On a long journey, how does one know what is or isn’t dangerous? Travel books and websites give good advice. But our travels have involved uncharted experiences in unfamiliar environments. Part of the joy of sabbatical travel for me has involved the mind-expanding process of extrapolating from the known to the unknown. Could I follow a little-used trail in Madagascar and find my way back to the lodge? Are there hazards on the trail? Is it safe to walk at night in an upscale neighborhood in Cape Town?
“This is a very dangerous place. Don’t let them hear you speak English here.” This dramatic advice was offered to us by David Rosenfeld, our generous and entertaining host as he escorted us into an off-the-tourist-track tango club in Buenos Aires. We enjoyed watching amazing tango dancers in an authentic atmosphere. The only real danger we saw consisted of well-toned women doing complicated dance maneuvers while wearing extraordinarily perilous high-heeled shoes.
Rio de Janeiro was another story. Antoine, the slim, elegant Frenchman who owned our B&B is a professional musician – a drummer. One morning, he mentioned to us that he was on his way that day to play drums at a religious ceremony. When we expressed interest in hearing him play in public, he told us that that might be possible under some special conditions.
He was to play sacred drums, along with other musicians, at a Candomble ceremony. Candomble is a religion developed in Brazil on the basis of traditions from Africa. The drums themselves are objects of veneration, treated with special respect. Dancers embody various Oreixas (pronounced or-ee-sha-s), deities derived from African religion. The group for which Antoine was to play preserves an especially pure form of Candomble, derived from the African region that is now Angola. Many of the 4.5 million slaves brought from Africa to Brazil in the 16th through the 19th centuries had come from that region.
Antoine tells us that Candomble ceremonies last for many hours. Often they go all night. However, this one is scheduled to begin at 10 AM and to finish before dark. The group has tried to schedule events in this way because the tumba (ceremonial center) is located in one of the more dangerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro. It is safest if the event takes place during the day and people can leave before sunset. Antoine tells us that we must be prepared to stay until the end of the ceremony, no matter how long it takes. This is true for two reasons. First, it would be impolite for anyone to leave before the end. Second, and more forcefully, Antoine must stay until the end because he is playing drums. And we must on no account leave on our own, because we might very well not survive in that neighborhood. Travelling with Antoine to the door of the tumba in his car, we will be safe. Furthermore, the drug lords in the neighborhood have a certain respect for Candomble, and they are unlikely to bother us on the doorstep of the tumba. As another condition, we are to dress ourselves in white clothing, insofar as possible.
We agree to these conditions, planning for an event that might well last 7 hours or so. Knowing that the event is scheduled for 10 AM, we set out promptly at 11:30, planning for a noon arrival. Antoine has estimated that we will arrive just in time. On our arrival, we are told that the event has been rescheduled for 2 PM. Antoine’s musical mentor has forgotten to let Antoine know about the change. Antoine now believes that the ceremony will begin at about 4 PM.
Antoine suggests that we go next door for some lunch, as the afternoon will be long. But a number of Candomble devotees have already assembled, and they will not hear of our leaving for lunch. We are in a long narrow enclosed courtyard with many rooms on each side. Each room has a closed door. Several have floral offerings on the floor outside the door. At the end of the courtyard, there is an entrance into a large square chamber. Raised tile benches line the sides of the chamber. The drums are on a raised platform at the end of the room, and there is a large empty space in the middle – the dance floor.
We are brought soft drinks and large plates of food, which we gratefully accept and consume. Then we sit and watch the further preparations. Large bunches of exotic Brazilian flowers are in containers in a corner. An expert flower arranger creates spectacular floral compositions which are placed in vases around the room. . Meanwhile other workers carefully wash and dry the dance floor. When they complete this task, they do it again. Even the smallest particle of dirt must be cleaned because, as we observe, the devotees begin to lie down on the floor in their pure white outfits, prostrating themselves at the feet of various dignitaries. After this initial greeting, the member rises to be embraced by the dignitary and kissed on both cheeks.
As these preparations go on for one hour after another, we feel strangely peaceful and content to sit still. After all, we have promised to remain until the end of the ceremony, however long it takes. A number of children and grandchildren of group members have gathered. They are remarkably calm and well-behaved. Leah begins to interact with several preadolescent girls. She teaches an American clapping game to one of the girls, who picks it up with amazing rapidity. The girl teaches other girls, and soon becomes the leader of a small group. Periodically the group returns to play the game with Leah. When Leah asks, the adults and the children readily agree to photographs.
By 4:30 PM, the ceremony begins. Four hours have gone by in a most peaceful fashion. The room fills with worshippers clothed in white. Three drummers begin to play extraordinarily complex rhythms. About five or six men, including Antoine, take turns in the three positions. They hit the drums with great force and energy. It is no wonder that they rotate every half hour or so. The people in white dance tirelessly in a circle. After about two hours, there is a brief break. Light refreshments are served in the courtyard. After the break, caterers dressed in black circulate among the crowd of people on the benches offering water, soft drinks, and delicious olives which seem to have been fried in corn meal.
At the second break, which comes at about 8 PM, Antoine tells us, “Now the oreixas will begin to come out.” In the hours that follow, the dance becomes much more complex, and the costumes change. Each dance, lasting perhaps 20 minutes, honors a particular oreixa from the pantheon. Each time, one or more of the dancers wear an elaborate colorful costume representing that oreixa.
On this occasion, female oreixas are being honored. Both men and women play the parts of female oreixas. Listening to wild drumming, each oreixa in turn dances him/herself into a trance. Some of the trance-induced oreixas are carried out of the room. Others dance wildly in an erratic fashion. Leah and I realize that we have seen this dance before, or one very much like it, in Ghana. The dance steps are a bit different, and the drumming in Brazil is more elaborate. But the major difference is that the costumes in Brazil resemble the dresses of upper class Portuguese women in the 16th century, whereas the costumes in Ghana were worn only by men and consisted of simple grass skirts.
By 11 PM, the ceremony is just about over. Almost everyone retires to the courtyard, where a fine dinner is served by the caterers. We sit at tables and chairs which have been set up in the courtyard. A fierce rainstorm begins, but we are protected by canvas tarpaulins which cover the courtyard. Then we hear loud popping noises like fire-crackers. They are distinctly different from the sounds of the storm. Someone assures us that the noise is actually gunfire coming from outside in the favella. Someone else shuts the solid iron gate at the entrance to the courtyard. Inside, the party goes on. No-one is particularly surprised. Later, both the rain and the gunfire stop. Antoine lets us know that it’s a good time to leave – nearly midnight. We cross the street gingerly to his car, making sure to look in both directions before crossing. As we drive away, Antoine points out teenage boys with AK-47’s standing on every streetcorner for several blocks around the tumba. As we pass by, they are not fighting. They are guarding the block. Now that’s a dangerous place!
Back at the B&B several days later, we meet two young women who have been on a commercial Candomble tour in Salvador. They exclaim with some excitement that it lasted four hours! Leah and I, old Candomble hands by now, nod our heads and sympathize. Would we have gone to the ceremony we attended if we had known that there would be gunfire? I don’t think so. I didn’t even dare to write this letter until we were safely on a plane leaving Brazil.
One more adventure lies ahead. I’m headed into the rainforest in Ecuador with a backpack and a guide. Safe compared to Candomble. Leah, who has been with me in the rainforest on multiple occasions, will spend the time in a more comfortable spot before our return on February 1.
Best wishes to all,