Saturday, October 8, 2011

Stacks of Bones and Catholic Parades

The taxi driver told me that the historical center would be completely blocked off today for the religious parade going on. I couldn’t really understand which holiday but with the word “milagros,” my best guess was that they were celebrating Christ’s miracles. Apparently there’s a different one almost every month, I just happened on the Oct. 1st one. We struggled through traffic until he let me off at the Plaza San Martin. From there I still had to fight through another five blocks of massive crowds, through a shopping street full of Payless and McDonald’s, to make it to Plaza Mayor.

The monastery looked grand from the outside and run-down on the inside. Seven soles got me a terrible tour guide. She could barely speak any English even though she was supposed to be giving the English tour. I probably would have been better off listening to the Spanish tour. Most of the time she interjected Spanish words anyways. At first it was just me and an older Korean couple: the woman kept jotting down dates of the monastery’s renovations. I guess it’s a kind of concrete information. Later on another group joined who were equally baffled by our guide. What I was able to decipher from our guide was this: there are still 20 Fransican monks living there and at one point in its history, there were 250. I could hear those same 20 monks playing basketball on the other side of a tall iron gate. The library houses some of the oldest books in America.  They looked deliciously dusty and leather-bound. I wish I could have flipped through some of them. Some incomprehensible information about all the various altars was imparted. But the really juicy part was the catacombs!

She led us down a dark passageway and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by bones. They were just piled into corners, every kind of limb. It seemed they were somewhat organized by length of bones or body part. They were mostly remains of families who attended the monastery’s church and monks themselves. The walls are built with lime to help sterilize germs and diseases. One passageway had stone bins of bones. The very last one held all the skulls. There must have been thousands of people down there with their bare bones exposed to the living world. At the end there was a well where skulls and other bones were arranged in a circular pattern. I was sneaking some pictures along with another tourist, but for one of them, I forgot to turn off the flash.

“NO PICTURES! I CALL THE POLICE!” our guide screamed. She threatened to confiscate our cameras and have us arrested. No such thing happened of course and she didn’t bother to delete the pictures on my camera. I was starting to be a little fond of our guide with her grandma glasses and thick-wool cardigan. She was the exact image of a sad librarian.

By the time I left the monastery, the Plaza Mayor had filled with Catholic worshippers. The changing of guards happened to be in full swing at the Parliament, the guards in blue and the band dressed in red. I could barely breathe the plaza was so full. And everyone was staring in the direction of the golden altar advancing down the street at snail’s pace. People were singing hymns. Some leaned out of windows, tossing flower petals. Those who followed behind the procession were dressed in long purple robes, the truly devout walked on their knees.