Thursday, January 18, 2007

Not Worlds Apart

It’s a provincial, parochial town whose geographical isolation strengthens its insularity. It lays claim to being the country’s second city, a title disputed with a town of similar size further to the north

Surrounded on most sides by mountains, the flip side of the spectacular views is that the city suffers from significant air pollution. The climate is dry; nights are crisp, and sunny days are often quickly cooled by a breeze that springs up in the afternoon. Residents learn to take a sweater with them most of the time.

The centre of the city is dominated by architecture from a specific colonial period, with the outstanding structures belonging to the establishment religion. Locals have a strong regional identity. While they are proud of their distinctiveness and see themselves as well-bred, cultured, and orderly, outsiders who spend time there find the place rather stuffy, snobbish, conservative and gossipy. More self-aware locals, especially those who have lived elsewhere, quietly concur.

A centre of agriculture and commerce, the city was settled with the endorsement of the political and religious authorities of the colonizing nation, who laid down a rigid grid pattern for the city centre, disturbed only by the winding river. The orderly centre, with its pleasant parks, has been extended in recent times by a not particularly attractive urban sprawl, which is eating up the surrounding green belt.

For much of its history, this has been a culturally monolithic, and overwhelmingly white, part of the country. Recent immigration is radically changing the ethnic and cultural face of the city, but integration is stilted. There is some suspicion and hostility towards the new immigrants, and a tendency towards voluntary segregation.

Despite the patrician culture and strong sense of class – or perhaps because of it – the region overwhelmingly votes left in national elections, and has historically been the centre of working-class activism. Radical politicians of all stripes have hailed from the region.

There’s a particular touchiness towards the big city to the north, which locals love to hate. They despise the big city's sprawling messiness and rampant individualism, and what they view as its culture of greed, arrogance and bad manners.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s undeniable. Arequipa is the Christchurch of South America. My sneaking suspicions have been growing the more I listen to both local and outsider assessments of the city that I've adopted as a second home. They were confirmed when I met up with some friends here over New Year who also grew up in Christchurch, and my friend Paul - who has travelled in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and now Peru and Bolivia - said out loud what had started to germinate in my thoughts.

So, have I managed to unwittingly come full circle? In seeking out exotic places to escape from the perceived conservative priggishness of my home town, have I ended up subconsciously choosing a location which subtly mirrors many of its characteristics? Such a tendency is certainly not universal, because my younger sister wound up in Miami - in many ways the direct opposite of Christchurch.

But, plumbing my conscience, I have to admit that part of what appeals to me here is a certain conservatism and reserve, which take the edge off the the craziness of much of the Latin American world, and gives assurance to the timid, Cancerian side of my personality. Perhaps a humbling reminder that, however, far you travel, some things are difficult to escape.

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1 comment:

Susan said...

Very amusing Simon! I just managed to draw the inevitable conclusion before I got to your last paragraph. I hope Arequipa doesn't have Christchurch's nasty crime and violence problem as well. That would be a pity.