Babalau

Santeria

We were let into a hallway that was no wider than the door had been…a narrow staircase took us to the second floor of the house, which expanded into a dining area and living room. Open French windows let onto small balconies, and flooded the room with morning light. Antiques—a china cabinet with beveled glass panes, a settee with woven cane seat and mother of pearl inlay, and a very tiny child’s rocking chair of dark turned wood—shared the space with a pair of faded armchairs, a framed reproduction of some 19th century French noblewomen in a garden, and a flatscreen television from which  Sunday morning cartoons were blaring. (HeMan? Thunder Cats? It was dubbed into Spanish.)

A shirtless man in his late 40s, with a rope of beaded necklaces twisted around his neck, and a cigar stub wedged between his fingers, and his long dreads tucked up under a crocheted beanie, greeted Jorge. The two men hugged each other, then left the room together.

The guy was Jorge’s babalau…a priest or shaman of Santería. When the men came back, the babalau gave a signal, and Jorge beckoned to me to follow them. Out a door at the back of the dining room, along a corridor flanked by several small bedrooms on one side, and the neighbour’s open courtyard on the other. At the very back of the house (colonial townhouses are narrow, but go deep into the lots they’re built on) we crossed a dingy kitchen and went out the back door, down a flight of steps to the ground level, where an open space with concrete floor served as the laundry area. It smelled of a pig being raised for food, and pet dogs.

I was ushered through a bamboo door into a very small, dim room. In the shadows I made out a  bench and stool. A plywood partition set off a closet-sized space on one side of the room, a curtain hanging from wire created another closet space on the opposite side. We sat in the middle space, as Jorge explained to me that “here can be found the three realms, of death, life, and the divine.” Behind the wooden panel there was an altar crammed with statues of Catholic saints, along with white flowers in vases, glass tumblers full of clear water, candles, golliwog dolls,conch shells, coins and paper money, and a dollar-store figurine of a Sioux Indian Chief with full headdress. These were the Orishas, or Saints, of Santería.

Behind the curtain on the opposite side, Death was represented by specific roots of trees, brambles and human figures made from tree branches; there were soot blackened baby doll heads attached to bodies of burnt logs, an ebony staff carved with skulls and owls, stuffed raptor birds, and a conical clay figure with eyes and mouth of cowrie shells that I recognsied as Elegguá, huddled together.

This sounds creepy, but really I felt perfectly safe, and the feeling in the room was one of refuge, peaceful and contemplative, like graveyards and church naves can be. Jorge was like my Virgil, sitting on my left, a smile on his chubby face, encouragement in his eyes. I had nothing to fear.

What followed was a “consultation” with the babalau: part fortune-telling, part faith healing. He told me what sort of person I am, the hidden troubles I struggle with, my deepest longings, my dreams, my fears, and what would happen to me…and he got nearly every single point completely wrong. *laugh*

I think the poor guy was used to dealing with women from his own culture; he probably understands them so well that, when they come to see him, he comes across as uncannily, amazingly accurate. He failed, however, to get into the mind of a Westernised woman, decidedly oddball, and everything he said was so comically off-the-mark that, if it weren’t for Jorge, I would have laughed out loud.

Instead I racked my memory for little instances in my life…the tiniest hints…of events that would fit the babalau’s pronouncements and save his flagging mystique from my disappointment. I agreed to everything he said, nodding slowly and reluctantly saying things like, “Well…yes…I do sort of have a violent temper…”. And that is how I found myself, half an hour later, standing before the saints on the altar, holding a candle while the babalau addressed his divine committee in gibberish Yoruba, asking them to fix things so that I could have a child…because oh, everyone knows that a woman in her forties who has never had a child must be nearly mad with grief and sadness, and would love nothing better than to bear a little bub of her own. Oh, crap.

Then he gathered his caracoles (cowrie shells which, because they resemble lips, are said to “speak”) and cast them on the ground between us. He announced that there was a dark-colored ‘indian’ spirit, and another that was a “tall, thin man with white hair” hovering over me and guiding me (Oh. Hi, Mom, hey, Dad, how’s it going?)

My road, the orishas had told him, was a great one. I was destined for fame & fortune, if I just made sure to develop my many talents and pursue my goals with determination and hard work. But surely this is true for 98% of the people on the planet? He added that I possessed the undeveloped power to become somebody that the spirits talk to, because they surround me and are trying to communicate with me…if I wanted to develop this power, it would only take two months of intensive study with him (I smiled and told him I’d think about it…I’ll bet he was pretty sure he could help me with the childlessness problem, too. Hah.)

When he’d said all he had to say (Jorge was appropriately amazed by this consultation) the babalau gave each of us a Montecristo cigar, and passed around a dirty bottle of fiery hooch that had twigs and leaves steeping in it. We swigged…Jorge making a face of disgust and spitting out a gasp every time…and puffed in silence. The heavy smoke hung low in the room, making cloud-javelins of the sunlight lancing through cracks in the bamboo door. The candles on the Santería altar sputtered and crackled. We smoked our cigars halfway, and then we left: back up the steps, through the house, and out the front door, which shut behind us without ceremony or goodbyes.

Blinking in the merciless light of midday on Trocha (we’d been inside for two hours), our cigars still wedged between our fingers, Jorge and I continued our tour of Santiago, and the clamor of the spirits in my ears faded to a gentle susurrus of traffic and city sounds.

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18 thoughts on “Babalau

  1. What a story 🙂 it’s beautifully written 🙂 I think you need to publish a book of your trip one day! 🙂 you are meeting so many interesting – sometimes a bit intense – characters! I love the way you kept smiling and nodding to respect his belief and not insult him 🙂 that s such an amazing post! Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Noemie! It would never occur to me to behave any other way, with anybody, really. People believe what they believe…who am I to correct them, since I also believe what I believe, with just as scant proof of being right as they have.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I took every step with you through your great writing. I breathed a sigh of relief when we stepped back into the daylight then felt amazing exhilaration at such an experience. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was. I rather like cigars, though feel self-conscious smoking such big fat things in public…at least in Cuba the (older) women still smoked them. Anywhere else, I´d look like a caricature…

      Like

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