Peru: Arequipa

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walking arequipa streets: 2015

The day I leave Putre it is raining and the drizzling, grey weather mirrors how I feel inside. I could really do with another week here, but I have to get moving. So, I say my farewells to Christian and it’s back down the mountain on the bus. My dense mood is lightened by Tony, the Italian/German who hiked with us up the cerro a couple of days ago. He is also travelling down to Arica in order to catch a bus, except he is going south to San Pedro, while I am going north into Peru. It’s funny along these tourist routes, the ways you criss-cross with the same people ~momentary friends quickly becoming shadow memories, anecdotal threads. Conversations generally revolve around where you’ve been and where you are going, story swapping. But Tony and I get into a great chat about mountains, a topic close to his heart as he is a forest ranger in the Dolomites in Italy.  Every year he gets four months holidays, and gets out of Italy so that he can hike in other places. Oh, to spend most days outside in the fresh air and make a living doing it……! He is an animated conversationalist, and his energy washes over me as we talk. My thoughts go back to the crucifix with the mirror face on the mountaintop a few days ago. I am sometimes that mirrored face, reflecting that which is around me. Pushed along by externally driven waves of emotions, up and down, feet unable to touch the solid ocean floor beneath.

We get into Arica and jump immediately onto a micro that spits us out at the “international” bus terminal. There is a crazy buzz around this bus terminal- hawkers shouting at people, luring them onto the many buses that shift travellers across the border to Tacna (Peru). In the spirit of the day, I allow myself to be swept along by this energy, and in the space of about 3 minutes I’ve said goodbye to Tony and am on a rickety old bus rushing towards the border. A stop at Chilean customs and then at Peruvian customs, passports in and out of my bag, stamped, cash exchanged, questions asked, backpack in and out of x-ray machines….lines of admission.

The bus lands in Tacna a short time later, and as I expect it is quite a grimy place. I need some rose-coloured glasses here, or a blindfold ~something to hold the beauty of the last two weeks inside. Will the gorgeousness of the stream I sat by in Putre somehow slip out of my eyes and wash away into these chaotic streets, into the foggy, blended space that is my memory of the past? It takes me a few minutes sitting down inside the bus terminal to talk myself around. I am somewhere else now, time to change the microchip and get with the programme. I put my bag into a consignment room at the bus station and catch a taxi into the city (i’ve been told it’s not safe to walk here alone).

My taxi driver starts up a conversation- the usual questions: where are you from, how long have you been here, where are you going.….are you travelling alone? yes, i respond. the taxi driver’s face at that moment opens a window in my memory to a scene in blade runner where a male replicant is being tested with images and, as certain images flash up, his wiring starts to short circuit. beads of sweat suddenly pop out, eyes twitching…. a woman travelling alone? it seems that this does not compute. but you aren’t married? no, i respond. you don’t have a boyfriend? nope. old fart or old perv? not sure yet. he says ~that’s good- so you are free to do whatever you want..watching him in the rearview mirror, i see a rather lascivious expression flicker over his face~ is he suggesting that as i am travelling alone i must be shagging anything that moves? perhaps old geezers who drive taxis? where is this going? i just want to switch off. i’ve lost interest in this “conversation”. um, well, yes…but i’m not really focusing on that at the moment….oh, so you are “fria” (frigid)? i would like very much to lean across, get the seatbelt, wrap it around his wrinkled neck, and pull tight. excuse me? yes, he explains, as if speaking to a small child, if you were ‘caliente’ (horny) you wouldn’t be able to last very long without having sex. did he really just say that? i think he’s bored and having some fun with the uptight, white gringa. he says, actually i am really ‘caliente’, i need to be with many women…. I am pretty sure that he wouldn’t say any of this to a Peruvian woman (or maybe he does? an even more frightening contemplation…). Why listen?. i politely ask him to stop, pay him, and tell him that he needs to find some better lines of conversation if he wants to pull. Welcome to Peru. Sigh.

After a little bit of aimless wandering, I go back to the bus station and wait for my overnight bus to Arequipa. The first thing I notice in my brief spin around Tacna and then the bus station, is the huge number of security/police officers around the place. Yes, I suppose I feel safe because of their presence, but at the same time I have to ask myself, why are there so many? It really feels so different to where I’ve just been. I feel so different. And, even though my comfort is not his problem really, the weird taxi driver has done nothing for me in this regard, in fact, quite the opposite. I feel strange.

I try to sleep on the way to Arequipa but the road is winding up, down and around, and at one point, in the middle of the night, we stop and start, inching forward for about an hour, which must be because we are going through some sort of checkpoint or toll point. Also, there are three Peruvian women sitting around me who spend almost the whole night on their cellphones playing candy crush~with the volume turned right up~and conversing amongst themselves. This is the first time I regret being able to speak Spanish because unfortunately I can understand them, and their small talk becomes like a mosquito in my ear, irritating the absolute fuck out of me. I find it impossible to block it out and, shock horror, I have packed my headphones into my backpack. que fallo! I do the requisite sighing and tut-tutting, loud enough in the hopes that they will get the message and quieten things down, but to no avail. Later, I learn that in Peru you mustn’t be shy about complaining, it is perfectly normal to tell people when something is bugging you. Until you say something, the implicit understanding is that it is ok….. this is good information to file away.

I arrive in Arequipa in a pretty haggard state. But once I get to my hotel, that all changes. It is like a little oasis in the middle of the city, a refuge from the trip from Putre. There is a turtle that lives in the central garden and birds singing in the trees. When I arrive I encounter the Germans from the bus ride into Putre- most of whom are about to head out on a tour for a couple of days. The guy who was suffering from altitude sickness (Wolfgang) is staying behind and I sit down with him and have breakfast. Wolfgang turns out to be delightful company, we chat for hours and arrange to go out for dinner. He is a totally spunky, tall, older German dude, with the most amazing blue eyes and wicked sense of humour. Over the next couple of days we hang out a lot together, until he has to leave suddenly due to his mother dying (!). Terrible. That is my worst nightmare, getting that phone call in the middle of the night announcing a family member’s death…..He really had a rough time, first with the altitude sickness and then this…I feel really sorry for him.

As Wolfgang is still recovering from illness, he suggests that we do one of those kitschy bus tours of the city, you know, the double decker bus with the open top, tourists hanging over the edge, slack-jawed, shutters clicking…. I agree to this proposition, thinking that it will give me a good overview of the city, which I can then explore properly on foot. Plus, taking this kind of tour is bound to be a laugh, especially when your tour guide turns out to be a perverse sergeant who enjoys ordering people about like a platoon of soldiers in combat training. The director of this b-grade travel movie ~the guide~ has made the shrieking of “vamos!!” into an art form. With this magical word she is able to control time and space, she is the all-powerful one. It is true that I am embarrassed to be in this bus, but it is also true that from the top of the bus I see things that I probably wouldn’t notice so much as a pedestrian. The outskirts of Arequipa reveal brown, unfinished buildings, camouflaged perfectly against the dirt, creeping up the surrounding hillsides. But for their brightly coloured doors, you wouldn’t see them there, and the effect reminds me of the holes some types of birds carve out of stone walls to use as nests, seen from a distance. Why does everything look half-finished? Why does this strike me so much? Someone explains to me that when a building is finished, you have to pay a huge tax to the government, is this why?  People with not very much money and so their processes of construction happen as the resources come in. I know that many people work together in community over periods of time to construct houses/buildings. Needless to say, the regulation of construction is a loose concept- not like in Australia where one needs permits and plans ~everything spelled to a T…..The only interruption to this vista of pockmarked hillsides are mountain faces (too steep to build houses on?) painted with different messages – one is an advertisement for Nestle, another spruiks Inkafarm, a chain of pharmacies. The city goes on and on, and we move through it, a huge green tourist blood clot, pushing its way down narrow dusty streets, all to the soundtrack of our guide’s voice. Ten minutes here, five minutes there, the metronome clicks~ “vamos!!!” ~marking our travelling rhythm all the way to the end.

Arequipa, the “white city”, is the second largest city of Peru. They call it the white city because a special stone, a volcanic stone called “sillar”- was used to build many of the structures in the city centre. Rather than being white, I would say that sillar is grey coloured, but the consistency of this colour across the central cityscape is nice on the eyes. I/we walk a couple of days, but it is not a city that is kind to the pedestrian. Walking is an extreme adventure sport in Arequipa. Footpaths are narrow, there are cars, buses and taxis everywhere spewing out exhaust fumes and if you don’t have eyes in the back of your head you will get run over. There are places that one shouldn’t walk alone and so I am grateful that Wolfgang is a walking companion. He also enjoys a good wander, stopping to take photos or contemplate curiosities. Curiously, there are “tourist police” riding around on motorbikes. Their job is to pick out tourists who are looking like they need some assistance and give it to them. One of them stops us and asks us if everything is ok, our aimless strolling must be giving us the appearance of being lost… again, it is hard for me to not question why there are so many police around. How alert should I be?

The churches that I go into are very pretty. Close to the plaza de armas, there is a church called San Agustin where I contemplate the compassionate christ. This is the christ that I remember most from my childhood experiences with catholicism~ the image of christ with a glowing heart, arms outstretched. The image intersects christian and buddhist spiritual practice ~ christ with the heart chakra illuminated…it is a clear teaching to allow yourself to be guided by, and to take refuge in, an open heart- so hard to do in the moment, in these times…to me, it is one of the few, really meaningful and universal teachings: it doesn’t matter how much capital you have, money, knowledge, power~ it all loses value if you don’t engage with the heart. An absence of heart means that you become a slave to the endless vacuum left behind. A hungry, and never satisfied, black hole.

The main cathedral of Arequipa is also lovely. When I go in there is a mass is happening. There is a man singing the most beautiful song. I take a seat so I can listen to his voice….then, something happens to force me to confront the teaching of compassion, experientially….. after the service ends, a bunch of men in suits come in and close everything off, telling everyone to (please) leave.  A gate is closed and locked in front of the chapel where mass just happened. People are ushered out of the main doors, which swing shut behind us. I feel like these people have taken over the space, which should be for the public to enjoy, so they can lock it away and keep it safe. Is a church a museum, or is it a space for people to come and seek refuge? On my way out, I also hear a priest walking out of the confessional turn away a woman who is waiting, briskly telling her that he is finished for the day and that if she wants confession she needs to go to San Agustin. Is this what Christ would have done? i doubt it. is this what the Buddha would have done? the buddha taught until the moment of death, there was no break time. i know these people also deserve compassion, and that is the teaching…but it is so hard much of the time. the lack of authenticity and true vocation of these god-managers irritates me. i can’t help but judge.

Oh and one more thing, during my time in Arequipa, as I move around the city, I notice many dogs on rooftops watching the street, some of them barking at other dogs on other rooftops or down on the street. An army of Peruvian guerrilla dogs plotting a takeover perhaps?

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