I had been hearing about Peru's fabled White City, Arequipa, for almost two months. Travelers gushed about the gorgeously preserved colonial architecture, the friendly Arequipeos, and the snowcapped peaks of El Misti and Chachani looming 20,000 feet above town. It was an off-the-beaten-path destination that did not attract the hordes of backpackers that thronged Cuzco to hike to Macchu Picchu or the groups of bird watchers who flew into Amazon basin towns for 48 hours to photograph macaws.
After a muddy six-week stint in the jungle surveying biodiversity with the British group Greenforce, traveling 200 miles on top of a gasoline tanker to Cuzco, and weaving my way south by bus through the desolate but beautiful altiplano, I was ready to get to know Peru at a slower pace. I also needed to pick up some Spanish. I had spent many hours on my ride to Cuzco sharing things like "Me Zacarias, American traveler, came in airplane, nice stars, no?" Plus, I had promised myself I would learn Spanish, return to my Brooklyn teaching job, and start gardening classes for bilingual schoolkids.
THE CLARO CHOICE
The moment I arrived in Arequipa I was smitten. You descend from the wickedly harsh Atacama Desert into the pleasant valley of the Rio Chili. Narrow, cobblestone streets funnel into the city center, which UNESCO has named a World Heritage Site due to its fabulous colonial architecture. There are exquisite cultural attractions such as the Santa Catalina convent and the Catedral on the Plaza D'Armas, both constructed of a bright white volcanic material called sillar, boutiques selling high-quality alpaca textiles along the Calle Santa Catalina, and palm trees galore. Oh, it's also 70 degrees and sunny year-round.
In a Cuzco Internet cafe I discovered a couple of schools online that offered Spanish classes in Arequipa. (Cuzco is another hot destination for language students but is decidedly more expensive.) In particular the South American Explorers Club (www.saexplorers.com) had an excellent listing of schools. I settled on the Claro Language Program in the Paucarpata district after meeting the very warm and helpful Rocio Oporto, a German-educated Peruvian who founded the school in 1999. (Claro means "sure," and I sure needed some Spanish.) I'd emailed Rocio and she had responded promptly with a list of prices and curriculum. Claro is actually an extension of Rocio's house complete with a pool, backyard patio, and pet llama, Pedro.
I decided on a month of study, generally the minimum recommended for a beginner to achieve basic conversational ability. I wasn't expecting fluency but was determined to stop asking Como? every ten seconds. For $65 U.S. per week, I took four hours of group classes five days a week and lived with a local family in the pastel suburb of Umacollo. My host family provided me with a simple private room and bath as well as breakfast and dinner for an additional $60 a week. Divide those prices by seven, and compare to your favorite hostel anywhere else.
Fabiola, like all of Claro's university-educated teachers, started me off with basic pronunciation and grammar, gradually working up to verb tenses and conjugations. Our lessons included conversation practice, written exercises and quizzes, how to bargain for an alpaca sweater, and how to recover from soroche (altitude sickness) while climbing El Misti. Including homework, I studied about six hours a day. For the first two weeks I had class with a hilarious British couple whose constant mispronunciation of aņo (year) turned "eI have 25 years" into "eI have 25 oxen"? and other more unmentionable expressions. For the second two weeks, due to a dearth of students, I had intense, private classes with Fabiola (Rocio still gave me the group price).
My hosts, the D'Ugard family, were a wonderful complement to my language lessons. I had three host sisters who ranged from 13 to 24 years old and one host brother who was 16. My "siblings"? and I spent almost all of our free time together catching Harry Potter movies at the nearby cinemateca, translating their favorite band, Blink-182, and mashing grapes barefoot in the backyard for the family's Christmastime production of Pisco and wine. But the life of every party was my host mother, Maria Elena, whose wit and maternal warmth made me want to stay another month.
SPANISH AS SCAM PROTECTION
The first urgent test of my language ability came a week after I finished Claro on New Year's Day as I was hounding the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, with a world-class hangover in search of coffee. After finding the only open cafe in the country, I was returning to my hotel and had just crossed the usually bustling Prado when a Bolivian man approached me. Holding an open map, gesturing confusedly through dark sunglasses, he asked, "How do I find Tisjmrxx?" Clearly, this man was lost, and, though I had no clue what or where anything sounding like Tisjmrxx was, I was ready to launch into a detailed explanation of my scant knowledge of the city center.
But something was amiss here. Wasn't I, the gringo, supposed to be the one asking for directions? And why was he asking me and not an obvious native of these parts, like the Andean woman sitting a few feet away selling pirated Wu Tang Clan CDs. Plus, there weren't any Bolivian tourists in La Paz, or anywhere else for that matter. Real Bolivians were too busy growing coca on the eastern slopes of the Andes and unionizing the silver mines in Potosi to go on vacation.
As my brain was processing these discrepancies, a second man approached us, flashed a Policia Nacional card and demanded "identificacion y passeporte!" Now, this man looked nothing like the army-fatigue-wearing, machine-gun-toting members of the National Police. He was wearing a brown shirt, ill-fitting pants, and crusty sandals. I remembered a particularly dangerous scam travelers had warned me about in La Paz. Basically, a tourist is approached by one or more individuals claiming to be the National Police, asked for identification, shoved into a car, briefly kidnapped, and robbed of their every possession. My danger meter was off the chart. I did a headsplitting about-face and power-walked up the street to my hotel.
An hour later I was coming down a nearby street and found a distraught French couple speaking earnestly to a highly uninterested policewoman. They had encountered the same men, opened their bags for ID, and lost everything. The man was crying; his wife was smoking and rolling her eyes at the policewoman's inability to comprehend French.
I calmly explained their predicament to the policewoman in Spanish. I told her the same thing had just about happened to me. She knew of the infamous scam, and said she'd file a robbery report.
I had done it! I had said exactly what I wanted to say using the right grammar, pulled some bureaucratic strings, and averted what was looking like a nasty Franco-Bolivian misunderstanding. Before turning down the street, I commiserated with the couple in some lame high school French. It did not seem like the time to suggest it, but... if only they had gone to Claro!
CONTACT: Claro Spanish Language Program, Calle Paucarpata 327-Cercado, Arequipa, Peru; 51-54-286929; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.spanish-peru.com.
COSTS: 25 hours per week of group instruction (no more than 4 students) is $65. The homestay option (includes breakfast and dinner) in a single room with private bath is another $60 per week. The best deal is a package of two-week group instruction, private room and board with a family, and a highly recommended, all-inclusive two-day excursion to the Colca Canyon for $279. All you'll get are language skills and great stories, though; Claro does not normally grant credits for transfer to your university.
QUALITY OF INSTRUCTION: *****
EXTRACURRICULAR CLASS ACTIVITIES: **** Colca Canyon can't be missed.
LOCATION COOLNESS: ***** Only if you like Andean mountains, Incan culture, and the best of South American cities.
POSTCURRICULAR ABILITY TO AVOID KIDNAPPING: *****
Photo by Zachary Shtogren