Get Thee to a Peruvian Nunnery
Jun 15, 2008
David Rich 1700 words
3 Peruvian Soles=$1
GET THEE TO A PERUVIAN NUNNERY
Marvelous man-made sites include the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal while fabulous sites of nature range from the Grand Canyon to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, but a third category is often over-looked in the race for fame and reverence: the woman-made site. The most remarkable site geared to the far-fairer sex is the Santa Catalina Monastery, a miniature colonial fortress in the heart of Arequipa, Peru, an old colonial city. This wondrous woman-made site is an anomaly of the first magnitude because it's an exclusive convent called a monastery and open to the public only the last 36 of its 425 years, a masterpiece of the 18th century, a photographer’s delight fusing four centuries of mystery.
It was worth the four century wait. Superlatives are inadequate to describe the maze of unparalleled beauty contained within Santa Catalina’s humongous city block of 20,000 square meters. The first thing spied upon entry is the large Silencio painted across the closest arch: the silence the nuns of Santa Catalina lived with their first 300 years. Beyond the Silencio arch is another arch where potted orange geraniums line the cobbled street, elaborately shaped trees and large stone pots big enough to sauté a steer. And another arch. I was beckoned onward, senses assaulted with dazzling burnt sienna, blood orange and Mediterranean blue. The blue knocked my eyes out, a distinctive shade I’d seen nowhere in the world except the Blue Mansion on the resort island of Penang, Malaysia. Shutterbugs lingered for hours, wandering the maze of cobble-stoned streets, catching the changing light, the play of sun and shadows across beautifully planted plazas and chapels.
For a modest tip diligent tourists can hire a guide in English, French, German or Japanese, to find out the deepest secrets of the Santa Catalina Monastery; all well-nigh unbelievable. 150 nuns lived in sequestered private apartments during the tiny walled village’s first 300 years, beginning in 1579. I piped up with instantly occurring questions. Where did the nuns come from? Who were their families? Why did they become nuns?
The pretty young guide in pinafore and alpaca sweater smiled at the eagerness. They were young, she said. Some as young as twelve years old were given to the Monastery by their parents.
Why would any family do that?, asked the lady next to me.
These were rich families, very rich, mostly from Arequipa. Not only did they give their daughters to the monastery, usually the second daughter, but but also donated huge dowries to pay for their upkeep, forever.
The facts kept tumbling out; fantastic facts scarcely believable. The girls would never again leave the monastery. In return the entire family was relieved from all sin. Do not pass Go; Proceed directly to heaven, each family member receiving a personalized slot in the ethereal firmament. The size of the girl’s apartment where she would spend her whole life depended on the size of the family dowry so she could marry God.
The tour guide led us from the entrance through a precipitous right turn, into an eerie room of pastel yellow. The guide pointed prettily, This was the novice cloister, where the girls learned to read and write before taking their vows. The single large room was complemented by ancient beams connecting the walls at the ceilings. On one side sat a bench that might have accommodated four or five girls who received instruction through wooden grills, hiding the instructor. Because they learned to read and write they became the most educated in Arequipa. After four years they could read the Bible, qualifying them to take their vows, excluding all future contact among them.
Other rules were equally strict. If a nun were to accidentally see her reflection or smell a flower she was required to flagellate herself for penance. There, said the guide, pointing to a wicked looking quirt of glassine in an exhibit case. A Cat of nine-tails. Flagellation must have been a daily occurrence because the monastery is jam packed with geraniums, oleanders, roses and a dozen more lovely kinds of flowers. A sign entitled Barbed Wire Garments and Scourges explained:
Scourging was suffered on certain days and during certain times of the year; the eves of holy days, to fulfill promises, or to pay penalties for offenses committed; and especially during Lent and times of plague or war.
The typical apartment consisted of a bed and altar adjoining a kitchen dominated by a beehive oven fueled by wood, a matate for grinding corn and long-handled frying-pan. The nuns weren’t inconvenienced by cooking and cleaning. Instead the kitchen and cleaning chores were tended to by one to three black servants, aka slaves or maids.
In one apartment I saw a three-wheeled tricycle that looked more like a archaic wheelchair and in another an anomalous cradle with fancy matching candelabras. All apartments had ancient wooden doors, many fancily carved. The nuns had little or no contact with anyone other than their servants yet their surroundings were of the utmost beauty, from period paintings in the apartments to individual murals decorating the arches that surrounded every chapel and plaza. And oh the arches and plazas and chapels, an immediate labyrinth of them, hung with fine paintings for those who enjoy religious art of the 18th Century. Many apartments fronted on the Calle Toledo, a cobbled street, the Monastery’s longest and oldest. Each apartment was adorned with a traditional black coach light and hanging pot of blood-red geraniums.
From 1579 to 1871 the nuns never saw another soul except attendant servants. But by 1871 the Pope had tired of their selfish solitude and sent a radical fire-eating Mother Superior to sweep the slave servants out the door, refashioning the Monastery into communal living. Thus I spotted enormous stone jugs neatly severed into halves and deposited in two rows of ten for the communal laundry at La Lavanderia where, after 1871, the nuns faced each other across a channel of rushing water as they did their weekly wash.
Nosy exploration required a stroll along enchanting Calle Burgos past an exotic flower garden, past stairways leading nowhere, to an overview of tiled roofs tilted helter skelter, to Playa Socodobe and its goldfish filled fountain, next to the communal baths. Because of the Monastery’s high walls the only sight to be seen are the towering volcanoes and snow-capped peaks north of the city center. Otherwise no one could see in or out.
In short, the Monastery is a breathtaking sight not to be missed by any visitor to Peru. Only thirty nuns remain cloistered in a small corner of the complex, never to be seen by the outside world though I did spot frocks flapping on a remote rooftop clothesline. Thus when in Peru get thee to a nunnery and not just any nunnery but Santa Catalina in Arequipa, perhaps the world's most fascinating woman-made institution.
How to Get To Arequipa, Peru: Fly to Lima easily from anywhere and connect directly to Arequipa, Peru’s second city hewn from white volcanic stone, population a million souls. The choices of where to stay are seemingly unlimited but for the medium budget La Casa de mi Abuela at Jerusalen 606 (241-206; firstname.lastname@example.org) is a full resort with two restaurants, internet, 40+ rooms, pet alpaca, pool, cable TV and much more from $45. double with bath. For a few dollars more check out Maison d’Elise at Av Bolgnese 104 (256-185), a nice Mediterranean-style complex with pool, big rooms plus suites and apartments with great staff, $99. For a view of the Santa Catalina Monastery from your rooftop terrace check into the La Posada del Monasterio (283 076) at Santa Catalina 300 in a wonderful colonial building with modern and comfortable rooms from $85 double including breakfast, popular with Europeans. There are an incredible number of great restaurants in the center of town near the Plaza de Armas, mostly north on Santa Catalina and San Francisco, also two decent vegetarian restaurants a block east of San Francisco on Jerusalen: Mandala at Jerusalen 207 and Lakshmivan at Jerusalen 402. A favorite is El Turko at San Francisco 216-A, a Turkish restaurant (one of my favorite cuisines) specializing in succulent doner kebab for slightly over a buck. I also liked the Mexican restaurant (nameless) around the corner from El Turko on Uguarte; one does occasionally get homesick. There are also excellent cappuccino joints up and down San Francisco and Jerusalen. The City center is easy to get around. Santa Catalina borders the Playa de Armas on the west and San Francisco borders it on the east.
Other Stuff: Book shops line San Francisco north of the Plaza, even an English book exchange (expensive) two blocks north of the Plaza. My favorite Internet place is La Red Café Internet at Jerusalen 306, fast and only $.42 an hour, with helpful staff.
Sights around Arequipa: These abound. The deepest canyon in the world (reputedly, though it isn‘t even in the race), Cotahuasi, is twelve hours on a terrible dirt road with incomparable scenery including a plateau of 12,000 to 15,000 feet that takes four hours to cross between two permanently snow-capped volcanoes, one of which is the second highest in Peru (Coropuna). The supposedly second deepest canyon in the world, Colca, is a major tourist attraction only four hours north of Arequipa at Chivay, also offering hot springs and Andean Condors gliding the canyon walls. Climb a volcano: Misti at 5800 meters is among the easiest of its height in the world to climb, only two days to scale its 19,000+ feet. Shopping: Inexpensive baby alpaca sweaters from $13, knitted goods, naturally colored cottons, handicrafts, hats and lots more.