Maria grew up on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the town of Copacabana. One couldn’t really call it a childhood, sitting there like that on corner of the Plazuela Tito Yupanqoi at the entrance of the chapel of candles alongside her sickly grandmother. The two of them huddled under what little shade their battered old brolly offered. And this is how each day went: waking before sunrise, lugging baskets of candles to meet the charity of post-work worshippers, pilgrims or tourists. Customer’s who for a mere twenty Bolivianos (and by lighting a candle at the sacrosanct toes of disproving Santa Marta) were able to atone for their weekly sins.
Of course Maria would have far preferred to be in school, but as her widowed grandmother (and only remaining guardian) was destitute, she had to seize what little opportunities life had granted her. Now the candle business was hardly a lucrative one. It was an industry that depended entirely on the collective guilt of villagers and idle curiosity of passing gringo’s. Self flagellation, fear of eternal damnation were metaphysical afflictions that enabled Maria and her grandmother to turn a daily profit. If it wasn’t for devout locals like Carmen Villajuerte Nuñyez, the village adulteress –who on Monday mornings wracked with remorse scooped up their entire stock in her trembling arms– there might have been no point in enduring the heat at all. But endure it they did and in the face of fierce new candle competition, little Maria was frequently left to watch her future prospects melt into an amorphous wax blob.
Then one August morning, after setting up their stall, securing the umbrella and laying out the candles, Maria’s grandmother plonked herself resolutely on her stool, clasped her hands over a heaving breast, shut her eyes and entered into cat nap from which she would never again rise from. Poor Maria, just twelve years old and too young to fend for herself was forced to relocate to the Andes metropolis of La -Paz. Here she was to live under the roof and guidance of her twice removed relative Uncle Gorge.
Now Gorge was a failed yet indefatigable entrepreneur who cared little for the child rather recognised her as the pretty new face to head up his latest enterprise: a cinnamon ice -ream business at the entrance to the La Paz bus terminal. Gorge assumed the girl, with her sympathetic simper, unblinking almond eyes would excel as a Helado sales girl. As an incentive let her to keep ten percent of her daily takings, takings she had resolved to save in aid of her future education.
So this was how Maria came to join the infamous stretch of Las Chicas Del Helado Canelo (The Girls of Cinnamon Ice Cream) lined along the intersection to the La Paz bus terminal with hapless Maria’s Helado stand nudging the fringes of the bus terminal Baños. This strip of pavement boasted six pretty chica’s all wilting in a row: Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and now Maria–the only one whose feet, when perched on stool, refused to touch the ground.
Of course Maria had not an inkling of what a tiresome task it would be to try sell Cinnamon Ice-cream especially when armed with a helado’s cart so cost effective that it failed to come with any form of refrigeration. Naturally she was to receive a frosty reception from her rivals - each with their own a luminous little ice berg to pawn before profits were reduced to syrupy puddle.
Uncle Gorge’s convictions that he had perfected the greatest helado canela recipe known not just to the Andes, but to all mankind, did little to inspire hope. To the harried passer by, usually late for their bus, it all looked identical. It seemed then that the chica most likely to be crowned helado’s queen for the day was the one whose physical attributes first enticed the predominantly male clientele.
I arrived at this tragic Helado’s pageant, quite by chance. Lost and nearly late for my bus, the heat of noon insisting I stop to sample an icy treat. But from which chica? Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and Maria— I knew this for their names were neatly announced at the base of their helado’s podiums.
“Sinyora, Sinyora, Sinyora” they called out sweetly, insistently, each coo more enticing then the last. Like Ulysses at the mercy of the helados sirens, I fumble, Ulysess the unfortunate wretch hurled into the chica’s den. Time is at stake, time is a missed bus, time is ice dripping through the hour glass. Which one? Which one?
I scan the competition, first setting eyes on Rosa whose garishly painted face and ample bosom ensures she stands out against her more modest competitors. Then Paula whose middle age, sour pout and slovenly slouch makes me think she might be better off selling lemon Sorbet. Beside her is frigid Olivia– cold as the cinnamon cream she towers over, then Glady’s: pretty enough, but such glaring insistence is off putting as ,might I add, is Lidia’s gum-chewing indifference.
Then at last, beside the baños, amidst the persistent trickling tinkle of the urinals, I sight little Maria: a cinnamon ice cream saint, her plight scrawled all over her anxious little face. Maria who does not haggle, bicker or bitch as the others did. Maria who sits patiently, her stoicism enough to implore me to sate myself to sickness on her horribly sweet heap of cinnamon ice-cream.
So I begin to spoon, shovel as if her salvation depends on it. My teeth ache, head pounds, growing woozy with the concoction of colourant and sugar. In under ten minutes and before the other competitors startled eyes, Maria’s Canela mountain is reduced to a mole hill and I race pink faced to meet my departing bus. From the window I see her eager fingers sifting through my coins. Glimpsing in these grubby copper tokens a future beyond all ephemeral matters of wax and ice.