13 September 2007


I arrived this morning in Arequipa after a comfortable enough 15 hour overnight bus journey. The landscape south of Lima was positively eerie, just an endless, mist-blanketed desolation with the thin, two-lane line of the Panamerican Highway snaking through it. We also passed through Pisco and Ica, recently devastated by earthquakes. I saw plenty of destruction, but it bore a remarkable similarity to the basic condition of life in most poor countries I've visited. Outside the rich suburbs are generally endless expanses of dilapidated slums always in various stages of crumbling disrepair and never-having-been-finished-to-begin-with. To live in circumstances of institutionalized poverty is to live a life that is always incomplete, I reckon. Things are always missing or don't work properly or are semi-permanently jury-rigged, and yet somehow people get by. Latin America, from what I've seen, is, despite its poverty, a lively, socially energetic place. I've been in other countries, like Cambodia, where the situation is more desperate and hopeless and the feel is entirely different. Peru is a vibrant country with entrepreneurial, enterprising people. And it seems like everyone here is a student, too.

But enough commentary, back to the narrative. After traveling between the sandy wasteland and the Pacific for a day, we turned inland and upland to the lovely, sunny city of Arequipa. Arequipa's principal attractions are its UNESCO-listed colonial-era remains, and these are indeed impressive. The star of the show, which I saw today, is the Santa Catalina Convent, which has been in operation since 1573 and only opened to tourists in 1970. Prepare for the tourist cliches: visiting the convent really was like stepping back in time. I am, in fact, interested in the charming details of domestic life 400 years ago, so I was quite thrilled to visit the bedrooms and kitchens of Renaissance-era nuns. The convent itself is enormous, a city within the city, and beautifully built of local volcanic stone. My favorite nun accouterments were the barbed wire undershirts and flagellation devices, used only on rare occasions according to the display text, since the Dominicans are a contemplative and not a penitant order. The rest of the city center is similarly historic and beautiful and also, for that reason, inundated with tourists and tourist-oriented businesses (which means annoying touts everywhere trying to lure me into shops and restaurants). Post-seizure, I am still taking things easy, so I didn't do much else except drink coffee from the lovely balconies overlooking the central plaza and buy my mandatory alpaca pullover. I managed to bargain the lady down from 170 to 140 soles and got her to throw in a pair of gloves, too. Tomorrow, there's some kind of grand festival de eating. I'll probably check that out. Then, I'll have to decide if I feel up to a multiday trek through the world's deepest (or second deepest) canyon. My ATM card mysteriously stopped working today, so future plans will depend on the availability of cash.

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