poquito a poquito

In every Spanish grammar textbook, there is usually a page on the use of diminutives. This is a linguistic feature, used by a surprisingly large number of of languages, designed to make things sound cuter. So whereas in English we might say ‘I’ll be there in a sec’, in Spanish people say things like ‘I’ll be there in un ratito ('un rato' meaning ‘while’). So far, so good. However what the textbook doesn’t tell you is that in places such as Peru, -ito appears in every. single. sentence. Your eyes are not ojos, they are ojitos; being young does not make you joven, but jovencito and you will never be offered té o café, but tecito and cafecito. The love for -ito is so entrenched that it is not uncommon to use it twice in one word; see: chiquitito, the standard way of calling something small (‘chico’) in Latin American Spanish. 


Sachaca, Arequipa

On the streets of Sachaca, the Arequipean suburb where I’ve been living for the last 12 weeks. Flung to the south-west outskirts of the city, Sachaca is made up of rocky hills covered in higgledy-piggledy houses and lush green fields fenced by swanky new residential estates. At a 15 minute drive from the centre, it offers spectacular views of the mountains and volcanos which surround the city. 

Living here has been a very different experience to my flat in downtown Santiago. Whereas in Chile I used to walk everywhere amongst the hustle and bustle of a capital city, here I’ve actually had to brave public transport (and anyone who has travelled in one of the rattling death-traps of fun that is a Peruvian combi will know that ‘brave’ is the right word) and adapt to a sleepy, small-town vibe where as a pale-faced gringa I tend to stick out like a sore thumb. However these differences might have been a bit of a culture shock at first, in the long run they’ve been welcome; living with a family in a place so far from the well-beaten tourist trail has taught me so much about Peru, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Machu Picchu 

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw a photo of Machu Picchu. I was 17, flicking through the pictures of a friend that had visited Peru as part of their World Challenge, when I suddenly stumbled on an image of a place so stunning, so utterly different from anywhere I had ever seen before, that I could hardly believe it was real. Since then, I always knew that I would go there one day, and when it came to picking a destination for my year abroad, the possibility of fulfilling the dream was a very big part of choosing Peru.

Although a lack of funds and bad timing prevented me from doing the 4 day Inca Trail trek, my journey to Machu Picchu still felt like a pilgrimage, involving an 11 hour coach from Arequipa to Cusco, a 4 hour bus to Ollyantambo, a 2 hour train to Aguas Calientes and a 4am start for the first bus up to the ruins. 

I knew it was going to be spectacular - Machu Picchu is, after all, the most photographed attraction in South America - but I wasn’t prepared for the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding forest and mountains, nor the haunting quality of the rainy-season mists. An incredible experience, a fantastic day. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  

Fiesta de la Candelaria

One of South America’s biggest parties. More than 40,000 dancers, who take up to a year to prepare. Enough glitter, feathers and flamboyance to put the Pantomime Industry out of business. Drums and panpipes, feathers and embroidery, gorillas and diablos, all pounding down the streets of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. 

The Uros Islands - Made of tortora reeds, the Uros islands have been floating on the surface of Lake Titicaca for nearly 40 years. They are home to the Uros people, who pre-date the Incas and are fabled to have existed even before the sun, in a cold, dark earth. The Uros are believed to have been powerful beings impervious to drowning or lightning, but mixing with humans saw them fall spectacularly from grace. They scattered across the lake and mixed with other tribes. They went largely ignored by the Inca and Spanish empires alike, ensuring their survival into modern day. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,812m, and the largest lake in South America, bordered by Bolivia and Peru. I visited the islands during my visit to Puno, the closest city, in the middle to February. 

Family fun in the ciudad blanca

With the photos of Mum and Dads’ visit to Chile and Peru finally posted, I decided I couldn’t put off a Peruvian update any longer. As I sit down to write this, it hits me that I’ve been in Peru for eight weeks. Even weirder, I’ve only got four left. About time I got my blog on, then.

When I applied to be an English assistant at UCBC in Chile, they gave me the option of coming for either one or two semesters. After spending nine months teaching English in France before university, I decided that it would be better if I could organise my year abroad to include something a bit different, so I chose the one semester option and went back to the Year Adrawingbroad (so, so sorry) to work out how I’d be spending the next chunk of my required eight months away. After a tip-off from the Year Abroad office and a tentative email before Christmas, I found myself with the offer of a work experience placement at Land Adventures Tour Company in Arequipa, Peru.


The view from our house

Which brings me here – to a house in Sachaca, a suburb of Arequipa, Peru’s second city, writing this entry whilst watching a dubbed episode of Friends and admiring the rather fantastic view of Volcano Misti out of the sitting room window. I am living with Paul and Catherine, owners of the tour company, and, as well as answering emails, putting together tour itineraries and translating content for their website, the last 8 weeks have seen me thrown headlong into adapting to life in a bustling family – playing with the kids, trying Peruvian food, being licked to death by two huge slobbery dogs, etc.

This could not be more different than my experience in Chile. Whereas in Santiago I shared a flat with two other adults who spent the majority of their days working, and compensated by doing the majority of my socialising at previas (pre-drinks), here in Arequipa the house is constantly full, with up to nine other people living here at any one time, and I am in bed most nights by 10pm.

In the UK, we have a tendency to use the term ‘family’ to refer to parents and their kids, but here in Peru it is something far more encompassing, involving grand-parents, great-aunts and uncles,  grown-up siblings, nephews, nieces and cousins. Most people will remain living within 10 miles of where they grew up, but in the case that they have to move cities for employment or education (and it usually is cities – whereas in the UK you can move between towns in five minutes, this part of Peru is made up into largely deserted plains, punctuated with Big Cities, with journeys of up to eleven hours between each one), regular trips back to the family base are the norm.

In our house, we have had Paul and Cathi’s niece and nephew living here for the duration of their two and a half month summer holiday, and with them come Paul’s mum, dad, aunt and, at weekends, sister and brother in law. Add Paul and Cathi’s adorable 9 month old baby and two dogs into the mix, and we’re talking a very full, very busy household. This has meant that I am, if a bit overwhelmed (turns out whoever told me that Peruvian accents were easy to understand had never been to Sachaca, Arequipa), also constantly surrounded by Spanish and goings on. It’s a totally different experience, and has given me a highly concentrated dose of Peruvian life and culture, which can only be a good thing.


Fun and games in the paddling-pool 

Living with locals has also given me chances to do and see things to which I might not otherwise have had access. Although going to Arequipa’s main market to pick out two live guinea-pigs for dinner (a delicacy here in Peru) and then cheerfully popping them in a box to take them home to slaughter was not high on the list of experiences I planned to get from Peru, it was certainly a very memorable, once-in-a-lifetime one (for the curious, guinea-pig tastes a bit like rabbit).

Equally, the sugar-fuelled three year old’s birthday party, complete with cartwheeling, a cumbia-dancing clown and doves appearing out of fire in a cramped living room in front of twenty raucous children (the health and safety conscious Brit in me was having a seizure), was also something very far removed from the well-trodden Peruvian tourist trail. Ditto the evening I spent explaining to three pensioners the difference between the UK, Great Britain and England, all the while being plied with more and more of local beer Cusqueña, before rounding off the discussion with a tequila shot passed to me by Paul’s mum.


So oblivious to their fate

It’s been a whirlwind. A lot of the time, it’s been fun, laugh-out-loud funny, eye-opening, unforgettable. Sometimes, it’s just been really rough. Despite how little time I have left, despite the knowledge that very soon I will be landing at soggy Heathrow Terminal 5 and wishing I had the sun back, or that within six months I will be approaching the terror of Cambridge deadlines and finals, there have been days where I find myself actively wishing the time away. Whereas in Chile I had the solid support system of other English students, here I’m out on my own. The only gringa in the village, if you will. The people I know here are very kind, but nobody understands homesickness quite like a fellow year-abroader.

All that said, I’m still confident that splitting my year was the right choice. Getting to know Peru after spending five months in Chile has been a great opportunity, and the cocktail of similarities and differences between the two countries has kept me fascinated from day one. Equally, gaining professional experience in an area outside of teaching has been great for me, especially when it’s in something that has played such a big part in my time as a visitor in South America. Answering tour inquiries, as opposed to making them myself, has made me think a lot about travelling, tourism, and how Westerners’ see this continent and their holidays here. 

The last eight weeks have given me so much to think about, and I’m sure that my remaining four will be just as interesting.

Coming up on the blog: Jailbreaking Arequipa: ROAD TRIP. Puno & Lake Titicaca, Cusco & Machu Picchu. Dancing and music at Latin America’s second largest festival. Jenga the drinking game, barbecues galore and the unfortunate tale of how I ended up on an IV drip in a Peruvian hospital. Really.


The view of the sunset from my bedroom window, as of five minutes ago.

Until then, back to Sachaca, where the sun is setting and Friends has given way to a (subtitled, not-dubbed!) episode of CSI. The baby is playing on the carpet, the dogs are fast asleep and Misti has disappeared behind the clouds. 

Lots of love, 

Claire xxx 

Arequipa and Colca Canyon

La Ciudad Blanca. Mountain ranges and volcanos at every turn. Breathtaking colonial architecture and white sillar stone. An oasis in the middle of the desert. Peru’s second biggest city. Gateway to Colca, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and distinguished by its pre-Inca terraces and beautiful scattered villages. Alpaca herds, roaming vicuña and the glorious South American Condor. 

Whistle-stop tour of Mum and Dad’s visit to Chile

L-R: Santiago as seen from the top of Cerro Sta Lucia; Delicious stew at the fish market; Colourful displays at La Vega, Chile’s biggest market

Valparaiso's colourful, quiet streets; with Mum on mosaic stools; the city's alleys bursting with art. 

The stunning coastline at Quintay and Zapallar

Prawns, avocado and fizz for Christmas dinner; The vineyards at Casa del Bosque, Casablanca