a cleansing for the soul in salvador

Originally published in Wanderlust and Lipstick

Navigating the uneven streets of Salvador da Bahia under the fierce sun sends visitors into a daze of exhaustion and overworked senses. In the wild maze of narrow avenues and street vendors, every turn of a corner reveals a well crafted display of drumming, dance, cuisine or folk art.

I force myself to look past the hordes of snap-happy tourists—SLRs and map in hand—all thrilled at the kaleidoscope of colors and costumed women offering photo-ops with traditional Bahian ladies. As I hear coins drop into the tin jar being passed around by a thin boy also dressed in Bahian garb, I desperately try and focus my attention on what really is Salvador da Bahia. It takes a minute to block out the broken English of the performers and the applause that follows. But it comforts me to know that behind the facade of the city’s tourist boom, there are real people. Descendants of the African slaves who are now living free in Brazil. The city’s turbulent past brings out the stark contrasts between the wealthy and the poor, the European descendants versus those from Africa, and Catholicism versus the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé.

The city thrives on tension and purveys energy unlike anything you’ll find in South America. My visit to a Candomblé terreiro, a house where the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé is celebrated encompassed all I was searching for in Salvador. A guaranteed out-of-body experience and hours of dance, trance and hypnotic sounds.

Babalorixá Luis Miguel Oxossi is the head priest at Ile Axé Ofa Omi Candomblé Terreiro. He answered the door in patterned swim shorts and a forced smile. At first reluctant to share his life and religion with a foreigner who spoke only conversational Portuguese, he let me wait in the entranceway while he thought about his answer. He retreated downstairs to finish sacrificing a chicken which I had earlier interrupted and returned with a gold embroidered headdress of a Candomblé priest. He shook my hand, spoke slowly and wrote down a date and time.

“Tomorrow we will meet,” is what I translated from the scrap paper and repeated back to Luis Miguel. A genuine smile pulled his lips apart and he nodded.

Three questions 
Luis Miguel answered the door. This time in a full length robe and a white turban loosely sitting on his head. This time I did not have to wait in the entranceway, he led me downstairs to a café-size table. I could smell something cooking from behind a curtain. Chicken stew perhaps.

I watched and listened, clenched nervously to my seat as Luis Miguel fell deeper and deeper into another world. The void of silence was filled with heavy breathing and his eyes rolled back in his head, as he furiously shook his upper body from the possession he was experiencing. In a louder, more forceful voice than his own, he told me what my future holds. With one throw of a shell, he knew that March 25 will mark a turn in my love life. A second toss revealed that 2015 promises to be the start of a successful career and with a third throw he knew that red and white were lucky colors for me.

I was not entirely convinced I looked good in red and all I could do was wait until 2015 to see if the fortune telling shells spoke the truth, but what made my heart pump was the conviction in the Babalorixá’s voice.

It was my turn. I was allowed three questions and he had three answers.

My scepticism quickly faded when I asked why my close friend was suffering from an incurable illness. He had no cure in mind, but he paused and asked if my friend recently had a baby. Due in a month, I thought to myself.

“Her new family will bring strength and she will get better,” Luis Miguel assured.

He hunched his back over a shrine and touched his head to the table covered in a melange of fortune telling shells and gold trinkets. The spirit of a dead woman and foetus then released him from his trance and he stared intensely into my eyes.

“A spiritual cleansing is what will free your mind and body from suffering,” said Luis Miguel in a voice tainted with deep sadness. “From the earth, the wind and the waters, you will be cleansed of all negativity.” He was truly convinced that I was suffering emotionally. And after a moment of reflection, I made myself believe that I had been for quite a while—this cleansing was to be my cure.

My shell reading came to an end and it gave me no clear answers to my personal problems, but I was anxiously looking forward to the next day’s Candomblé ceremony and whatever surprises March 25 had in store for my love life.

Meeting the family 
Now it was me falling into a trance. I was standing nervously in the corner of the Candomblé terreiro, my body and mind were fading into a coma from standing for two hours and from the potent smell of freshly slaughtered chicken. Blood spatters were still drying, and as the hours passed, the smell grew stronger and stronger.

I waited alone in the main room for much of the afternoon as Luis Miguel and other Candomblé devotees participated in the secret rituals out back near the slaughterhouse. From the moment I walked into the terreiro to when I mentioned Candomblé to other Brazilians in passing, I was always met with cold reception. The religion originated 400 years before Christ and is still frowned upon for its connection to voodoo and witchcraft. I snuck a peek through the window overlooking the backyard trying not to be noticed. They sang while cooking and eating the sacrificial chicken whose feathers and skin were left at the doorstep of the terreiro as an offering to the deities known as orixas. I pulled back from the window and hoped that no one would offer me any food.

As the private ceremony ended, women dressed in traditional Bahian outfits emerged from the forbidden backyard shrine and chanted while dancing circles around each other. The weighty dresses accentuated the thin waist and flowed over the legs like an opulent tea cozy. The hours of devotion gave a new meaning to the word family. The Candomblé followers shared instruments, hugged, kissed and laughed as a family. I mingled and looked on as if I were the distant cousin at the reunion.

But where was Babalorixá Luis Miguel?

Eyes kept wandering to the staircase wondering when he would appear. We waited for what seemed like an eternity and meanwhile, Luis Miguel was summoning his orixa to enter his body for the day’s ceremony. His entrance was grand. His bare torso shone from the sparkles that were glued from head to toe and he shook and twisted around the room letting out sporadic screams. His half closed eyes fluttered as he danced the length of the terreiro as if the spirit inside was fighting to break free. He approached swinging his arms and I pursed my lips out of nervousness. The pure energy of possession was exhilarating.

The ceremony was in honor of orixa Exú the protector of travelers and dealer of fortune and misfortune. A young boy, the youngest one in the room was summoned downstairs by Luis Miguel and a case of beer was carted into the room and set in front of a velvet enveloped throne. The boy returned no longer dressed in street clothes but in silk pants that matched the red of the blood dripping from the shrine. The boy paced the room—eyes closed, hands clasped low on his back, and cowboy hat tilted mysteriously upon his face. The rest of the followers continued to dance, sing and indulge in the crate of beer.

I noticed the painting on the wall of the deity Exú — he was depicted wearing the same billowing pants as the boy, cowboy hat too. The boy was in trance, trying to summon the orixa to take over his body.

I left the terreiro shortly after Exú appeared through the body of the young boy. I was feeling dizzy and disoriented from all the colors, movement and chanting. The crowd had grown from half a dozen to thirty. Four hours of the ceremony had passed and I didn’t get the impression it would be ending anytime soon. Beer was in constant flow, drums kept the rhythm of the room and bodies flailed, shook and twisted almost nauseatingly. Or maybe that was still the smell of uncooked chicken in a hot room.

I left not knowing what to think of Candomblé. I still don’t. All I’m sure of is that the religion brings the history of the African slaves to life through the traditional costume, ritual and dance. There is a bond between followers that is engaging and a bond to nature that can easily be mistaken as witchcraft or sorcery.

As the ceremony turned into a rowdy party that continued late into the night, Candomblé participants grew wild with energy and tourists and passersby apprehensively peered through the windows at the unknown abyss of colors and sounds.

I left feeling energized and in a way, cleansed. Was it my introduction to a strange and vibrant culture that gave me new life—or was it the spiritual cleansing that had rid me of my negative spirits?

Either way, I saw the heart and soul of Salvador and its people. And for better or worse, they were able to read and decipher mine through shells and sacrifice.

Afterthought:

Having found this article I wrote a decade ago, I asked myself if I would have the same experience today. Would I tell the same story today?

I believe I would. My respect and curiosity of foreign cultures is still burning strong and my mind remains as open today as it was then. Reading the words of my 20-year-old self brought me back to the exact sounds, smells and whirlwind of movement that I lived ten years prior.

Some people take then and now photos. Maybe I’ll do a then and now article.

Photo credit: Taskaso

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