April is close to the best time of the year in Arequipa. The skies are permanently sunny - the intermittent cloud and very occasional rain of January - March is gone - but the nights aren't yet as bitterly cold as in June and July. The heat of the day keeps the drifts of breeze warm until even a little after sundown, unlike some times of the year when it starts to get chilly by 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.
Best of all, the mountains still have a decent amount of snow from the rainy season. On the volcano El Misti there's barely a streak or two, but 6,075-metre Chachani has an almost Alps-like covering, and even the smaller Picchu Picchu range to the east has a layer of snow.
I spent almost six months in Arequipa during my last trip to South America. I fell in love with the place shortly after arriving; in addition to its natural beauty it seemed to have a combination of dignity and joie de vivre which especially appealed to me.
About two hours after arriving from Lima on Friday morning, I felt like I'd never left. A short tour round the workplaces of friends and acquaintances, and I'd received more hugs and kisses than in the entire previous year. My friends Hugo and Lizbeth immediately demanded that I come and stay at their place, and on Saturday night organized a "welcome barbeque" with marinated pork steaks, papa a la huancaina and lashings of sangria and beer.
When I returned to New Zealand, my life here quickly started to seem like a dream. But having returned, the minor changes only serve to underline the familarities.
Some people have put on weight, others have died their hair. One or two have changed jobs. There's been a couple of pregnancies. Ulises, the owner of the Casa la Reyna hostel where I stayed when I first arrived here, was stripping the layers of plaster and paint off the stone facade of his hotel. "It's being naturalised", he said. "Without the plaster the stone can breathe, and it lasts better". My friend Blanca had modified the entrance to her popular internet cafe, put in a new counter, and painted it in bright colours.
Hugo and Lizbeth's house which they share with the families of Hugo's brothers and his mother, has been substantially modified, with new rooms occupying space that was an outside terrace, and an attractive back patio. Their adventure travel agencies have been slowly gaining more business in a static market, and they now also have t-shirts, stickers and sandwich boards featuring the flying-condors design which I used for the Incaventura web page I put together last year (me, a logo designer? Few things have left me more chuffed).
More notably, Hugo and Lizbeth's son Gerardo has undergone a remarkable change. He's still an anxious child, but after a couple of visits to a psychologist, a change of school, and getting his own room, he seems to have conquered the tendency for constant screaming and crying fits, can now speak more or less normally, and can play happily with other kids.
But only one thing is drastically different. As some who read this blog will know, much of my time in South America last year was spent in a long and involved relationship with a girl from Arequipa. It was at times fraught and turbulent but (for me at least) seldom boring
That all finished some time ago, but inevitably colours how I see the place now. Almost everything is infused with memories of the things we did together During the first couple of days here I was hit a couple of times by a wave of sad nostalgia, and a feeling that the way things have turned out changes not only the present, but also how I view the past.
On the other hand, I realised even at the time that I was living in a reality that was romantic, but a little one-dimensional. So distracted was I by the ups and downs of el amor a la arequipeña that a lot of the more interesting concrete features of the place passed me by. Already in my few days here, I've done things that I never managed to get around to when I was with Paola. In a way, I feel like I'm getting to know Arequipa all over again.
Sadly, my travel plans, which I set in stone before coming, mean I don't have much more time here.
Categories: Arequipa, South America, Peru