Today I went to Characato with a fellow English teacher and one of my adult students. Characato is a small village and farming community on the outskirts of Arequipa, and it took about 40 minutes to get there travelling by two separate “combis.”
Combis are the public transportation system here in Arequipa and in many other Spanish American cities, although these vehicles have different names in different places. A combi can be any vehicle that ranges in size from a small van to a bus, but all of them have many seats intalled in them. And although it seems that anyone with a vehicle with seats in it can call themselves a combi and start transporting people around the city, I am told that the system is somewhat regulated and that combis are assigned to various routes and even have schedules (although I find that a bit hard to believe). Today when our combi arrived at the same location at the same time as another combi, there was a shouting match between the two drivers and between the two driver helpers. Our combi was evidently the offending party, and so the other combi blocked for a few minutes our progress forward, and also created a traffic jam in the process which illicited lots of honking from the cars and other vehicles behind us. Eventually, the other combi wedged its way into trafffic as the light turned red, and we were left behind to wait for the light to turn green again.
In any case, the combis all have their route name listed in the front windshield, and as the combi rolls into a stop zone the driver helper hangs out the side of the combi calling out their route name in order to attract as many passengers as possible. You can also get a combi to stop for you virtually anywhere by sticking your arm straight out toward the street. Most of the time when you get in a combi it is already packed with people like sardines in a can, so you have to stand up and grab a bar or a seat or another passenger or whatever you can find to grab, and then hold on for dear life. Also, the drivers don´t look back to see if everyone is seated before darting forward, as I was reminded today while I was in the process of entering a seat to share with an elderly man … the combi darted forward before I was seated, and I landed in the lap of the elderly man. When you exit the combi, or should I say squeeze out of the combi, you pay the combi driver helper 80 Peruvian centavos (which is about 25 U.S. cents).
Characato was literally a breath of fresh air. After a month spent in a fairly busy part of town where there are dozens of black-smoke-belching combis, tour buses, cars, etc., passing by all day long, it was nice to get out of town for the day and smell cow and sheep manure instead. (It seems odd to say that I welcomed the smell of shit). Nonetheless, we walked along the country roads and enjoyed the beautiful views of farmland that reaches all the way to the mountains, and those same mountains provide the melting snow that waters the entire area through an irrigation system that was built thousands of years ago by early inhabitants. All around us we could see tier upon tier upon tier of growing plots that cascade up the mountains.
When we got back to the town of Characato we had the good fortune of finding a food fair being held on the central plaza, and we shared 3 plates of local “typical” dishes such as stuffed spicy peppers, seasoned rice with duck, cheesy scalloped potatoes, yummy potato fritters made with spinach and onion, 3 glasses of red corn juice, and the pastry that Characato is famous for– buñuelo, a kind of donut with honey drizzled on top.
On the way back to Arequipa a woman got in our combi with her grandson in tow, and since there were no more available seats she sat down next to me on the center console of the combi. We were indeed packed in that combi like sardines, and since me and grandma were practically sitting on each others laps, I just put my arm around the lady in order to better brace her and me from all the jostling in the combi as we sped down the bumpy roads while swaying from side to side as the combi turned and dipped and swerved and whatnot. When the grandson saw me put my arm around his grandma, he piled into her lap right beside me and gave me a big smile. I heard him say the word “English,” and so I asked him in English if he knew how to speak English. Well, as it turns out this 9 year-old only knew only a few English words, so I started chatting with him in Spanish while asking him all the normal things — what´s your name?, how old are you?, etc., all while grandma sat beside me smiling broadly. So then I asked my little buddy Rodrigo his birthday, and it was great fun to discover that we were both born on December 20. Everyone around us was enjoying seeing us two chat and become fast friends, but soon it was time to get off the combi. Grandma and Rodrigo got off at the same stop, but alas our next combi was different than the one they were waiting for, and as we drove off we could see Rodrigo waving vigorously at us from the curb, so we jumped out of our seats and waved back at him out the back window of our combi. If I experienced nothing else interesting for the rest of my time here in Arequipa, that chance encounter with my Birthday Buddy Rodrigo already makes the whole trip worthwhile. Here is a picture of me with Rodrigo and his grandma.