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Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Buying And Selling of Saints

The Buying And Selling Of Saints

A wooden carving of Saint Mickey Mouse
raises a three-fingered hand
in unauthorised benediction
at the centre of the stall.
Other, more conventional, saints
gather at his red boots
acknowledging their lesser status
in the modern world.
Welcome to Santuranticuy,
the buying and selling of saints.
Statues and portraits,
nativities and crucifixions,
silver and gold,
plaster and plastic,
fill the stalls that fill the streets
until there is almost no room
for the people.
I sail through the sound;
I steer a course from voice to voice;
I circumnavigate the cacophony
and reach the safe harbour
of a first floor bar
where I can sit in the window
playing backgammon with a friend

and watching the Christmas crowds.

I like to think that I'm a reasonably amiable sort of a guy. Mostly I get along with people. Of course, like anybody else, I can get irritated or angry at times but on the whole I'm fairly placid. Also like anybody else there are some people I don't like and, it goes without saying, some who don't like me. Usually though I know why.

Sometimes I don't.

That was the problem in Cuzco. After months of travelling with a group where everyone got along just fine, there had been a new group. For reasons I couldn't fathom at the time – and still can't to this day – I had become something of a social pariah, ostracised by a substantial section of the group. My travelling companion for the last six months, Manu, had found himself in the same situation. We were about as popular as dead slug flavoured crisps.

I had been seriously considering leaving the trip and travelling on alone. Before I committed to such a final action though there was a chance to get a break from things – the Inca Trail. Manu, as far as I knew, had never had any intention of doing it and, while I had, it hardly mattered as I had hiked it a few years earlier.

Both of us decided to stay in Cuzco, while the others went off to do it. We would take the train in a few days and rejoin them at Aguas Calientes, near Machu Picchu.

It was no special hardship. Cuzco is really lovely. We had arrived at the perfect time to see it at its best – the day before Christmas Eve. Our hotel was a short walk down one of the streets leading off the main square – Plaza de Armas. The square was filled with a lively colourful Christmas market. This was Santuranticuy, "the selling of saints". There were all sorts of colourful stalls there. Most were selling plaster representations of various religious scenes. There were saints and nativities and staues of the baby Jesus. Many had figures of a child with a thorn in its foot that the stall holders said represented a child who had preached from village to village in the mountains. (Others claimed it to be the Infant Jesus.)

Those weren't the only stalls though. Others had more secular items for sale – jewellery, alpaca sweaters, Incas versus Spaniards chess sets, pottery, statues of Mickey Mouse. From early morning until way past midnight the square was so filled with people that crossing its two hundred yards could take half an hour or more.

On Christmas day the market had gone but it was no less crowded as thousands crowded the cathedral steps and the square to hear the Christmas service. Many of them were carrying the plaster saints and icons that they had bought at the market. I'm not a religious man, quite the opposite in fact, but it was a fascinating and colourful spectacle. The Latin words of the priests and the songs of the choir were amplified first of all electronically and then by the natural acoustics until they merged into an unintelligible echoing rhythm.

By boxing day everything was once again deserted. With both the crowds and my unfriendly travelling companions gone I felt almost alone in the city. I strolled down the eerily deserted street to the square in the early morning, accompanied only by a couple of stray llamas, and sat eating a breakfast served by a waiter whose obvious hangover made him very slow indeed. It didn't matter. I was feeling more relaxed than I had for weeks. I had nowhere to go and no time that I had to be there. I could just sit in the bright morning sun and do nothing. When breakfast was finally finished I went for a long walk around the city and marvelled again at how pretty it all was. I felt a new sense of optimism. I hoped that it would survive rejoining the group but for now, for the next few days, until it was time to take the train out to Aguas Calientes, I could just wander around the streets and alleys check out the galleries and museums, visit the Cathedral and churches, pass time in the bars and restaurants and generally take the time to be happy.

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