Something about this city doesn’t click

Zapateria, Arequipa, Peru photo

Something tells me their shoes will suck

Who’s to decide when a city has really pulled together, gathering at least a few of its cultural tendrils into a civic identity that can cause visitors to feel connected to something vital and foreverafter refer to it as unforgettable?

Certainly not me. Certainly not after just a few days exploring.

Yet here I go, musing about Arequipa, Peru, despite my lack of qualifications.

Too happy traffic cop, Arequipa, Peru photo

Too happy traffic cop

Arequipa has the feel of a way station. A very nice way station with oh-so-lovely architecture and oversized food portions, but still a place where people are only lightly living in the moment because they’re on the move to somewhere else, or at least wish they were. Things feel disjointed, hollow, and a little half-assed.

Tu vida, Arequipa, Peru photo

Your life, where?

El Hombre Bolsa Tony Danza! Arequipa, Peru photo

Why is Tony Danza a mustachioed blind bag man?

The fact is, Arequipa is a way station. Tourists pass through on their way in and out of Colca Canyon. On the way in, folks may not be fully present, thinking of trails and blisters yet to come. On the way out, they’re likely to be distracted by sore legs and mild dehydration.

Shocked graffiti, Arequipa, Peru photo

Shocked graffiti

City river view, Arequipa, Peru photo

City river view

Maybe the lack of a civic oomph I feel is because Arequipa sits in the path of lung-searing, life-ending lava. The city’s 1 million-plus residents have had to embrace a fine-by-me attitude to living just 11 miles (17 kilometers) from a powerfully deadly geologic force: the El Misti volcano. That much blasé in one place will up the area’s ho-hum.

Shrouded El Misti, Arequipa, Peru photo

Death! Deeeeaaaaattthhhhh!!!!

We all live with the chance of death everyday from many corners, but in Arequipa death is visible, large, and very very close (just look at this map of Arequipa showing where the fire and brimstone is likely to fall).

How can anyone truly commit to anything under those circumstances?

Anarchy in Arequipa, Peru photo

Is the A for anarchy or apathy?

I also have a suspicion that Arequipa feels off because, like so many other fast-growing cities, the automobile dominates.

Red VW, Arequipa, Peru photo

Peru’s love for red VWs cannot be understated.

Blue VW, Arequipa, Peru photo

The more unusual blue VW.

There are buses, collectivos, and combis but the mass transit options are massively outnumbered by cars and especially predatory taxis. Results are typical: traffic, air pollution, and relentless honking that turns all my emotions into one monolithic urge to rampage.

History and chicken, Arequipa, Peru photo

History, chicken, and lots of taxis

Worse, the taxi drivers are distrusted, so much so that when we arrive in town at the bus station, a pair of armed police officers write down our ID details and the taxi driver’s information before letting us speed off. It is an unsettling welcoming committee.

Old and new, Arequipa, Peru photo

Old and new Arequipa

I’m looking for passion. Not just the kind of passion that makes you stand up and take notice, but the bigger, bolder kind that makes you do a Tom Cruise leap onto your chair. If Arequipa’s got passion, I’m not picking up on it. This could be as much my fault as Arequipa’s as it’s the end of our Peru trip and I’ve got all sorts of weariness going on.

Jesus under construction, Arequipa, Peru photo

Jesus under construction

Perhaps I just missed Arequipa at its best. I hope that there’s a fabulous side to the city that residents keep secret from visitors, hidden away like the family adobo Arequipeño recipe. Maybe I’m simply not worthy of knowing the real Arequipa.

Maybe it’s me.

Decorated side street, Arequipa, Peru photo

Decorated side street

Protest graffiti, Arequipa, Peru photo

Protest graffiti