Oh when the Saints …

The train out of Agues Calientes ended with the driver we had organised not being at the train station in Poroy to meet us. We had a hunch that he might be late as Edgar (the guy who took us to Ollantaytambo) told us that the trains are often late. Nah, not ours. Peru Rail arrived 1minute early. The sun had well and truly gone to bed at 7.04pm and we had to look around in the dark to find someone with our names on a board. I scouted, Val scouted. Nada sign. To get out of the station area we had to go through a gate that was not fully open. I went out and Val genuflected introducing her knees to the pavement whilst praying someone was there to meet us. Nope, no-one outside the gate with a placard bearing our names either. It’s interesting how you can make a quick decision in times like these. We were in a town some 15km from Cusco, in the dark. Passengers were thinning out quite quickly as were the numbers of taxis drivers hoping to make some Soles with a ride to Cusco. Decision time. We both agreed without even having to discuss it that we were going to take a taxi and not risk hanging around waiting for someone to show up. Bad luck for the guy who either didn’t show or didn’t hold up a sign in such a way that we could see him. 

We hadn’t travelled out at night other than walking the local streets. Towns take on a different appearance at night. Being tourists we really live in a different world to the locals. Under the yellow glow of street lighting everything looked so much more impoverished. The streets were dirty and dusty. The days rubbish was left out on the streets in plastic bags and these were potential food sources for the many street dogs. The dogs all looked dirty and dusty. Territory wars were more obvious once there was food to defend or challenge for. Yet again I was reminded of some of the outer suburbs of Nepal. Perhaps I make unfair comparisions with Nepal, and it is rather a situation indicative of many developing nations. We tourists live in a bubble of illusion.

The alarm clock the next morning was fireworks at 6.30am. This has happened most mornings that I have been here and are associated with the festivities. Could only mean one thing, more parades today. But this day was special. The Saints, who you might remember have been doing secret saint business in La Catedral, were due to leave and return home for another year. In order to experience the day to its fullest we went off to 8.30am Mass. La Catedral is like so many catholic churces of Spanish origin – somewhat cold and uninspiring. But the presence of the 15 Santo and Santa surrounding the area where Mass was held really made the cathedral come alive. There they were lit up and surrounding with numerous vases of gladioli and the similarity with the Buddhist deities and the offerings places at their feet was not lost on me. They really had a presence as they towered over you. San Jeronimo, in his glorious red and gold robes topped with a red cardinal hat (see below) had eyes that glowed or perhaps even glowered. Very powerful. The locals who came into the cathedral to see their saints stood in reverence before them crossing themselves in the way that Catholics do. Some would touch the pedestals presumably to receive the blessings of that saint in much the same way the Tibetan Buddhists do when in front of holy objects. Mass started promptly at 8.30 with the priest making his appearances and delivered Mass in front a standing room only congregation. Some priests back home would no doubt be envious.  No photo was the rule here too. 

The striking thing for me when attending the two Masses I have been to is the symbolic similarities between what I saw here and what I have experienced in Tibetan Buddhism. Both have a very clear idea of holy objects that are viewed with devotion and veneration. Both have symbols representative of what is considered the ultimate devinity. Both have some form of teaching of their own particular gospel. Both have some form of offering made to the holy objects namely incense and flowers. Both have some form of blessing that is delivered by the priest or lama/guru in the form of being touched by a holy object or being offered holy substances. Both hold processions of holy objects.  Both require a sense of belief that goes beyond normal conventional understanding. They are both different but maybe, just maybe, they are actually the same. Same same but different?

Like most other days I have been in Cusco, there were heaps of people around. What was interesting for me this time was that before I went away I found it really exciting. This time, having been away from crowds of people, it was all rather overbearing. So what did I do? Sought refuge in the most beautiful cloister I have ever been in. I walked past the Templo y Convento De La Merced and since the gates were open and it stated that it was a museum, I went in. In truth as I said it was partly to get away from the crowds. One of the great tragedies as a tourist is this restriction that I have mentioned before on not being allowed to take photos in religious places.  Some things are so beautiful they need to be shared. I was told at the entrance that, once again, no photos of the paintings and only in the cloister. No problems. 

Some things in life take your breath away. This was one of those. The moment I walked behind the thick heavy doors and they were closed behind me, the stillness was palpable. Yes the paintings in the first room were interesting but that wasn’t it. The cloister! The roof of the bottom floor was intricately carved timber. The walls covered in massive religious paintings. The garden something out of an English country gardening book. I’ve not seen anything like this before. And a sense of all pervasive peace. Ahhh, time to sit and just be. And no, that is not a Tibetan nun although you could be forgiven for thinking so. 

There were many rooms that comprised the ‘museum.’ Golden objects that including a huge crown and a holy monstrance that was encrusted with jewels. Hooley Dooley – this place is rich in monetary values not just spiritual. An old chamber painted directly onto white render painted likely back when the cathedral was reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. And the choir stalls …. Mary sitting there.  No, no I didn’t take these. Not me. 

A place to find peace. It was so nice that I insisted Val come back to see it as she hadn’t been during her stay in Cusco last year. Val has a very different view to me on such maters and if I say that she was really impressed, that speaks volumes about this place. I may just return in my last three days there. 

The religious activities of the day were not finished though. The big special bell of La Catedral tolled, fire crackers were lit and counch shells sounded. Oh when the saints, oh when the saints going marching out (of the Cathedral).  A big crowd but nothing like Corpus Christi. This time you could walk in front of the saints if you wanted. One obvious thing with these saints is that they have large wardrobes. A few were wearing the third set of clothes I have seen them in. I suppose their attendants who sleep with them in the cathedral have to have something to do since they are not privey to discussions so can’t take minutes. Round the Plaza de Armas they went, nodding to the Jesuit Cathedral and to each other as they passed. Then they returned in to the Cathedral together for one last goodbye in time to go home the following morning. 

One of the memories that will stay with me is looking through grills into a sectioned off area of the Convento de Santa Clara. It was a small chapel with not much light coming into it. Suddenly, revealed right in front of me was a nun in a full habit including whimple with the light shinning on her face seemingly in quiet contemplation. And then looking around, there were two more sitting there with blissful looks on their faces. Its hard to imagine such a life or is it? The idea of a contemplative life ……


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