Tale of Two Cities

12 05 2009

Battling a fever and near total exhaustion, the tylenol has been popped, the NyQuil readied, and I find myself again in a chaotic Peruvian bus station prepping for an overnight trip.

Bed has seemed too far away for too long–beginning this morning with a 2am wrist-watch alarm.

Since that moment, Arequipa has been a tale of two cities.

The best of times began on Thursday, we were fortunate to stumble upon the Monasterio de Santa Catalina on one of the two nights during the week that it is open after dark.

Wow. 

A stunning and surprising tour d´force.  The monastery quickly became one of my favorite visits in all of my travel experience.  It was a sensory masterpiece–stimulating each sense in proper time.  Imagine a symphony mixed with a haunted house.

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Dating to the 1500s and rebuilt frequently due to Arequipa´s rugged past of earthquakes and volcanoe eruptions, Santa Catalina is a city within a city.  I had to rush to fit my visit into the allotted 2 1/2 hours.

The entire complex was lit by nothing but candles and gaslit streetlamps, casting an equally magical glow and sombre shadow.  Some rooms were iluminated by one solitary long-stem candle, placed on the soft stone floor in front of a lonely chair, a bed of wooden slats, or a cross.

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Other areas radiated light, heat and smell from a kiln.  The embers poured a gentle stream of steam through cut-outs in the ceiling and into the cool night sky.  The scent was like cedar and evocative of a campfire, only sweeter and more serene.

Contemplative music soared and sifted through the initial courtyards, adding a moving soundtrack for the cobblestone, pillars, flowers and orange trees.

The texture of the place was sillar, a volcanic rock from the Arequipa area that is light, easily carved, and acoustically crisp.  Somewhat chalky and rough, it gave the monastery a malleable feel and was cool against the heat of the candles.

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Each successive room elicited a ¨Dios Mio.¨  By the end, I was overstimulated and contentedly tired.

As pleasing as Thursday was, today, Saturday, brought mostly frustration.

Something about Peru treks and ri-donk-u-lously early start times.  We were picked up by the mini-bus from the hostal at 2:30am to allow for the 4 hour drive to Colca Canyon.  Seriously?!

The trip was a misnomer: more of a visit to the Colca Valley than to Colca Canyon.  The beginning point of the canyon was the point we stopped and turned around.

The trip home, in short, was miserable.  My knees banged the seat in front.  There were more potholes than potfills(?), and the van swerved to meet each one.  My neck and back began to ache and by the time we arrived back in Arequipa, I felt like I´d been in a fight.

A mostly dissapointing trip was salvaged by condors.  We saw a pretty great show of some 10 soaring and floating (not flying!) birds at Cruz del Condor.  Graceful, remarkable creatures.

 A $135 Visa later, it´s Goodbye Peru, Hello Bolivia!  My first successful attempt at crossing borders in South America…





Wake Up Call

8 05 2009

He wore a bright yellow sweater vest and a pouty face beneath shaggy, black hair.  The top of his head almost reached my waist and might have been convenient for an armrest.  As it happened, however, that was the only ¨convenient¨ quality about him. 

Quietly, sulkily, and somewhat surreptitiously, this child of no more than eight years old approached each of the visitors to La Catedral in Arequipa, hoping to elicit some sympathy and some small charity.  He was equally adorable and pathetic, and I wanted to kick him in the face.

How dare he interrupt my time of meditation?  Didn´t he know that this was a church?  How could he just walk in, ignore any sense of decorum, and disrupt my time to pray and meet with God?  This basilica, one of only 100 in the world permitted to display the Vatican flag, and–who does he think he is?

It took a few moments, the realization.  Often it does, and sometimes it´s too late.  I chased after him, hoping for another chance to do something small (something small is all I really want, too much of the time), but open, I think, to something bigger.  I followed his trail out the door of the cathedral where–how could he disappear in such a vibrant sweater?–I searched the Plaza to no avail.

A child–¨let them come to me¨–and a needy one at that–¨I never knew you¨–and I lament that Lazarus can´t come and that I am given no signs, and that there is too much to bother me from praying.

Grant me eyes to see and ears to hear…