“Be careful when you go there. You might see things you’ve never seen before that might frighten you. I’ve been watching the way you are, and your heart is very open. You must take care when you go there and protect yourself. Not everyone is your friend here, you must always remember that.”
I nodded and watched as Alejo tensed up in the background, as Jose Luiz spoke to me in perfect English just minutes before we were to leave for a Santeria ceremony in another town. My mind was more on wondering where Jose learned to speak such perfect English living here in Cojimar where it seems no one speaks English, but I was listening intently, curious on what I might be going to witness today. My imagination went into sacrifices and blood curdling screams and I envisioned a huge crowd of people somewhere out in the middle of the forest, all dressed in white, dancing and drumming furiously in the hot sun. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wasn’t afraid.
“Thank you Jose. I will be careful. My heart is open, but I will also keep my eyes open, I promise.” I knew he was just looking out for me and I really appreciated it. The truth was that I was clueless as to where I was going, and I was putting all my trust in Gabriel to take good care of Alejo and I. I knew Alejo was scared shitless, but he was coming to accompany me. I’d only been in Cuba a few days and I think he thought I was a little crazy for saying yes to the invitation to attend a Santeria Ceremony.
The fact that I was even invited after only a few days working with my teachers, Jesus and his son, Jesucito, and being carefully watched by Gabriel during my classes, was a surprise to me. This is a hidden world. I know many people who have visited Cuba who were never invited and had to pay big chunks of cash to see a commercial version of a ceremony, made for the eyes of tourists only. I know it is a great honor to be invited in as an outsider, especially after only a few days here. What’s even more beautiful is there’s been no requests or even talk of money or exchanges of any kind in that way. I know that I am being invited as a guest and in the most pure of ways: as a sister of the rhythm and a lover of spirit.
Gabriel, Alejo, Jesus, Jesucito, and I pile into the 1953 Chevy taxi and I offer a quick prayer that we all return safe and sound. I’m not afraid, but after Jose’s warning, I notice I feel a slight bit of anxiety and a growing curiosity that stimulates all kinds of imaginative thoughts. I realize for a moment how vulnerable I am. I just met these men, Alejo speaks less Spanish than I do, which is to say none, and no one in the car speaks a word of English. I have no idea where we are going, what to expect, if I’m dressed properly, what will happen, when we are coming back, when and what I will eat, and I’m grinning from ear to ear laughing in the adventure of it all.
I love driving thru the villages of Cuba. The colors are all so bright and the surreal combination of decay and vibrance is a striking scenic experience. I love seeing old men and women standing on their front stoops smoking cigars, tired deep lines in their faces and hopelessness spread all across their furrowed brows. A horse and carriage packed with vegetables passes us and I want to reach out and grab something to eat and laugh at the thought of a vegetarian in Cuba and the responses I always get when I say, “No como carne.” Cubans just look at me with this blank look on their face as if I just said I’m an alien. “Bah, no entiendo. Porque?” is the usual response.
Eventually we pull up in front of a house and after all the imaginations in my mind, I am assuming we are stopping to pick someone else up. Everyone piles out of the car, I offer money for the taxi, but Gabriel looks at me as if I’ve just insulted him and says firmly, “No.” We cross the street and enter a bright pink concrete house. “What are we doing here,” Alejo says. “I don’t know. Guess we’re about to find out.” I say. I’m almost annoyed he’s with me but I’m also really happy to have someone to speak English to and laugh a little.
The drums start almost immediately and I realize this is where the ceremony is happening when I look in and see altars, and a bowl of rose water by the door. I bend down and take a little of the sacred water and tap it on my forehead and behind my head as I’ve seen the others do and invite Alejo to do the same. “I think I’m going to go sit over there,” he says “and write.” He leaves and sits across the street and I shrug my shoulders and enter the house. I am the only pale one there. No one seems to even notice me, and no one really greets me, I am tolerated but politely ignored. I notice the warmth in my heart and remind myself of Jose’s words and commit to keeping my eyes open. The first song has started already and Jesus and Jesucito are leading the songs with 3 other drummers.
I find myself giggling inside about Jose’s warning and all the imaginations that my mind created from it. I don’t doubt for a moment that such things happen, but that’s clearly not what today’s ceremony will be about. I relax and my body starts to find the rhythms I love so much. There are maybe 40 people there all packed into a small living room and an elder woman sitting in the corner near the altar with burning candles, bottles of rum and sweets. It doesn’t take me too long to realize the ceremony is for her. She looks weak and exhausted, slumping in her chair and I presume she is sick.
The songs come one after another. The space in front of the drummers is packed with dancing bodies all moving in time to the music, and echoing the calls of the “cantos” (songs) that Jesus is belting out over the drums. The intensity continues to build. This is home to me. I am offering my own prayers, clapping, singing, dancing and feeling such gratitude that finally, I am strangely, but somehow home here. It’s hot in the little room. Everyone is dripping sweat. The woman in the corner starts to sway and move. When the rhythm and singing is furious she pops to her feet and starts swaggering about. Everyone makes space for her and claps and sings as she enters the trance fully. She falls into me and I support her with my hands and gently pop her back into the center to continue her work. I know this somehow and I know exactly how to be here. I’ve never been in a ceremony like this before, but I know it. It’s surreally familiar; it feels like something I’ve done a million times and I feel more comfortable and safe here than I have anywhere in years.
I notice now that the people are looking at me differently when they meet my eyes. I am sweating and dancing, following their footwork perfectly. We are praying together. There is no separation here. Here we all understand the same language and don’t need to say a word. The women are standing next to me dancing with me and giving me appreciative glances. Many people are now smiling at me when I look up. I know they are now curious about me but more than that that I am received fully.
A few people are led out of the room when their trance got too heavy and they collapsed on the floor or in the arms of someone in the room. Two women faint completely and are taken out of the room. The elder woman is smiling now and seems transformed completely. The healing power of rhythm and song has done it’s job. After a few hours, the drumming stops and everyone files outside to get fresh air. Plastic cups filled with hot soup are passed around, and even though I’m a vegetarian, I drink it down, knowing it’s chicken or pork or something in the broth.
Alejo is sitting across the street smiling and playing with two little children as I wipe the sweat off my brow. I am reborn. I am home again. Gabriel comes out with a huge smile on his face and embraces me laughing. Women come out and hug and kiss me, and start chatting with me. Men pat me on the back and walk out heading home. Jesus wobbles out, his 73 year old body moving slow with a big smile on his face and kisses me on the cheek ardently. The ceremony is finished. We are all purified.
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