Arequipa with Mom

It’s been nearly a year and half since I left the States, since I last saw mom. We’re close, and as this trip drags on and I don’t know when I’ll eventually return for a visit, she’s agreed to schlep down here to see me. Nice! We decide to meet in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and one that I hadn’t seen yet. Unlike Peru’s other large cities, Arequipa is quite beautiful. The colonial architecture is built primarily of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, from which Arequipa gets it’s nickname “The White City”. They’ve done a nice job integrating the historical buildings into modern banks, cafes, and shops. Arequipa is also framed by three massive volcanoes normally shrouded in mist, but when they do make an appearance, it’s spectacular.

Sandra kindly arranged for us to stay in one of the hotels of her chain, a step up from the kind of place we would normally stay. Huge buffet breakfasts and higher thread count sheets than I’ve seen in ages. Oh, and our room has a view of El Misti, the largest of the three volcanoes at 19,800 ft. The city is walkable, the weather is warm and sunny, and we spend the next five days exploring, talking, relaxing. There’s not a whole lot to do in Arequipa – honestly, you can see most of the sights in just a couple of days. So we stretch things out.. it’s great having relaxed time to just sit over tea and idly chat about our lives. Arequipa is known for it’s cuisine, although neither of us are real “foodies”, so we didn’t really seek that out.

We begin our sightseeing by popping into the tourist office and asking where the market is, so mom can see indigenous culture first-hand. They give us directions to what turns out to be a modern American-style supermarket! “No, no, where is the real market – where everyday working-class people buy and sell?” “Oh you shouldn’t go there, it’s not safe.” Naturally we take that as an invitation and march directly there, and of course it turns out to be perfectly safe. In fact, it’s the cleanest and best organized market I’ve yet seen in Peru. The iron building itself was designed by a French architect named Gustave Eiffel.. I think he did some big tower in Paris. Despite being clean and organized, the market is still wonderfully funky and interesting. To whit – I see a sign advertising “FROG JUICE – FOR THE BRAIN”. That must be a metaphor, right? We wander over, and sure enough, there is a small aquarium containing live frogs, behind which sits a juicer. The manual kind with a big lever that you’d normally use for oranges. I’m still not believing this. Am I on Candid Camera? A customer walks up and orders a juice. The proprietor takes a frog out of the tank and begins to skin it in preparation to juice it. I turn away at this point because I’m going to wretch. Crazy tourist office – why would we travel 10,000 miles to see a supermarket like we have at home when we could see such a spectacle as frogs being juiced?

It’s great seeing Peru through Mom’s eyes – I’ve been here so long that I no longer see with eyes wide open. She’s taken with all the indigenous faces – their high cheekbones, the burnt skin of the kids, their traditionally woven skirts. On our strolls we pass low buildings, old haciendas, cobblestone streets with flower baskets hanging from the walls, lots of neighborhood parks. These are elegant neighborhoods, you can tell the city has more money than most other regions of the country. In that way it reminds me of Cajamarca in the north.

We visit the cemetery for something to do. It’s mostly basement crypts, all marble and concrete. Even more fascinating are the symbiotic shops occupying all the streets surrounding the cemetery – dozens of headstone and casket workshops, flower stalls, and.. pharmacies. Because everybody needs a few pills after burying their in-laws, right? From here we stumble upon an enormous market area that goes on for a dozen blocks selling everything under the sun – animal carcasses, trainers, bootleg DVDs, watches, leather, fruit and vegetables. I make mom try the prickly pear (known as tuna fruit around here), one of the true pleasures of Peru in my opinion. For 30 cents, they peel 3 of them right in a row for you and you eat the wonderfully sweet and juicy fruit standing right on the street.

The cabbies in Arequipa turn out to be surprisingly friendly and honest. The central plaza is leafy with a pretty fountain and an enormous cathedral on one side, while huge colonial arches encircle the other three sides from where you can eat at one of a dozen restaurants overlooking the park. Evening sees the plaza becoming the social gathering place, much as the town square used to be in America. Grandparents sit on benches while teenagers preen and flirt and little kids run around teasing each other.. the whole scene is sweet. One evening of our visit the plaza became the backdrop for a large political demonstration. People pouring out of the cathedral in support, as if the minister has just given a sermon exhorting his congregation to lend their voice. We take this as an opportunity to tour the church. It takes ages for us to figure out what exactly they were protesting, but it turns out to simply be a demonstration in support of the incumbent center-left political party. I suppose with the elections coming up they just want to remind people of their might.

One day as we’re ambling along, I propose finding a lookout point at the top of the hill that the guidebook mentioned. Several muddy hours of tramping through cow manure later, we’re happy to find the road again. Sorry for the adventure mom, but you have no one to blame but yourself – you raised me to be this way! As any of my friends will attest to, we have a rule in this family – you cannot return the way you came. It leads one to all sorts of adventures, usually involving brambles, but great stories afterwards.

One of the 10 greatest modern discoveries (according to Time magazine) occurred near here – the famous Ice Maiden named Juanita – a child sacrifice of the Inca’s from the late 1400’s. She lay perfectly mummified in the ice at the top of Mount Ampato until being uncovered by melting snow, and it is now possible to visit her along with the offerings she was buried with. Her perfect preservation allowed archaeologists to learn a great deal about her culture at the time.

After five days of mom and I having our together time, Sandra came down from Cusco to overlap with mom by a couple of days. I’m really happy they got a chance to meet, and for longer than just a meal. The three of us toured the famous Santa Catalina monastery, practically a town in itself. At its peak, 450 nuns and servants lived within it’s sealed walls. Now just 35 nuns remain, ranging in age from 16 to 90 years old. Funny, after touring the Moorish architecture and imagining how the nuns lived 400 years ago, I began thinking they still lived that way. Nope, they have modern conveniences just like the rest of us. Although I don’t know how much contact they have with the outside world.

Another day we took a bus out of town to a pretty stone mill which has a lot of peacocks and llamas running around the grounds. Speaking of, Arequipa is the world’s capital of alpaca wool. Dozens of shops sell high quality sweaters, scarves, and coats woven from the fine material. A couple of the larger shops have displays demonstrating the process, from live camelid to shearing to cleaning and sorting to weaving. Alpaca steak is also popular – low in fat and cholesterol. We’re also pleased to discover three middle eastern restaurants.. within two blocks of each other! “So, are there a lot of Arabs living here?” “No, the first restaurant did so well that the same owner opened two more”!

Back to that wool – I really need a warm sweater in preparation for the cold of Bolivia that I’m heading to. These sweaters are awfully nice, and high quality. I like that one with the big collar.. oh, but it’s expensive.. I’ll think about it. Unbeknownst to me, Sandra sneaks back to the store and buys it for me while I’m taking mom to the airport. I discover the sweater I’d been thinking about all day as I’m packing that night; it was as if Tinkerbell had heard my wishes. What a girlfriend!

All in all, a really nice visit. Thanks for coming all this way, mom!


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  • judith johnson says:

    How great to see a new blog posting and read of the good times we had. Arequipa is a wonderful town and your pictures are great. And I had a wonderful time there, and with you.
    Thanks! Judith

  • Nico says:

    This famous rule of “you cannot return the way you came” … it reminds me of our short bike tour to the mountains outside Cuenca. You really wanted to cycle the whole way around the mountains, I agred with you rule but I was sur it was too long or too late. You remember ?
    I’m lookin forward to reading your bolivian adventures !

    Take care

    • Josh says:

      I forgot all about that adventure, Nico! That was a beautiful ride, passing all the poor houses along the river.

      I’m looking forward to reading (writing) my Bolivian adventures too! jajaja. Soon, I promise. Well, next month probably.

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