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.


Sunday, March 08, 2009

A walk around Lima

I had set my plans: Arequipa by bus in the evening. So today was to see a bit more of Lima before heading off to the bus terminal. In the morning I had arranged to meet up with Svetlana, the guide from yesterday's tour of the monastery of San Francisco, but there was a sudden press of American tourists from a visiting cruise ship so there was no way she could have freed her herself to tell me more about Machu Picchu. I'll just have to ask along my way.

Lima and the old ramparts by the river Rimac

I walked around the back of the monastery. heading towards the Rimac and thinking of taking a couple of shots of the river and, possibly, the shantytown opposite Lima, its brightly painted houses a cascade of color in the dusty desert that surrounds the city.

I found a park where couples were romancing and young children were playing, built atop and below the old river ramparts of the city. The many times breached walls are now some distance from the Rimac, the slightest traces of pathways barely evident amongst the exposed and reconstructed brickwork of their bastions. At key points a descriptive text explains what you are looking at - all done very well.


In the area above the ramparts a group of people in folk dress were finishing a dance. There was a full band and at least ten dancers. I sat down on a bench within the dancing circle, ready with camera. Within about a minute the young woman asked me where I was from. "Norway! I'm a Viking!" Sweet smile from her (I would learn why later in the day). She turned out to be one of the organizers of the group, which were from a place called Colca, as announced by the banner behind them all.

The dancers from Colca take a break

The dancing stopped awhile and several of the dancers stood by the organizer, others sitting down a bench to my left (the band already sitting on a bench to my right). Where was I from? "Norway! I'm a Viking!" Same sweet smiles (so what does Norway do here that people smile? Maybe no-one has a clue where it is). "Do you know where Norway is?" "Yes, up in the north of Europe. What's the weather like?" "Like the top of that mountain", I said, pointing to a snow capped mountain painted in the poster proclaiming the Valle del Colca.

"Have you been to the Valle del Colca?" asked Silvia, one of the dancers. "No. Never heard of it before. Tell me about it!" And Silvia did. It's most beautiful valley in all of Peru, a place where condors fly, the food is wonderful and the people the very best of all Peruvians, especially those from Chivay, which coincidentally is where Silvia and the dancing team come from. I cannot visit Peru without seeing Colca.

"Where are you traveling to from Lima?" was the next question. "To Arequipa, tonight", I answered. "Excellent! You can visit Colca from Arequipa in a day." exclaimed Silvia. "Well it's an idea. I might at that", I replied, in part for interest an in part for happy politeness, as I was gaining the impression that Peruvians are proud of the home towns, each of which being the most beautiful in all Peru, the food wonderful and its people the very best. This brightens my spirit immensely.

I asked them about their costumes, which are a mix of three elements - almost medievally heavy dresses, light military dress jackets and abundantly rich embroidery. Its local to the Colca area, I was told. And the reason the men wear dresses also?

"No we don't!" shouted one, raising his skirts to show blue jeans and sneakers underneath his dress. "Yes they do!" chorused the women.

"Its because of an old legend we have", they continued. " Long ago invaders came to take and rape our womenfolk. This happened only occasionally but as the beauty of Colca women became to be known, it happened more often. So one night the men of Colca dressed up as women. The invaders attacked again, but this time were met with knives. Never again were we attacked. In celebration of their courage, when dancing our men wear their dresses again."

"No that's not it!", another voice rang out. "It's because the men of Colca are the most beautiful in Peru!" At which everyone burst out laughing.

I think both stories are true - these are are a bright, happy people with a great sense of fun and spirit. It shines through them and makes them all beautiful.


Soon the dancers from Colca packed up and I walked along the old city walls. From this area you can cross over a metal footbridge to another area near the new river walls. As in most cities, the river that was once its lifegiver and lifetaker has been straightjacketed, Hannibal Lecter style, by thick concrete retaining walls, reducing it to an afterthought and a drain.

The multi-colored shantyown of San Sebastian

In a walk area by the new river wall I found a lone llama cantering around, trying desperately to ignore the persistence chugging of a miniature train that was pulling local tourists around. I tried to get not-too-close to the llama to take a foto, this being the very first llama I'd ever seen that wasn't in a cage.

The llama saw me and decided I might have something of interest (or worse, be something of interest). I tacked left, it tacked right. Remembering that I had once heard that llamas are like temperamentally like camels, and knowing camels from my times in Africa, I knew that excessive zeal to get up close (by the animal) could spell disaster (for the human). I started to tack briskly abeam (walk fast away), at which point the damn thing started cantering - in my direction. I headed for the steps of the footbridge, which given these rugs-on-tenpoles are mountain animals, was of course a thoroughly useless gesture.

Just at the moment when the people looking down from the same bridge were with bated breath waiting for the denouement, the moment when I could see close up the llama's slightly crazy, ice crystal blue eyes glaring from its black muzzle and chocolate coat, the toy train burst on the scene. Its unexpected tinny hoot was enough to frustrate the llama at the point of conquest; with flaring nostril and angry stamp, it wheeled away from me. Alive to fight (and flee) another day!


Back up in the Plaza Mayor it was almost midday, time for the ritual Changing of the Guard. Being a Sunday, this was more elaborate. The band came out of the Presidential Palace's courtyard and began a the long circuit of the square itself. They were preceded by the squadron of cavalry and followed by the presidential Honor Guard. All most impressive. I didn't get to ask if the Palace Guard were volunteers or that this was a position of great honor and esteem, as is the case in Norway (one of my friends did this); I will ask next time.

The band marches past Lima's cathedral in the Plaza Mayor

The ceremony over, I headed back up to what it becoming my favorite bar in Lima for another pork sandwich and glass of red wine. I prefer the smoked pork to the sweet; both wines are great.

Grabbed a cab to the bus terminal, which is to the south of the city. Answered the inevitable question with the inevitable answer. "Hey, do you know we have a saying here in Peru: 'borracho como vikingo' (drunk like a Viking). Is it true you all drink till you are drunk?"

Great! Now I know the reasons for the smiles all yesterday and today.... The usual words of explanation and excuse - and a mutual laugh with the cabbie as I told him I'd being saying the same with evident pride these last two days.


The operator I had chosen, Cruz del Sur, has its own bus terminal and its absolutely spectacular, something between a new bank and a new airport terminal. Exchanged voucher for ticket, checked some other information and headed to the upper floor to buy a coffee and some water.

On the off chance I pulled out my iPod to see if there was a WiFi signal. There was! And strong too, from the terminal itself! And free!!!! Oh, why is it that the developing world does the commercially sensible thing and 'developed' one is always nickel-and-diming (only not even that cheap)? In a few minutes I was able to get up to speed with everything, post a few mails and check my financials.

Boarding the bus I was amazed. The seats are like the best business class seats in airlines. Multiple audio channels, flip down monitors, intro program, local sites program, then four videos through the evening/night. Snack, dinner, drinks all provided. Seat right back, cushion and coverlet. Stewardesses. Even a bingo game with the prize being a free return ticket.

Brilliant! Absolutely the best bus ride ever, anywhere.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

A tourist in Lima

Given the early start and late end yesterday, I decided to take today very easy and be a tourist in Lima.

Around 9am I walked back up to the Plaza Mayor, through the pedestrian precinct that was still shuttered (evidently things don't start that early here either. I had been wondering how to organize my trip around Peru after seeing Lima. The best way seemed to ask a travel agency what was the best way to get around, so I found one and set up the net phase of my travels here (you can read how it works out later).

The Plaza Mayor in the center of Lima

I crossed the Plaza Mayor a few times, looking at the sights in the nearby streets and the way the fast rising sun changed the yellow of the public buildings from a canary to an intense cadmium.

A group of traditionally dressed Indios were standing on the steps of the Cathedral, one of them with a long horn which he raised up high over the others and blew from time to time. I asked them if this was a special event or festival they were celebrating. 'No,' was the reply of two women at once, 'we just want to walk around and let some tourists take photographs. You want to take a photo? How much money will you give us?' Well, I had the photos already so I thanked them kindly and headed off to see the Cathedral itself.

It costs 10 soles (a bit less than 3 US$ at time of writing) to visit the Cathedral. Thanks to earthquakes the building has been rebuilt several times, so the interior is more the stark 1880s version than the older Baroque version, even though it appears Baroque on the outside. The decor is more muted than I would have expected too; the most beautiful pieces being some painted and gilded wood statues.

But what really got me was that, just to the right of the entrance, lies the sarcophagus, coffin and body of Francisco Pizarro. I was standing in front of the direct link to 500 years of European history in South America. There was the Spanish Conquistador himself. Unbelievable.

Doubly so. As some of you know, I lived in Mexico for over two years. Mexico and Peru were the two Viceroyalties of Spanish America, so I am oblige for both reasons to use Mexico as my point of comparison for Peru. Never in a million years would Mexico put Hernan Cortes in a sarcophagus and celebrate his feats in the capital's cathedral as here I see before me in Peru (someone please correct me if I'm wrong - I don't for the life of me remember seeing such a thing).

So here is something different - though both countries are a cultural and racial fusion of Indios and Europeans, does the European power still exert itself more openly in Peru?


On leaving the cathedral I walked up a street, the presidential palace on my left. I hadn't had breakfast yet and on the corner of the street just past the palace was a old style cafe called Cordaro. One espresso please! Yes, the short one. Gracias! Looking at the photos on the wall the bar hadn't changed much in a hundred years. Given its proximity to the center of political power, it must have seen many events in its lifetime. While I was there an Indian trail of tourists walked into the bar from the entrance on one street, past the bar counter and out the other door on the other street. The bar tenders just looked on, as though this was something to be suffered, like waiting for traffic to pass by. Most surreal.

Lucho and Albino look on as the tourists trail through Cordaro's

I walked on up past the stores selling Indio souvenirs up to the Monastery of San Francisco. This is one of Lima's oldest standing structures, though even this has had to be rebuilt several times thanks to tremblors. Large, heavy, dedicated to religion as only exists in Latin America. Room upon room of artefacts. For me the most interesting was the (rebuilt) wooden dome, the geometric design pure Moorish, and the arched courtyards, with their many tiled walls and verdant gardens. With their two floors, its built like the many monasteries and hospitals I saw in Mexico.

The tour ended with a trip to the 'Catacumbos' - the underfloor crypt where many people were once buried, the tradition being that if you were buried under a church, then your chances of getting past the Pearly Gates were significantly improved and you would be on the highway to resurrection come Judgment Day. Well, not since 1821 when San Martin banned the practice. You can see the pits and the ossuaries, if you have a mind to.

Back out in the sunlight I wandered around a few more streets and found myself back at the bar where I had morning coffee. Not by accident. I had seen a delicious haunch of smoked ham on the bar counter earlier: lunch! One delicious sandwich-and-a-half plus an even more delicious half bottle of Peruvian white wine later, and I was happy to head back to the hotel for a siesta.


In the afternoon I returned to the historical center of the city, walking around and generally enjoying seeing the people of Lima as they relaxed on the steps of the cathedral and benches in the garden which is the plaza itself.

The honor guard of the presidential palace announced itself with a brassy blare of trumpets. Many people crowded over to see the ceremony. The band played, a platoon wearing late 19th century cadet uniforms marched smartly out, to be met by another heading in the other direction across the palace's courtyard. A banner detachment with the flags of Peru and the presidential guard stamped out. The music changed pace, the soldiers performed some impressively coordinated maneuvers, the flags were exchanged and everyone marched back to their positions as though the whole exercise was an exceptionally well crafted clockwork.

The Band plays for the changing of the guard

I walked back across the square and sat down to continue watching the late Saturday scene. Out of nowhere woman popped up, hand outstretched. With a "Hi! Where are you from?' she introduced herself as Rosanna and obviously wanted to start a conversation. I was never sure of her purpose, but its always fun starting a conversation. It lasted the better part of the evening as I quizzed her about Peru, Lima, its life and society. She told me one of the places to go to was the north of Peru, up by the border with Ecuador. That's where the beach-and-surf life is apparently. Very tempting, but my goal is Inca territory. If I have time, though ...

I was always aware this could have been for some other purpose from her side, but fortunately it turned out not to be, so in the end her bright chattiness was a delightful complement to the day.

Friday, March 06, 2009

My first day in Lima

After lunch and a quick siesta to stay out of the midday heat and recover from being up since 2:30, I asked Miguel and Christian, the two guys handling the front desk, how to get from the hotel to the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) of Lima, which I knew to be walking distance.

Omar, Miguel's cousin who was giving them a hand, said that he had to go in that direction and would show me the way. Nothing better!

South Americans flags fly in the afternoon sun

So we walked along the roads, most of which are being dug up and relaid as part of an urban renovation project, past the central police station (just by the hotel) over a main road towards the Palace of Justice (central court), by the brutal concrete horror that goes by the name of the Sheraton Hotel and whose only value is that its the tallest building around so serves as a good point of reference, up by an abandoned green monster that once was a hotel but now is, well, no-one knows, up a pedestrian precinct called Jiron de la Unionthat reminds me of the one in Buenos Aires, full of shops and eateries that pretend to the image of North Rodeo Drive but don't quite get there, and into the Plaza Mayor.

The great thing about all Spanish (colonial) towns is they always have a heart, and that heart is around the Plaza Mayor (sometimes known as a Zocalo in Mexico and often as the Plaza de las Armas in many other places). Here you will always find the principal church, the center of political power and a generalized collection of stores, restaurants. hotels etc.

Lima is no exception - to the right as I walked into the square is the Cathedral, in front of the President's Palace. The other two sides of the square are large porticoed buildings, painted a rich, bright yellow, the window frames a stark, brilliant white. What distinguished them are the dark brown, wooden cassonnetted balconies - high boxes of wooden grills in the southern Spanish style, influenced deeply by Moorish architecture. And here it is, half a world away.

Omar explained to me that Lima has been reduced to almost rubble by earthquakes a number of times, including recently, so a lot of the freshness I see is because of the recent reconstruction, as well as initiatives over recent years to make the place more livable. Lima holds one third of Peru's population, so the logistics of city planning are immense.

This I discovered for myself soon after, because as we finished a short tour of the President's Palace, Omar suggested we go to meet up with his girlfriend and see a regional folklore festival in the south of town. I was more than happy to see something like that, not least the opportunity to see traditional dance from Peru.


We crossed the Rimac River to the stand of 'colectivos', white painted minibuses with room for 12 people that are the principal means of transport for workers here. Most people don't live in the center - they live in the great arching rim around the city; north, east and south (the west being the ocean).

One driver and one conductor/hustler, bawling out where they are headed to all who may want to go that way. So, four hours after landing, I'm whizzing around the roads of Lima in a colectivo just like any other commuter.

Quite some distance away, in the southern part of town, is a recreational park. It was founded, unbelievably, 80 years ago, for the purpose of giving people a green are to relax in, the area surrounding of Lima being arid hills and dusty plains.

Argentinan folk dance

I didn't see all the show - it started at 6pm ad was still going strong at 10:30pm, when we all headed to a Chinese restaurant over the way. The show started with Argentina, singer then dance. Other than some brilliantly executed tango, which got raucous applause from the Peruvian crowd, the Argentinians danced to music from the pampas - gaucho music. Excellent choreographer, superb skill.

Then the Brazilians came on - not samba (except one song the very end) but music and dance from their southernmost province, Rio Grande do Sul, which abuts Argentina and Uruguay. Omar commented on the irony of my seeing this, having just flown in from Brazil. I commented on the double irony of being able to see traditional folk dance from Brazil somewhere else, given its never shown in Brazil! Except for the street version of samba of course.

The Peruvians appeared. Dressed like Amerindians, the first show a pure African beat, with pure African dance movement. 100% Guinea. Even the flute sounded like griot. Omar told me it was a dance from the north of the country based on the slave tradition, many Africans having been shipped to the ports. Then there were several more obviously 'colonial' pieces, a concoction representing the Amazon, then a delightful dance where the woman is courted by the man, her mother watching on and interfering, both women dancing with jugs of water balanced atop their heads. So graceful. What a delight!

Finally, before we left to eat dinner, the Chileans came on, first with some ranchero style dances and then, since they have islands way out in the Pacific, dances that I recognized as Samoan and Tahitian. If I'd seen Maoris then I would have thought Chile was stretching its boundaries too far... The Peruvian audience were fascinating by the different music and dance of those far away places that, for a quirk of history, belong their southern neighbor.

Dinner in the Chinese restaurant, good byes all round and I was back in the hotel.

Off to Peru!

OK this has to be one of my earliest rises - 02:45 to be at the airport shuttle terminal to catch the 03:45 shuttle to the airport to catch the 06:00 flight to Sao Paulo.

The nice thing about an airport at this time of the morning is that there are few people meandering around, the other is the airplane tends to be at the airport already, so its entirely possible that it might take off on time (which for TAM and service in Brazil in general is quite rare). The downside is that most everyone is still waking up, so service is slow. This time it was friendly and fast. I got caught at the pass control trying to smuggle a stick of deodorant through (OK, its Armani) but the real purpose was to oblige me to buy a transparent plastic bag for 2 Reals. Man, do places like this adore the recent rules on security (which are totally ineffectual). Not just Brazil of course, but I really don't like the system here, with the pervasive, invasive presence of the state and its complicit operators, using every opportunity to pull money from your pocket. Grrrrr.

Landed in Sao Paulo. Since the connecting flight to Lima was only one hour from planned landing time, during the flight from Belo I asked (insisted) there was someone at the gate at Sao Paulo to take me through to the gate for Lima, this to avoid my going through domestic baggage claim and re-enter the circus of controls. I was assured there would be someone at the gate. Of course, we did not pull into a conventional gate, we disembarked from buses. Naturally there was no-one at the bus or at the pull-in or anywhere else. So I had to re-run the circus as though I had just stepped off the bus from Sao Paulo city. This is typical.

Like most everyone nowadays, I begin to hate the 'airport' part of any journey. Brazil's airports are bad. Sao Paulo is the worst. (No. maybe Rio de Janeiro airport is - I can never decide which I hate most.)

Eventually we took off and I stopped steaming.


Flying over the Parana in Brazil.

The flight across Brazil was amazing. As always, as you fly over Brazil you begin to appreciate the sheer size of the place, and what a powerful potential it always has. Here the flight crosses the lower section of the country, eventually angling up over the Andes towards the southern border of Peru.

Most of the way, I see rolling countryside, grazing and crops. Small towns are everywhere. Every so often middle sized rivers meander through these fields. The scenery goes a little more hilly - cattle country here, with lonely ranches dotting the hills. The land flattens out again and is much greener; sometimes its woodland but mostly its farmland. We cross cross one enormous river (I discovered this to be the Paraná) and very soon after a second large river with a town built close to its shores, looking for all the world like the radially splashed shards of an impact crater (I discovered this was Santa Cruz in Bolivia), so alien is it in the great expanse of green that surrounds the town.

Santa Cruz in Bolivia

A short while after the scenery starts to go more wild. Yet, amongst this wildness, there are still plantations: enormous squares, diamonds and grids cut viciously into the depths of forest. Long, straight bare roads connect them but there is no apparent centers of habitation near them. Are these deliberately remote research stations, experimenting with crops that could be the basis of future economic development? Are they another state project or private initiative, as has happened in the past? I don't know. Very unearthly seeing this though. So deeply remote as to be secretive.

The foothills of the Andes appear below me. The green fragments as great mountains break the power of the Amazon forest. Ravines disgorge torrents of fast flowing water, cascading white over the rocks until muddied in the myriad rivers at the forest's edge.

Clouds steam around the bare peaks, breaking only where the mountains stretch high enough to escape their clammy grip. A few breaks in the clouds and I can see snow capped peaks below me, their steep cliffs falling away into the misty void below.

We are over the main ridge of the Andes quite fast; the Peruvian side a high, dry plateau. Here deep canyons and high sided valleys break the olive and ocher ground into great decks. The area looks shorn of settlements; little seems to grow here.

Over the Andes

Flying over a ridge of snow topped mountains, in the distance off to my left I can see a high, solitary volcano, its white top well clear of the clouds. I think this must be Tacora, the almost 6000 meter volcano in the very north of Chile, just south of the border with Peru. I know where I am!

Below me the land has turned to desert, as dry, harsh and unforgiving as anything I saw flying over Baluchistan to the way to Kandahar. There's nothing here, only angry colors as the land bakes in the stark light of the sun.

Within a moment there is a deep blue below me. We are over the sea - the Pacific Ocean!

The plane turned and began to follow the Peruvian coast up towards Lima. This is desert and sea. Nothing else. one solitary road winds its way over rocky bluffs, through sandy bays, along gullies that occasionally might become life giving streams or death giving torrents. Just occasionally could I see some isolated settlements, huddled in a low valley with a smudge of dust faded green around them.

The arid coast of Peru

It was desert right up to when we flew over Lima, sitting in its dusty plain as though Cairo had been transplanted from the Nile to the Sea. A circle over Callao, Lima's port, a turn back and we had landed at Lima.

Through customs and baggage claim (easy - I'm traveling with a back pack only) in the light, airy, clean Jorge Chavez Airport. The taxi driver the hotel I had arranged to stay with wasn't there, so I took an official one.

The cab driver talked me through the town - 'this is Callao, the port of Lima. Now we are one the main road to Lima center. By the way, do you have a hotel room yet? In the center? But there's nothing there, only some old buildings! Why not Miraflores? its modern with good shops... Oh, so you like the old stuff and your hotel is in the center. That you may enjoy Lima then!'

The hotel 'Hostal de las Artes' was simple and welcoming. Dumped my bag and had lunch in the restaurant (good food, very economical) attached before taking my first walk in Peru.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Diamantina (Sunday)

View all my photos of Diamantina here

Since one of the reasons for coming to Diamantina was to take some photos, I was up very early to walk up the hill above the town to see what the dawn would bring. Yesterday evening I had calculated that the sun would come up behind the cathedral's spires - and sure enough it soon did, first timorously behind a curtain of roiling grey clouds on the far horizon, then in in a blaze of reds and yellows that fired up the sky.

Lazy high clouds were shot through with the molten power of the sun's hot rays; a foretelling of the hot day to come.

Then ever so quickly the sky turned the palest of pastel dove grey as a screen of misty clouds broke away from the cliffs on the other side of the valley. The sun's strength took pause as the burst of fire waned to a soft yellow light that gently touched the façades of the houses and hostels.

Within almost no time, this being the tropics, the sun was up high, the sky had turned blue and the once-grey film of clouds a bright fluffy white. For a moment still the light was still soft, but then it was gone; windows shone, shadows lengthened.

I strolled past Chica da Silva's house again, this time the dark green window frames warmed in the morning's light. Wondered down past the church to the square where another is being reburbished.

There a man was sitting on a stone plinth, catching the early rays. And as is the habit in country places, we exchanged good mornings. I shot a couple of photos of Valdemar, as he turned out to be named, we both decided they weren't very good, so I shot another, which wasn't very good either. He told me about the Camino dos Escravos (The Slaves' Road), that lead from Diamantina through the district at the bottom of the valley, where he lived, and up over the cliffs on the other side a further 20km to where the main fields once were. Something more to do then!

I checked the time. It was barely 8am. So, back to the Pousada for breakfast - grape juice, coffee, coconut cake and pao de queijo, little balls of cheesebread that I adore.


I wandered around town some more, then took a taxi out of Diamantina, down the valley through the district where Valdemar lives, up to the big cross that is set on the highest point of the cliffs opposite the town.

Nilton, the truck driver turned cab driver, waved me on as I scrambled out of the cab. 'Take your time, don't hurry. I'm happy to sit here and wait for you'. Yes, well he doesn't know I'm the type of guy who can wait all the time it takes for what I hope is the right moment to take a photo (or ten). Fortunately we fixed the price for the trip before leaving, which I'm sure is inflated for just these moments.

Up here by the concrete and iron hooped cross, the view is wide open. I'm standing on a sharp ridge, one of several, its steep rocky escarpment tumbling down to the left and towards Diamantina in front of me, a rounded hunch curling away on the other. The rocks are grey and flaked, looking rather like old, worn away concrete from a century ago. The scattered clouds paint a pattern of shadows over the town as I shoot for the sunnier gaps. Nilton is going to have to be patient...

From the cross we followed the top of the ridge, keeping the valley on the left. Not much further one there was a graveled parking area. 'The Camino dos Escravos runs across this road.' said Nilton. 'To the right there's no access but to the left, down that cleft there, you can see the road they made. And don't bother about me, you can take your time here too.'

This part of the road is a wide stone road of surprisingly robust construction. Its more like a ramp, made of heavy stones and built up in parts to keep the surface level where the hillsides fall away. This was obviously made for carriages to be drawn up, not a simple pathway for mules and slaves to toil their way to pan for diamonds for the Crown of Portugal (from the 1720s diamond mining was a Crown monopoly). Walking down it the 500 or so meters I did is no effort, but I'm out of breath walking back up. A small stream gurgles by the roadside; no doubt many a slave and freeman took a gulp of the rust tinged water. And checked to see if that glint was a diamond, not just the sun playing tricks with the cascade.

A circuit back into town and I thanked Nilton for the ride. He didn't hesitate to give me his card, if ever I was back here again. This is a custom of cab drivers here; I appreciate the initiative.


The squares in town were all quite empty and most of the stores were shuttered still. It being Sunday, many of the townspeople were in the cathedral, their choruses clearly audible. Strangely, its seems that only the cathedral was open - all the other churches were grimly closed too, as though they also observed the shopkeepers' hours.

In one street the manager of one enterprising tourist store has laid out fresh coffee for passers by to enjoy, courtesy of the store. I do, of course, and I buy a couple of trinkets for the house, of course. As intended and a pleasure. Just over the alleyway another lady is selling biscuits and cake. To her left a band of four musicians is hitting the notes of what is clearly a well known local song. They switch over to 'Parabens pra voce', the Brazilian words for, and sung to the same tune as, 'Happy birthday to you'. One of the people walking through jumps with surprise and her friends start clapping - its her birthday, and the band were told of it.

Old Maria Teresinha sits on the steps of the bookstore smiling at a small boy who's sitting there with her. They could be relations, but no, Maria Teresinha was married once but never had children; this is the small son of the store manager.


Going back to the Pousada I find that the owners are there. I compliment them on the beauty of the place, only to find that he is the fourth generation Nascimento, great-grandson of the assayer who first owned the house, and his wife is the daughter of a local writer and photographer, Couto (who's book I had riffled through just after breakfast).

Now there's one thing I want to buy, but I haven't found it yet. At tea yesterday and breakfast today, fine lace doilies with heavy beads sewn along the rims were placed over the dishes of food and jugs of juice to stop flies crawling in. Now I know what those things are for! Where can I buy some? 'Oh you can't, these aren't made in stores - my grandmother made them', said the Senhora. What a graceful touch, something from the family used to make a guest's stay more agreeable. 'Ah but if you go to this store,' Senhor Nascimento says, holding out a card for me to take, 'then you may find some interesting artisan work there'.

The store is just along the street so I stop by. I explain my need to Rosa, one of the shopkeepers. 'No, we don't have those. We do have normal lace placers, if you like those'. I take a look, paint a rim of heavy beads stitched around them in my mind's eye. 'I'll have four please!' Rosa packages them up while Christiane, her colleague, complains about the cold. 'Yes it does get quite cold here in the winter time', she replies when I ask the question. Then we get into where I'm from and how can I support this heat.


I walk down to the square where the public market is, with its red painted horse posts. There a small restaurant is open (I had a beer there yesterday), so I have lunch - the usual steak with fries, rice and some sauces - and a cold beer. That's three in a week - record!

It's too early to walk up to the Rodoviaria, so seeing others sitting there, including the cab driver, I clamber into the shade along one line of stores by the cathedral. Nilton leaves and the person he was talking to asks where I'm from. 'Norway', I reply, 'do you know where it is?'. 'Certainly I do! I'm from Greece!'.

Athanasios emigrated with his four elder brothers to Brazil from a dirt poor existence in the Peloponnese way back in 1958, when he was 18. What brought them over was a merchant who knew his eldest brother and suggested Brazil to them when the last great wave of emigration to Brazil occurred in the late 50s and early 60s. Eventually he and some of his brothers wound up in Diamantina, shopkeepers. As we talked his daughter drove by and stopped; she had just come back from a vacation to the coast. He told me that he had been back to Greece three years ago, and was amazed by how it had changed in fifty years. As we gazed out over Diamantina's placid, landlocked plaza, he went silent for a while, the lines in his tanned face just a little more tense.

Soon we all had to go our ways, me to the Rodoviaria and the six hour bus ride back to Belo Horizonte.


The coach turned up on time, I managed to get a window seat again. With the glass slid right back I could see the broad open country turn to bare hill top, to grazing land, to pasture land and to farming land. Locals clambered aboard and clambered down again as their stops came up. One of them I recognized from Saturday, when he also ridden a short ways on the coach. He looked the image of the classic Brazilian ranch hand, curled up hat and bright blue jeans.

Just after the stop in Curvelo the last of the light died and the rest of the way was in soft night of the Brazilian hill country. My iPod held out all the way as I watched 'Amor en el Tiempo de Colera', a film that manages to miss every spark of Garcia Marquez' magic and doesn't even have its own softness like 'Para Agua comc Chocolate'.

Back in the apartment and I begin sorting out the almost 700 photos I've shot in little more than 36 hours.