Saturday, August 23, 2008

Itaparica: Healing waters, Caboclo, 95 & counting

Na sexta passada nos fizemos um turne sobre na ilha Itaparica.

As part of our orientation to Sacatar we were taken on a onibus tour of the island by Augusto, the programming director. Prior to this tour we had had a snapshot trek through the historic district of Salvador, including Cidade Baixa and Alta, O Pelourinho, or the Pillory and a few areas to purchase art supplies and sundries. Now we would have a full day's exploration of Itaparica. Our first stop was Ponto d'Areia. We passed the beach and restaurant where Michele and I had spent the day, drawing with the kids, eating freshly caught fish and Blanca's mother's coconut cocadas. Augusto had a great delivery, a bit of a dry wit and just enough history or backstory to fill in the necessary gaps.

We arrived in the village of Amenoeira to see the Terreiro, de Lidio, who goes by the name of Bui. The first glimpse of Candomble for the majority of our crew. Set back from the road, the terreiro extended all the way to the ocean, with two story homes along the eastern side of the compound. We entered through a brick archway. Three tall ceramic jugs were cemented into the top of the arch. A ladder leaned into the wall and a man was adding another layer of mortar to the structure. Just inside the archway was a tableau that included Exu, (Eleggba in Nigeria, or the Orixa guardian of the crossroads; and Preto Velho, the Orixa named Old Black Man,(a symbol of wise, old slave full of wisdom and healing). Our guide was the grandson of the Pai de Santo. The courtyard was anchored by a round stone pedestal that supported a welded sculpture of a power figure. Underneath the apartments on the second floors were the houses of each individual Orixa, all locked tight. Most sported an emblematic piece of dried animal hide, a piece of bird's skeleton, or sun-dried caul fat. Remnants of past sacrifices and I assume power conductors for the Orixa. We were not allowed into the initiation chambers. Everything else was openly displayed and photos were permitted. This was exceptional; a rarity.

Their main ceremony room at once mirrored the others that I had seen, in that it was square, albeit much larger than most, with the central tile and streamers hanging from the ceiling. All the surfaces were covered in stone tile. Facing the entrance way was a raised stone platform with a three large black ceramic figurines . These figurines complimented more than one dozen others ringing perimeter of the room and dressed to represent all of the Orixa. I tried to identify the few that I knew. Augusto interrupted my self quiz with a few choice Orixa legends that offered concise clues to their identities.
We continued back, walking into a recently constructed room that Augusto had never seen. It was a Caboclo Sanctuary. The Caboclo spiritual practice was uniquely Brazilian. It identified Gods or spirits that were Indian in nature. I guessed that the dancers I had photographed in front of the Irmandade last weekend must have been followers of the Caboclo tradition. This room, smaller than the first had crisscrossing banners of the Brazilian flag draped from the ceiling. We were told that this was a signifier of the roots of the practice. The altar area had a figure who was surrounded by food offerings, Obobora,( a local Calabash/Squash), ceramic vases and other symbolic objects.
Next we ventured beyond the buildings down into the yard that touched the sea. Around specific trees and plants we found small firepits stradled by ironwork sculptures signifying each Orixa. A variety of offerings surrounded each designated area. Every tree or bush held a specific relationship for each Orixa. Off to the left I saw the Iroko tree, that Jane, a visiting Sacatar fellow, had described at lunch. She had related to us that here in the new world Strangler Figs were often confused with Iroko. According to legend they were only trees who grew from the heavens to the ground, as opposed to the others who sprout in the earth and climb to heaven. Botanically they both begin by having their seeds sprout in the crotches and boughs of host trees. Ultimately, they strangle the host, growing around the trunk and branches often creating a large hollow room where the original tree had stood. Jane had researched and written about these trees when she had lived on the island. Once again, I had received information just before I needed to understand its relevance within the cosmology of this environment. Walking back up the hillside, someone asked me to translate their question to our guide, "Wasn't it difficult, hard work to build and maintain the terreiro, raise a family, pay the bills and survive?" "Yes, it is work," was his oblique reply.

A short distance down the road we stopped in the central square to greet a local political candidate, whose beauty and physique stunned our female companions. Augusto explained that he also administered a youth program, Nova Terra in Mar Grande. If there was time, we would tour their facility. He encouraged us to drop in and view the children's folkloric presentation this afternoon. As he walked off, Augusto saw Don Alvaro Florencio da Concecao, (Senhor Alvinho). Three times elected to the Town Council, and now the resident historian at ninety five. His skin still somewhat taught seemed to be two sizes to big with folds of wrinkles accumulating at each joint. His eyeglasses were nearly Coke bottle thick, his weathered, aged speckled hands rested on a carved wooden cane and a red and white MacDonald's cap shielded his face from the strong sun. We listened for a good half hour, as Sr. Alvinho related vignettes of Itaparica, the mineral springs, the healing waters, experimental artists like the musician Walter Smetak and other former residents. Augusto whispered that he wanted to interview him and create a film or video for the town archives. He had had five children, two were still alive. He could not remember how many grands, great and great greats he had. Augusto asked him to begin the story of Venceslaus for us. His mind still sharp, he truly carried a library on his shoulders. With a grin, he joked about how spry he still was as we bade him farewell.

We stopped on a beach to see the remains of a large brick whale oven that now had a large tree growing through the foundations. The early whalers had cooked the meat, and extracted oil from the carcasses. The bones were used to make the same mortar that the Algonquins had taught the Pilgrims to make from oyster shell. We drove a few miles until we arrived at a large field. Tethered at one end were several cocks, scarred from previous battles. Instead of parking we drove across it arriving at a small thatched pavilion commemorating Venceslaus Monteiro Parque, and asking all guests to be silent and respectful of nature. The miracle of Venceslaus implies that in a series of dreams he was led to a pool deep in the park. Bathing his face in the waters, cured him of blindness. He lived in the park for the rest of his life, leaving under duress and dying immediately afterwards. Senhor Concecao had know Vencelaus, and confirmed the tale. We entered the park and walked one quarter mile or so, through tropical forest and wild flowers to a clearing. There was a small stone house and sanctuary shaped like a beehive oven. At the edge of the clearing was the famous pool. Augusto had his own story of an innocent friend who had come in for a nature walk not knowing of the power of the waters. He had received his own cure, as adolescent scars from scarlet fever disappeared soon after bathing in the pool. Augusto had not known of his scars and was surprised to see the changes in his friends body.

We all took turns washing our hands and faces in the waters, sitting for a time in personal reflection. Rahul's rich baritone voiced a lament, evolving to an emotional crescendo Gospel-like with hope and promise. I cried for my mother and for joy. Rahul then shared with us that he had chosen one of the Baul prophet Lalon Shais songs. An ode to Atma, (the bird or soul living inside our body or its cage). "You must protect Atma from danger, lest he fly away and your soul is lost." Lalon's song asked, "Does our conscious mind control Atma, the bird-soul, or does our bird-soul control our consciousness. He sang this in empathy for Venceslaus.


When the forest is on fire
the cabin does not burn.
With his bow and arrow
the Caboclo is not afraid of anything!
There where the nightingale sings,
there where the moon shines,
there where my guide stays,
glittering star.
With Oxala's permission
I saw a Caboclo arrive.
He joins in our dance,
the Caboclo warrior,
A red cross in his hand!

*excerpted from: Macumba, The Teachings of Maria-Jose; Mother of the Gods

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