Monday, 18 May 2009

Another weekend's travels

For such a successful weekend, it didn't start too well. I turned up at the Cusco bus terminal at 5:30am (for a bus at 6am), expecting to exchange my receipt for a ticket. The guy hadn't shown up my 5:50am, so I took no chances and bought another ticket for 20 soles (half what I originally paid). Just as I was about to get on my new bus, the man showed up with my original 40 soles ticket, which was for exactly the same bus! I was not massively pleased.

Still, the journey to Arequipa was stunning, if very long. The first part rose to over 4000m, passing snowy mountains. Then we had the high, grassy altiplano, and the final part was an ascent into a desertlike scrubland, through which the road went straight as far you could see, and was punctuated only by the odd dusty town. It felt a bit like the North American Wild West, especially with disused rail tracks cutting through sandy rock alongside the road. The difference, of course, was the mountains. Arequipa is famous for its volcano, El Misti. At one point I thought I had spotted it, only to turn a corner and see it rising out of the desert, perfectly conical and enormous, like a cut-out Japanese print of Mount Fuji.

Arequipa itself is huge, Peru's second-biggest city. The centre is built largely of an off-white, pockmarked rock called sillar, which has a distinctly volcanic look and rough edges. There is a colonial feel to the place, and it definitely seems richer than Cusco. For the first time, I saw Peruvians who would pass for your average European city-dwellers. Teenagers dressed more or less like my friends at home. I arrived at 5pm on Thursday, found a hostel, had a great meal of ceviche, and explored, soaking up the atmosphere.

On Friday morning, other volunteers arrived, and we set about seeing the sights. First stop was a museum containing a frozen Inca girl, found offered as a sacrifice to a mountain at over 6000m. The body is in amazingly good condition, though almost equally impressive were the items she was buried with. These included one piece of fabric so well preserved it could have been for sale at Pisac market. It was incredible to see that the designs haven't changed a bit in over 500 years. The other big attraction was the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, established by the Spanish soon after their arrival. It is big enough to be a small town in itself, and even has its own streets. The buildings are brightly painted, and in the sunlight it practically sparkles. There's a good story behind it too: for 300 years from its foundation, the nuns came only from the richest Spanish families, and had to pay an enormous dowry for the privilege. They each had several servants or black slaves, and were renowned for hosting wild parties! Funnily enough, the monastery tries to skirt around this - it's safe to say the current nuns don't live like that (as far as you can tell, as they live in isolation).

After another long bus journey, this time at night, we arrived at the coastal town of Ica early on Saturday morning. During the drive, I had caught glimpses of the Panamerican highway cutting through the sand dunes, and once or twice, the Pacific shimmering in the lights of a town.

We were there to visit the tiny town of Huacachina, little more than an oasis in the desert. It looks just how you would imagine an oasis to look: palm trees and water surrounded by towering sand dunes. We could have been in the Sahara. The views alone were amazing, but we had to try sandboarding as well. It's hard!

We then got a bus to Nazca, though annoying timing issues meant that I couldn't see the famous lines this time round. Not a massive problem, as I wouldn't mind an excuse to venture back down that way.

I taught this morning (Monday), but won't be doing so again this week as there's another two-day strike about water starting tomorrow. Which is fine, but not great for my students, who are meant to have an English exam next week! There are some things about this country that you just have to accept and not worry about too much. Strikes are one of them.

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