Thursday, May 27, 2004

I've got a little "stuck" in Arequipa, but I justify the ease, comfort and slightly higher spending involved in this by pointing out that it's been the best place so far for meeting people in social situations. Apart from actually settling down and working (which I'm not quite ready to do yet), this is the best way to improve one's Spanish.

The centre of Arequipa is a ten to twenty block gridded oasis of stone streets and buildings of elaborately carved white volcanic stone and wrought iron, amidst the sprawling wider city. Sort of the South Beach to greater Arequipa's Miami. The little hatchback taxis nudge and honk their way around the one-way system and there's a very European feel; to me it brings to mind somewhere almost Italian.

There's a lot of tourists, though it's not yet quite the high season. At first I thought that Arequipa was a tourist trap, cut off from reality and where people are either irritated by the presence of so many foreigners, or are madly seeking to take advantage of them. It still may not be the real world (what is?), but I was wrong about the people.

Apart from the people I've met in bars (principally the girl I danced with on Friday night and her four or five female "cousins"), in a few days I've made friends with the guy who works in the place that sells espresso coffee (vanishingly rare in S. America), the girls who work at the internet cafe and their friend who takes salsa classes and is desperate to migrate to Australia, the three waitresses at the Quebecois-owned Mexican restaurant/bar (including an Ecuadorian girl who is also travelling around S. America and working as she goes to get together money to move on), the waitress at the "Irish" pub near the cathedral (not really an Irish pub at all but a normal local bar with a pool table, silly Irish name and an Irish flag on the wall), and the people at the adventure travel agency where I arranged the Colca Canyon trip, and who've just offered me some kind of job (but I don't think it's going to work out).

I know that sounds like mostly girls, and it is, but really I've been happy to talk to anyone. It's true that "las arequipeñas" are probably the most beautiful women I've seen, ah, anywhere outside of Spain, and that it's not unknown for them to want to meet foreign guys. Apparently, some of these are "malas" who will flirt or more with foreign men and then drag them round expecting to be bought things. I haven't met any such people so far; rather, pretty much everyone I've met has warned me about this. Yes, as a gringo male you do get more attention than you could expect at home, not being a representative rugby player, in a month of Sundays. But most of it is just smiles, and wanting to talk and/or dance. Which I think is pretty nice.

Although people in Chile are pretty friendly once you break the ice, and I had a really good time going out especially in Arica, on the whole there's just a bit more reserve and insularity. Chilean people I've met, both here and in NZ, also see to have this weird thing where they want to be friends for a while, then suddenly can't be bothered with you anymore. Or maybe that's just with me..

Here, there's just a little bit more alegria, and affectionate mutual piss-taking is the norm. I've thought about it, and concluded that the whole vibe is quite Spanish. There's certainly plenty of people who *look* Spanish here. Or maybe it's something Argentinian without the inflated sense of self-importance.

The centre of Arequipa is certainly extremely middle-class; people are well-dressed and look relatively wealthy, it's very clean (though there are no rubbish bins), and relatively orderly. So in that sense it's not the "real" Peru. But I realised on my last trip that in order to make a real connection with people - to really make friends - you need to have something in common with them, some minimal sharing of histories, aspirations and values. As it turned out, I had a lot more in common with some of the students from Guatemala City than with most people in Christchurch. So it is in Arequipa.

With very poor people you can converse, and they may be extremely friendly and curious, but there's a certain point past which you just don't have, and haven't had, the same life. It helps if you are sharing work with them, but even then you don't inhabit the same reality.

Of course I've figured out, you don't always have to make friends with people. It can also be good just to listen to people's stories and have an objective appreciation of how their lives are. Yes, the "journalistic" approach. Something I need to work on more...

Coming soon, a report on my trip to the Colca Canyon.

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