We were crammed into the back row of a hot, damp van. Outside it was raining hard and very dark, the rain absorbing the streetlight as it fell. With every change in the van’s speed and direction, a wave of cold water sloshed from whatever pool in the ceiling in which it had gathered and splashed my arm or Karen’s back.
“This is funny,” I said, more to myself than to her. It was funny that we’d paid $60 each to be kept waiting for an hour in the steamy lobby of the hotel and then herded onto this fungus-friendly, packed van by a wild-eyed “guide” whose shirt was open to the third button. Though he repeated everything he said in English, French, and Spanish, I never caught his name. As there were no seats, or even half-seats, he stood just behind the shotgun seat, hovering over the young Frenchwomen who sat in the second row, telling us all about the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé.
“This is a big night,” he shouted. “Because a man who was Candomblé for forty years, he die. Many people come tonight for him.”
After a pause, he continued, “Now you may notice… many people ask me why so many Candomblé men are the gay?” He paused to let that sink in. “And it’s true; most of the men you see, they are the gay.”
“Why?” Someone up front had the sense to ask.
“We don’t know why. It seem more gay men get possessed. If you see a man possessed in Candomblé, he is probably gay.”
We turned a corner and Karen elbowed me in the ribs.
“Also,” the guide went on, “Candomblé is a very open religion. Other religion, Christianity, Muslim, they don’t like the gays, but in Candomblé, they are accepted.”
From our hotel in the old Pelourinho section of the city of Salvador, the drive took forty minutes, and I spent the last fifteen in a quiet rage. Why didn’t they tell us this would be a long ride? Why had I instantly become a sheep and allowed myself to be herded onto this van?
Finally, we got off the highway and drove through a neighborhood that was almost entirely constructed out of plastered over cinderblocks and poured concrete. The Candomblé Church of Santa Barbara was a flimsy little house with a courtyard. We were ushered into the main hall, which was just a big rectangular, white-walled room with hot air bouncing off of several fans positioned along the high windows.
I had been expecting darkness, shadows bouncing around from flickering candles or smoking torches. The light was all wrong, daylight bright from fluorescent tubes. Green leaves were scattered here and there across the concrete floor, and they led to a grass and twig canopy set up at the back wall. There was a golden throne with a red plush seat, and behind it a few big drums. On the wall next to the canopy hung an enlarged photograph of some guy sitting on the throne wearing the Candomblé costume of lacey shirt and pants, funky floppy hat. He was not smiling. On the other side of the throne, an altar was set up in a nook with a little statue of what I guessed was Santa Barbara.
The walls were already lined with tourists sitting in folding chairs, and we were lucky to find seats in the back row near the altar. There were maybe thirty or forty Candomblé devotees dressed in white, wearing wreaths, some of them, all flowing with fabric. The women wore wraps in their hair, some white, and some bright yellows and reds and blues. They were old and young, black and white and everything in between. They greeted each other by hugging and clasping hands and taking turns bending low at the waist and inclining their heads to kiss each others’ hands. Every time I saw this I thought of Henry Higgins. How do you do! their bodies said to each other. How do you do!
Some teenagers in white shirts and bowties walked around with trays of bottled water and plastic cups of soda, running out just before they got to us. I consoled Karen.
The show began with drumming and singing and dancing, and it pretty much went on like that for much longer than necessary. “Just like at temple,” I thought. The devotees formed a sort of Conga line around the room, inside of the circle of spectators. I was really glad I wasn’t in the front row. Occasionally one of them bowed down, touched the floor with hands, kissed the floor, and got back up.
Then, some people started to lose the rhythm, their dancing becoming more and more jerky until they were basically just shaking. Their expressions got twisted, and their eyes became slits. (If you want to know what you’d look like possessed by an orixá, take a hand mirror with you for your next shit.)
The possessed were quickly attended to by other people, who removed their glasses if they wore them, and followed them closely like spotters, just in case they did something crazy. I’d hoped that I’d be able to tell which gods possessed which people by the change in attitude, but it was hard to tell for sure who was even possessed and who was just getting tired of dancing around. At some point, I gave up, let the drums hypnotize me, and I daydreamed about two skater kids having a conversation, except the word “gay” was replaced by “Candomblé.” “That shirt is so Candomblé,” one said. “You’re Candomblé,” the other said.
When I came back to myself, the devotees were filing out of the room, and the drummers stopped drumming. The guide came over and told us the devotees were changing into “really nice” costumes and they’d be right back.
After ten minutes I started looking around for the hidden camera. “They’re watching us right now, ” I said, “and taking bets to see who’s going to crack and leave first. If anyone back there has good Jewdar, they totally have the advantage.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to go?”
“Isn’t there some traffic we have to beat?” Of course, we couldn’t go without calling a taxi, which would be tedious and expensive. We were stuck there.
The dancers finally came back out, and the nice costumes seem to consist of silvery bracelets and belts, tin-foil tiaras and veils made of strings of plastic pearls. Some new drummers relieved the old drummers and started pounding away. One guy seemed to take the lead. We’d noticed him before because he carried himself very dramatically, chest puffed up, voice loud and high when he sang. Also, we’d watched him totally pull rank on some younger Candomblé and steal his seat. He looked a little like Hank Azaria, but his attitude was all Nathan Lane in Birdcage, without the self-awareness. He ate up the stage, throwing himself all over the place with this weird smirk on his face, his eyes half-closed. He sprinted from one side of the room to the other. He hugged someone. He paused and pouted while someone wiped his exposed shoulders and arms with a towel. His tiara flew off his head, and he waited impatiently for a large man in a white dashiki to re-tie the red ribbon that had held it on his head. He had what seemed to be rings that belonged to some kind of hubcap wrapped around his neck, and when those got tangled and the woman tried to take them off, he yanked them away.
At some point, he was handed, in his altered state, a silver serving bowl full of acarajé, which are bean fritters. They looked a lot like falafel balls, and maybe that’s why, as he grabbed a handful of them and threw them in my direction, and I instinctively stuck out my hand and caught one.
Karen grinned at me. I thought, “She thinks I’m a superhero,” but she said, “That was just like in Awakenings!” she said, ” you know, with the ball!” she mimed catching a ball without moving anything but her arm. “Eat it,” she said. But I was afraid. I tried it only after the guy had thrown his acarajés all around the room, and I saw other people eating them. It was cold and salty and somehow both greasy and dry. I looked in vain for a bow-tied boy with some water or soda.
The show went on, with a new star, a fair-skinned, horsebrush-mustached man with gold-rimmed accountant glasses and hair growing thick on his shoulders. He wore an aluminum foil marching band hat, with the brim pulled down over his eyes. He started his solo in the center of the room, and he danced and danced, and I began to plot my route to the exit. “Wait,” Karen said, “I think he’s going to stop soon.”
But he was a tease. He would dance toward the door, get within a couple feet of it, and then veer off suddenly in the other direction. He would dance toward the drummers, slowing down almost to the point of stopping, only to get all agitated and bounce back to the far wall.
After we’d hit the two-hour mark, I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, and Karen led us as quickly as possible to the door.
The rain had stopped. There were teenagers and kids and old people milling about outside. “Just like at temple,” I thought.
While Karen went to the bathroom, I wandered around the courtyard and looked at the weird little arched nooks devoted to different sprits, with plastic figurines and brightly colored paintings behind little cast-iron gates. At the back, there was a whole Africa scene, including a slave trader. The Yoruba of Africa had brought Candomblé to Brazil, but I sensed that at least in this place it had lost some of its punch.
We shouldn’t have been there. How could one experience the divine in fluorescent light, with tourists gawking at one from all directions? Were these people actually having spiritual experiences, or were they just playing at possession, deciding to become possessed and then acting the way they thought a possessed person acts? Maybe there’s no difference, but I’d like to think there is.
In a footnote in his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace explains what to him is the futility of mass tourism:
It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
Were it not for the vanloads of tourists, these people might have even less money than they had (which was almost none), but wouldn’t their culture be better, realer, without our attempt to witness it? Without the fluorescent lights and folding chairs and bowties and plastic cups of soda?
The drumming and dancing went on, but soon the rest of our van’s hostages trickled out of the room, and we all walked back to the van. I don’t know how it happened, but Karen and I got screwed again, stuck in the back corner. At least the rain had stopped, and after the first few turns back toward home, the ceiling stopped dripping.
“Candomblé,” I thought. “That was so freakin’ Candomblé.“