Travelling from Arequipa to Cusco – 12 hours on the bus, illuminated by the glories passing by the window and made more comfortable by my almost limitless capacity for sleep in moving vehicles – I had time to start plotting how, exactly, I can move to Peru.
I mean, what’s not to like? The countryside is spectacular – the same high, wild, remote, intoxicating beauty that got me in the solar plexus in Nepal and Mongolia. The smaller towns remind me of those countries too: a nostalgia grips me as we pass through streets lined with hardware stores and roadside mechanics, shops selling cheap biscuits and paint-stripping moonshine on five rickety shelves, women in peanut-shaped hats making up bunches of flowers or hoisting babies into bright wraps on their backs, tuk-tuks stuttering their way around the bicycle-driven pushcarts, kids with red noses on doorsteps, political slogans painted on walls, and then on the outskirts the farming beginning again. In one field coming down from the altiplano towards Cusco we saw a young boy riding on an ox-drawn plough like a water-skier, pushing the blade deeper into the soil with his weight.
Some of the cities are spectacular, though: Arequipa, the white city, is a striking combination of colonial bastion and colonnaded showpiece, where the Plaza de Armas, the main square, gathers lovers, friends, musicians and street vendors under its flowering trees and arcades in the warm light of evening.
What’s more, the culture is rich and inspiring and occasionally overwhelming. Old women sit in doorways with their strap looms hitched to their lace-up shoes and whip up complex strips of tapestry in rich colours. Cusco has developed its own wild and wonderful school of visual arts, Máximo Laura's tapestries make the work of other tapesters look pedestrian, and street stalls overflow with knitwear and woven alpaca that you just want to roll around in.
And the people we have met have been wonderful: first and foremost the teachers we’ve been learning from, but also the hotel staff, shopkeepers, market vendors, waiters, random people in the street… While being aware that any impression formed in two weeks with ropey language skills is going to be hopelessly superficial, I still have a strong sense of a culture where individual ego and individual angst are just not that important, and instead people manage to work, live and laugh together in warmer, less competitive, more cohesive units than I can imagine occurring in the global North.
And of course, in comparison with my beloved Mongolia and Nepal, I have the wherewithal to communicate so much better with the people I meet. My Spanish remains threadbare and eccentric, almost entirely unsupported by any grammatical substructure and continually confused with French and with notions of Italian. But since all but a handful of the group have no Spanish at all, I have quite laughably become the default interpreter, which has given me a whole new vocabulary and the confidence to use it, while wincing internally at what my Spanish-speaking friends would think if they heard me! And I could get a lot better with just a few months’ practice…
Oh, and did I mention the food?? Seafood, lime, buttery avocados, chilli, corn, coriander, quinoa, tender lamb and a cult of the potato that outdoes even Ireland’s. Nuff said.
So: now all I need to do is write that bestseller, and find my ideal home in Arequipa…