When I was seven, my father received a phone call from my school asking him to pick me up because I appeared to be sick. I got into the car and my dad looked at me quizzically, since he had let a perfectly healthy daughter walk to school with her best friend only an hour before. I remember looking at my dad in that moment and asking: “Is it true that horsemen (of the apocalypse) are going to come down from the sky and spear me?” Unbeknownst to my dad, my friend and I had gotten into a fight, and my inadequate knowledge of the Bible at the time had resulted in my taking her description of the Apocalypse quite literally.
It was my first experience being confronted with another person’s strong religious beliefs and having to negotiate my own beliefs in response. I have since approached religion with a “live and let live” attitude. In Canada, apart from the occasional visit from a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness to my house, this has generally served me well.
Religious encounters in Peru
Though these religious encounters are few and far between in Canada, the topic of religion seems to come up more frequently when traveling. In many parts of the world, organised religions have built beautiful churches, mosques, statues and temples, and most tourist circuits encourage a certain level of voyeurism, calling on you to enter, explore and take pictures. If you linger a bit longer in a country, you might find yourself awkwardly praying in front of a statue of Shiva and Ganesh for the Hindi festival of Maha Shivaratri to please the family that is hosting you, or assisting in a ceremony where monks bless a new office building.
In Peru, the Catholic Church remains a strong presence that manifests itself in all spheres of life. This is evidenced by the number of churches, the statues and crosses at the tops of the mountains surrounding the city, the altars present in many houses and office buildings (including public offices), the influence of the church in politics, and the way it is integrated into everyday language.
However, at times the juxtaposition of somber religious paraphernalia or rituals with modern day culture makes for downright quirky scenarios.
For example, as I was walking down my very residential street one night, I heard religious chants. As this wasn’t a normal occurrence I couldn’t resist following the sound. This quest led me to a small room that opened on to the street where a few people sat listening to a woman signing a hymn. All of it could have been quite ordinary really, if set in a somber context. But in this instance, the walls were painted the most fluorescent lime green color I have ever seen. I have yet to muster the courage to enter that room and figure out what is going on.
Other examples abound in my daily transit route. Many Peruvians will do the sign of the cross every time the bus passes near a religious symbol, be it a church, a statue, or a cross on the side of the road. Ambulatory bus vendors will plead to your faith in God to support their cause. The buses themselves are often adorned with a prayer to god painted at the back and it is not uncommon to find variations of effigies of Jesus or Mary (my favourite being one of Jesus enclosed in a glass case with red and blue flashing lights). After a while all these small differences become so commonplace that one fails to even notice things that were initially strange to the eyes of this Canadian. But there are times when, sitting on a bus, the radio will start blaring Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” or even worse, “Like a Virgin” and I will suddenly feel as if I’ve entered the Twilight Zone.
Judgment Day on Lake Titicaca
On a recent trip to Copacabana in Bolivia, these juxtapositions took on a whole new level of meaning.
I made my way to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, which sits at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. I spent the day hiking (or more accurately huffing and puffing) across Isla del Sol, a small island believed to be a key place in the birth of the Inca mythology. Now I don’t know if it’s the scenery, the slow pace of life or the ruins that can be found on this island, but there was an incredible energy here and on my return to the mainland (Copacabana), I was feeling grounded and calm. And starving. Against all my good judgment, I decided to enter an Asian restaurant. It was more or less exactly what was to be expected of Thai food in a touristic Andean Bolivian town. I pulled out the Anaïs Nin book I was reading at the time and set myself to finish the last few pages. The main character, Sabina, was seeking counsel about being torn between her continuing her sexual escapades and her overwhelming guilt. As I sat eating my meal and reading, I heard religious music playing in the background and noticed it was a recorded live show on the television at the back of the restaurant. I smiled to myself as I observed the oddity of the whole setting.
As I paid for my meal, the waitress approached me and handed me a pamphlet of prayers to do at home. I thanked her and thought about heading out. But it wasn’t over.
Me: Thank you very much.
Waitress: You should join a congregation in Lima.
Me: Hmmmm… I will look into that.
Waitress: We are now in a period of grace and forgiveness.
Me: That is lovely!
Waitress (with a serious look of warning): You are running out of time. Soon, this period of grace will be over and those who do not believe in the word of God will not be forgiven….
Me: (Incredulous look)…. Ok. Cool…..mmmm have a good day?
I’m not sure whether this waitress thought I actually had a chance of salvation, or was just providing a friendly warning that I was doomed. But thinking back to my childhood fears of the apocalypse, it felt like I had come full circle.