I have slurped the lamb stew fast enough to scald my tongue, and am half-done inhaling my ceviche. The food at the formal sit-down dinner is delicious, the conversation polite, but I hunger to be in the hotel lobby. Its television volume is low, and I can barely hear the Spanish-speaking commentator. Outside, the south Peruvian city of Arequipa is uncannily silent—most people are watching the play-off between Peru and New Zealand. It will decide who gets elbowed out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Peru has been waiting for 36 years.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaa!” 20-odd people cry out from the lobby. My two hosts speak very little English, but look as alarmed as I feel. Politeness binds them to their chairs. Panicked Spanish words dart between them.
“Er, how about we skip dessert and get out of here?” I finally blurt out. They look relieved. Air-kisses duly planted, I taxi to San Francisco Street, to a pub. I hope I don’t miss a goal.
I love how keyed up Arequipa feels before the historical game, like someone turned up the volume at a party. Plazas are spruced up; pubs and homes stock up on beers. National flags flutter on shops, streets, taxis. Everybody wishes the day would slip by, until that glorious evening hour.
I first sensed this energy when I was in Durban in 2010, around the FIFA World Cup. Emotional conversations followed any mention of the shiny Moses Mabhida Stadium that had been built for the games. Last September, I was in South Korea, the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Locals in Seoul and Gangwon-do province (where the venues are) quickly shed their brisk, cautious mien when the Games came up. I might not follow these sports, but their fever has a way of following me.
Arequipa is no different. Even without the football match, it’s the kind of place that makes you stop and stare. Your airplane lands to face the snow-topped El Misti volcano—a volcano!—that’s 20,000 feet high. Beside it is Chachani, with not one but five craters on top. And there’s the third, cutely-named Pichu Pichu. Grinning like it’s Christmas, you drive into the city and pass pre-Inca terraces. Homes and other 17th-century buildings in Arequipa’s baroque town centre, a UNESCO site, are hewn from lovely white volcanic stone.
Today, most streets are a blur of white-and-red—people are dressed to support the Peru team. High-heeled and fedora-clad bank employees have donned designer jeans and football jerseys. My guide Helmut Huanqui notices my jacket, which happens to have “100% New Zealand” embroidered on it. “You might want to hide that patch with your hair,” he smirks.
It is difficult to haggle with shopkeepers because their faces are so cheerily painted. “If we win tonight,” says Helmut, “the President has announced a national holiday tomorrow.” We enter a narrow street where musical instrument shops blare Perú Campeón, the football team’s anthem. At dusk, in the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa’s gorgeous historic square, bands spill in to rehearse for a Peru win. I want to join them, but Helmut won’t budge. “Please, I can’t do this before the match, I won’t even think about it!” When I make a face, he reminds me that I have a formal dinner in 10 minutes. The match starts in an hour.
My formal dinner has cost me valuable time. I sprint into the first noisy pub I see, into a sea of strangers lit up under pink and green lights. I grab a beer; the tension is so thick I can ram a fork into it. A group adopts me, the lone stray, and we scream hoarse at plenty fouls and yellow cards. Peru finally scores a goal, and the room erupts in deafening cries and thumps. The game only gets dirtier. “The Kiwis are bigger and better built than us Peruvians,” my companion tells me. But Peru scores the second goal too, and as the game ends, I grin as everybody cries, as if I too have always loved Christian Ramos and Jefferson Farfan. I watch a couple kiss, dance under glitter confetti and when I emerge from the pub, I have a balloon tiara on my head.
Outside, Arequipa is partying on San Francisco and Jerusalem streets. The crowds swell into the square that has seen mass revolutions, protests, and celebrations over centuries. Even the cops are smiling as they remove the barricades around Plaza de Armas. Gigantic drums appear as if magicked out of raucous revellers. I can’t believe that until this morning, I knew little about this city, or that I was happy being another tourist. I feel a lump in my bag—the packet of coca leaves Helmut gave me earlier. “We’ll need it to stay awake tomorrow, if we win…” he had said. I have seen this city at its most manic—hair dishevelled, faces glistening with sweat—and loved it to bits.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.