“You want to take a holiday in Arequipa?” our friends in Lima said, sounding slightly bemused. “You want to be careful if you go there – they say that that’s the City of Thieves.”
This didn’t put me and my family off. During the late 1980s when my father was a missionary working in Peru, the Sendero Luminoso terrorist group had an iron grip on a large chunk of the mountain country and it wasn’t safe for gringos (white people) to visit anywhere in the Andes apart from Cuzco and Macchu Picchu. The other alternatives for our annual holiday were Iquitos in the Amazon jungle, and Arequipa. My mother can’t stand humidity, so Arequipa it was.
We decided to take the bus rather than flying, as this would allow us to spend a day or so in Nazca, seeing those famous mystery lines in the desert. And the visit to Nazca was well worth the endless travel along the Pan-American Highway through the Atacama Desert with comfort stops only occurring every three hours.
The bus from Nazca to Arequipa was supposed to roll through late in the evening, so we only checked into the hotel for one night. We collected bag and baggage and settled down at the bus stop and waited. No bus. Another hour, spent watching gaudily-painted produce trucks roll down the road towards Arequipa, passed very slowly on rapidly cooling concrete. Still no bus. My parents had got to the point of considering whether it would be safe enough to pay one of the drivers of the produce trucks for a lift – the option taken by a few other travellers who had got fed up with waiting – when a bus finally rolled through.
Problem number two: the bus was full. However, a few extra greenbacks produced at the right moment by my father, convinced the driver that he could fit a few more in, if we didn’t mind sitting or standing. After all, a Peruvian bus is not completely full until people have to hang out the doors.
After a night where discovered that it is possible to enter alpha-sleep mode while standing up, the old lady in the seat beside where I was standing woke up and began chatting. After the usual session of Guess Where the Gringo Comes From, she asked where I was going and where we had come from. “Lima?” she asked, when she heard where we had come from. “Just as well you’re coming to Arequipa – they say Lima’s the City of Thieves.”