A Date with Frigid Juanita and Lady Catalina
After Ayacucho and Cuzco, Arequipa is the next historic treasure. It is about nine to ten hours bus trip from Cuzco, marked by many stopovers.
The common theme experienced in this country is falling into hoodwinking encounters. For instance, buying carelessly a ticket almost landed me in a mishap. My grasp of Spanish is passable, but for some reason, there will always be pitfalls, very much deliberately done.
On my last day in Cuzco, which has gave me the worst impression, the city won’t let up. I went to the bus terminal and approached a counter to buy a ticket for Arequipa. I even specified that I sit on the window side where the view is best. The ticket clerk even exchanged jokes; more like a Judas kiss treachery for she knows that it is a night trip. I knew perfectly well that I requested a morning trip. She never bothered to clarify even if the lapse was in my part. How can she not discern that it is only possible to view the ride only during daytime?
I was on time for the 6:30 early morning trip but I can’t find my bus.
There it is, the door was about to close. I rushed to catch the driver who was going back to the building and I showed the ticket. He surprised me by saying that this bus has just berthed, arriving from Arequipa moments ago and the trip back is at 6:30 p.m.! How can they do this to me? I fully understand the implications of “noche” for night and “madrugada” for early morning, but this is too much.
I hate to generalize, but there seems to be a recurring theme, and Cuzco’s people are right on track.
I rushed to the counter but it was closed. The next-door counter girl realized my problem and converted my S/.30.00 (nuevo soles) upper deck ride to her company’s third class 7:00 a.m. trip mired with stopovers.
I was seated next to a Cuzquenian man who proved very helpful at the end. At my back is a lady that throws up every 15 minutes.
While on the bus, we were entertained on video by local slapstick comedians such as La Chola Ilaria, a country bumpkin in her typical silly get-up of bowler hat, Pocahontas hair, billowy short skirt, and sandals.
At times, the entertainment turns musical featuring the TV infant doing the Macarena, Shrek characters, and Puss in Boots shouting the testosterone-rich stomping lines “Sa-sa-sa” and “Toma Chuculun” under the Puerto Rican Reggaeton beat visually enhanced by thong-clad gyrating women.
At times, there were screenings of Hollywood releases dubbed in Spanish.
The landscape is endlessly arid, dusty, and surreal save for some portions where the vegetation is marked by Mexican cacti. Sharp mountain ranges are breathtakingly snow capped. We passed by several towns, the only ones that remained in my memory are Pampa de Arreiros and San Antonio de Chuca.
An exciting part of the trip is passing through a Vicuña Sanctuary where wild and shy vicuñas grazed peacefully and undisturbed.
About 10 kilometers to the city, traffic built up. The bus halted completely and I asked my seatmate about the problem. He said that there is a strike. I peered out the window looking at an endless line of buses as far as the horizon goes. Tourists on other buses, who are easily noticeable by their Caucasian looks and bulky backpacks banded together and walked towards the endless horizon.
After 30 minutes, I asked my seatmate what we were waiting for. He said the road is blocked with debris and the police are just taking control. I said we can’t go on forever like this and it’s better we better cross the blockade. Passengers are already making a move one by one. So I asked for my baggage and hired a quick enterprising porter. He put my backpack in his wheelbarrow and we crossed the boulder and broken glass sprinkled road.
The strikers are combi drivers who are asking a rollback in the high gas prices. From the bridge crossing, we waited for taxis. Another enterprising pick-up driver answered the call. He gathered a dozen of us and dropped us to the edge of the city. Volcan Misti, the cone shaped, snow capped volcano is now visible although dimly because it’s getting dark. Here, at 5:30 p.m., it easily gets into twilight mode.
We waited for another taxi and not a minute or two had gone by before a station wagon picked us up. The car filled up to full capacity that we sat in fetal position at the back. My seatmate finally motioned to get off and from this junction we walked about three blocks to the center of the city – the historic plaza. A true blue Cuzquenian, he asked for a fare and refreshment. Free is just not in a Cuzquenian’s vocabulary. I gave him a tip, thanked him, and we parted.
Arequipans are snobbish. All three passersbys I encountered refused to help me locate my hostel. I was showing the name card but they just ignored it and moved on. This is one shocking letdown. At a leather shop, I asked helped from the owner and he motioned me to go away.
By sheer fate, I arrived safely in this hostel on a quiet neighborhood. I think I was the only guest that night, it was so quiet that I requested for a TV room. The room has nice open view of the city overlooking the river. Before I retired, the owner asked me to endorse his place to other travel guidebooks. He was kind but I find it hard to do so because the hot water didn’t work. And it was so cramped there was simply no place to put my stuff.
In the morning, it’s time to see the city. It was actually less stressful. Traffic is mild and orderly. Misti is gorgeous, although her snowcap is receding, barely noticeable.
I need some morning refueling and some directions stopping over at a restaurant, which happened to be vegetarian, managed by an Italian named Giovanni. The very first time I heard this phrase “Welcome to Arequipa” a pleasing gesture coming from a foreigner himself.
Arequipa’s churches are another lot. Their spongy-looking, chalky white volcanic stones are cool. Captivating is their unique style of ornamentation. Called Mestizo style, they are more embossed like, flat decorations. La Merced and La Compaña de Jesus deserves mention. La Merced has fine naturally finished hardwood retablos while La Compaña, in addition to its gilded main and side retablos, has a sacristy-chapel tattooed with jungle vegetation decoration from base to ceiling. No space was spared. These churches were generously opened the whole morning.
In the early afternoon, I visited the mini-city convent of Santa Catalina, a religious complex built for the exclusive recluse of daughters of rich aristocratic families purportedly in the service of God.
The custom and tradition at that time requires each family to offer their second eldest daughters to be confined to monastic life. It was status symbol. Entry required a hefty membership as well as subscription and maintenance fees.
The lifestyle of these nuns is depicted as shown in the “suites”. An occupant normally had three servants and used fine dinnerware china imported from Europe in everyday meals. That’s the only luxury I can see. Otherwise, life still appeared full of hardships smacked with primitivism compared to today’s standards. No wonder, it required three servants per nun.
Toilet service is interesting to note because, there is no water supply and sewer system. Everything has to be portable, The Mother Superior has her “throne room” and the servants have to dispose the contents whenever needed. The waste is disposed right on the open drains washed by running waters along the street.
The common laundry area is very interesting, made up of huge jars broken half to form washing vats. Running water is always available, diverted from a main open canal by simply laying the hand sideways to guide the water to the individual vat. Carrots and potatoes were used as drain stoppers.
The complex was largely made pleasing and painted a Mexican style yummy bright red orange and blue violet. It’s very quaint and cozy.
Late afternoon, I visited two colonial churches in the suburbs – Yanahuara and Cayma. The affluent neighborhoods are very relaxing, easily stimulants for quiet walks.
I finished this tour with a vegetarian pizza meal at Giovanni’s.
Enough of Arequipa, my dry blistering lips are killing me.