Travel in the time of Trump: Peru Security Lady

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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Sculptures at Arequipa’s city hall

It’s been a while since we’ve had any lengthy talks with local people on politics. There have been occasional inquiries from fellow travellers, including jokes with some British friends that the Trump election was to help them cover for Brexit. And talk with the locals has mostly been business or answering questions about our travels. But the Arequipeños are fervent believers and actors in politics, and we weren’t able to escape the city without having one conversation about Trump.

It didn’t come from an expected place, either. We had gone to city hall to find some information on tourism, and then discovered that the city hall was home to a small museum on the city. When we went in, it was a bit dim, but we started looking through the glass displays that the ancient maps and traditional costumes of the region. In a few minutes, we heard a nice “Ah, perdon!” a security lady cried out, “I didn’t know you were here. Let me turn on the lights for you.” There was a click and several lights in the room flickered on, illuminating the exhibits. We thanked her and looked through the exhibits and sculptures to our heart’s content.

Just before we were about to leave, the security lady asked if we could sign a recordbook with our name and country of origin. I bent down to write my and Stoytcho’s name, and next to each wrote “Estados Unidos”. The security lady looked at it and smiled. “You’re from the United States? How lovely.” Then a worried look crossed her face. She pulled up chairs for us and sat down herself. And like a neighborhood mother that’s heard of some kind of bad news about your family, she asks “How is the U.S.? The election? Is it alright?”

We were a bit surprised, since you don’t really ever hear the words “Is the U.S. alright” together in a sentence all that often, as if it’s some kind of sick patient in the hospital. We told her that as far as I knew, there were protests and many angry people, but things were fine. But we have also been away from the U.S. for more than two months. All of our information was coming from news outlets online and Facebook.

“And you voted for…?” she trails off. “Oh, Hillary. Definitely Hillary Clinton,” we respond. The security lady nods and says, “Yes. She seemed very good. Very capable and smart. I thought she would do a good job.” I sigh and try not to think about how much calmer things would be for my friends back home if Hillary had won the election. How there might not be people at my school at risk of deportation, or people who were worried for their rights or safety because they have brown skin or are queer or are women. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

There’s a brief silence, and then the security lady asks, genuinely mystified, “Why did people vote for him?” That’s a hard question, made even harder by the barrier of language. Our Spanish is conversational, but not politically savvy. Do we have the words to explain? And even more, what do we say? Do we say it was the poor, rural people that truly are disadvantaged and desperate who carried Trump on their backs? Do we say it was the disenfranchised who saw themselves in neither party? Do we say it was racist, middle class whites who voted for him because they didn’t like Barack Obama and thought Trump would maintain their power? Do we try to explain that there was a massive war of propaganda that coursed through this election on both sides, using lies to drag the lines of allegiance in strange ways? Like everyone who didn’t expect the election outcome, we’ve read the thinkpieces on how it happened, what we missed, on why.

We end up stumbling through an explanation with some help of Google Translate, explaining that there are some people who are racist and voted for him because they agreed with some of the terrible things he said. That there were some people who were poor and ignored by the party and wanted something different. And that our election system is also wacky, so you can lose the election by number of votes but win anyway because of the Electoral College. Security lady listens sympathetically and nods, or squints when she doesn’t understand. We clarify and do the best we can. In the end, she sighs. “He just seems so dangerous. Take care, alright?”

A security guard at a small museum in Peru has warned just us, two U.S. citizens, to take care against a U.S. President-elect might do us harm. These are strange days indeed.

Arequipa: a photoessay

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Sculptures at the city hall museum

After Cusco, Arequipa is an entirely different world. Situated in a vast, dusty plain, the city is warm and dry. So are the people: friendly, but infinitely practical in their interactions with us. There are no tourists, and the only assumption that comes with our foreign-ness is that we have no idea how to do anything around here. It starts as soon as we leave the bus terminal and board a city bus, a tiny van re-outfitted to seat twenty on slowly degrading sofas. We ask for the Plaza del Armas, and they nod. When our stop comes, they simply smile and motion at us to get off.

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A slow morning: people wander and wait for buses at the stop where disembarked

The same thing happens when we get off and look for a hostel, for a restaurant, for anything. The people we ask either apologize that they don’t know, or smile and point us in the right direction. No bubbling excitement, no sleight of hand, no staring at us. The Arequipeno personality is almost like an infinitely cool, seen-it-all attitude. And yet, they pull that coolness off without coming across as unfriendly.

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Everything is calm, even in the emergency store. Buy your fire extinguishers today in all sizes.
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Even this stray dog that approached us is cool. She waited patiently for us to offer her food, then ate it slowly.

The city itself alternates between intensely polished and raw. The Plaza de Armas is a wide, open square with places to sit and rest. Pedestrian-only walkways lead off of it to gleaming coffee shops, stores, and shopping malls. But travel over the bridge to the neighborhoods in the west and things get rougher. The smaller streets are unpaved dirt and the fine dust covers everything. Every tenth building appears under construction or renovation.

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Infinitely practical: old newspapers protect bars from damage at a construction site.

Though there are many stores, there are more restaurants and bakeries than anything else. In many places, we can’t walk more than a block without encountering one of each. They’re a tribute to the Ariquipeno love of food and cuisine.

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One of a dozen bakeries that we visited. If pastry is your thing, then Arequipa is your place.

In this world of food, adored above all is the picantería. A distinctly local phenomenon, they evolved from little grandma-run stands selling a local fermented corn drink, chicha. The story runs that to sell more chicha, grandma started selling spicy food as well, and the picantería was born.

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Inside La Capitania, one of the city’s most popular picanterías.

These restaurants are practical and unpretentious. We walk into one and we’re offered a seat at long, low picnic benches beside several other lunching families. We scan the menu and find nothing familiar. We ask for some dishes, and the waitress tells us “no, you probably want these,” in a matter-of-fact voice. “Okay, we agree.” She disappears and returns ten minutes later with four delicious-looking, heavily-laden plates. There’s rich meat stew, a cheesy squash casserole, a sweet baked cheese and pasta, and a cold cheese and vegetable salad. We wash it down with a glass of chicha.

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Our meal at La Capitania

Arequipa also loves sculpture, and the city hall serves not only as a place of business but also as an art gallery. The open square inside the building exhibits sculptures of cherubic children slaying different dangerous animals, from wolves to snakes. Then there’s a room dedicated to the history and culture of Arequipa on the second floor of the building, where we find dozens of sculptures in metal, wood, and sillar, a chalky-white volcanic rock found in abundance here. The city hosts a competition every year where artists compete to carve the most ornate sculptures.

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A sillar sculpture at the city hall museum

As dusk falls, the city comes alive with people rushing to get home. There’s the usual vehicle traffic jams and people spilling onto the sidewalks, waving down buses, rushing for the crosswalk. But there’s surprisingly little honking or shouting.

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A family flags down a bus during rush hour

With nowhere to be in particular, we take our time walking along the street and encounter a mouse. It’s seemingly unafraid of us, and makes attempts to climb Stoytcho’s shoe and pant leg before we break off a piece of our bread for it.

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A mouse on the street, seemingly unafraid of us, eats a piece of bread.

After an ill-fated visit to a park (many are closed on weekdays because people don’t use them), we wander back to the Plaza de Armas. In the darkness of night, the bright-white sillar spires of Arequipa’s cathedral glow against the sky. The Plaza hums softly with couples talking, friends laughing, and families out for an evening stroll. “Come, stay a while.” says the humming noise, “Enjoy life.”

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The cathedral at Plaza de Armas at night

Arequipa Food Tour

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After the long Salkantay Trek and a few days of recuperation in Cusco, we bussed on to Arequipa in the south of Peru.

Since we were in town for only about 48 hours, we opted not to spend tons of time travelling to Arequpia’s most famous destinations, like Toro Muerto’s petroglyphs (2 hours away by car) or the splendor of Colca Canyon (5 hours away by car). Instead, we walked around the tour and ate ourselves silly. Arequipa, after all, is also famous for food. So here’s a meal-by-meal narrative for you to enjoy:

Arrival – 6:30 am – the avocado-egg ciabatta sandwich

Augh, it’s so late. Or is it early? It’s early. We’ve arrived. 10 hours in a Cruz del Sur bus from Cusco to Arequipa is unkind, at least to short folk. Stoytcho reports sleeping some, but Natalie slept not an hour, as she couldn’t reach the floor and kept sliding out of her seat. We collect our baggage and grab a collectivo to Arequipa’s Plaza del Armas where we snag a hostel for only 50 soles—and we can check in immediately. After dropping off our stuff, we head out and encounter our first gem: fried egg sandwiches sold from small tables. There’s avocado underneath, and combined they make a killer combo for only 2.50 soles (USD $0.75) a sandwich.

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Breakfast, Part II – 8:00 am – fresh steamed tamales with ???? ceviche

Sleep-deprived, we stagger around the Plaza del Armas and then wander down Mercaderes, not looking for anything in particular. The delicious smell of steamed masa draws us to small restaurant, and for 4 soles we get two fresh tamale. “Salada?” the shopkeeper asks politely. “Uh…sure?” we reply. She heaps on what looks like a salad of sliced red onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and what look like bits of meat. Some kind of ceviche? Away from the shop, we sample cautiously:

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Natalie: What is this?

Stoytcho: It’s really chewy.

Natalie: It’s not bad. But there’s a lot of sinew and ligaments. I think that’s part of a bone. I… don’t think this is fish ceviche.

Stoytcho: Yeah, I think I’m done with it. I’ll eat the onions.

Natalie: …wait, is this chicken?

We ate what we could and then stumbled back to the hostel for sleep.

Lunch at a picanteria – 2:00 pm – La Capitana’s Double Menu

A few hours of sleep does wonders, and we wake up much more aware of the city. Given that Arequipa is famous for its picanterias, Stoytcho uses the internet to track one down: La Capitana. It’s located on Los Arces street in Cayma, several minutes’ walk from the Plaza area. We get lost along the way, overshooting it by several streets, and have to backtrack. Finally, on our second sweep of the street we find the sign “La Capitana” hanging over an arch and an old man acting as attendant waves us in. The interior is casual, with strangers sitting together on long picnic tables to enjoy lunch.

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We sit down at a table and stare blankly at the menu. Yep, we don’t recognize anything except the word “gaseosa” (soda). Oh, also there’s a dish called “Americano”, and Natalie remembers reading somewhere that this is a mixed plate that lets you sample a variety of dishes. We try to order it when the waitress comes by. “No”, she insists, “you want the Double. I’ll bring it to you.” Stoytcho asks the difference and finds out that it’s the same type of sampler, but with enough food for two. “Sure, okay,” we agree.

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The food arrives on four plates, accompanied by a glass of chicha—a local specialty made from fermented corn juice. Some folks online claimed it tasted like bitter beer, so Natalie is wary. We sample some:

Stoytcho: This doesn’t taste like bitter beer. It tastes like a fermented cranberry juice.

Natalie: Yeah, this isn’t bitter at all. This tastes almost like raspberries, like a Lambic.

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The rest of the food is equally amazing. Pastel de tallarin al horno, the casserole of noodles and cheese covered with eggs that apparently tastes just like Stoytcho’s favorite breakfast food in Bulgaria (yufka). Ají de Calabaza, the yellow stew that’s tastes of vaguely cheesy squash. Saltero de queso, which acts almost as a delicious vegetarian ceviche. And estofado de res, an amazingly savory chunk of stewed meat served over rice. We of course didn’t know any of this until we politely asked the person eating next to us what we were eating.

The Food Never Stops – 3:00 pm – Bakery Tour

Although we waddled out of La Capitana totally full, half an hour’s rest in the nearby Parque Senor de la Cana solved that. We watched young lovers relax and pigeons be dicks and eat flowers. Then we decided the next logical step after all that good food was to keep eating good food. So we used Google Maps to locate all the nearest panaderias and plotted a course up Trinidad Moran and then east on Avenido Ejercito, taking us back to the Plaza Del Armas area while hitting a couple of different bakeries. 14-IMG_6462

We visited four different bakeries and sampled dessert or bread at each. La Miel had an amazing variant on chicha made from fermented maracuya (passionfruit juice), while Astoria Bakery had a lovely variant on crème brulee with the lightness of a flan. And Croissant had croissants and mini French loafs that smelled divine.

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Maté man – 5:45 pm – We get fresh-mixed maté in the street

Sweet tooth sated, we found ourselves back in the Plaza area and head toward Parque Selva Alegre, mostly because of the name. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to go to Park Happy Jungle? We get there only to find it’s only open on the weekends! This is apparently a thing in Arequipe, as the general public (obviously) doesn’t go to parks during the week due to work. We are a bit saddened, but on our way back we run into a man selling mate tea from a cart:

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He makes us a glass of the hot herbal concoction mixed with lemon juice and linseed jelly for 1 sol. In the chilling early evening it is lovely, and we stand there sharing the glass for a few minutes.

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Then Natalie gets out the empty water 1 liter bottle. “How much to fill this?” Turns out it’s 3 soles (less than $1 USD). We leave with a liter of the godly stuff, and head back to the hostel for a rest.

Potato Party – 8:00 pm – We sample 7 different kinds of potatoes

After all the amazing food, we are a bit at a loss of what to do for dinner. We look up popular restaurants in Arequipa and after weeding out the overly-fancy expensive ones, we settle on Hatunpa. Hatunpa is a themed restaurant, but instead of being themed around a cuisine it’s themed around Peru’s gift to the world: potatoes. All the different kinds of potatoes you can imagine. When we arrive, our host asks us our nationalities and gets us little flags for our table—he even has one for Bulgaria (Stoytcho is overjoyed). 09-IMG_6423

We order the seco de pollo and ají de gallina, each with seven different kinds of potatoes. Camote, a sweet potato with a bright yellow-orange flesh, is Natalie’s favorite. Then there are the waxier white potatoes, the buttery gold potatoes, and the purple potatoes that have an earthier flavor. We round the whole meal out with another glass of chicha and a glass of something new, Ponche de Guindas. It’s a rich cherry-flavored beverage made with little native Peruvian cherries, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves, and it tastes like paradise—the perfect way to round out a meal.

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After dinner, it’s back to the hostel for a night of full sleep. Equally precious, sweet sleep.

Dreaming of dining like us? Here are some links to recipes so you can fabricate your own feast:

Pastel de Tallarin

Estofado de Res

Aji de Gallina

Chicha

Ponche de Guindas

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I’ll be back for this cake, one day…