I love a mystery, don’t you? Why was this young couple undergoing such an intense cleansing? Had they done something terribly wrong? Was it a type of Merit-making? On the other hand, maybe they were being cleansed before undertaking a journey, a project, or even a marriage? This was the third bowl of ‘crystal water’ I’d seen poured over them and it seemed as though there was more to come. I wish we’d been able to wait to ask some questions but time didn’t allow for this.
No, no, no. Find a policeman if you want directions. These children in Caracas may seem to know exactly where the Change Bureau is but they will probably send you to the nearest Emerald seller as every other person there seems to have a contact in the business, working from a street corner or a shop doorway. Emeralds and Cambio, the two things tourists are looking for in Bolivar Plaza (don’t mention cocaine).
It was the year 2000, and we did ask a policeman in the crowded square where we could exchange some money. He recommended his ‘cousin’ in a nearby bank as the best person with whom to do a deal, and he took us there and waited for his ‘cut’ from the bank clerk, at the end of the transaction. Cultural expectations overturned at every corner in a fascinating city.
Nominated by my namesake Marie, at Hops, Skips and Jumps for the 10 Travel Photos in Ten Days challenge, this Challenge involves posting one favourite travel picture for each day and nominating ten bloggers – that’s 10 travel pictures and 10 nominations in ten days. Lucky there’s no text required so I may make it to Day 10 despite Covid and Christmas.
I can’t publish tomorrow so I’m hoping it’s OK to post two today, so this is my second, one hour or so after the first.
As it is Christmas Day I nominateall WP photographers who have a favourite photo they’d like to post. I hope one or two can find time to join in the challenge. If you do decide to join us, please ping me back and let me know, but there’s no pressure to join if you can’t manage it.
Silent, if you ignored the scoldings of the howler monkeys from the river banks, the splash of nutrias as they slipped into the river and the background clicks of cicadas, but these noises being way outside normality for me, I took it for silence.
It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago. I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans.
So, here it is.
You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom. These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego. Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.
San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them. Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run. Joselito spoke for them all. “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day. So we stay”.
Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes, Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.
You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other. Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.
That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana. Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city. It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.
Rich and poor live in close proximity here. There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks. Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings. Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents. Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.
Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it. Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts. Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here. The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.
Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana. And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.
A sleepless New Year’s Eve night led me to the BBC’s Radio 4 where the World News was describing scenes at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Over one million people were there, it said.
My mind flew back to my own New Year’s Eve on that beach, back in the late eighties or early nineties. We had gone down late afternoon to see the local scene, having booked our table, laid out our fancy clothes for the New Years Eve Gala Dinner and put some champagne on ice for later. We took only a few dollars with us, just enough for a coffee or two, because Rio then was a dangerous place and alcohol was flowing fairly freely. Nor did we take our cameras for the same reason. The bus drivers were all drunk and drinking as they drove, the conductors wouldn’t take money for the fare and insisted we join them in a drink, we met processions which would hold up the bus and demand a ransom from the driver who happily paid it from his takings – it was complete mayhem.
We didn’t return to the hotel until early next morning, at about 6 am, but I remember it as the most memorable and the best New Year’s Eve ever. No matter that we missed our New Year’s Eve dinner, champagne and party hats – what we had experienced was something raw and real: it was electrifying. Below is what I wrote shortly afterwards (published in both Wanderlust and The Lady). I’m sorry I have no photos to illustrate, but we didn’t carry cameras, for safety reasons.
The atmosphere was electric. Yesterday the city had felt like any other Latin city, but tonight was different. Tonight it was no longer Latin, familiar and accessible, but African and strange.
This pulsating city is home to two potent factors that combine to produce the drama that occurs on New Year’s Eve in Rio – a youth culture of music and carnival and an older one of belief in ancient Gods allied to the Catholic saints of the original Portuguese conquerors. These two cultures meet in Macumba, a powerful cult based on old beliefs and pagan rites, where the Christian saints are given attributes of the African deities brought to Brazil with the slaves. Described as the Brazilian voodoo, it’s a mistake to dismiss it lightly.
Macumba is a matriarchal religion with the officiating priests being women. They had been setting up their tents since midday ready for tonight when the five-mile stretch of beach would be converted to a canopied village of churches, counselling-chambers and sickrooms when they would be called upon to cast spells, cure sicknesses and console the sorrowful.
The priestesses were huge women dressed totally in white from their shoes to the white kerchiefs on their heads, Above the dresses, their black faces glowed in the light from the many candles. Men play a humble role in these ceremonies and tonight they were acting as servers, replenishing and lighting the huge, sweet-smelling cigars the priestesses chain-smoke in order to encourage the Gods to visit.
The beach had been filling up steadily since dusk, and now, an hour before midnight, there was standing room only. The musicians of the Samba Schools use this occasion as a dress rehearsal for the Carnival in February and the beat of the drums had been a constant throb in the air since noon. The pounding on goat skin got more insistent as the dancers from the samba schools wound their way along Copacabana Beach and the rhythm grew wilder to match the intensity in the air. From the favelas that swarmed up the mountainside, long lines of people were descending to join in the Macumba rituals.
Around me on the beach, magical powers were being invoked. Love potions were distilled, prayers said for sick relatives and friends, and secret desires were whispered in consultations with the priestesses. There were wild cries and faintings, the smell of incense mixed with that of cannabis, and wild eyes staring in the darkness at something I couldn’t see.
In the circle of brightness formed by the lights from one canopied area, a young man writhed convulsively in the grip of a strange power, the heavy beat of the drums adding to the frenzy of his movements. The heat from the burning candles, the press of bodies, the rhythmic chanting of the white-robed woman who circled the body in a spinning motion and the heady aroma of the sweet smoke from the cigars were hypnotic. The eyes of the young man glazed over as the slid to the ground in a trance. Two male acolytes picked him up and carried him to his family who sat outside the circle. They were smiling and happy as they sat waiting for him to recover. For them, the magic had worked.
A circle of light marked other petitioners whispering requests. A nod from the priestess and another votary entered. The priestess placed her hands on the woman’s head, took another cigar and began to spin around her. Round and round until the petitioner too started to move, her body circling from the waist until it seemed one half would divorce from the other. Faster and faster the priestess turned, her feet pounding the earth rhythmically, her whole body a crescendo of power.
The tempo quickened, the atmosphere became charged, bystanders became affected, fell into a trance and collapsed. One elegantly gowned and bejewelled lady, an onlooker from the hotel opposite the beach, fell crashing to the ground as a power beyond her took control and she too was reduced to a writhing, moaning bundle of Haute Couture. I felt the immense power of Macumba. I shifted nervously and kept my eyes studiously averted from the white figure, afraid of what she might do, afraid of what I might do.
Suddenly, there was a cry and a woman in the centre slumped to the ground. The priestess bent and spoke to her; she didn’t respond or move. A single wave of the hand and the helpers picked the woman up and carried her down to the sea where she was immersed in the cooling, restorative waters. The onlookers hardly took their eyes from the priestess.
The drums grew more frenzied as midnight approached but business continued unabated beside the canopied tents. Gangsters and grandmothers, transvestites and toddlers were all fervently dancing the samba. The beach was a heaving, pulsing mass of bodies moving to the same rhythm. Increasing in size were the groups by the water’s edge where the recovery of those who had succumbed to the spells went on.
And now the flower-sellers arrived, peddling their wares to the crowds on the beach, for by tradition white flowers are thrown into the waves at midnight to appease the Goddess. If the offerings are carried out to sea, then Iemanja, Goddess of the Sea, is pleased and the future will be good, but if the tide carries them back to land, then she is displeased and the coming year will be a bad one.
Friends and families had set themselves up and had staked out areas in which to lay out their food and drink, and the presents they would send Iemanja at midnight. Some were pathetically poor, some rich, but all had the same sense of what Iemanja wanted – cigars, wine, fruit and bread. Those from the favelas, the shanty-towns that crawl up the hillsides and surround the city, had less to offer – perhaps a half-smoked cheroot, a slice of papaya or a little wine in the bottom of a bottle, but this Goddess is not greedy.
There was a moment of panic when it looked as though the little boats wouldn’t sail and people rushed headlong into the sea to make an artificial tide on which they would float. Others jumped into full-sized boats which they had left ready and pushed their little gift-laden craft before them in the hope that once far enough out they would sail on. And now, as the candles flickered on the bobbing boats, thousands of white carnations came flying through the air their blossoms carpeting the sea like snow. The perfume of the flowers mixed with the smoke from the cigars was a rich and power opiate.
The drums played on until dawn. As the sun came up some little boats could be seen floating ominously back towards the shore. With that resilience that keeps the Cariocas forever optimistic they were re-launched by their owners immediately.
Later I learned there had been an estimated one million people on Copacabana Beach that night. I hope the Goddess answered some of their prayers: I hoped the magic worked.
Something worked for me though. A couple of hours ago I searched YouTube to see if last night’s spectacle had been caught. It had, but there was a lack, or rather, too much of something else. There were BIG screens, pounding music from electronic devices and everyone was taking selfies and jumping up and down. I know it sounds smug, but … no camera, no money, no ‘phone, no tablet, just total immersion is something otherworldly gave us something to treasure for the rest of our lives, images that are not on my phone but are burned on my mind.