Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Feast Fit for a Student

Who would have thought that the major achievement of my first week in Peru would be to put on a bit of weight?

A long and disorienting flight, the aforementioned brutal headache, a fifteen-hour bus ride to Arequipa; then, after just one day settling in, a 2am start, and three days in the Colca Valley: these are the kind of things that mean travel tends to make me skinnier. But in the last week, their cumulative effects have been firmly counteracted.

When I got to Arequipa, my first action was to flick some emails to the best and most helpful contacts that I made last year, asking them when would be a good time to stop by for a chat. The response from Alejandro, the director of the tourism programme at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, was almost immediate. He wouldn't be in the office because he was heading off to the Colca for the next couple of days with a couple of assistants, to do a survey commissioned by a university from Lima. I was welcome to join them.

At first it seemed as if Alejandro was going to be able to get a 4WD, but then he sent another message to say they were leaving on the 3:30 am public bus to Chivay. This was a good opportunity to make a start on some research-like activity, so despite my trepidation about the schedule, I hastened down to the bus station to get myself a ticket,

This meant I had to be "up" by 2:30am. This is almost the worst time of all to have a commitment. Too late to stay up for, too early to really get any sleep. Lingering in a sleep-like state from about 11:30pm, I dragged myself out of bed and down to the bus station, where I met Alejandro and his assistants Juan Carlos and Sharon. Bleary-eyed, we climbed aboard and braved the 3 hours to Chivay, including the nasty stretch between Vizcachani and Patapampa. This is a suspension-shuddering piece of highway that I'm told is due to a failed attempt at paving in around 2005, subject of dark rumours about poor materials and a kickback-deflated budget.

The good news was that our accommodation in Chivay was in a comfortable mid-range hotel with (sometimes) hot water, and, even better, we had access to the lunch buffet at a restaurant owned by the same woman as the hotel. My trips to the Peruvian sierra have usually meant lots of walking at altitude and meals of soup, potatoes and legumes. I come back lean and maybe a little stronger.

Not this time. Instead, fine cuts of meat, cheesy vegetable pie, and cake with mango soufflé were my repast. At lunch, I manfully lived up to Alejandro's expectation that we would all make five trips to the buffet table. This included a la carte service of soup and a main course: on Sunday all four of us chose what the menu charmingly, and sincerely, described as Alpaca Gordon Blue.

Task-wise, we spent Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday surveying the hotels and restaurants of the Colca Valley, grappling with survey questions established in Lima that were for the most part totally inappropriate for the largely informal and family-run businesses of the area.On Friday we jolted and bounced in an ancient taxi all the way to Cabanaconde, where I made a surprise visit to Lizbeth's family at the Valle del Fuego. On Saturday we "did" Chivay, went out for a couple of drinks, and at first enjoyed and then gritted our teeth at a concert across the road from our hotel featuring huayno singer Gisela Lavado (think Sonia Morales without the tuneful voice and melodic variety) which continued until 4:30 am. On Sunday, we took a more modern car to Yanque -- perhaps the most orderly and pretty of the villages in the Colca Valley -- and then to peaceful and sunny Coporaque, where the oldest chapel in the valley sits on Collagua foundations and a statue honours the Inca Mayta Capac, who formalized the area's subjection to the empire via marriage of one of his generals to the daughter of the local cacique.

Then it was back to Chivay for another stomach-bursting buffet lunch and the tiring ride back to Arequipa, with a delay due to a horrible-looking bus vs. 4WD accident that had recently occurred near Yura.

I got back to Arequipa last night and have been looking after the downstairs because Lizbeth has taken Gerardo to Lima for some dental attention and is meeting Hugo there.

This should involve me fending for myself, getting by on bread, cheese, yoghurt and coffee, and maybe frying an egg or two. However, no sooner had I arrived back last evening than the señora Gloria presented me with "my lunch" -- a large plate of chicken and rice. I had barely recovered from the four rounds of the buffet table in Chivay. This morning, when I had already eaten breakfast, Hugo's sister-in-law Erica appeared to announce that "my breakfast" was upstairs. I could hardly refuse. This afternoon, just as I was about to head out to get a sandwich in town, Hugo's niece Lia appeared with a plate of battered beef, tamales and rice sent down by her mother Vivian.

This was of course lovely of all of them, and I offered my sincere thanks. But the thing is, I don't think this was just good will. Rather, my presence in the house, combined with the absence of Lizbeth or any appropriate domestic employee, created an anomaly that cultural logic just could not allow. It seems a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in Peru must be in want of a meal.


Susan said...

Laughed and laughed about this. No doubt there will be lean times ahead. make the most of it! Brian is printing off your blogs for Gran - keeping them all entertained so that's great.

Susan said...

And I meant to say I appreciated your nod to Jane Austen!

nicol said...


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