Monday, October 12, 2009

Watching the dawn in Sanur

Well I struggled awake this morning at 5:00. Not because I had been anywhere the night before (for too long anyway) mind you. Just some vivd dreams kept me awake at times in the night. My old nightmare used to be about a white Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing me (must have mashed Harryhauser movies with the Moby Dick novel I was reading at the impressionable age of 8). Nowadays its about putting things down and leaving them somewhere, fruitlessly trying to locate them. Basically how I go about every day in my waking hours.

Struggled awake anyway and was out by 5:20, biking over in what I hoped was the general direction of Sanur so I could catch the dawn as the sun rose on the east side of Bali, Sanur being on the east coast of the long promontory that is the site of most tourist development in Bali.

The road was calm, not the daily frenzy that makes Bali's main roads resemble Jakarta. This helped, because finding your way and driving on the left (wrong) side of the road and dealing with traffic all while trying to find mostly imprecise road signs is, frankly, a challenge. Best time to explore is the very early morning. Problem was, I was too late, of course - the sun rises earlier than the forty minutes or so I was taking to discover the way to the open beach at Sanur. One false turn, one rapid rush to shelter to escape a light rain shower, and I made it.

The horizon was deep with dark storm clouds, the sun itself barely glimmering through the foreboding, high fronted clouds. I had hoped for a bright and sparkling dawn; instead it was a turbulence of stirred emotions, the sun battling with tempest. I set up the tripod, which had rattled its way with me on the bike, and tried to shoot for something interesting.

There were people out early - teenage girls resting in the two kiosks atop a stone platform, mothers walking their babies into the warn, shallow water, fishermen-turned-guides readying up for another catch as they shuttled air cylinders to day trip boats moored offshore. The most bemusing was a group of five middle aged Japanese tourists sitting in shallow water in a rough circle, discussing something with great earnestness. All the while the skies above us wheeled with dark clouds that threatened a deluge, held magically at bay by the sun's yellow light. It made for some interesting and unexpected contrasts.

After a couple of hours, I headed back home, fulling expecting a tropical rainstorm to chase my heels and beat on my back at any moment. It didnt't happen, the clouds lightening and slipping away from this part of the island.

In the late afternoon I went over to the beach at Seminyak to shoot the sunset. This time the clouds had lumped themselves together; the sun was hard pressed to make any meaningful light - everything was flat and faded away.

I hadn't been on the beach this side, which essentially is the same as at Kuta but further up. The sand itself is coffee colored, with strong accents of dark grey. Maybe it lightens in the day, but the areas where many of the locals were playing very intense games of beach soccer were almost coal dark with volcanic ash. The beachfront was alive with people. Other than the soccer players, there were hawkers offering ship-shaped kites and rings of dried biscuits as tourists ran, walked and jogged their way along. The water often curled in deep along the broad fronted beach. Playing at my feet, it was the softest gentlest touch - until it tugged away to return to the ocean and then I found the sand pulled away from under me. Red flags advertized t regular intervals that it was dangerous to swim in the ocean. With the fast currents and booming surf I could understand why, but this didnt stop children running into the rippling eddies, or their parents build sandcastle follies, or the determined brave the surf to ride atop a board in the last moments of the day.

With many days in the sun, at work and at play, the youths are tremendously athletic and deeply tanned. Their bright-dark eyes and a winningly welcome smile truly makes you feel you are in some Pacific island, so maybe the old refrain about this being Bali, not Bali Hai, is a little mistaken. There is a certain redolence, a pleasure in the moment, a glance of an eye, that is the hallmark of all tropical idylls. I could certainly live here awhile and let the turbulent world without remain there, jut over the horizon with the storms that threatened all day, but somehow left this perfumed, graceful island alone for another day.

Again going home to dump the foto gear and download fotos, I also picked up my laundry so I'm set for the week ahead. Twice now, as I bike over, I can hear a frenetic chirp in the fields. I first thought this was some sort of bitd, bt it turns out the sound comes from a small frog, severla of twice I discovered crossing the bumpy, potholed track that leads up to the main road.

Dinner was at the Cosa Nostra, an Italian pizzeria with wood fired oven. I had passed by several times, only to see it is mostly empty even though another Italian pizzeria on another crossroad to Raya Seminyak is overfull. This time I stopped to see if the pizza was any good. It was - the dough is fine and the topping is OK, which outside Italy is always a challenge. They need to add a little more olive oil and basilico, but otherwise OK. And yes, the owner is Italian - but he doesnt work here. Seems to be a rule, this.

Past the guys who at night are tearing up the paving stones on the sidewalk so as to make the road a chaos for the next few weeks, and I return home again. To find my Mac charger/transformer is blown. Grrr.....

Lunch and a chat

I woke up late this morning, having had but one small beer at a bar in Seminyak last night. Walking out of the house I looked up and saw the high billowing, brilliant clouds that are the hallmark of tropical islands. I realize with another quizzical smile that, by some really convoluting twists of fate that I actually live and work here. Much more fortunate than the English guy who gets to live on a semi-deserted paradise island in the Barrier Reef.

The shrine and offering stones in the enclosed garden here are bereft and abandoned. The grace and beauty of offering flowers to propitiate the local gods is such a delight that I'm tempted to ask Wayan, my across-the-street neighbor, if she would be so kind as to feed the gods at the same time she comes to clean house every morning.

As always, the sun is high in the sky by an early hour. At 10am it has already struck shrine that sits on a platform above the garage space in the house diagonally opposite mine - its everdark stone a strong contrast to the clean blue sky behind.

I have some work to do in the office. Once done I bike over to the laundry stall to pick up my last batch of laundry. As I walked up, the woman attending the stall jumped up from the mattress on which she had been lying, suckling her young infant. The baby refused to let go, mewling when she tried to adjust her garb so as to maintain modesty while letting the baby continue to suckle and serving me at the same time. It was an effort she barely managed.

Four shirts, one T-shirt and two pairs of socks and two pairs of underwear, all done in a day and costing 17,000 rupiah - about 1.80 USD. I think its does elsewhere too, as the listing of items has a laundry in Denpasar marked on it. Not bad at all.

I returned some minutes later with the next batch. This time the old crone who was there the first time had returned. I saluted her with 'Siang!' (afternoon!) and shook her hand, as I would in other cultures. Seems to work - she cackled with humor and said something in Balinese to the same attendant.

Another scramble from mattress, but this time without baby attached. My bran is elsewhere and I actually take the bag of laundry back in my hands, so she has to lunge out and take them from me. The old woman reeled back in mirth. I'm getting terrifyingly forgetful...

I decided to see if I could find my own way to the bungalow I will be renting from the end of next week. It lies in a complex of small bungalows just off Jalan ---, the road that heads to Denpasar. I missed the entrance the first time, but carried on for a kilometer or so more as the road itself was a delight of artisan stores of all types and manners. Wooden carvings jostled with stone relief, ceramics, furniture. All for the local market and export. Behind the soft, dark browns of sun bronzed carvings, verdant fields of rice grass growing tall, palms curving their frond heavy trunks in the light wind and the constant light, bright blue of the sky behind.

Reluctantly, the road being so interesting, I turned around and headed back to find the entry to the bungalow complex. Found it second time around, headed in, located the bungalow I'm to stay in and introduced myself to my future over-the-way neighbor, who was most bemused by the immediacy and intrepid style of my walking up and saying 'Hi!".

I biked over Sunset Road down Jalan ----, over the intersection with Raya Seminyak and headed for the Cosa Nostra pizzeria, as I was hungry and tempted to see if their pizzas were any good, given there is a large pizza oven installed in the corner. Maybe its the time of day, but yet again there was no one seated and eating. So I decided 'not today' and headed back up the street, past the bars and towards Raya Seminyak.

The cellphone rang, I pulled over and as I did so two women seated at a table at the Warung Austria called out 'its your girlfriend!' It was Ilham, so they were way off. Call over, since the two women were still joshing "you like sweet girl? or you like a beer?" It was done with such a humorous touch I asked them "hey you still serving food?" "Yes we are" "Good, Im hungry!"

Went for grilled chicken and french fries, along with lemon juice and a 'Copi Bali', which is the local mix of roast coffee and maize. Rough but flavorsome. Katie, the younger of the two, decided to sit herself opposite me and ask the usual - where from, how long will i stay in Bali, do i like it ... At the end the conversation was about culture, origins of Europeans, difference between the gods and God, beauty in Brasil and the cost of becoming a ladyboy in Thailand.

We also talked of how Moslems and Islam is viewed in the world, Katie and Lulu both being moslem. As I find everywhere, there is always great frustration that Westerners they meet are so fearful and suspicious of anyone moslem - that all are blamed for the actions of the few. The feeling of raw injustice is everpresent. Lulu, the elder, chimed in with her thoughts from time to time but it was Katie who led the conversation.

Katie comes from Lombok, the island to the east of Bali (Lulu too, I think). Pleasantly beautiful and quite alive, Katie came across to Bali three months ago to look for something 'better' than in Lombok, which is a little surprising as Lombok's tourism is growing also nowadays. Better turns out to be a waitress in bistro owned by an Austrian and managed by quite a hard faced woman, who turned up during the course of my lunch. Katie is intelligent and interested in the world: I hope she does better than where she is right now.

After lunch I went in search of the facial and massage parlor, the owner of which I had met yesterday evening. No luck - the address was a fiction and another turned out to be a restaurant. I gave up and went shopping in the Bintang supermarket instead, buying stuff to keep me going another day.

Sorting out the mess

A check back with Chase in the US to get a replacement card sent out and I'm told I have to wait until the International Desk begins work at 9am in the morning - Chicago time. That's 10pm Bali time. I've found US banks tend to have worldwide images but scratch underneath them and they are remarkably domestic in operation. I'm even told they can't or won't send replacement cards outside the US, only for this to be contradicted by the next person down the line.

Anyway, it appears that I left the card in the ATM as it wasn't used after my withdrawals. Im getting terribly forgetful - or there's too much on my mind and not enough is sticking.

Short term needs have been very kindly taken care of, so Im OK for the moment, though most of the funds go home to care for people there. Im the reverse of the third world immigrant moving to the developed world to earn good money to send home. Im a 'first world' guy in a developing economy sending funds to others in the 'first world' - and quite frankly much more enjoying this latest adventure than being stuck back in the 'first world'.

In the evening headed off to a bar in Seminyak but didnt find much enjoyable so headed straight back home.



Early this morning I went to several ATMs to pull money so I could pay the rent on the bungalow I've taken from October 15th for two months. That done I went to work for the day, part of which took me to meet with --- Bagus ---, head of the Bali Tourist Board and owner of a really beautiful resort in Sanur called ----.

In the course of exchanging cards (rather my accepting his, as I have none left of mine) I saw my credit card was no longer there. My worst fear had happened. Disaster! I've lost my card, and my only access to funds.

It either fell from my wallet (most unlikely) or I left it in the ATM (most likely as I'm forgetting several things nowadays, more than usual). I try to call the US, but unsuccessfully, so I call the office to inform them and see if I've left it on my desk for some stupid reason. Not there.

I carry on with the meeting and head back to the office. Double search. Nothing. So I call the US and finally get through to one department of Chase to kill the card. Tomorrow I have to see what I can do about getting a replacement and getting through the next couple of weeks before it arrives.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Househunting in Bali

Well what a surprise! This morning I got a call from the guy I had tried to call yesterday when I saw his announcement regarding a place to rent for two months from October 15 to December 15. Exactly the price I'm OK with and the timeframe I need.

We arranged to meet up later in the day, which we did. Ryan, a guy from Pennsylvania that runs an export company supplying artisan work to the States these last four years, has to head to Japan as his wife is expecting their child, she being Japanese. The place is a small bungalow at the end of a small complex of bungalows, which in Indonesian is called a ----.

Fine enough place, certainly big enough for me, though a little dark. But I won't being staying in it much during the day as either I'm at work or I will be out exploring. There are no long nights here - the sun is long gone by 7pm and sunset rushes after at breakneck speed. It's a deal, at 6 million rupiah for two months - approx 300 USD a month.

During the day a local guy turns up with a motor scooter for me, at a monthly rent of 600,000 rupiah (60 USD more or less), negotiated down from the 650 he first asked. Next month I'll get a better deal.

So, within 24 hours of being on the ground. I have accommodation and transport sorted out. That has to be a record!

In the evening I head back to Bintang, the supermarket on Jalan Raya Seminyak, to buy some supplies for the house.

In the warm night air, a bare whisper of a breeze touches the heavy, rippled tongues of leaves on the tall standing trees planted by the street wall. Two dogs bark at each other and the sky, a baby cries and its parents hush to still its worries. In the background the constant dull whirr of motorbikes and cars.

And indoors the buzz of small mosquitos, one of which has really jabbed me on a nerve. The nerve!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Landed in Bali

I arrived past midnight in Bali's main airport at Denpasar, which is actually south of Kuta. In no time I had checked through baggage claim, grabbed a cab and dumped the bags in the room at Agung Cottage, the place I've usually stayed in in Kuta.

The day turned out to be a gentle one as my principal colleagues-to-be were out of town. Did some more prep work, connected to the internet and in the afternoon took a cab to the office as there I was to be given a key to some temporary accommodation not so far away.

Fortunately for me, Lucie (a French former nurse and mother to the principals) also took me to check out the stores and other places nearby, most of which is in easy walking distance of the place I'm to stay in a few days.

This is the main street of Seminyak, the district just north of Kuta. It feels like many tourist strips around the world, in the throes of disordered development that in a few years will appear to be the most established place on earth. Buzios, Surfers Paradise, Ocean Drive were all once as Seminyak is now.

Now to find a simple, cheap place to stay for a few months ....

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Singapore Sling

I flew to Singapore from Jakarta on Thursday evening, the reason being to get a 60 day business visa for Indonesia. Slung out so I can sling back in.

The trip to the airport wasn't the usual jam of traffic all the way, but this time I had to deal with a cab driver who had obviously been working far longer than he should. He was visibly drooping and half way to the airport his eyes started clamming shut. Plus he was belching constantly from his lunch, much of which I could smell too. Didn't know people ate seaweed here (that's what it smelt like).

I killed a few minutes at Starbuck's then checked in. The airport surcharge is now 150,000 rupiah (15 USD), which I think is more than I paid last time. Strange how airport taxes and surcharges seem to be charged twice nowadays - first by the airline, then by the airport. Anyone any idea who's scamming here?

The flight, courtesy Air Asia, was late again - this time by a full hour. But at least the ground staff kept to their routine and didn't bother telling passengers waiting at the gate.

Crushed knees for 90 minutes and then we were in Singapore. Pulled some cash (I still have some) and got my passport fotos for the visa from a foto kiosk in 90 seconds. Much easier than hunting in a shopping mall in Jakarta for a foto shop.

Fast cab ride into Chinatown and my usual hotel, the Royal Peacock. Dump bags, check the internet, fall asleep.

Friday morning I had everything ready for the visa agent, then met with a couple of people during the day.

In the evening I walked the full length of the main road from the bottom end of Chinatown (where the hotel is) to Chijmes, which is a church-turned-restaurant complex, down the road past Raffles Hotel, past the War Memorial and the rest of the strtuctures people were dismantling after the recent Formula One race, through to the Esplanade.

The Esplanade is Singapore's main theater complex, its twin roofs a light studded carapace that looks for all the world like the backs of two gigantic wood lice. I had never been her before I was hunting for some good shots of the roof. That can't be done from close up (you need to be in a higher building) but there is a wonderful walkway around the structures that leads you to the original 'pool' or harbor.

On the outer rim the casino complex is going up (so far it looks weird); this was where the ship we traveled on from Sydney to Genova was moored. With the three main towers of the casino complex going up, the whole pool now looks hemmed in, a tranquil lagoon ideal for water sports (get ready for power racing).

This is the period of the mid-autumn festival, so here there are several free performances of puppets, jugglers and musicians. I hing around one of them waiting for the sun to set, the night to cover the sky with a blue-purple mantle and the lights to blaze from the skyscrapers in the Central Business District - a perfect evening shot of Singapore.

Later I wandered around the Esplanade, then retraced my steps back to the hotel.

Downloaded fotos, showered, checked internet and went out for a drink. Not much into clubbing so was soon back at the hotel seeing if I'd taken any good fotos. Maybe a couple.

Saturday is an obligatory easy day, with many hours in the airport waiting for my flight. I could have wandered around Singapore some more, but the clouds are heavy and I'm not into shopping or stuffing myself with food. So better to do the airport sit-out.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Idul Fitri in Jakarta

These last few days are lazy days. It's the end of Ramadhan, with the feast days of Idul Fitri and Labaran making for a whole week of slowed business and an air of vacation and many take off work for the whole week.

Most of this time I have been doing preparatory work for the new project in Bali, whence it looks like I will be moving in the first full week of October.

In the free time, and when Ilham was free from his own family obligations, we biked around Jakarta looking at some sights that I hadn't seen or hadn'te visited for a while.

On the Thursday (September 24th) Ilham suggested we go and see the old Dutch era cemetery, which is now a museum (or as he cleverly says, a 'musuleum'. Many havy old slabs, heavily engraved in Dutch proclaiming the qualities and origins of directors and captains of the Dutch East India Company. All of these mostly dead by the age of fifty, just as in Malacca. Other than these, the Victorian cast iron monuments to piety (as perceived by the pastor), the fine marble plaques of the Belle Epoque and simpler cement ones cast around with no sense of care.

We also stopped by the once-Dutch, now Catholic, cathedral. There is an active Christian community in Indonesia that dates back to the first Portuguese traders. A distinct minority, their descendants are quite evident at the church here.

The structure is still austere as the few baroque ornaments the Catholics have fixed to the walls barely impact the somber Dutch feel. What does stand out is the chocolate brown wooden ceiling, its planks arching overhead like an upturned boat. The one touch of lightness is outside as the two spires are a white painted open lattice of iron fretwork.

I jumped off the bike to go inside a park and snap a foto of what Ilham told me is the liberation struggle of/for Papua. A desolate park of cracked concrete and unhinged marble tiles, used now by some equally abandoned souls for god knows what purpose. Reminds me of many other liberation monuments set up by liberation governments who then moved on to the next theme of the political season.

On Saturday (September 26th) we went to old Batavia once more as I wanted to take some sunset shots of the harbor. Just a bit too late in getting there, but having a look around sunset isnt the right time to be here - dawn is.

However, sunset and the early evening is a great time to be in the main square of Batavia. It was full of students and street traders, just as I remembered from my visit last year. Ilham went one way, I went the other and managed to take a couple of OK fotos.

In the course of my wandering around six teenagers came up to me and asked if I would speak English with them. This doesn't happen frequently, but for sure most times when Im out many teenagers will shoot phrases at me to practice. Good sign, that. So these six girls pulled me into the light of a food stall, started to ask me questions and even began videoing the whole 'lesson'. I'm famous!

Sunday dawn (September 27th) found me back in the old port of Sunda Kelapa, shooting for the warm pastels of the fishing vessels moored against the harbor wharves. Timing is OK, but its way too early for most people so there's almost nothing going on. Just boats at rest, the occasional fisher with his craft in the breakwater beyond and one or two sailors caulking the hulls of their boats.

Sunday evening brought us to the obelisk in Merdeka Square, Jakarta's iconic tower with viewing platform that dominates the center of the city. The park was absolutely full of families spending the last day of the holidays in picnicking, kite flying and general relaxation. It was too late to join the queue to go up the tower - and anyway the queue was way too long.

As we walked around the park, the late afternoon turned quickly into sunset, twilight and night. Still the children played, the music played, the muezzin chanted in the distance.

For me too the long period of preparation is over. One more week to set some things moving, sort some other things out - and then I'm set for Bali.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A second trip to Bali

The last five days I have been in Bali on work related matters (this blog isn't about work, so don't worry I won't bore you excessively). This does mean, of course, that I wasn't wandering around like the tourist I was last time.

It wasn't planned to be so, but in the end I spent my four nights in the same hotel, which is actually quite a nice place and in a good location in Kuta. The Agung Village Hotel is only 100 meters or so from where the bomb exploded in 2002, killing upwards of 200 people. Nowadays there's a monument to the victims on the corner, which has turned out to be the gathering place for many tourists that some to visit.

The rooms of the hotel are clean enough, their doorways and covered terraces all faced in the traditional raw terracotta painted brick and sea grey stonework. The swimming pool is not long, but long enough for a good swim, which I managed most days. The room rate is quite good, even for a tourist trap like Kuta - 300,000 Rupiah a night (approx 30 USD). Staff is most friendly, and adeptly handled my constantly changing plans in the middle of one of their busiest weekends.

Early Saturday morning (September 19th) I was shaken awake as the whole room was shaking. Another earthquake! Unbelievable! This one was much shorter that the one last week in Jakarta and probably a little less powerful where I was. But the room shook more and I could hear some cracking. So out I go again, bag in hand (laptop and camera). This time I waited only a few minutes before crashing back to bed for another hour.

I learned later that, apparently, though Bali can shake a bit, this tremblor was a relative biggie that they only experience once every sixty years or so. What's with me? Why do I drag tremors and quakes around with me?

Saturday evening I went to a bar/club in Seminyak for a drink and to meet up with an acquaintance. He had been partying too long, so I walked him home, which was not far way) just to make sure he didn't fall into anything on the way back. It was late and I had trouble finding a legit taxi; fortunately two other people I have chatted to in the bar passed by on their motorbike and offered me a lift to Kuta, close to my hotel. Yes, its risky, but its just as risky walking the streets in the deep dark of night, so I accepted. And they were great. Just as good, as I had to get up early for a trip up the west coast of Bali on Sunday.

Sunday morning (September 20th) I was driven up the west side of Bali. Which turns out to be both fascinating and beautiful - easily the most beautiful part of Bali I've seen so far, with the exception of the cove at PadangBai on the east side. The trip up, 90km or so, took just over two and a half hours. Really enjoyable, with the scenery constantly changing and activities of the villages everywhere.

First we went through some flat land. the outskirts of tourist development, then very quickly across rice paddies into some rolling hills with their narrow valleys punctuated by fast flowing streams (it had been raining during the night and was still in the air). Here the village stores fronting the winding road are very much tourist oriented, with artisan workshops annexed to the back of most of them.

Then the scenery opened up into a broader plain with wider rivers, the coast in view and rice paddies stretching to the edge of some hills hidden in the mist and rain inland. The villages are obviously agricultural here. Dark stoned temples, shrines and sacred posts in the fields are absolutely everywhere.

The hills creep back to the shoreline and we go back to winding our way through vale and gully, but steeper than before, the rivers raging with angry storm water, villages perched on crumbling earthen escarpments.

Beyond the ridge of hills another plain in which the provincial capital of Negara sits, large temple complexes and enclosed spaces confirming the eternal commitment of the Balinese to their gods.

Not far from here my rendezvous, to see a property development on the coast. And as I ull my camera from its bag to shoot some fotos, the skies open and I'm drenched. Which is why you see no fotos from this tript.

From here I'm taken inland, to the edge of a national park, where hills cede to the moutain chain that crosses the north of the island. The wether is much more clement here. The villages are neatly arranged, tidily kept; flowers and fruit tress are everywhere. Its a garden land, a tranquil place nestled under the cover of deep forest and terraced rice fields.

Very very beautiful up here. There's even a lake, made by the damming of a river. Almost Africen. Almost Caribbean. Almost Pyrenean. A true Arcadia. What a delight!

The afternoon passes too fast; my driver must take me back to the clutter of Kuta.

I spend the evening in the hotel - I don't want to rub the image of West Bali from my eyes.

Monday (September 21st) I was up super early so I could take some fotos at dawn on the beach at Kuta. Of course it faces the sunset and it was still stormy, so there wasn't really much I could shoot.

One guy was taking some shots of a couple, so I took a shot of him. Turns out he's a good photographer - way better than me at portrait work. So here's his link and judge for yourself.

Afternoon flight back to Jakarta. Thanks to the end of Ramadhan the city is quiet so it was a fast trip back to the residence. What happens next?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A day in Arequipa

I had already fixed my departure from Arequipa for tomorrow morning, so today was all set for walking around the city some more. First up, I needed some breakfast. There didn't appear to be anything at the hostal so I wondered around a few blocks looking for somewhere interesting to sit down for a coffee (a real one) and food. Eventually I found a place, not far from the convent of Santa Catalina, advertizing American breakfast. Great! Flapjacks! In the end I went for a delicious and wonderfully prepared bowl of fresh fruit salad, some toast and jam - and a real coffee. The place is called La Casa Blanca, another classic house where with inner courtyard which is also a hostal, as Jorge the bartender told me. The food was excellent, the coffee perfect, the service superb and the hospitality unforgettable. I am beginning to like Arequipa a lot!

By the back entrance to the Jesuit church and cloisters

From La Casa Blanca I walked up towards the green park at the top of the old part of town. Students an many places were queuing up to register for end of term exams. One street seemed given over to language institutes (primarily English but a couple of French also). At the end I got semi-lost: I knew where I was in relation to the center but couldn't find what I was looking for. After walking down the central ring road, eyes beginning to water with the car pollution (Mexico!) I found myself in a maze of extremely tidy alleyways, with houses so similar to those of an southern Andalucian fishing village. This looks like it was once a poor quarter, totally refurbished by artists and well-to-do.

I wandered out of San Lazaro, as this district was called, through an another alleyway full of artisans' stores and into a plaza next to the monastery and church of San Francisco. The square, shaded by trees, was a place for old people and students alike to sit, converse and watch the world go by, much as I was doing. As always, an itinerant shoeshiner was sitting on his portable workstool, cleaning someone's shoes. Two pensioners were sitting on a bench opposite, each silent but obviously together. Two students, a reflection of their earlier lives, sat in tender embrace just two paces away. Such is life.

After a few minutes trying to take fotos of some of the people I walked over to the alley of the artisans and a small museum that fronted the plaza. There wasn't much to see (a contemporary art exhibition) so I headed down the main street street, past the convent of Santa Catalina again and towards the Plaza de Armas. The great iron gates to the cathedral precinct were open so I peeked inside; it seems to have the standard, severe appearance of most religious buildings built in the late 19th century (the cathedral being rebuilt after an earlier, devastating earthquake). As I retraced my footsteps a woman came up to me offering to sell cactus fruit. As of yesterday I'm an expert of course, so I ask "How much for the 'tuna'?" "Oh you know about them? One sol for three, señor." Well that beats the three soles for two I paid yesterday! So I bought three, ate one immediately and pocketed the other two for later.


Past the church to San Domingo, back up the street I walked earlier in the morning, and to the gates of the convent to Santa Teresa; closed when I first walked here, open now. Bought my ticket, signed in, accepted the company of a guide and was given a most capable and professional tour of the convent. This one is infinitely smaller that the convent to Santa Catalina, and obviously built with the ladies of the tradespeople in mind, not dueñas of the hacenderos. No independence here - strict observance of church doctrine, right down to the wooden carousels on which outsiders could deposit messages, gifts and articles for their relatives, secluded inside as voluntary (and not-so, possibly) lifers. Never once could a nun be seen from someone outside the community. A community of nuns still lives in the convent; like that of Santa Catalina, the greater part is given over to the local government and is used as a tourist attraction.

The seller of seed for the pigeons

As always, the guide wanted to draw my attention to the extrinsic value of the religious artifacts on show in the Viceregal Art Museum, which forms a part of the convent. As always, I was more interested in the intrinsic value of the art itself. I learned that plaster figurines, some of reasonable size, were actually created by building skeletons of light wood, which then were covered in plaster soaked cloth to render the sculpture's clothing more realistic. Clever - the same technique was used for cire perdue bronze cast sculptures; I didn't know it was downscaled also. As in other buildings there was a sense of clean freshness in many of the rooms, so I asked if they had been restored. "Yes, after the earthquake in 2001 many of the ceilings in these rooms caved in, so they were rebuilt with the traditional slllar (a light colored form of tufa). We lost many of the plaster frescos that were once painted on these walls". Amazingly, the mahogany floors survived virtually unscathed.

To my guide's visible embarrassment I breezed past religious reliquaries, tableaux and dolls. One of them was fascinating and truly impressive. Imagine a nativity scene with its wooden dolls. Now take the same idea, apply it to other key events in the Old and New Testaments (Garden of Eden, Noah and his Ark, Murder of the Innocents) and put it all together. Takes up a lot of room, right? So build a big box around them all, open it up and use the interior sides as a back drop for the scenes. When you want to travel, pack the figurines inside, close the sides up and the top down, and off you go. Not this particular version (its glass panels would break), but smaller, simpler ones were taken by the priests into their parishes to both show and tell the locals of the mystery and magic of the Bible. Propaganda Fidei.

Other items that had found there way here were Wedgwood china (the bridge and the swallows being the give-away), a Chinese vase I was told was from the dynasty of Huang Di (OK, I know) and examples of lace. I asked if lace had become something for which Arequipa was known, as often an activity generated in monasteries is a stimulus for local artisan craft; not here apparently. At the exit the ever forbearing guide asked me sweetly for a tip; she was a student and this was her way of making some extra money. Of course!


I continued my wanderings around the central area of the city. Some time later I found myself passing the entrance to yet another of the wonderful colonial period houses here. The courtyard of this one was very attractive; being a museum I paid the entrance fee and walked in. The Casa del Moral was once the home of one of Arequipa's leading families. With the passing of time and generations, the family dissolved and the property was sold off. Eventually one Arthur Williams of England bought it in 1948. By then a ruin, he rebuilt and refurbished it, keeping to the primary blue and red exterior walls of the convent. His heirs sold it on to a local bank, which then as part of a cultural program, has kept it in good order and sponsors its use as a museum. I marveled at the grace of the place, walking around its rooms twice and discovering the small garden through which a small stream no doubt flowed in the rainy season.

The Casa del Moral

I was on my way out and the guardian asked if I'd been on the roof yet. I didn't know one could, so followed his directions back to the garden and there found the steps up to the roof. Here, walking over the shallow vault of the sillar-and-tile roofs, was a tremendous view over the town itself. Looking across the street I could see another abandoned ruin of what was once a fine house. That got me thinking ... I walked all around, looking down and out and around.

Eventually I made my way back to the stairs and glanced back for a final view of the town. I could see the beginnings of the mountains through which I had traveled to Colca yesterday. Up and up they rose, seeming so close by. The clouds broiled past the higher slopes as the heat of the day caused them to rise. I could see the furthest extents of the city by now. Something caught my eye a little higher - the mountain continued to rise. I kept looking up. And up. A flash of light that surely wasn't a cloud. No, it was snow. At that very moment the clouds shredded against the utmost peak of the mountain and I could see its summit. It wasn't a mountain. It was a volcano. Misti, at last! And so overwhelmingly close! Stunningly close. My jaw dropped. I sat down. Couldn't help it. The view of Misti was awesome. I stayed another fifteen minutes waiting for the clouds to clear sufficiently to take a shot. Here it is.

The Convent of Santa Catalina with Volcán Misti behind

It was lunchtime. I strolled through an alley way behind the cathedral I had come across earlier; there were a couple of places that looked interesting. One had a top terrace, so I headed up and ordered a prawn ceviche, followed by trout. The waiter brought me a complimentary Pisco Sour - my very first. I had thought of it as a Caipirinha, given its ingredients are similar (change the cachaça for pisco and you have it), but it came prepared as a Margarita (a semi-frozen slurry). Softer than a Caipirinha, sweeter than a Margarita. Not bad at all. The prawn ceviche was delicious - and now I found out why there is a Pampa de Camarones near Arequipa. These are river prawns, but nothing like the freshwater crawfish taste I was expecting; these are as firm and succulent as any I've ever eaten that come from the cold oceans. Must be the altitude. Yum! Trout was good too, as was the glass of white wine, the coffee and desert. Mixto's is the place - I recommend it. After lunch, what else but back to the hotel to check email, have a cup of coca tea and take a short siesta.


In the afternoon I finally found the way into the complex of the Jesuits, with its light beige sillar courtyards, cloisters and patios. In the main courtyard a group were being taken through dance sequences by their choreographer. When costumed I'm sure its a sight. In by the back entrance, out by the front, I walked up one block then down the pedestrian precinct. "Hey señor, you need some laces!" The street vendor was right - the ones one my shoes were frayed. "OK - I'll buy a pair from you if you let me take a foto of you!" I shot back. "No hay problema, señor, but I recommend you buy these laces, as they are stronger." So, thanks to Pablo the lace seller, I have a foto and a new pair of stout laces.

Pablo the Shoelace seller

As the afternoon turned into an early evening, I simply wandered the main square, watching the people as they met up at the end of the day, let their children play, paid court to each other, read the papers. Resplendent in new laces, I had my soft comfortable suedes brushed clean by one of the shoeshiners. One woman, who had expertly caught a pigeon to show it to her nephew, wanted to see the fotos I had taken, including hers. So we all chatted for a few moments. A young, timid boy came up to me. His relatives were sitting on the same bench as I; one man gestured to me they were all deaf and dumb; if I had some change it would be appreciated. I didn't, unfortunately, so within a few moments they all moved off. One youth was sitting on the steps to the cathedral, apparently reading his textbooks but infinitely more interested in the five female students babbling away to his left.

The sun sets over the plain of Arequipa

The sun was setting; I walked back to the hotel so I could see it from the top terrace. "Hola señor! Would you like to eat at our restaurant?" I got from the three women stationed at the door. "I still live here!" I smiled back at them. "I will eat there tonight, but on one condition - I can take a foto of you all!" Which I did, of course. Up on the top the air was chilling quickly as the sun faded away. They have a clever answer to this: ponchos, courtesy of the house. Very functional, very comfortable. Two guys were playing 'traditional' music for the guests. "Would you like to buy our CD señor?" "Sure, but is it really you on the CD?" "Yes it is, all five of us." "But there are only two of you!" "Our friends are preparing for another show; soon we go to join them." So, along with my laces, I'm the proud owner of a CD of Andean music.

Mary and the music

Night rushed into the sky, banishing the sun another day. The cathedral was now lit by great floodlights; the plaza by a myriad of streetlamps. I ate my steak, washed down a glass of red wine (Peruvian wine remains very good), arranged my taxi for the following morning (as Betty insisted, saying that there were still problems with rogue drivers drugging passengers and robbing them).

And hit the sack.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Valle del Colca

With all alarms set for 02:15 (time for quick shower), there was o way of course that I could sleep. So I worked on the fotos awhile and finally closed my eyes around midnight.

The alarms rang, I jumped into the shower, there was a knock on the door.'"The driver is here for you!" Early! Jump out of shower, frisk water off with towel, ram clothes on, grab bag with camera and money and zoom down the stairs. Outside on the square a white 'colectivo' was waiting, two people already sitting there looking sourly at me as I boarded. The driver gunned the engine and we rocketed off.

Instead of leaving town the minibus went around town collecting other people till the vehicle was full. First the people already on board, whom I quickly heard from their accents were English from east of London area, then me, then three women in their 60s (who from their accents I figured were Canadian French), a remarkably healthy looking young man (100% Norway), two young women (Canadian also) and finally a guy who had been pulled live from an all night disco party (German). All aboard then, and we pulled out of town, most everyone trying to find some place against which they could lean their head. Further sleep was next to impossible because of the road's bumpiness and the constant chatter of one of the Quebeckers. Still a couple of hours I managed; I remember being shook awaked in the slight lightening of pre-dawn as the minibus turned left off the main road and began shaking like a Mexican jumping bean as the new road turned to the surface of Mars.

For many, many kilometers the bus jerked, veered, slewed and jammed as the driver navigated the moonscape of potholes that pretended to be the road to somewhere. For more than 40 kilometers the road was a disaster - and the main reason, I figured, why we had to get up at 02:30 am for what is a 90km distance trip.

Fellow passengers silhouetted at dawn

Dawn seemed a long time coming, but when it did, it came with a rush. Finally I could see our surroundings, rocky, grassy rolling hills with snow touched mountains far in the distance. My camera finger was itching and at one point I couldn't take the frustration of seeing so much I wanted to take fotos of and not being able to. "Richard", I called out to the driver, "can we stop for a few minutes please? I need to stretch my legs and maybe the others do too". He pulled over and everyone piled out (no thanks from anyone, I noticed). I scrambled over the rocky field to see the area more clearly. At the top of the slight incline was a ceremonial rock pile, the type that in other cultures is used to mark a grave or a sacred place. The colors were stupendous - red rocks, the early sun flushing them with a suffused orange, the dark mountains in the distance, snow sparkling from so far away, the sky a wispy, frosty, icy blue.

Dawn's first light

The driver was in a hurry; we all headed back to the minibus. Not too much further along the road and we halted again. "This is the highest point of our trip today", said Jesús, the guide for the tour. "We are now at the Paso del XXX", he continued, "4810 meters above sea level." Again we clambered out. I headed up the hill to see the stone huts at the top. The white stuff I had seen on some rocks earlier turned out not to be guano, as I thought it might have been, but wind sculpted ice. These huts must be set up as shelters, like in the Alps and the Rockies, their battered doors bright red against the now azure sky.

Shelters at 4800m high

On we sped, heading down an ever steepening hillside towards a valley below. The driver was careening round the curves way too fast; one of the younger Canadian women was getting visibly worried. "Riccardo, slow down - we are very uncomfortable in the back here!" It worked for a few minutes. Once down on the valley floor we came through a toll where we paid to enter the Valle del Colca; quickly after that were in Chivay, parked by a hostal/restaurant. Breakfast was being served. That's why he was rushing ..

I finished in about five minutes, leaving the others to carry on. I walked around Chivay a little, seeing some people gathering in what I suppose was a marketplace but in reality is a bare, muddy corner of ground; others were clambering into an open truck to head off somewhere. Many of the men were dressed in jeans and workshirts, the type you'd find anywhere; the women were mostly dressed in a more traditional style, black shows, stockings, pleated dress arching to the knees, blouse with two cardigans, brightly colored scarf and hat. The sun was bright, the air quite alpine, the temperature fresh. Half an hour later we were back in the bus, threading our way through the valley towards its ever narrowing neck.


Soon the road began to climb out of the valley itself, up along its southern slopes. I was fuming with frustration - I wanted to get out at every turn. Every ten meters. The scenery is absolutely tremendous here. In the still relatively early light (just short of 9am, the sun already high in the sky) every shade of green was visible - in the woodland, the fields, the cultivated terraces. With its clear sky and alpine surroundings, this is like an ever-abundant Swiss Oberland. I reckon that almost anything that you might like to grow here would grow here.

The terraces of the Valle del Colca

Here in the Andes I remembered a tale by HG Wells I read long ago, about a one-eyed man who found himself in a village of blind people, thinking himself king because he could see through his one eye. What I mostly remembered from the tale was the descriptions of a beautiful land, high up on the roof of the world. This could be such a place. The Valle del Colca is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

We stopped once, when Jesús stepped out to buy two different types of cactus fruit - 'tuna', which is sharp and acerbic, and another which is sweeter. I took the opportunity walk up the road to grab a couple of fotos, thumbing a lift to get back in. I don't think anyone smiled at my bravura.

Eventually we came to the top of the long drive up the valley. The valley itself had narrowed into a gorge, the gorge into a canyon. There was a long drop down to the raging river below. "This Cañón del Colca is the deepest in the world", our guide told everyone before we got out. "The total drop is almost 4,000 meters, more than the Grand Canyon in Colorado," When we did get out and I looked down I commented "Doesn't look like 4,000 meters to me." "True, here the drop from where we are standing to the river below is only 1,200 meters. Further up the canyon, where the road doesn't go, it gets more extreme thanks to the drop in the river and the closeness of the mountains. We are here for a different reason - condors."

The Cañón del Colca

This is the Cruz del Condor where, regular as clockwork, condors that roost in the crags below take flight ever morning. We have to be here early (so, not just the breakfast, where there was no hurry) to catch them before the warming air thermals allow them to take off for other parts of the countryside. We were there at just after 9am. I heard once voice exclaim "you all should have been here at 8:30 - there were ten condors then!". Yes, apart from our minibus there were at least ten others parked in the area provided. About as solitary an affair as visiting the Vatican....

I wondered over to the side of the upper mirador, one two jammed with people and their cameras, not really expecting to see anything, and not particularly interested either. I was more frustrated at not being able to take good shots of the countryside than focusing on looking for oversized vultures. I've seen vultures at work; it's not a pretty sight. Anyway, with this little putt-putt camera I'd never be able to shoot anything more than a distant blur.

The Cruz del Condor overlooks the deepest canyon on Earth

Irony of ironies, right below the people on the terrace, and just out of sight of them, a solitary vulture (sorry, condor) was perched, glumpily looking around. OK, then a couple of shots then, on maximum zoom. I blinked, it was no longer there. A wave of exclamations with whirs of cameras followed, as the condor glided along the length of the cliff edge and back to its rock. This it did a few times, occasionally sweeping low over the people who strained up to capture one foto or video of the great bird. By now I was hooked of course, sitting athwart a rock at the very edge of the cliff nd scanning the canyon for a glimpse of the thing. Every time i passed i panned and shot like crazy, hoping that at least one foto might be in focus - and have a condor caught forever. Here's one I managed:

In the Canyon of the Condors

Just in time too, as the park guard called me off my own condor's perch with "You can't sit there, it's dangerous". He was right too - no way to recover if i slipped.

While the others carried on condor-watching, I clambered up to the large white cross at the top of the hill above the miradores. From here I could see the length of the canyon proper, the valley we had come from to right, the deepening rift of the canyon curving away to the left. Back in the park I offered the minibus driver a cup of coffee, bought from one of the floridly dressed women who had set up their stalls in order to sell trinkets to the tourists. Richard, like Jesús, was a university student, working in the tourism business to earn the extra buck. Explained his driving anyway - the coffee was my peace offering for having told him to drive more carefully earlier.


Everyone gathered back into the minibus, we headed back down the same road we had traveled, this time with less of a rush. Twice we pulled over so the others could take photos of some places I had desperately shot out of the window on the way up. No point by now - the sun was brilliant and way up in the sky - no shadows, all the earlier shades and hues of green flattened into a singularity. I bought a couple more of the cactus fruit and shared them out between my fellow passengers. The most miserable of murmured thank yous. What a bunch. I made a couple more attempts at conversation during the outing but gave up.

On the way down we stopped at a town in the valley we had passed earlier - a place called Maca. Here, Jesús explained to us, was one of the classic churches of the zone, with its covered balcony above the main doors. I was more taken by the great Imperial eagle, trapped into a life as a tourist clown and trained to perch on the head of any tourist so stupid as to let the raptor do such a thing. Again more tourist trinkets, polychrome pettiskirts and ribboned ponytails.

We were back in the same hostal/restaurant for a long buffet, bursting with samples of the local food (all very good). Worth paying extra for but not the 20 soles (26 with coffee and desert) they charged. No-one was rushing any more. Jesús and Richard both grabbed to-gos as well. The weather turned bleak and cold, with rain hammering down in a mater of moments. After lunch there was one more place to visit according to the plan, a resort with thermal springs. Since it was still inclement Jesús asked who wanted to visit the place. Only the three elderly Canadians did, everyone else stoically not answering the question. Peer pressure won out and the minibus headed back towards Arequipa.


Up over the valley walls again, past streams torrenting down from the mountain sides as the rainstorm moved away. Soon the road turned to the equivalent of a magnified gold ball, pitted in every direction. Past the high point, past the high, soggy moors we barely saw in the beginning of the day, were the first glimpses of vicuña I had seen, slender miniatures of the llama in Lima's park. Eventually Richard relented, letting us out to stretch legs and try to get close to the animals. I walked downwind of them, turned back up and managed a couple of shots. Then it was back on board, hell for leather to the next stop, a depot called Sumbay at the junction between the roads to Arequipa and Cusco. Behind us now was an impressive limestone cliff, the winds have blown its face into arches, columns and caves. I'm sure someone would have lived here in times past, some of the lines were too precise for nature.

Vicuña live at high altitudes - enough to take your breath way

Past the control post at Quiscos, down into the dry valley at Yura, dominated by a massive cement works, through fog that obliged me once again to tell Richard to slow down 'or else', we came back down into Arequipa. One by one the others were returned to their pick up points till it was my turn. Thanks to Jesús, a wave to Richard and a tip for them both (I think I was the only one to do this) and I was back in front of my hostal.

"Hola señor, would you like to eat at our restaurant? " cried one of three women dressed like the dancers in Lima that were blocked the doorway. "I live here! This is my hotel!" I grinned back as I excused my way though and headed up the stairs. Shower, shave, crash on bed, download fotos. Its becoming a routine.

As you can read from my description, I'm not one who takes kindly to organized tours. Still, this was probably the only way to see the Valle del Colca the first time round. Next time (I'm planning on it) the best way to do this is on motorbike and over a couple of days, staying in the valley at last one night. And in the end I'll have a thousand images of exceptional beauty.

I couldn't manage any more this day, my eyes were too full of what I had seen and my body was telling me it was a wreck. I keeled over without dinner and slept.


Monday, March 09, 2009

A walk around Arequipa

The bus terminal in Arequipa was a more general affair than the one in Lima. Here buses from various operators were parked, a melange of locals and tourists embarking, disembarking and milling around. I asked the information desk how much a cab took to the center of town. "Six soles is the normal price". Armed with this vital information, as taxis aren't metered here, I boldly dtrode out and signaled 'yes' when one driver hailed me. "How much to the center of town?" I asked. "Six soles" was the reply. "OK your price is right! Let's go!" And with that we were off in his much-mended Mazda, to the Plaza Mayor of Arequipa. "Where are you from?", the cabbie asked me. I was ready with my answer this time "I'm from Norway. A Viking. You know, like you guys say here ' drunk like a viking'! ", and he laughed at that.

The cathedral in Arequipa, with the Andes looming behind

A few minutes later the taxi dropped me off at the corner of Arequipa's main square. The central part, as in Lima, is a great square with trees, lawns, flowers, pathways, lights and large fountain in the middle. Three sides of the square are arcades two floors high, with a sidewalk and storefronts below, the second floor having balconies for restaurants and hotels. The fourth side, up the slight incline as the square isnt on level ground, is completely taken up by a massive, double spired cathedral. For those that have been to Mexico, which is my base point for comparison, my immediate reaction was how similar this is to Cuernavaca and Coyoacán, an impression I was to have several times in the day.

Another image reminiscent of Mexico: behind the cathedral loomed an immensely high range of snow capped mountains. Amongst them there should be the volcano Misti, but it was shrouded in early morning haze. Were it visible I'm sure the image would be like the volcanoes behind Mexico City, that I very occasionally saw from my top terrace in Coyoacán after a heavy storm beat down the air pollution of that city.

I had eaten breakfast on the bus, so first objective was to find a hotel to stay in. Walking around Lima earlier I had noticed that hotels broke into two categories - hotels and hostals. Hostals are like Italian 'pensione', simple places that are more economical than hotels. Since all I needed (ever need) is a good large bed with clean sheets, hostals are fine for me. I had checked the Internet before various places before flying; since I didn't know the cities or how it worked here, this didn't help me so I didn't book anything (unlike for Lima, where I needed to go direct to somewhere sure).

So I walked around the square, then one block away from the square, to see what there was. A great number of hostals, is the answer. Arequipa is obviously a city geared for tourism; the Mexican equivalent jumping into my mind now being 'San Miguel Allende!', a beautiful town in central Mexico best known for being where many movies are shot, thus becoming popular with Hollywood and the California crowd of artists and creatives.

Back to the main square, which was now quite busy with morning traffic and people. I went for a hostal called Arequipa Suites Plaza in the top right of the plaza, not least because it was connected to a restaurant with a strategic view over the plaza. "How much for a room with a queen size bed? (I'm tall, singles are never long enough, and I sleep restlessly, singles are never wide enough)'. "With bathroom or without?" "With, thanks." "60 soles (18 US$ at current rates)." replied the desk manager, whose name I later learned is Betty.

Up to the room (bed just right), dump bag, charge phone, download fotos from camera to laptop, jump out f clothes and into shower (lovely hot water), throw dirty shirt etc into shower with me to wash them (remember I'm traveling light here, just one backpack), hang same, shave and brush, dry and dress. Look out of window onto Arequipa's plaza below me and the spires of the cathedral right in front of me. Splendid!

The cathedral and square of Arequipa

Once 'respectable' I went down to the lobby to check emails, there being a PC available free of charge for guests to use just by the desk. "Would you like a coca?" asked Betty, pointing to a thermos of hot water and some leaves in a jar. Ah, the famous coca leaf! "No thanks, but do you happen to have some coffee?" "Sure, instant OK?" Again! I'm in a country that grows coffee beans and I'm offered Nescafé! I went for the coffee. And took the opportunity to ask Betty what there was to see in Arequipa. "Lots! Here, let me show you." With this Betty pulled out a couple of maps and showed me some of the places I could visit in the center of town - churches, townhouses, institutes and musea.

"How long are you planning to stay?" Betty asked me. "Two nights, maybe three". "Oh well then you have to visit the Valle del Colca, its only a day trip from here." "Yes, I've been told it's worth seeing - I met some people yesterday who come from there", I replied, telling her about the dancers. "Well I have a friend who has an agency just over the square. Take this card and he'll give you a discount." "Thanks, I might at that. But first I want to see Arequipa!". And with this I was off to explore the city.


Looking at the map for a moment, I walked down the arcade to the corner on the same side as the hotel. On the corner opposite was a church with a very ornately carved stone façade. This, and the complex behind it, which I didn't go into, is Jesuit territory - the Compañia de Jesús. Walked up the street so see what was there, and found another church, to San Domingo. I went in and was quite amazed by its almost Calvinist simplicity. Well, it wasn't quite, obviously. The altar was a cornucopia of gold leaf. But the walls were bare of any decoration except for eight very well carved statues, excellently lit. Very elegant.

Detail of the façade of the church of the Compañia de Jesús

From here I walked up a few blocks then cut back to the Plaza Mayor. Crossing the façade of the cathedral I walked up another street, passing an entrance to the University of San Agustín, where students were milling about. Across the street was a wonderful building with an internal courtyard, its walls a brilliant blue, with a dark stone fountain in the middle. Another image from Mexico, famous for its own use of primary colors. The windows looked familiar too; familar but not the same. Here in Areqipa the stone is a soft beige, almost white, like that of Provence - or Andalucia. What was obviously once a private house is now host to small boutiques selling jewels and alpaca knot clothes.

A bit further up the street, back on the side of the University, was the entrance to a convent dedicated to Santa Catalina. This place was very much open to the public; the cashier's booth proclaimed the entrance was 10 soles. I walked in, refused the guide, and walked into another world. Literally.

The convent of Santa Catalina

This convent is amazing. I've never seen anything like it. Here, from the late 1500s onwards, ladies from the privileged families of Arequipa (and, I assume, other places) came to retire from the mundane world in which they had lived before - the one we live in. Nothing new in that, that's part of what convents are for. Here, however, although shut away from the world officially (limited contacts with relations and all that) they did not intend to shut themselves away from a genteel way of living. These had been, still were for the most part, wealthy dueñas, so could afford something that, while humble, was still graceful.

Each therefore had their own, what we would call mini-apartment, with salon, bedroom, kitchen, private garden and, yes, servant's quarters. Made of adobe for sure. Wooden bed also (nice wide ones mostly). Simple furniture. Crucifixes, icons, the works. But quite livable. Each house, for that's what each nun lived in, was named after the occupant too - her religious name of course, not her worldly one. There were communal baths, and a communal washing area too, its 'tubs' made of great terracotta amphorae split in half and laid on the sloping ground as though they were the tossed halves of walnut shells, a watercourse running the length of them.

The convent of Santa Catalina - a nun's abode

The streets and lanes, for this convent is enormous and really deserves the description 'city within a city', were obviously all perfectly maintained. Indeed this city-within-a-city was also a state-within-two-states, secluded from the outer world and independent of the church authorities too, for the better part of its existence. Again the astonishing similarity with Mexico - all outer walls in the convent are painted in primary blues, reds and whites; inner ones in soft yellow or mellowed white. Flowers and plants are abundant; there's even a deep shady garden in one corner. There are several cloisters, remnants of frescos still painted on the walls.

Thank goodness there is also a cafeteria in the middle of this. By midday I was feeling the heat and strength of the sun beating down on me. Through an archway a delightful garden beckoned, chairs under a large canvas umbrella, easy chairs in the corner terrace, shaded with thin poles of bamboo. One coffee and a tall glass of water later, I was able to move off and complete the tour of this stunning place.

The reason the convent is open to the public is primarily because not so long ago it fell into ruin and decay after one of many devastating earthquakes hit Arequipa. The nuns had to leave for property next door, where they still live. The local government took the massive complex over, restored a good part of it (not all, that's evident) and opened it to the public.

The convent of Santa Catalina - the laundry with its split amphorae

I eventually made it out and, hungry, headed for a restaurant, the cortile of which I had stuck my head into earlier. The interior was quite contemporary, the colors less primary but still bright - orange, violet and apple green. Mexico again ... The food was delicious : recoto relleno with papas (stuffed pepper with side order of sauteed potatoes), which I ordered without knowing its one of Arequipa's classic dishes. A glass of the always excellent Peruvian wine and I was happy. Luis, the waiter, was super attentive and happily explained some of the dishes to me. Peruvian cuisine is known to be good (I didn't know this before arriving, of course) and believe me, it is.

After this i headed back to the hostal. Another receptionist was on duty. I asked if I could go up to the top terrace, where the restaurant was, to see the view. 'Of course you can, and our cuisine is very good if you want to eat there this evening' was her reply. I'm sure it is, but I'm way too stuffed with my recoto relleno to eat any more today. Returning to the lobby I asked if I could check the internet (usual stuff). She offered me the option of coffee or tea, and this time I went for the tea. Tea made by throwing some coca leaves into a cup then pouring boiling hot water over them. My first coca tea, then. Taste? Like hot water poured over scented leaves, somewhat sweet thanks to the sugar, a little oily thanks to the natural oils in the leaf itself and a slightly bitter aftertaste. No buzz or anything like that. Its supposed to be invigorating for high altitudes. I found it mildly relaxing, like hibiscus tea is. Anyway, took it up to my room to appreciate the moment, downloaded the many, many fotos I had taken, showered again and took a short siesta.

In the late afternoon I walked over to the agency that Betty had suggested and booked a day trip to the Valle del Colca, departure time 02:30 am the following morning. "It's a little way and there's much to see. Plus we have to be back by 5pm before it gets dark." was the explanation given. Right, well if I'm getting up that early, forget the drink on the terrace - I'm off to bed!


The road to Arequipa

The coach left the terminal on time at 6pm, heading out south into the press of cars on the main roads of Lima. The taxis here, miniature Mazdas, operate like the ones in India, buzzing all over the place; the colectivos swerve around as they pull up for passengers who may, or equally well may not, be at the scheduled bus stops. Sometime later we passed a toll, which formally told us we were on the Panamericana Sur, the great highways the runs the length of the Americas. We sped past the ruins of Panchacamak, one of the pre-Inca settlements that dot the area around Lima, not that I could see anything from my side of the bus, though I could see some small islands offshore. Then, abruptly, the dingy gray, dusty hills gave way to pure desert. The road settled into a winding highway that followed the coast, punctuated every so often with beachside villas and compounds, somewhat reminiscent of southern Italy below Rome. Every bay held a small town, which I hadn't noticed from the air. The traffic heading back to Lima was intense. Bright headlights lit up the interior of the coach, quickly shuttered out by people pulling closed the curtains.

During the night I woke up a few times. Once I think was were going through Pisco, a town by the coast and famous for a distilled liqueur, normally served as part of a cocktail called Pisco Sour. I've never had it (yet) so can't tell you what its like. Another time I think we stopped at Nazca, but it was dark and I couldn't see anything. One thing that did surprise me was the volume of traffic, and the fact there were quite a few places; this even though I saw so little from the air.

I really woke up at around 6am. We were sometimes by the coast, sometimes on a bluff and occasionally inland a bit as the road sliced of a cape or promontory. Shortly we turned inland and I never saw the ocean again.

The river valley at Camara

From desert we turned into a low, broad, green valley with rice paddies. We hurtled over the river bridge at Camara and found ourselves immediately back in the desert, right down to the ocean. Again we turned inland, a sign reading 17X km to Arequipa zipping past so fast I didn't get the last digit. Here the already arid desert sand turned white with patches of what I suppose must be salt or lime. Nothing at all grew here; the earth itself seemed crusted over. Over flat land went the bus, driving past many small crosses planted beside the roadway. People had died here, whether of accidents or thirst I know not. Some minutes later I could see fields of maize, lines of trees acting as barriers against the wind. Another sign whipped by, this time for or to a place called Apiao.

Now the sun was breaking through dawn's early mist. All around were green fields of maize and sunflowers, irrigation canals, cattle. The bus began a steep descent into a valley, the Massibe gorge, another green valley with a respectable river running through it called the Siuhas.

Back into the desert

Climbing back up the other side of the valley we were back in a spectral desert again, the sand dunes formed into regular crescents by the wind blowing up from the ocean. Another descent into a verdant valley, over the river Vitor, the bright green, flat fields surrounded by dry unbounded sand round looking for all the world like a smaller version of the Nile.

This time we clambered out of the flat lands into rocky hill country, the bus swerving abruptly each time we came to a curve in the road - and there were many. Over the top of the last escarpment and I could see, in the far distance, the sharp rise of volcanos. We were heading into Andes territory at last! The vegetation changed too - now, along with the ever present maize, were acacia and cactus.

The volcanos of the Andes on the distant horizon

Through a broad valley floor the bus carried on, through cultivated fields interspersed with barren patches. We passed a place called Pampa de Camarones (what are prawns doing here?) and ever so quickly we were obviously in the outskirts of Arequipa.