Spanish Classes and Homestay in Arequipa

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

I must admit we were a bit nervous about Peru. For a start it has some of the biggest attractions in South America. It was also peak European and US holiday season, and we only had 25 days to get "off the beaten track".

Our initial impression, didn't improve when we climbed on the local's bus (a quarter of the price of the "safe" tourist bus) at Copacabana bound for Peru. Despite what we thought were prize-winning smiles, the Peruvians (we assumed) in the bus just sat in stony silence!

It is our policy especially in a bus that is going to cross a border, to make friends with somebody, anybody. This mitigates the risk of the bus taking off without you when you're waiting in the slow extranjero line at customs.

Our break came when a Seņora (with an eye patch) tried to open a window and I leaned over to assist. This happening while everything but the kitchen sink was being hoisted onto the roof of the bus. Our backpacks had also disappeared above about 15 minutes earlier and I hoped they were still there. I hadn't seen them come down, but that's no guarantee. At least the Seņora cracked a smile and asked us where we were from.

At the border, I think we won some more hearts when we demonstrated our willingness to speed up the process by sprinting the 100m between Bolivian and Peruvian customs. Apparently there was some grumbling on the bus about foreigners, but the Seņora staunchly defended us.

At the dodgy town of Juliaca where we were to change buses for Arequipa, the Seņora and her companion waited for us while we retrieved our packs and then led us through the streets and we purchased our tickets as a group - economy of scale. We also learned from her that many Peruvians go over the border to Bolivia for cheap eye operations. This explained the large proportion of women with eye patches on the bus (no, it wasn't the local Peruvian women's pirate club annual outing). Despite the first bus breaking down and waiting a couple of hours for another, we passed the time pleasantly, chatting with the seņora and meeting at least ten of the locals, including a family from Arequipa who invited us to visit them in the following week.

Tourists must be highly trustworthy (or at least more trustworthy than some locals) because at least 3 or 4 times we were asked to mind an assortment of belongings, bags, children etc. while the owners attended the toilet or ticket counter. And if we had taken a "safe" tourist bus then we would not have met all these lovely people.


Arequipa is a sprawling city with an attractive colonial centre, set in a valley surrounded by peaks, the most impressive being the perfect cone of volcano Misti. Our first night is spent in what feels like our private penthouse suite with our own sun-deck on the roof of Hotel La Reyna, very reasonably priced at US$12 for the room. The next day we do the rounds of a few schools and choose 'Juanjo'. When we turn up at the school (a suburban house) mid-afternoon, a guy wanders out, unshaven, in track pants carrying a tiny baby... are we in the right place? However our fears are allayed when he shows us some of his teaching materials and we meet his wife Malena, a salt of the earth mum, who refers to her husband Pepe as her fourth child.

We also arrange a family stay with Tula, a dynamo, dentist, and all-round wonderful person who is determined to expose us to every cultural and culinary experience Arequipa has to offer (all in a week). This includes going out with her and her daughter Claudia to watch her son play in a band at a local bar (they do a good job of some Beatles numbers), attending the Teatro Municipal to see some folkloric groups singing and dancing, and eating a heavy pork and onion soup for Sunday morning breakfast - tasty but a severe assault on the system at that hour - followed by a generous shot of aniseed-flavoured medicinal spirits to "kill the pig"!

Our lessons also go well. They start with 2 hours of social and political discussions with Malena, followed by a punishing 2 hour grammar session with Pepe. He strides across the floor like a 19th century English school master, peering over his glasses and barking our names in turn - "siga (continue) Edmundo...       Anna, preterito or imperfecto?" Incorrect responses are received with a frown and correct responses a cursory nod. It feels as if we're in the English game show "The Weakest Link" with Anne Robinson. By the end of the week our Spanish has upped a notch. It's also worth mentioning that Pepe is also a philosopher, as well as running a weight-lifting supplements business on the side. He has all sorts of Arnold Schwarzenegger steroids on sale (illegal in Australia and the US).

We also visit the 800 year-old child-sacrifice inca mummy named "Juanita" in a local museum, displayed in very low light -10 degree environment, and beautifully preserved (as far as we can make out). The other highlight is a visit to Convent Santa Catalina a sprawling complex (almost a city within a city) opened to the public in 1970 after being closed for 400 years. It's vividly painted with rich blues and terracota reds.

When we leave Arequipa, it's not the city we will miss, but the people we've met. Luckily we get to see Tula again in Cuzco. She's going their for a weekend break and staying with the family of her other house guest Kelly, a young med-student who invites us to stay also. Tula promises that she's going to take us all dancing!
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