A Day in the Life of a Texan in Arequipa, Peru

September 21, 2013

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Three weeks ago, I boarded a plane ultimately bound for Lima without much idea what I was going to do, who I would be. Though I had many years abroad under my traveler’s belt, South America was terra incognita: the language, the people, the food… like Africa, I had never stepped foot on the continent. All I had to go on was the name of the city and a language school which offered to set me up with a few hours teaching and an apartment. That’s all I needed.

I’m still figuring out the mechanics of Peru, but I’ve settled into a bit of a routine in Arequipa. Trips to Macchu Picchu and Nazca are on the horizon, but as I watch other backpackers move in and out of this old city, taking their pictures and catching the overnight bus, I stop to appreciate what they miss as nomads. This is my life.

7:00 AM

I finally figured out how to program my Macbook to turn it into an effective alarm. Not too difficult: just a matter of changing the energy saver settings so it will wake up at a certain time and programming my calendar to play music at precisely 7:00. The floorboards creak as I once again expose them to my weight; I suppose my neighbor below is covered with a thin layer of dust because of this movement, but there’s little I can do about it. Unlike most of my colleagues and new friends here, I don’t have a cell phone, nor do I have any intention of getting one. Although it would be convenient, it’s not exactly necessary like it is working in the US; I know where to go to work on foot and am discovering places to run by trial and error. Not to mention the risk I would take flashing an iPhone here in Peru; though I haven’t witnessed anything firsthand, I have heard robbery and pickpocketing isn’t unusual (but the most present danger is being mugged by an unofficial taxi).

I stumble out of bed, slip on my Vibrams (as is tradition), and start my brisk eight-block walk to the San Camillo marketplace. Most of the shops are still covered in metal sheeting for their overnight rest, but I’m looking for fresh food: bread, meat, vegetables, fruits. The entire aisle on the east side of the market is lined with juice and smoothie vendors offering their best for under S/.10. When I first heard about this place, I found all the options completely overwhelming; true, each and everyone there offers the same combinations, but which should I choose? Which one is the best?

In the end, I chose a middle-aged lady who was patient with my embarrassing Spanish and her daughter who picked up the afternoon shifts. Coupled with a small tip every time I made my customary purchase of assorted fruits, maca, honey, algarobbina, soy milk, and a raw egg, and they both remembered my order to the point I didn’t have to say a word (unless they were out of something). Part of me remembers that this is how I get comfortable in other countries:

– In Japan, I would go to the same set menu place after working out in Kagoshima-Chuo Station. All the servers knew me and even offered my parents and me free drinks one evening.
– The pizza lady knew I’d be stopping by sooner rather than later in Korea. She would always have a pepperoni standing by (until I found a better place in Uljin… guilt trip).

One of the reasons I came here was to expand my world, learn new things, perhaps pick up habits and information that could change me for the better. Sometimes, that includes something as small as healthy food. On other occasions, it can severely affect my behavior in public; I’m so unaccustomed to seeing displays of physical affection here, after two years of life in conservative Japan.

8:00 AM

Back to my room. Enjoy a quick cup of genmaicha I had the foresight to bring across the border and watch last night’s The Daily Show. Get dressed for work.

8:35 – 11:00 AM

Although Arequipa is appreciably better than Lima in nearly every aspect – less traffic, fewer crowds, cheaper, better weather, more aesthetically pleasing – I still have to inhale more fumes from minibuses than I’d like as I make my way to Extreme Language Center. If Korea taught me two things, the first would be to appreciate kimchi with every meal. The second is to fear taxis and buses. In that respect, Peru is no different; crossing the street here is unpredictable to the point of life threatening. And though it keeps things interesting, I’d rather be facing clear roads and fresh air. Nevertheless, my daily commute isn’t without its share of beauty. El Misti and Chachani loom over Arequipa, always snowcapped and always visible. This city has been sunny, warm, and picturesque every day since my arrival. I can only hope it keeps up.

I greet the front desk with a friendly “buenos dias” before walking back to my classroom to set up. I chose ELC for one important reason: short contracts. The school did look professional, but the fact I’m technically an “intern” under Peruvian law on a tourist visa is sketchy. Legal, but sketchy. For this, I receive an insultingly low stipend of S/.13 each hour I teach. Is it surprising to anyone I requested fewer hours next month to work on writing assignments? However, I’m not complaining. I knew the conditions going over here, and I’m here to live, not to make money. Frankly, I’m amazed any native English speakers would come over here expecting to pocket anything. I’m so spoiled after Korea, with its provided houses, severance, and roundtrip airfare.

11:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Go for a run in the direction of El Misti, or south towards the railroad tracks. I’m still searching for the best places to exercise here. There are a few gyms, notably the one inside the Club Internacional, but most are too expensive for my paltry salary.

It’s worth noting there is a fair share of Peruvian runners, but most are forced to get their feet on the ground in the pre-dawn hours, avoiding traffic and blaring sunshine. I rarely see anyone running in the middle of the day, but it’s not unheard of. My Vibrams always attract a few curious stares… or maybe it’s just me.

12:30 – 1:30 PM

I’m still working out the best place for lunch on a weekday. Now I’m settling for a turkey sandwich from Mamut with carrot and apple juice from the market, eaten on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. It is no surprise this historic city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its cathedral, shops, and decor all made of matching volcanic sillar. Arequipa is known as the White City for this material. Even my current lodging is in one of the old buildings with a sillar arch, and though I am looking for something better with natural light, I can’t complain: my wifi is fast, my belongings secure, and my showers hot (not exactly a rarity in Peru, but not all that common either).

1:30 – 2:30 PM

More tea and perhaps some Spanish language study.

2:35 – 7:00 PM

Two 2-hour classes, back-to-back. My biggest concern about working at ELC has been the irregularity in assigning schedules. First I was given four classes, then three, then two, then back to three, all at different times. Although the school is “good”, there are just too many variables for management to treat every employee with the attention he or she deserves. I’m not so naive as to believe they will appreciate my flexibility when I’m “forced” into picking up another teacher’s slack, but I’d like to know what my schedule will be the next day. A little raise wouldn’t hurt either…

7:00 – 8:00 PM

Walk back home. Change out of my monkey suit and decide what I’m in the mood for in terms of dinner. My preconceptions about Peruvian cuisine were in line with Mexican food, but as it turns out, most of it is relatively bland. Not that it’s bad, mind you, but I miss strong flavors and variety. There are several parrilla (grilled) places within reach, as are there pollo a la brasa (chicken cooked on hot coals) for S/.9-11. Most restaurants that don’t specialize in anything in particular offer a set menu of courses: soup, a main dish, and possibly a salad and drink. Vegetables really aren’t emphasized in the Peruvian diet, something I find particularly curious.

Arequipa is no stranger to restaurants for tourists, with overpriced menus for things you can get a block away, but I do appreciate the variety. Especially from Tacos y Tequila, a Mexican place that makes its own chips, guacamole, and corn tortillas.

8:00 – 10:30

Assuming nothing is going on in terms of social life, it’s back to the room for me to do some reading, research, and maybe open a bottle of Chilean wine. Another big day tomorrow.

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