This morning, during a pause on the wards, I picked up my phone to scroll through my Instagram feed. And suddenly, in between food pictures and friends' babies and strangers' landscapes and other scenes mundane, humorous and beautiful, appeared this shot above.
I almost squealed out loud. Not only is this an amazing scene and an amazing capture (seriously, I dare you to tell me it didn't make you smile instantaneously), but I also recognized it right away, because I have been there! You know the feeling when you are watching a movie and then all of a sudden there's a scene in your hometown or your college campus or the beach that you grew up spending every summer on? It was that feeling, except maybe even cooler, because the picture was posted by National Geographic (natgeo if you want to follow them on Instagram- they have a great feed.) I was so excited when I clicked on the link through the picture and confirmed that it was, in fact, taken at the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, in Arequipa, Peru.
Right before I started medical school, I spent about a month in Peru by myself, living with a family, volunteering in a clinic, traveling, and brushing up on my Spanish in anticipation of finding demand for my language skills in medicine. The entire trip was incredible... exciting, boring, intense, lonely, hard, and FUN, as any extended time away from home, in a foreign land and culture, especially if you are on your own, tends to be. I blogged briefly about mi vida arequipeña on one of the several short-lived travel blogs I have kept at various points from around the world, but, as usually happens overseas, the internet was frustratingly slow and access was expensive, and I was too busy doing a lot of other things, so I had given up writing updates by this point in my month in Peru.
I finally visited the Monasterio during my last week in Arequipa. It is on the city's must-see list, but between riding crazy local taxi-buses all over the city, hanging out at my volunteer sites and working on grammar and medical terminology with my tutor during the week, and traveling during the weekends, I hadn't found time to make it there.
So one morning I played hooky from clinic and caught a cab to the city center.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, and nearly empty, with just a handful of other tourists and a couple of locals exploring the extensive buildings and grounds.
I joined a small guided tour, and then, after it was over, wandered around by myself for hours, totally taken in by the beauty of the place, luxuriating in the perfect morning high-altitude sunlight, walking slowly, meandering down every tiny alleyway and up every winding path I could find, taking hundreds of pictures. My surroundings drenched me. The architecture, the colors, the textures, the stone- and wood-work, the combined Spanish and Andean influences, the cobblestones, the stark rise of volcanoes in the distance. I let my imagination run with the history there, the furniture left in rooms, arranged as they were when daughters of wealthy families were sent to the convent with enormous dowries and their own servants to stay with them there for the rest of their lives as nuns (by tradition, the second sons and second daughters of every family were expected to devote their lives to the church... and the rich paid huge sums so that their daughters could live in convents like this one.)
Cloistered from Arequipa's congested streets, the monastery was peaceful and still inside its ancient white stone walls, a calm island in the very center of the frenetic city. It was romantic, almost magical.
There was a very attractive man about my age wandering around Santa Catalina this particular morning, as well. I had noticed him when I entered that morning- I had been right behind him in the short line to pay the entrance fee. We each bought our passes and then I didn't see him again until later, after my tour was over. We kept bumping into each other around corners and passing each other in narrow stone-lined corridors, each carrying our cameras and lost in our own worlds. Finally, after about the sixth time crossing paths, we both paused, smiling, and leaned up against a rust-red wall next to each other, taking off sunglasses and introducing ourselves.
He was an Army ranger, enjoying paid vacation during his last weeks in the service before his contract was up and traveling his way through South America. I was just days away from Air Force officer training and a move to Georgia to start medical school after that.
We sat in an enclosed, white-washed, sundrenched courtyard, sipping café con leche and passing the nuns' renowned homemade pastries and a piece of pie between us. We shared stories from our respective travels and adventures in South America, told each other about our families and our backgrounds; we talked about our relationships with our siblings and reminisced about things from home that we were starting to miss; we talked politics and 30 Rock and The Daily Show. We bantered about our favorite Peruvian dishes and discussed languages and education and religion.
Hours passed. The sun moved through the bright blue sky, burning through the thin atmosphere and turning our cheeks and noses pink. Lunch in Peru was served in the early afternoon; the whole family went home for a big, delicious meal with no fewer than three courses every day. Lucy would be worried if I didn't come home. I was acutely torn between this surreal, exquisite experience... the setting, the perfect weather, the companionship, the conversation, the man... and my serious sense of guilt over worrying my protective Peruvian adoptive mother, who had taken such hospitable care of me in her home for a month. With regret, I excused myself from our café-soaked reverie on the small patio and left the peaceful otherworldliness of the monastery to flag a taxi and head home.
Travel romance is really the best, isn't it? It doesn't even have to be a real romance, or last longer than a couple of hours. I can still remember the exact feeling of that day- small, textured details jumping to life in my mind. It was so immensely satisfying and so horribly unsatisfying at the same time. I never saw him again, but thinking about that experience now still makes me smile. It is one of my most vivid memories of Peru, and one I'm sure I'll have for the rest of my life.