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If you don’t know where you are, it’s almost a pretty place.

On my first visit there, I was on a whirlwind bus tour. My itinerary long since misplaced, our bus wended its way past fields punctuated by hay bales and scattered copses of oak and poplar. It was open country, and the scenery didn’t look all that different from what I might have seen back home in the Midwest.

It was not until senior year that I finally did what college kids are supposed to do over spring break—spend a week in the Caribbean. The trip was all expenses paid, and this is where things diverged from the spring break of college lore. Along with a dozen students and a handful of professors, graduate students, and post-docs, I headed to Panama to study marine invertebrates on my school’s dime. While we encountered plenty of tourists there, our tans outlined not skimpy bikinis but wetsuits, which meant a dark tan that abruptly cut off at the neck and wrists. Our evenings were spent with microscopes in the lab. Except for one Friday night, when we were let loose to “experience the local culture” in town.

They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.

People like me don’t go to Europe. White trash takes a late model vehicle to all vacation destinations. If you can’t drive there you can forget it, because dad only works summers, unable to acquire a skill set that he can utilize all year round.

So you might as well go to Paris.

I mean, why wouldn’t you?The city has been, for some time now, the most visited in all the world.At least, since the Prussian Wars.Or since Disney built a park on its perimeter.Or maybe since France last won the World Cup.Either way – a very long time.

And you might as well rent a car.Preferably a breathtakingly tiny one, like Renault’s Twingo, into which you’ll have difficulty jamming your American suitcase that seemed to be the paragon of light travel back home but in this city has turned you, along with your unfortunate white socks, into what you now recognize as the blundering jackass version of an American you impersonate as a lark to close friends.

But you shoehorn your Samsonite in somehow and you pull your pants over your socks and you carefully intone the words “merci beaucoup” to the guy handing you the Twingo keys, responding in near-perfect English in a sign he’s either trying like you, or rather hoping you will please cease to try.

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.

The moment he realised he was a hero was the exact moment when he knew he would never be a hero again. It was at that instant he knew that what was necessary was almost certainly that which was furthest outside the boundaries of possibility.

As a young man, Stephen had travelled the world, rapidly, and with abandon—fearlessly, some said. Idealist. Schtick. He was big on other people’s dreams. And fulfilling them: To expose them as nothing more then received aspirations – the third-hand smoke of a disinterested Empire: To spite them.

He’d followed the trail, strung farther and farther out across the third world like a garland of adolescent spittle gobs, hiding behind a Lonely Planet – glossy shield against the appetite of some diabolical gorgon.

A pair of low green hills were shaped like a pair of breasts in the Transylvanian mountains when he was 18. He remembered wondering to himself at the time what exactly the point of travelling could possibly be:

If you could go there, why the hell would you want to go anywhere else?

If truth be told, that ambition had never really left him.

Proust reckoned, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Pico Ayer has it that, “one really travels in one’s head”. Colonial Belgian explorer of Central Africa, Jérôme Becker identified the cause of his departure as, “nostalgia for the unknown.” Rimbaud was all about, “traffiking in the unknown”, in his aimless wanderings around same.

In a warped psalm ninety-one to the hard-on of Moses; in the mistaken belief someone wanted to share his sleeping bag for the red-granite sunrise, Stephen sprinted 2000 metres up Mount Sinai with the gold meridian of the sun at his heels.

He crucified himself on a swift and frantic Siamese emigration, like a trans-hemispheric Saint Valentine’s Day martyrer – marking the anniversary of a purple and orange Balinese high with cold memories of a hot rainstorm. He wound himself round the thread of a ballet-dancing Ariadne, tearing himself out of her eyes—Theseus abandoning himself on the beach instead of her. He eclipsed his existence for a glimpse into the diamond life of a Japanese actress with lips like the plumula of an orchid.

He wandered the art galleries, museums and religious monuments of the world, flattening the ostensibly wild, varied and fascinating continuum of his existence into a psychedelic gestalt of unending indulgent stimuli:

If there was ever an aesthete, it was Stephen Darlington.

Nursing Spanish hangovers, he lusted after the Reina Sofia with Picasso’s bent eyes. He saw the womb in Anish Kapoor. He paid for Ubud primitives over the mystery of the feminine. He broke his mind on Vietnam—hallucinating that he wasn’t even there, man. By New York, he couldn’t even look at the walls: Every minute he spent not desperately trying to inveigle himself into the lives of the genetically-stellar made him feel like he had wasted his entire life.

In flight, he escaped on the wings of opened books — delving into the recesses of esoteric knowledge; mining compensatory sapphires.

It didn’t matter that everyone else’s dreams were not his own, he followed them anyway. The long, slow pixel degradation of his unarticulated ambitions exposed the dark fissures in his life, like the black papyrus absences threatening to eclipse the hieratic on the Egyptian Book of Dreams:

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“The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.”

-James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890 – 1935

Freud believed that neuroticism is the inability to tolerate ambiguity; that contagious magic is a delusion of the neurotic – that things once in contact with each other do not continue to act on one another after physical contact has been severed.

Keats wrote that poetry is the ability to hold equal and opposite ideas in the mind at the same time—that an equal propensity for the greatest ecstasy and the greatest despair at one and the same moment is eminently necessary.

No wonder those men had a go at the face of the sphinx: The inscrutability of the silent and unknowable ancient enigma is impenetrable and absolute. But Oedipus beat the riddle with his head, didn’t he? He didn’t rely on torso alone.

“The mind is what one must consider, the mind. What is the use of physical beauty, when one does not have beauty in the mind?”

-Euripides, Oedipus, fr. 548

I always left the keys in the ignition overnight.One dawn, I made a futile attempt of starting the engine gently, to allow the others to keep snoring in the back and in the cabin over my head.The coast and shimmy of our home would lull them long enough to let me feel like a chance clueless steward of daybreak assigned to this return side of the continental divide.I had a little moment.The wilderness had little me.

With light yet to burst over the distant ridge, white fog hung in the forest we were emerging from, like ghosts had passed out only an hour ago and half-dissolved among the pines.Whatever else had happened, the wilds had taken over during the night all around us.