It’s a Saturday afternoon and Michael and Alexander aren’t out on the street doing what kids normally do; riding bikes or playing soccer. Instead, they’re scrubbing and polishing crypts to a brilliant luster.
“I really like my job because I can help my mom buy food,” smiles Michael, words spoken in Spanish but translated by my friend Liz.
The hard-working brothers also don’t seem to mind the somber nature of working at the Almudena Cemetery in Cuzco, Peru. On the contrary, it’s a rich, festive and decorative place to toil.
The boys buff chrome borders and glass windows with hand cloths and a few squirts of lime juice. Alexander uses his bare hands. On the outside of the grottos are dioramas or windows into past lives. Sentimental objects and memorabilia like dolls, flowers, photos, soccer balls, even beer bottles, reflect the personality of those buried.
For some reason, the names and birth/death dates of the dearly departed aren’t always on display?
For a few extra nuevos soles (Peruvian currency), the siblings will even sing folk songs or dance. They did so for us which upped their bottom line.
They aren’t the only ones to take advantage of the enterprising nature of cemeteries in Peru. Street vendors roam past burials selling flowers, water, soda and trinkets to family members who decorate the dioramas.
With tips, the boys can earn up to $8 a day. The money helps to pay for essentials like food, clothing and school books. That may not seem like a lot to us but, to the vulnerable, it makes a world of difference.
Unless it rains, the siblings clock in right after school, scrub until dark (easily a 10-hour day) and then head home. Not surprising, a majority of the seven acres is reserved for those who were rich and/or famous. If the monthly stipend or rent is not paid than a humiliating sticker is slapped on the face of the glass panel until it is. If not, the casket or urn is removed and dumped.
After the sun goes down, the brothers retire to their mud brick home high in the hills that overlook Cusco. Despite the breathtaking views, the steep climb up and down hundreds of steps hampers frail members of the family from getting around, especially grandparents who still live with their children. But, they have no other option.
Living in the urban city is expensive so the poor tend to dwell on land they have no legal right to occupy, also called “squatter settlements.” Most lack electricity, water, and waste disposal services but it’s a roof over their heads and, for that, many are thankful.
Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, I’ve see this complicated housing phenomena often when I visit developing countries. But, that’s a subject for another blog…
I highly suggest a guided tour of this unusual attraction and be sure to bring tips for the boys.