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It's a city nestled into the cracks of danger - a community curled up at the foot of beautiful yet perilous mountain peaks. But with all its natural threats, this South American jewel is beloved by those who inhabit it.
Since its founding by Spanish conquerors in 1540, the city of Arequipa, Perú has suffered several major earthquakes, the latest in 2001. Damage to Arequipa, located in the southern section of Perú near the border with Bolivia, has ranged from complete obliteration from an earthquake in 1600 to severe damage in the in 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. After every quake, Arequipeños rebuilt the roads, repaired the cathedrals, and restored the colonial-era buildings to their traditional beauty.
As if resting near fault lines wasn't enough, Arequipa sits at the base of El Misti, the second largest active volcano in the world and one that's sent up steam as recently as 1985. Two other volcanoes, Chachani and Picchu Picchu, lie on either side of El Misti, and Arequipa is built directly on the ash deposits from this range of volcanoes. A city whose major industries include alpaca, wool, and tourism, Arequipa is immersed in volcanic life.
As a visitor, one might expect a sense of doom or suspense to float in the air in Arequipa, but that's not the case. Rebounding after an earthquake's ruin has given the people pride, and glancing up every morning on the way to work to see the breathtaking, snow-capped El Misti is something that would give anyone delight.
For centuries, Arequipa has been called the White City, as many of its buildings are constructed from sillar - white volcanic rock mined in the hills nearby. The bright white alleyways and cathedrals glisten brilliantly in the sun, more potent due to the city's high elevation.
I arrived in the city in early spring, after a long and eventful bus ride from Lima to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, from there to Lake Titcaca, and finally to Arequipa. Late morning on a 22-hour bus ride from Lima to Cuzco, my bus rounded a turn to find a landslide of rocks from the night before that blocked the road. Three hours passed as drivers brought in Caterpillar trucks and slowly removed enough rock so one lane of traffic could continue along the high mountain passes and make it to the lush, green region of the Urubamba Valley at the foot of the Andes.
That 22-hour bus ride turned into 25 hours, but the Peruvians on the bus weren't fazed. Eventually, I reached Cuzco, and days later when I arrived in Arequipa, I imagined the same slow-moving, bright yellow machines removing the volcanic rocks from the surrounding hills to build the statuesque white buildings that grace Arequipa's postcards.
I was wrong.
When I got to Arequipa, I was ready to volunteer. I researched and discovered an agency that hosted volunteers in Arequipa and sent them to teach English to children in the poorer outskirts of the city. My first day of volunteering was also the first day for two Brits, two young men from Singapore, and a Belgian girl. Together we climbed onto a city bus that took us into the depths of Arequipa and then right back out again on the other side, heading into neighborhoods filled with small shacks, dust, and dogs that roamed the unpaved streets.
We got off the bus and walked toward a building the volunteer agency had built for the community of Chachani-a small, one-story shack that required us to fill the toilet from a giant rainwater-collector before we could use the facilities. As we neared the school on our first day, however, it was a sight in the distance that had us more perplexed than the shacks or the dogs or the children shyly spying on us from their door jams. There were puffy bursts of dust that would occasionally rise from the hills surrounding this small village, occurring almost in harmony with piercing cracks! We squinted into the distance but saw nothing but powder floating through the air.
Our first day was magnificent; the children loved meeting new people, and they giggled at our awkward Spanish pronunciations. Finally, at the end of the day, I asked the head teacher -- an energetic New Zealander -- what the dust clouds were all about.
That's their job, he said. He quickly got more specific. Many of the fathers in town - their job is to mine for rocks in the hills so the material can be used to construct buildings. So, the way they do it is by throwing rocks at other rocks to chip off the...well...the rocks. They haul the tiny boulders away and sell them to builders. That's their livelihood.
No Caterpillars. No sledgehammers. No industrialized tools - just throwing rocks. The people in this community weren't able to buy machinery like those I saw on that mountain road after the landslide. If they could have afforded those tools, they would have moved their families closer to the city and away from the dust clouds that hung over this tiny village.
Every day for weeks we took the bus to its very last stop at the edge of Arequipa and walked toward the school, watching with fascination these men who scrambled the cliffs, throwing heavy rocks at even heavier rocks to harvest the stones they would sell to put food on the table. Behind them rose El Misti, watching over the men with only its cone-shaped, snowy head visible above the clouds.
And as I embedded myself in the culture of Arequipa, I grew to respect the residents' relationship with nature. Using raw materials from the land itself, hard-working Arequipeños still see nature around them as a generous tool, not a detriment - even after being plagued by nerve-wracking tremors and looming puffs of volcanic ash. And after the next earthquake or the next eruption by the beautiful El Misti, these people will dust themselves off once again. They'll dust off and rebuild.
Natalie Goodale is a freelance journalist and avid traveler who sees things worth writing about in even the least inspiring places. She has lived briefly in Spain, traveled throughout Eastern Europe, and witnessed the varied cultures of Peru. Natalie worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in Massachusetts and now combines her writing with other endeavors; she can be reached at Natalie.Goodale@gmail.com.