Friday, 2 April 2010

No Photography Allowed!

Just back from Cachoeira. A mystic place with a turbulent past. Right on the river, not far from the bay and with an old bridge linking the town with it's sister one, Sao Felix. The market was frantic and the Dannemann cigar factory was a nice tour. Beautiful building in stone and wood. The Bahianas rolling the cigars were beautiful too. But the main event of the day was the Candomble ceremony.

Just out of town, not in a favela as such but a somehow remote place with only a gas station and a small lanchonette nearby was the house of the ceremony. A small white dwelling among random banana trees and a little pond of dirty brown rainwater. A short tree trunk was smoking. Various animals were roaming around. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering. Two decapitated chickens were lying by the door, blood everywhere, blood staining the sandals of the earlier attendants, the chickens' heads in front of a small metallic shrine. The room was white as well, with a small blind window, four round corners, a little stone throne on one side and sitting for around 15 people. Two small doors were on the opposite side of the entrance, next to the throne. On it the Orixa was sitting. A white, late middle-aged man, with white long hair, a white hat and white clothes. So were all the people taking part in the ceremony. Except us, another 10-12 locals were sat in the room, all black and mostly women, chatting silently. The Orixa is smoking a big cigar constantly and by the end of the night he will have finished 4. He drinks black cachaca. He mumbles to the guests and is obviously in control of the ceremony. Another man walks in, totally drunk and in some sort of trance, walking precariously and giving out a long, rhythmic whistle. He busts into an eerie laughter every now and again and is drinking constantly from a similar bottle of cachaca, cigar in hand. The atmosphere is balanced on a thread, something is up but most people pretend not to notice.

One of the small doors opens and two goats and a few chickens, decapitated are brought out and rested outside in the garden. The first of the beasts has it's body, neck first, gently knocked against the closed outdoor. Blood sprinkles on the concrete floor and a woman in a red stripy dress mops it up promptly. Two more goats are brought to the porch and are carefully washed in a bucket: face, head, front and back legs. Together with at least another dozen of chickens are led into the small side rooms, through the little doors. Nobody speaks. A Mama is singing following the rhythm of two small bells, the men chant in succession, the doors close and the animals are sacrificed. It takes more than 10-20 minutes and the atmosphere is obviously getting heavier. The drunk man in white is seconding the chanting with his crazy whistling, screams come out of the rooms and then a generous applause as the deed is done. As one more goat waits outside, through the half opened door I can see the leaves dancing to a gentle breeze. The afternoon is fresh although somehow warm. The chanting continues, the people are quiet and the Orixa is always busy with small things and the drunk person is whistling and screaming. The animals are brought out, a few more are ready to face the same fate. A round white cloth is spread neatly at the top of the room between the two little statues of Orixas on red cloths and candles on each corner. The room and the procession looks and feels increasingly like a funeral. The coffin is missing but there's enough death around. On the round carpet two marbles, one candle, one glass and one bowl are precisely positioned. The rest of the animals are sacrificed and their mutilated bodies exit the same way, in chanting and eerie screams. It feels very silent in an inexplicable way.

The drunk person in white, a new cigar in hand, is passing his bottle of cachasa around, places it in front of each person, laughs and prompts us to drink. If you do, you leave the bottle where he left it and he passes it on. The Orixa slams a machete on the floor and we all laugh, I'm not sure why. The chanting continues inconsistently and more candles are getting lit around the room. A big Mama, she turns out to be the secondary Orixa is lighting some aromatic sticks in the corner but the smell of cigar, sweat and blood is overwhelming. Two stools are complimenting the white round carpet and some people are already gathering around the Orixa in the white hat. He offers me a cigar and advises me to write my question in a piece of paper and consult him if I want. It's getting dark. And it rains.
The pace of the proceedings, the mood and the light, the smell of the candles, the people around and everything else seems to refer to a funeral. And then the consultations start. People take their turns to ask the Orixas their advice on whatever troubles them. Hands extended and palms facing up, sitting very close to each other and face to face they murmur and the Orixa will snap their fingers and touch the chest, the belly, the back. One girl has to turn around, her back to the priest, a cloth over her head and she looks dead, a sitting dead person while the shaman goes about his procedure, snapping fingers and touching and transmitting energy or whatever his magic. It takes 2 minutes or 10, it takes whatever it takes. And the guests are happy, one woman cries, sobs actually and they leave quietly to discuss with their family who wait in the line.

It's been more than three hours. The frogs and the crickets keep singing, the banana trees keep dancing and the smell of blood has dissipated. The ceremony is closing to its end, the Orixa has stopped seeing pilgrims, the men in white cloths and long knifes keep dealing with the carcasses and singing and the night is long. But the show has ended. Did you find the solution to your problem? It depends on what you asked for. The beautiful young girls that were first to be seen, the girl like a sitting corpse are out in town tonight. There's a samba band, there are boys and drinks and dance. A big party. And there's a rainstorm at midnight. It's Semana Santa.

No photographs were allowed of course. Happy Easter.