Our man in Arequipa: Matthew Bell
As Blanca’s Indian slave girl got onto her hands and knees to scrub bits of my puke, pubic hair and other bodily excrements from the toilet bowl in my apartment, I sipped on my hot harina de coca energizer beverage and contemplated if this was the kind of cross-cultural exchange I had hoped to encounter when I dropped everything in my life and moved to Peru.
To be sure, it was not. And to be clear, although the girl did whatever my landlord/house mother Blanca sternly instructed, and despite her never once leaving the building in which we all lived, barely looking up past her long black hair and never speaking, technically the girl wasn’t a slave. But to the eyes of any North Americaner, this girl’s life was an Oprah episode waiting to happen.
“And then she made you sleep on a pile of rocks in the basement after cleaning up the diarrhea of a rich white gringo?” I could see Oprah asking as she held the slave girl’s hand in her lap. Looks of abject consternation from the audience of middle-aged women and gay men. Gasps.
I’d have to come out and explain why I allowed this to happen. Why I didn’t put down the cocaine I was drinking and bless Blanca with my enlightened Western philosophy on slavery (meaning, at least let the girl go for a walk!)? Or why I didn’t open the door in the middle of the night and let the Indian girl escape?
Oh dear. Let me explain. I am thirty-three years old—the age of Jesus when he was allegedly crucified on the stake (drama!!)—and the age when I believe most gay men start to sashay into identity crisis mode, (Don’t you dare say mid-life crisis. I’m saving that excuse for the sexy red car I’m going to buy when I turn 43.) and I am living in Arequipa, Peru for a year.
In 1999, I moved to NYC at the age of 21 and in the 60-second movie of my life there, you’d see me pouring shots of tequila directly into guys’ mouths while go-go dancing on tops of bars, watching the Twin Towers tumble from my bedroom window, dancing next to SJP in exactly one episode of Sex and The City, writing and editing for (the now defunct) Genre Magazine and producing shows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
Isn’t Peruvian Fashion week chic? Just kidding. This is the culmination of my NY fashion week work.
If you want to appreciate your life surrounded by glitter, chandeliers and chiffon, take a year long trip to Arequipa.
I have a sexy Latin boyfriend of 3 years, an apartment that makes all my friends jealous and had a job in the fashion industry that put me on airplanes with Katy Perry and in meetings with Rihanna. I rarely pay for a drink in a bar and could take vacations pretty much whenever I wanted. Even though I wasn’t close to being anywhere near the “top” of the NYC fab-list ladder, I had a nice enough grip on it to make my Facebook page look absolutely fabulous and to make the days, months and years waltz past in haze of glitter, booze and laughs with good friends.
So, am I the world’s most incredible asshole for giving it all up to move to the middle of nowhere—Peru, to teach English? And do I sound like the biggest complain-y homo that none of it was enough for me? SHHHHHHH. Those are rhetorical questions.
I had a desk once and a job whose only dress code was that I not wear plaid.
Sashay, away! To Peru darling. To PERU.
Brace yourselves—I’m about to burp out a deep thought (You burp thoughts in Peru since having gas here is like breathing). I’m here because life began to feel like it was a spinning dance-mix record and what would I have to say for myself when the music was over? Ohhhhh. “Who does this homo think he is?” I can hear y’all saying. “How dare you question the sanctity of the gay-American dream?” “Oh no he dinnnn’t!” “Um… Rihanna!?!?!!?!?!?”
But listen, when all of your straight friends start popping out babies and the career paths of your gay friends starts to ossify—when you realize your time on planet earth is indeed limited and you don’t really want to party like a rock star for your entire ride here, your own gay life starts to take on new meaning.
Anyway, this feeling was keeping me up at night and when a gay starts to lose his beauty rest, it’s time to do something about it.
The journey begins with a good-bye and a back ache.
I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I selected Arequipa as my alternative to NYC, I just liked the pretty pictures, the thought of living so close to a volcano and that it was nothing like the big apple (i.e., there are no Starbucks). Besides, I wanted to learn Spanish and my rent would be a fraction of what I pay in the city.
Arequipa is a 15-hour bus ride south of Lima. It’s catty-cornered on a whole lot of volcanoes and rumbles with earthquakes often enough where my teen-aged students can remember the spires on town’s main cathedral collapsing back in 2001. Any singular bite of food can instantly transform your stomach into maelstrom of sulfuric acid and the air pollution here makes Los Angeles seem like Patagonia. It’s the only Peruvian city outside of Lima to have a “gay scene,” which doesn’t translate into what a New Yorker thinks it would. It just means there are gays here. Somewhere.
Welcome to Arequipa. Volcanoes included.
I’ve been here for two months and no, it hasn’t totally been the romantically, idyllic adventure you’d think the thought of leaving to find yourself would conjure up. My penis is totally pissed off at me and wants my boyfriend here, my stomach has learned the art of speech (and that’s not a good thing), and I actually miss Starbucks.
That said, I’ve also climbed a 20,000-foot volcano named after a skirt, watched stars twinkle twice as bright as any in Hollywood, descended into a canyon three times as deep as the “Grand” one in Arizona, re-experienced the anxiety of coming out, and drank a brain-enhancing beverage made out of a whole frog (bones, eyeballs and all). Oh yeah, and I’ve encountered tolerated slavery, Peruvian coffee (or lack thereof) and gay-faced llamas.
This llama wouldn’t stop cruising me from across the barnyard. I nervously approach.
If you ever want to feel young, come sit by this old house at the bottom of Colca Canyon.
More stars that the MTV Music Awards, Oscars, Emmies, Grammies and fashion week put together.
I left Blanca’s apartment (it was just the first place I found! Honest!) and the Indian slave girl/cleaning lady behind a short while ago. Make no doubt, it was kind of glamorous to have a slave, and it was fascinating to watch cultural relativism work it out in full force, but it just wasn’t for me.
Even though I’ve still got the better part of a year here, I guess that means I’m one step closer to coming back to my fabulously gay thirty-something life in the big city.
Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas. See, it can be insanely scenic here!
But for now, I spend my time trying to figure out how to explain the English language—in English—to a room full of Peruvians. I wander the streets of Arequipa, popping into hidden cafés, witchcraft-filled markets and stores piled high with fake brand name shoes. I revel in the currency exchange of the Peruvian nuevo sol (I’m rich! Finally!) and the gorgeous weather.
But mostly, I just try not to fart all over everyone.
If you’d enjoy even more gassy and entertaining stories and dispatches about what Matthew Bell’s life is like as a gringo struggling to live and work and survive in South America, read his blog—Where Eagles Have Been: What the Hell Am I Doing? And please look out for my bi-monthly musings here on TripOutGayTravel.com.
Keep scrolling for more great photos and captions from Matt in Arequipa.
Look! Peruvian Lassie!
There’s nothing like letting one rip from 20,000 feet.
What? What face would you make after downing a soda shop glass of frog?
Air pollution can make for a rather nice view.
What you’re not seeing: The line of eager young children waiting to ride this Yegua.
At least I’ll come back with a lot of butch photos.
Again, for more of Matt’s wit and photos chronicling life below the equator, read his blog—Where Eagles Have Been: What the Hell Am I Doing? And check back here for more “Tales from the MIddle of a Peruvian Nowhere” soon!