posher than today's actual Chifa
In front of every second door on the buildings scattered around the Plaza de Armas, the main square of Arequipa, someone calls out to me and tries to show me their menu – they are full of the local traditional foods – stuffed peppers, avocado salads, potato and vegetable dishes with fresh cheese, roasted guinea pig – and more fancy „nuevo andino“ dishes. A decent meal at these medium-range restaurants will cost around £5, and they are all pretty good.

But today, I'm looking for something else. Ever since I've set foot in Peru seven weeks ago, I have been mystified by the Chifas, or Peruvian-Chinese eateries that are always swarming with locals, advertising „cocina cantonesa“. They look a bit grubby, like really bad Indian places in the UK or kebab places in Germany, and I've never seen travellers in there. Incentive enough to give it a go.

I have tried sushi in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, and while it had fresh fish, it wasn't really sushi. Today, my craving for Asian food brings me here. Just off the Plaza, I go into the first Chifa I come across – they all seem to offer very similar food, anyway. I'm given a menu that consists of wonton soup, fried noodles with beef stir fry, rice with beef stir fry, rice with chicken, and fried noodles with chicken. I go with the „traditional“ mixed fried rice with stir fried beef, and ask for water. Sorry, only Inka Cola and Coca Cola, the waiter, who looks 100% Peruvian, not Chinese, tells me. Coke is the lesser of two evils. Obviously this is not the place to ask for a nice Taiwanese green tea blend.

The walls of the place have seen better times, there is no door, but the basic tables and chairs, as well as the floor, are impeccably clean. Most other guests here look like manual laborers on their lunch break, there are also some teenagers (chavy emo kids – a uniquely Peruvian subculture), and a young couple with a baby that won't stop staring at me, the mother smiling at me apologetically.
not my food either, but very similar

There isn't a kitchen, either, just a small gas stove where I can see how the food is cooked – not too bad so far, doesn't look like food poisoning. Then I get my food – and it's truly Chinese-Peruvian. Fair enough, it's fried rice and stir-fried beef, but the sauce is Peruvian aji, a yellow chili sauce, and instead of tofu, bean sprouts or greens, the stir-fry has potatoes, bell peppers and avocado. Fruit of the Andes.

This is not haute cuisine by any means, but it's a massive amount of pretty delicious, well-cooked, un-greasy food for about 70p. Even more than the food, I enjoy the curious looks the locals shoot me, wondering why I chose to eat here out of all places.

But nobody says anything, until an elderly gentlemen walks in – yes, he is one, by Peruvian terms. He's in his early 60s, whiter skin than most here, halfway up the Andes where 50% of the population still carries pure Inca blood. He's wearing a clean, decently tailored suit and sits down on the table next to me, staring up and down my legs. Today, because all my other stuff is in the laundry, I have to wear red and black striped tights, jeans shorts and a skimpy top that seemed like a  good idea for the lesbian underground nightlife of Buenos Aires. Here, not such a great idea, but what can I do?

Then he speaks to me in wonderful clear, Peruvian Spanish:
„Where are you from?“
„Oh, and you are alone?“
„Yes, why not.“
„Why not indeed, a lot of girls do it. Peru is not dangerous, like Colombia. Although Colombia is beautiful. Do you live with your parents in Germany?“ (the most frequently asked question in South America)
„Um, no, I live on my own, in England, kind of.“
„Well, I guess it's a different kind of life for you. Here, when we don't get married, we keep living with our parents.“

He shows me his hands to make a point he is not wearing a ring. I smile and try to go back to eating my rice.

„I never got married, so today, I still live with my mother. Very old. My brother and sister moved away, to Lima. Now I'm alone with my mother, in a very big house.“
„Um... well, I guess it's a different life.“
„Where are you going next in Peru?“
„Tomorrow I'm going to Puno, and then on to Cusco, but I really like Arequipa so I think I will come back here.“
„Oh, on which day? You can come to my house and meet my mother. She smokes a lot, so she will die soon.“
„Oh, I'm sorry.“
„Don't worry, you can get married to me when she dies. Very soon.“

I halfway frown, halfway smile and try to concentrate on my rice again. I am too amused by this suggestion to feel weirded out or offended. A minute of silence passes, he speaks to me again.

„Do you like reading?“
„Yes, why?“ (there was no book anywhere in the Chifa)
„I love reading. Which authors do you like?“

I end up listing a few names, hoping he will not know any of them. Surprisingly, he does, and we end up having a fifteen minute conversation about Murakami. By then, I have long finished my meal and it looks like it's going to rain soon, so I ask for the bill. He starts again.

„You know, Germany is so rich, it truly is the country of poets and philosophers. Kant, Nietzsche, all of them, geniuses. All German. Also, Goethe, you know him, Faust? Wonderful.“
„Well yes, but that was a long time ago. Kids today barely know these people.“

We could go on like this for hours, and already have for almost an hours, but I need to get going and book my room for tomorrow, do some work, get out of the Chifa.

„I'm sorry, I really have to go now. Long day tomorrow.“
„Oh I see. Can you give me your e-mail address?“

I smile and shake my head, no thank you.
„But why not? We can talk about Kant! My mother likes him, too.“
„No, sorry, I can't give my e-mail to everyone I meet.“
„But I just want to talk about Kant, no worries.“

I get up to pay, wishing him “Suerte”, the Peruvian “Insha'Allah“, and leave.

One Comment

  1. what a neat post! you're such a good traveller, steffi, staying open to people like that even when it seems weird and creepy at first. i bet he was lonely and had a lot of free time on his hands (able to read and take in all that great lit). but still, what a strange place-- food and all-- to meet a person like that. i'm glad you held off on giving out your email.


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