The Lady at Mercado San Pedro

No visit to Cusco, Peru would be complete without a visit to El Mercado San Pedro, a vibrant, bustling, maze of hard-working indigenistas selling every kind of food imaginable, and where nothing is wasted…

I was particularly drawn to the following, a colorful and tidy array of corn, beans, nuts, and spices, so beautifully packaged and presented…

But the photograph above captures a moment that still causes me sadness.

The body language and expression on this woman’s face are quite real and intentional, not just an unflattering, awkward instant captured in time.

I had already visited her shop ten minutes before this photograph was taken. At that time, I smiled and complimented her (in my broken Spanish) on the beauty of her store, and expressed a special interest in the purple corn. She seemed to intentionally ignore me as she turned away, leaving me feeling totally unwelcome and uncomfortable, as if I had done something seriously wrong. Oh well, I shrugged… and moved on to visit the rest of the market, but…

As the minutes went by, her apparent reaction really started to bother me. Perhaps I simply misread her? So I decided to return with my smiling face and try again, with the sincere intention of buying some nuts from her. When I returned, she intentionally looked away again and would not acknowledge my existence in any positive way.

I just wanted to connect with her. Did I do something wrong? Did she confuse me with someone else? Was I was too forward? Perhaps she did not speak Spanish? Perhaps she assumed me to be just another gawking gringo tourist who had no intentions of buying anything? Perhaps her reaction is understandable given her prior experiences with people who look like me?

Anyway, I thought that her tidy and colorful store captured the essence of the charm, beauty, and intimacy of the entire market, so I decided to pull out my camera and take this photograph. I had no intentions of making her uncomfortable or trying to capture her reaction. By the way, my tiny point and shoot camera was stored away quite invisibly and I had no intentions of using it at the time, so the camera was not the problem.

But later that day, when I viewed the photograph for the first time and saw her expression and body language, I wondered… Was my mere presence there an intrusion? Was my taking this photograph an act of aggression? Did my act simply confirm her convictions about “people like me”?

To be honest, I thought about deleting this picture (or at least cropping out her reaction) and forgetting the whole experience. But I decided to keep it and share the story because it captures a sad division between people who have no reason to be divided. Where does this pointless division come from? Did I contribute to this division somehow? I wish I could help her see me as just another human being trying to connect and understand, but I never got the chance.

It makes me feel sad to this day.

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