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28 October 2012 / leggypeggy

Arequipa reality tour goes beyond sightseeing

Peruvian potatoes

Mountains of Peruvian potatoes

Peruvian pet stall

Dog food by the kilo

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and in all our travels, it is the first place where we have been able to take a ‘Reality Tour’.

Almost everyone on our overland truck signed on for this interesting half-day tour that shows you aspects of a major city that are often ‘hidden’ from tourists.

Our itinerary started with a trip to the local market, followed by a visit to a wawawasi (child care centre for marginal families) and its attached comedor (where women cook hundreds of meals a day), and finally on to the sillar mine. These sites are in the shanty towns and/or outskirts of Arequipa.

Wherever we go, Poor John and I manage to visit most markets as we travel along, but we’re always looking forward to seeing a new one, and to seeing what new items might be on offer.

The Arequipa market had a couple of firsts for us. We saw the first pet stall—it wasn’t actually selling pets, but food, toys and other supplies. We’ve seen a lot of dogs in South America, but very few cats, and the products leaned towards dogs.

We saw stalls with up to 20 varieties of potatoes for sale. Usually we see no more than 10. Although thousands of types of potatoes are grown in Peru, most are reserved for home consumption. Oodles of varieties of cheese were on offer too.

We also saw the butchering and fish shops being run by women—again. I’ve found out why that is here, and will do a separate post on women butchers and fishmongers.

Peruvian child

A 5-year-old girl gives Lauren a hug

Peruvian children

Every child has a uniform

Industrial kitchen in Peru

Cooking for the masses

Our guide explained that the Arequipa market was designed by Mr Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). It is large, bright and airy and, as usual, I took too many pictures.

Our main reason for visiting the market was to buy goodies for the child care centre and the sillar miners (our next two stops).

Pens, pencils, paper, puzzles and the like were on the list for the kiddies, along with fresh fruit. It’s a way to contribute to the centre and to thank them for sharing their space and time with us.

Preferred thank yous for the miners are bottles of water, bunches of bananas and bags of coca leaves (to chew for energy). Coca is popular throughout South America. And although it is the source for the production of cocaine, the leaf is invaluable at high altitude. Poor John and I chewed it several times a day as we did the Lares Trek.

But on to the centre where we met classes of engaging 3, 4 and 5-year-olds. It’s obvious they love having visitors. Each age group sand songs for us, and we reciprocated with tunes like the ‘Teensy-weensy spider’. The children are also learning English, and proved that they know more of our language than we do of theirs.

After spending time with the children, we walked along the compound and met the four women who make 700 meals every weekday. About 150 of these meals are served to people who come to the centre. The rest are delivered to families in need within a radius of about 5 kilometres.

Considering the output, the kitchen is tiny and the women who are cooking are about the same size as the pots.

Then it was on the sillar mine, which is open-cut and is supposedly 18 kilometres long.

Sillar mine

A miner takes a lunch break at the bottom of a wall of sillar

Sillar mine

Our van is dwarfed by the sillar mine, and Mt Misti in the background

Sillar is volcanic stone. It is extracted in a traditional way, and later used to build houses, fences and other structures. Most of Arequipa seems to be built of it.

We arrived around lunchtime and it took quite a while to find miners who had not yet knocked off for their midday meal.

The two we did find were most happy to demonstrate how the sillar is cut.

They start with a largish block that is then broken into smaller pieces with a hammer and chisel. The reduced pieces are halved and those halves are then trimmed to size with a mini sledgehammer. Apparently sillar is quite easy to work with at first, but it becomes harder as time passes.

Miners make about 200 blocks a fortnight and sell them for about $2 a piece. Each block weighs about 40-45 kilos.

The mine appears to be unsupervised and that anyone who wants to mine can do so, but we were pretty sure there must be some regulations that govern the extraction. That said, it was eerie when we arrived. There was no entrance and no gate. We just drove in. In addition to a lack of security, there wasn’t much in the way of occupational health and safety.

We were also surprised to see that the acres and acres of small chips of sillar go unused—they’re not even further broken down for gravel.

The outing was fascinating in every way, and I hope more cities think of adding reality tours. We need to get out of our comfort zones.

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