Arequipa - 'The White City'

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March 10th 2011
Published: April 12th 2011
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Note to self: Before landing in new countries do look up local greeting customs. Bestowing too many kisses on one's new boss is an interesting first impression to make......
I am in Arequipa! Three days of travelling, overnighting in Amsterdam and then Lima I finally arrived in my new home. I stepped out of the tiny airport to the gloomy world outside and was greeted by three figures huddling around a small placard bearing my name. The welcome party certainly gave me an easier start than I had in Mexico, my embarrassing blunder aside. I was shown to my new school and from there my new home whereupon left to my own devices I began to decorate with slightly battered pictures and photos which have now adorned the walls of three homes on three continents!
Life in Arequipa has got off to a good start. I have been here over two weeks and am already half way through the English course as all the students here sign up on a month - month basis.
Arequipa is the capital city of the region of Arequipa in southern Peru. With a population of 904,931 it is the second most populous city of the country, and the third most visited by tourists. Situated near the Andes, at an altitude of 2,335 metres, the city is overlooked by the perfect cone shaped volcano, El Misti, and its neighbouring peaks of Chachani and Pichu Pichu.
The name has uncertain origins. One story says the Inca Mayta Capac received a petition from his subjects to reach the valley of the Chili. They requested permission to stay in the region, because they were amazed by the beautiful scenery and mild climate. The Inca responded, 'Ari qhipay', meaning 'Yes, stay' in Quechua.
Another version states that the name comes from an old dialect of Aymara, the language of a pre-Incan people believed to have settled in the area. 'Ari' means 'peak' and 'qhipaya' means 'behind', thus Arequipa is 'the place lying behind the peak', of El Misti it is presumed. The city was refounded by the Spaniards on 15th August, 1540 and a year later King Charles V of Spain gave it the rank of city and the coat of arms which it still bears.
The city is popularly known as 'The White City' due to its colonial architecture, much of which is built from the white coloured rock, sillar. The main cathedral and all other churches in Arequipa are built from this stone.
In my first couple of weeks I have sadly done little sightseeing. I am familiar with my school, the supermarket and little else. As I march along the streets laden with books or shopping bags I pass tourists who probably know more of the city in the few days they spend here than I do from my position of 'temporary resident'. Still, as with all my travels it is a unique experience to actually live in a place. The daily chores of shopping and going to the bank and sitting at home writing lesson plans or exams while the sun shines outside actually make me feel more at home, and after a couple of weeks my presence on the streets seems to go unheeded by the local men who now direct their whistles and comments to the tourists while I walk by more or less unmolested by their probably well meant by rather irritating attentions.
I am feeling more comfortable walking around alone although I still maintain the traffic is out to kill me. Sadly I had a bad time my first week here, once getting lost on my way to the school and being unfortunate enough to only ask directions of rude people who were in no mood to help me, and then shortly afterwards making a first aborted attempt at sightseeing during carneval times when the local custom of throwing water at each other merged with teenage pranks and I got coated in shaving foam sprayed from a car window and had not one, but two, buckets of mud emptied on my head.
I have seen the better face of the locals in my classes though. At the risk of making a racial stereotype I have to say that Peruvians are perfect students. I was very nervous my first day when not only was I upgrading from chalk and blackboard teaching to interactive computer softare and a overhead projector but had larger class sizes than normal with classes not running unless they had a minimum of 10 students in the class. My fears were soon put to ease as all my students enter the class quietly, apologise when they are late, always have their books, politely call me 'Miss' and actually fill the entire lesson with work. They are far more reserved than my Mexican students and it has taken far longer to get to know any of them or get to the stage where they seem relaxed and will laugh in the class but in short they are a pleasure to teach, every one of them (and I am well aware this may be the only time in my teaching career I ever say that about a class!)
It does seem strange though that after 2 weeks I am already half way through the course and while I hope my students continue if they have to leave due to other commitments the class my close and I may be without enough work. The more positive aspect of the school though is that, like the students, I work on a month - month basis and am free to leave at any time or make the decision to travel for a month and then return to work afterwards. After my experiences in Spain the laid back approach to job contracts is something of a relief.
In general I am enjoying my new home. After noticing a few superficial similarities to Mexico I have learnt the city and its people have a character all their own. I am also collecting a memory bank of weird and wonderful things I see on the streets. I am not sure why there always seem to be more strange and random happenings when I travel. I'm sure if I spend more time people watching back in my hometown I'll realise just how crazy the local population is, but for now things seem to stand out more while travelling.
So far I have noticed:

The dustbin trucks all play a high pitched version of Fur Elise... constantly.

I passed a young man on a street corner with a very large albino rat on his shoulder.

The police wear gloves the colours of the Peruvian flag when directing traffic.

Stray dogs seem incredibly healthy and go about their own business regardless of the surrounding human activity.

I came out of school one night and passed a girl on the street waving a very large cake knife still covered in cake (there's a culinary school nearby)

People seem to have an affection for pigeons, I have seen so many people hand feeding the birds.

The average person on the street walks at a snail's pace, they will also try to cross roads between the traffic but then fail to reach a suitable pace for someone traffic dodging (this is very dangerous when you're stuck behind them)

The dogs at my house sing along with police sirens.

Mud wielding lunatics aside the people are very friendly and I am looking forward to the rest of my time here.

Additional photos below
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