aka... I love my life
I awoke slowly, clearing my brain of the sleep induced fog. The sensation of Saturday spread through me. I had said goodbye to three of my friends yesterday, Aaron, Adam and Josh, three 20 year old med students from Britain. We had met on the Incan trail and travelled in Puno, Arequipa, and climbed El Misti together too. But with every end is another beginning, and though I will miss them, its glad to have the freedom again. No consensus. Today is my day, to do exactly what I feel like. Alone. I lay for a few minutes, relishing the possibilities.
I shall go swimming. I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that there´s a club with two pools not that far away. I haven´t done laps in a real pool since I left Toronto, and I dearly love to swim. I have been toting my Nike swimsuit with me for three months in the hope that I can use it. I stuff my suit and towel in my bag and prepare to head out. A quick glance in the mirror show that today I look naturally pretty, glowing skin, sparkling eyes, no spots. I feel it must be a reflection of my inner happiness. No makeup today. I slip on my sunglasses and prepare to face the world.
I shall find a place to stop for breakfast on the way to the club, which is a half a dozen blocks or so from my hostal. Finally I find a local place, breakfast is S/. 2.50 ( about $0.80). Of course there´s no eggs or pancakes... I order something unrecognizable. It comes with juice and fresh buns, and the portion is huge. A plate full of rice and a stir-fry type meat thing, with veggies and everything. Its not my type of breakfast, I´d rather just have some cereal. A young gringo guy comes into the restaurant, asks if he can sit with me- there aren´t very many tables. Of course. A glance at the font on the paper he´s carrying confirms he´s Jewish.
I return to my book. It´s an interesting travellogue from the South Pacific, and often quite funny. A voice interrupts my tranquil reading. "If you´re just going to sit there and read, I can go sit somewhere else." How rude. I didn´t ask him to sit there with me, and yes, I want to read, or else I wouldn´t be reading. But my sunny disposition prevents me from speaking my mind. "Did you want to talk?" I feign interest, asking him where he´s from and how long he´s travelling for, the typical questions. I am usually interested in lots of people, but this rude boy from Israel isn´t one of them. I´m miffed my breakfast and book combo has been disrupted. I finish long before he does, but I don´t have the energy to be rude and just leave. I wait till we both finish, pay, and I´m back in the sunshine before I know it. I breathe a cleansing sigh.
I continue to walk down the street. Its busy. Cars whiz by, and as there are rarely and stop signs or lights, they go through the intersections at random. Usually they don´t even bother to slow down, just lean on their horns to announce to the intersecting road of their arrival. I don´t know how there aren´t hundreds of accidents a day. I have seen cars just miss each other by less than 6 inches innummerable times.
I duck into a shop to buy some hair elastics, and a banana for 20 centimos (about 7 cents). It my familiar ritual, eating a banana on the way to the pool, and I don´t know why I didn´t think of it earlier.
Finally crossing the river, I turn right and approach where I instinctively know the club will be. At the gate, two security guards, one male, one female await. In my less than ideal spanish, I convey that I wish to go swimming. The male guard asks for my passport and informs me that he must keep it at the security desk till I leave. I hate leaving my passport anywhere but this is de riguer in many places. I walk with him to the pool, and he asks me the usual questions. "How old are you? Are you married? Where are you from? Are you travelling alone?" Again, I was in too good a mood to lie. I should have told him I was married and travelling with my husband. Oh well.
Gasping in delight when I see the aquatic center, glassed in on one side, and the pool inside looks Olympic size with lanes. But the door is locked. He´s in the midst of banging on the glass when I read the sign posted there. Monday; closed for maintenance. The pool cleaner comes out and confirms.
"There´s another pool on the other side of the club," the guard is telling me in Spanish, " but it´s very hot. Just follow this road around."
Hot sounds okay to me. I set off along the road.
I feel as if I have left the bustling city of Arequipa and stepped into another realm. Palms, plants, vines and flowers are everywhere. The grounds are immaculate. I pass a soccer feild. A squash court. The tennis courts are full with perfectly attired mothers and their equally well dressed pre-teen daughters. Why they aren´t in school is beyond me. Shiny SUVs slip by. Dozens of maintenance men trim hedges into interesting shapes, plant flowers, and till gardens. I see two women washing cars in the parking lot. Benches adorn the parks, and there´s a separate lane on the road for runners, marked with distances in meters. There´s a lot of construction too, another tennis court is having the concrete dug up and replaced anew. Its winter here and they must be preparing for summer season. This place is fabulous, the getaway for rich Peruvians. The sign proclaims: "Club International Arequipa: El Mejor de Peru." The best in Peru indeed. I can´t remember the last time I was immersed in such luxury. All for admission of about $3 for the day, less if you only want to use the pool. I would have felt out of place among such obvious displays of wealth except for one thing: I am a gringo (white) girl. It may not be right, but whites are attributed a high social standing, likely because they assume we are all richer than they. So nobody glared at me in my flip flops, skirt, and casual shirt like they might have at home.
After the childrens playground, I arrived at the pool. Glistening dark blue in the sun... surrounded by an immense concrete patio and lounge chairs, tables, umbrellas and even a stylish snack bar. I tingle with delight; the pool is empty, all mine. I cross the deck and enter the building at the far side. I ask the security guard if I need a ticket, but he just waves me through. Up the stairs, toward the change rooms. Luxury! I feel shy, and proceed with trepidation. Giant black leather chairs and others draped with white sheets, long mirrors, polished marble, soft carpets, perfect plants. Now THIS is a health club. I wander for ten minutes just trying to find some day lockers. I change and reemerge into the cool sunshine.
I select a table, deposit my towel and water bottle, and head for the water. One toe pokes into the shimmering blue depths. Shock. It´s cold! Not just cold, but freezing, way too cold for a swim unless one is insane. Of course. It´s winter. It the pool is not heated, an outdoor pool would be likely only about 10 C, due to the fact it gets very cold at night. A ripple of disappointment flows through me. I sit on the lounge chair for a minute, but its only after 10 am and the air is still cold. I can either brave the water, or go get redressed. I opt for the latter. I can always come back to the temperate pool tomorrow.
I wander back to the front gate, past the smooth running track complete with the red dusty soil, more gardeners, and the club shop. A quick look inside... 20 soles ( about $7) for Roxy and Quicksilver shirts. What a steal! They are so expensive at home. But I don´t need any more clothes... my bag is full enough.
I see the security guard there, and breathe a sigh of relief that I wont´have trouble regaining my passport. He keeps asking me for my ticket. I try to explain to him that I don´t have one, that the water was too cold to go swimming. I show him my dry hair. Finally he understands, and laughs when I tell him how cold the water way. He motions me to wait and enters the little security booth. I think he might be going phone someone about my non-ticket. He emerges with a little peice of paper which he pulled from a drawer. I gasp with horror and recognition. Its my last travellers check, which I had (stupidly!) tucked into my passport. It´s worth $100 US. I thank him profusely. He wants to know what it is. His eyes widen when I tell him. I try to tell him its not real money, its a travellers check and only can be cashed by me. I don´t think he understands, he´s just excited by the fact that its $100. I extricate myself from his enthusiasm- and flirting- and walk back into town. I stop at a little bookshop and buy a kids´"Lets learn how to read spanish" activity book for 7 soles ($2.30). Its got pictures with words, easy sentences, and activities. Its just what I need to up my knowledge.
I find myself in the Plaza de Armas. Its the central plaza to be found in pretty much any Andean town. The Incans started them, the Spanish continued them, and they are just as well used today. Tall palm trees, fountains, flowers, and of course, large walkways and dozens of benches form the theoretical and actual heart of the city. Surrounding the main square is usually the best restaurants with second floor patios overlooking the plaza, shops, and travel agencies. I head upstairs to a promising looking restaurant.
I know many people hate eating by themselves, but I love it. Especially lunch, when the sun is shining, you are more or less outdoors, and alone with your thoughts and/or a good book. I lunched on a fabulous cappucino and an avocado salad... I love the avocadoes here. Their stuffed avocadoes are to die for! I contentedly worked through the pages in my new book even as a protest marched around the square. A quick glance revealed it was nothing big. 50 to 100 people at most. They tried to block off a road but were eventually hustled away. While the other tourists chattered excitedly and snapped photographs, I munched on my salad. I´ve seen burnt out cars, barbed wire, riot police, screaming protesters and smashing glass. This was barely a protest.
Ten minutes after the first protest disappeared, another emerged from down the street. I could tell this one was different just from the loudness of the roar emenating from the bowels of the city. And there they came. I am always surprised at how well the urban protesters are dressed. They all looked business casual, which makes sense, as I later found out they were teachers, protesting their salary of $250-$300 a month. Suddenly I see nine riot police, complete in uniforms with shields, guns, and helmets running alongside the protest. I look up the road. Its been 15 minutes so far but I can´t see the end of it. Hundreds, maybe thousands. The police suddenly split off and a minute later I see them standing guard outside one of the long white buildings on the other side of the square. Must be a government building. But once they see the protest is not circling the square but turning down a side street, they break up and head that direction.
I pay my tab and emerge streetside. I remind myself, as I have many times before, to NEVER leave my hostal without my camera... this is when I regret it. The protesters are now running in formation, for some unknown reason. I head to the other side of the square, as there is a market I want to revisit. At the corner, there stands the riot police, all nine of them. One of them holds a giant machine gun- the barrel on it is at least an inch and a half wide. I am thankful for my sunglasses, so they can´t see me oggling. I love men in uniform, and besides, riot police are something I don´t get to see much in Canada. Some of them nod and smile at me. Oh, life is grand.
I duck inside the artisan market. The other day with the boys, I found some paintings that my mother would LOVE. But I knew I didn´t have enough time to peruse them properly so I made a mental note to come back when I had a lot of free time. I located them and began to riffle through. So many amazing ones, and very original. I hadn´t seen anything like it. I wanted some for Mom and some for me. The stand was run by an older woman and her husband. I asked her if she made them herself and she beamed a yes. A quick glance on the back confirms this; there are paint smudges and such markings that would not come from mass production. She paints on this solution and when placed in the sun, it cracks. A long time for big cracks, a little for small ones. I am facinated. I finally settle on my favorites and negotiate a deal since I am buying more than one. When I ask if she buys the cracking solution here in Areuipa, her husband pipes up that he makes it. I am even more intruigued.
I asked if it were possible to come by and watch her do it. No, she replied, it is very dangerous. The oil paints are very strong and even wearing a mask you can get ill. Just as well. She probably wanted to safeguard her secrets from the gringo...
Clutching my new artistic treasures, I head for my hostal. A flower shop catches my eye. I am as much a sucker for flowers as I am for a cappucino and tall blond firemen. A single, perfect, long stemmed pink rose captures my womanly heart. Its smells unbelievable. Its mine for 3 soles ($1). I vow to carry it around with me for the rest of the day, no matter how silly I look. A woman not much older than I, smartly dressed in office clothes, beams a giant grin my direction. Its a flash of understanding, across languages and cultures. She´d carry a pink rose with her too.
I duck to the hostal to pick up my camera and head down the street. There´s a giant convent, the size of several city blocks, with imposing high walls, just west of where I am staying. It was completely closed off to the public for the first 400 years, where the nuns lived in complete seclusion, and was forced by the governement to open to tourism in 1970. I think its a shame the government can force a sacred, religious place to open to tourists, but that wasn´t going to stop me from seeing it. The damage had already been done. The admission was 30 soles ($10), and a bit steep, but the proceeds keep the convent running, support the remaining two dozen nuns, and besides, my guidebook said this was unmissable.
I spent what seemed to be an eternity wandering. Tiny streets, basic rooms, gorgeous flowers and gardens, and a ton of religious artwork were everywhere. The white blocks they built the convent with are volcanic in origin very beautiful. Some rooms were white, others a eretheral blue, others a warm ochre. Unbelievable colors.
I finally wandered into several giant rooms holding dozens of religious paintings. Many were paintings of Christ, doing miracles, preaching, and the ever so popular torturous crucifixion. Most of the everyday life of Christ painting featured him in not more than a tiny loincloth, with a tanned, perfectly muscled chest complete with a six-pack. I could not understand this for two reasons; one, they wore clothes back then, they really did. And secondly, likely due to my twisted sense of humour, why were they displaying the male body in such a sexual way to nuns who had taken a vow of abstinence? I thought if it were me, and I had to look at such amazingly portrayed male bodies all day, I think I might jump the gardener. What kind of cruel joke were they playing on these poor nuns!? Or maybe they were above such earthly desires...
Back in the real world with my now wilting rose, its time to shed my much loved skirt and don the clothes necessary for the Andean night. My flower nestled in a gadorade bottle and brightening up the bathroom, I headed out, back towards the plaza. Its only 430, a bit too early to eat. What to do?
Sit in the plaza and people watch, of course. I cross the street and immediately notice two things: there are no available seats on the dozens of benches, and there are thousands of pigeons. Why? Aren´t they scared of people? I searched for the reason. They were being fed. Some jumped on children´s heads or ams. One little girl had one clasped to her chest, and as the bird struggled, she shrieked to her mom. I laughed right out loud, and joined in on the fun. A bag of seeds from an enterprising vendor cost me 20 centimos, about 7 cents canadian.
I found a single empty seat on the opposite side of the plaza, ironically beside an older gringo man, and took a seat. Now to feed the birds! They ate right out of your hand and their beaks pinch but don´t hurt.
--to be continued, tired of this internet cafe!