As the human swell broke at the holy rail, bulbous bags of silver coins — some untied from necks — were poured into charity coffers, purple candles that had remained lit throughout the pilgrimage were snuffed out, and fine cigars were handed over to the aproned church staff. All the while, the gold-and-purple-robed statue of St Lazarus — the patron saint of the sick — silently surveyed the ebb and flow.
Every 16-17 December the church of El Rincón, close to Santiago de Las Vegas, some 12 miles south of Havana, is swollen with the faithful who come to honour St Lazarus in an annual procession. In Cuba, St Lazarus is the alter ego of Babalú Ayé, the earth saint of Santería, a West African-born religion syncretised with Roman Catholicism. In Santería, Babalú Ayé is depicted as an old man covered with sores that are licked by his faithful dog; he has the power to cure illnesses, too.
Cuban believers take these beliefs seriously. And so it was that I found myself ambling among pilgrims dressed in Hessian sacks, crawling on their knees or on their backs — some even dragging rocks behind them all the way from central Havana — to honour promises made to St Lazarus.
As the unfiltered December heat bore down on the prostrate pilgrims, they paused for breath and water, rum and cigarettes, offered to them by walking devotees. By the time they reached the steps of the white church, they were dishevelled, dirty and delirious — from the heat as much as religious fervour — and their final steps towards the church were assisted by Cuba’s Red Cross and well-wishers who swept the path ahead with palm fronds.
Inside El Rincón, it was holy chaos. The marble floors were aflicker with candles and between the rivulets of hardened wax, devotees, propped up by columns, sat snoozing, begging, watching. The soundtrack to this gathering of vulnerable souls, like the tidal wave that approaches the altar of St Lazarus, rises and falls: “Transform me, clean me, revive me, forgive me, Holy Mother pray for us, help us.”
A blind man emitted a plaintive cry: “Give me something I don’t see.”
And then, previously blinded by the roiling religious mass, I saw them everywhere —copper-coloured sausage dogs wrapped in cloth. Some were wobbly on their feet on the floor; another was fed lemonade from a can by a little kid.
Then I met Linda and Mochita, four-year-old twin mongrels who were born without front legs, and who bounced around, quite happily, like kangaroos. Next I spotted a canine opportunist: its owner had clambered out of his wheelchair on crutches to make his way to the altar and the dog, without wasting an instant, leapt into the recently vacated chair, surveying the pilgrims from his elevated position. He sat with a righteous air that said to the gathered, ‘This is rightfully mine.’ And I suppose he knew, in the consecrated confines of El Rincón, that it was…