By Rinda Payne, in “Peru this week”, May 22, 2012
I love the Altiplano. With its vast blue sky, ever-changing cloud formations, mountains, empty spaces and a road unfolding into the distance, it reminds me of New Mexico. The immensity of the landscape makes me feel humble, a speck in nature.
I am crossing the Peruvian Altiplano on May 3, the principal day of the annual Alasitas Market in Puno. The fair began on May 1 and will continue until May 10.
Alasitas are miniatures, which represent the desires and wishes of the people. The selling of alasitas is an Aymara tradition in Bolivia, which has spread to Peru. They can be found at the shrine of Senor de Huanca and the festival of Qoyllorit’i.
In Puno, we park near the Alasitas Market. Stalls selling food, beer and spirits spill down the steps leading to the market. Men and women are quietly drinking at tables. Before taking their first sip, both sexes flick drops or sprinkle a little from their glass or bottle on the ground as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
This is a common practice in the Andes known as ch’alla. Many of the imbibers are feeling mellow. Groups of men are waving their arms or pounding on the tables in time to the blaring music.
A line of booths border either side of a long street blocked to traffic but jammed with people. The Bolivians who cross the border each year for the market sell everything imaginable in tiny replicas.
There are houses, apartments, all kinds of vehicles, planes, diplomas from universities to be filled out with the name of the hopeful graduate and stamped with an official looking seal, flat screen TV’s, telephones, furniture, appliances, tools, kitchen utensils, bags of beans and grains, boxes of cereal, fruits and vegetables and suitcases of money.
I spy a cluster of motorbikes. One in particular attracts me. It is black with metallic blue trim. I buy it. Not because I wish for a motorbike, but because I can imagine myself whizzing through the Andean countryside on it.
It is impossible to appreciate all the miniatures, because so many people are jostling and elbowing one another in front of the stands. We decide to return early in the morning on the day we leave Puno to return to Cusco.
Two mornings after visiting sites around Puno, we check out of our hotel, enjoy a hearty breakfast and are again at the market. Early morning is the time to get close to the booths. Few people are out shopping for miniatures.
I purchase an Ekeko, a good luck figure of a standing mustached man dressed in Andean clothes. He is the Bolivian Aymara god of abundance. Small bags of rice, potatoes, bread, pasta, beans, Andean rubber sandals called ojotas, a house, a mattress and a bus are slung over his shoulders. A fake bill for 100 Bolivianos and one for 100 dollars are pasted on his front.
The young girl presiding at the stall whispers in his ear, “You are going to a new home. Be good to her.” She blesses him by putting him in the rising smoke from a brazier in which palo santo, used to purify and sanctify, is smoldering. She sprinkles him with yellow confetti.
As she inserts him in a plastic bag, she warns, “Be sure and put a cigarette in his open mouth every Tuesday and Friday and once a year buy one of the items he carries.” It is said that for an Ekeko to bring good fortune, its owner must be given one, so I hand my money to my friend who pays for it and presents it to me.
I stop at another stall selling amulets. Many of the women vendors are wearing the traditional Bolivian Aymara dress of a bowler hat, long, layered, full skirts and a shawl and wearing typical rubber sandals. Their hair is braided in two long pigtails, which hang down their back and are tied at the ends with a black yarn tassel. This vendor, however, has on a knitted wool hat and an apron with sleeves over a white sweater.
I select a round amulet. On the top are a Virgin on a crescent moon, a house, a car, a horseshoe, a hand, a couple hand in hand, a bank card from the Banco Nacional de Bolivia and a visa card along with assorted beads. On the back are a fake 10 Boliviano bill and a fake 10 dollar bill. Pasted over the bills is a prayer invoking God and the Virgin to increase the owner’s wealth, to protect him from the envious eye and to shower him with all good things.
The vendor motions for me to sit on a low stool. She performs the traditional blessing. She waves the amulet over a brazier of palo santo smoke, covers the amulet with yellow confetti and wraps it in white paper.
She places it in my lap and sprinkles floral water over it. She wets my hands with the floral water and commands, “Frota (rub).” I rub my hands together. The amulet is ready to go. I, like some customers, could take it, the Ekeko and my motorbike to a priest in the local church for an additional blessing.
She has packages of despachos (offerings to Pachamama and the apus, spirits of the mountains) for sale. She opens one. I nod that I will buy it. She puts the despacho in my lap after running it through the palo santo smoke. She squirts floral water on the package. To my delight, she opens a wooden box and takes out a live kirkincho, a small armadillo.
She holds him in both hands and places him on the despacho, my heart center, my neck and my two shoulders. His little claws scratch at my clothing. After she replaces him in his box, she extends her hand to help me up from the stool.“Que le vaya bien. (May all go well with you),” she says bidding me farewell.
1. An ekeko from the Alasitas market
2. An amulet from the Alasitas market
3. Groceries at the Alasitas market