltaire, which caters to older, wealthy women to raucous gay bars.

Sunday is a big day for Miraflores. Families flock to the parks or ride bikes on the some of the major streets, which are closed on Sundays to cars.

With its spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean about 100 metres below, the big meeting place on Sundays is the "Love Park", so-called because of a massive sculpture by local artist Victor Delfin of a man and woman kissing.

The coastal parks of Miraflores are a far cry from the rest of Lima. Technically, the capital of Peru is a desert. It never rains in Lima, so the grass has to be watered several times a week. Few districts in the city can afford such a luxury.

The neighbourhood is home to some fantastically wealthy people, lots of middle-class families and a good many expatriates like myself.

There is also poverty. The area is divided by Pardo Avenue, a broad, tree-lined boulevard. My side of the avenue, which runs down toward the ocean, is clean and orderly; the other is a picture of urban decay. My side looks back to the days when Miraflores was an ocean-front resort. The other side was where the servants of the rich lived.

Only two years ago, some of the homes with an ocean view also had a view of Miraflores' only shantytown, a collection of huts nestled into a cranny on the cliffs that led down to the ocean. The shantytown is now gone. It was filled in and turned into a park, too.

Lima is unusual in comparison with many of the other cities in Latin America in that people from wildly different social classes are neighbours. This can be seen in the dog club that gathers each night at the "Navy" park, so-called because of the old lighthouse there. It is an eclectic group of dog owners that cuts across generations, religions, nationalities, social classes and sexual orientations.

Take my partner Kique and me. We are the first gay men to belong to the group. At first we feared they might shy away from us when they discovered our "secret". Although gay bars have sprouted in the past few years, Lima remains a rather conservative city when it comes to homosexuality - but we've had few problems.

Carmen San Roman, the "dog queen" in my neighbourhood, is the impetus behind the group. If Carmen likes you, you're in - and fortunately she likes us.

An unemployed, single mother who survives off the alimony she has to fight for each month with her former husband, Carmen has six dogs - a few English boxers, a beagle and an unidentifiable half-breed.

Carmen's life is a good example of the way many urban Peruvians live, struggling to get by in country with a rapidly changing economy.

While the government's strict monetary policies have curtailed hyperinflation - which reached 7,000 per cent in 1990 - jobs are scarce and most people are not convinced that Peru's economy will continue to grow.

At the other extreme in our dog lovers' group is my friend Javier Bellina. In his sixties, Javier earns a six-figure salary as head of personnel safety for one of Peru's largest construction companies. They are great friends that goes beyond the disparity in their bank accounts.

There may be 7 million people in Lima, but somehow it still seems small. And Miraflores, with all its possibilities for fun, is one of the city's top draws.

PARKS SEEM to be the big issue in Miraflores. The district government opened its newest park, Parque Salazar, two weeks ago with fireworks, big band music and lots of applause.

Javier, from the dog club, was in charge of making sure the work was done without accidents. The park will form part of a new mall being built beneath it and which will extend down the cliff to the ocean. Not everyone applauds.

A new political group, Save Miraflores, is fielding candidates to challenge incumbent Mayor Fernando Andrade. They are particularly irate over a plan to build new single-family homes on streets, like Pardo Avenue.

The fact that the project is creating jobs - Peru's unemployment and underemployment rates total nearly 80 per cent - has, however, taken the wind out of their political sails.