26 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 6: The feast of Iemanjá

Disponible en español: La fiesta de Iemanjá

Bailando para Iemanjá
On the evening of our second day in Montevideo, we set up our stuff to go to the beach (for the first time in Uruguay) and to watch what promised to be somewhat of a novelty for us: an umbanda ceremony honouring Iemanjá, the orisha of the sea.

For those unaware of it, the umbanda religion is one of many cults which, after coming to the Americas with the African slaves, underwent a process of adaptation, growth and merging with the dominant Catholic religion. Among the multiple variants of voodoo (Haitian and Louisianan), the Cuban santería and the Uruguayan candoblé, the umbanda religion (which comes from Brazil, with its center in Bahia) is one of many with a pantheon of minor gods and goddesses, known here as orishas (written orixas in Portuguese), and which incorporated and assimilated the characters of Catholic saints and others. This fusion of diverse religious traditions is known as sincretism.

The names of orishas come from the Yoruba language (whose dialects are spoken by some 22 million people in Africa). Iemanjá is what people in Uruguay call Yemayá, the orisha who governs the sea. On February 2 she is honoured with dances, singing and offerings of flowers and fruit on the beaches of Montevideo, where her devotees come along with thousands of curious people.

We'd been advised to go to the beach known as Playa del Buceo because the place, although it attracts fewer people than others, also attracts fewer choripán salesmen and peddlers of the sort, who (kind of) take away some colour off the ceremony. The ceremony should begin after sundown, we were told, but we went a lot earlier to check out the sea/river and try the sand and the water. Buceo is the neighbourhood's name; the beach with that name is next (going west) to the well-known and extremely posh beach of Pocitos.

Playa del Buceo
Playa del Buceo
We got on a bus that left us a couple of blocks from the beach. Through this, incidentally, we found out something weird about Montevideo... By asking the hostel staff how to get to Buceo's beach, we wanted to be pointed towards a bus that wouldn't pass very far away from it, one that would leave us on the general vicinity; when one travels for half an hour in a big city it's no big deal to get off and walk five or ten minutes. But the hostel guys seemed intent on giving us a bus that would almost literally dump us on the sand of the beach, and even more so, on some specific point of it, and they would refuse to understand our lack of precission. Later, when we asked the driver about the best place to leave the bus in order to go to the beach, he was very concerned and disturbed, as if we'd taken a bus that took us on the opposite direction and he had no way to tell us the bad news. This happened to us again. It seems that the people of Montevideo tend to be that precise when giving directions; maybe they're used to there being buses that take you from all places to every other place without need to walk much.

But I digress. We got off the bus, walked a couple of blocks, and there was the sea (technically it's still the Río de la Plata, but it's so blue, so full of waves, so salty, that calling it a river is pedantic). The beach wasn't crowded at all; we dumped our stuff on the sand and, first one and then the other (with our Argentine fear of insecurity still in our heads) we took a splash. Then we dried off in the sun and sat down to wait.

Señora umbanda
Música para el mar
And they came. Several women, fewer men, no more than eight or nine, all dressed in white, the men with a cylindrical cap, the women with great kerchiefs like turbans, except for a guy who brought a percussion instrument (a hand drum, maybe an atabaque) and a woman dressed differently from the rest, with a long light blue dress and semi-transparent cloth of the same colour. The dark, wrinkled man with the drum started beating on it with a contagious rhythm; the woman in the sky-blue dress seemed to direct the ceremony. They brought a little wooden boat to the sand, set up candles on it and a great bundle of white carnations inside it, and then all the people dressed in white danced: first only revolutions around the boat, then rotations on themselves, with light steps, barefoot. A chant rose, and then another. Some turned and spinned with their eyes towards the ground, others waved their hands in precise, strong ritual gestures. Every now and then one of the women fell to the ground, prostrated and kissed the sand, then got up and went on with her danced and sung prayer.

The gathered public looked on calmly, in a circle, no more than two or three dozen people. The dance finished. The woman in blue gave some instructions, and the little boat was lifted and carried by the devotees to the shore. They entered the water and one of the men went on, pushing the boat through the waves that splashed up to his chest, until it sank or was lost to sea. Iemanjá had accepted the offer.


Later, when we were leaving to walk along the beach, we ran across another group of devotees. These were different: they wore colourful dresses and they carried flower and fruit (watermelon) offers, and some coloured cloth standards with figures we couldn't make out. They came walking and singing along the seaside road, and they were headed for Buceo beach. We didn't follow them, except with our eyes. The sun was setting.

Finally we arrived in Pocitos, where we decided that so much sun and walking were enough, and sat down on a little restaurant. We ordered a beer and had shellfish empanadas and rabas (fried calamari). Marisa was very tired, and I as well, but I persuaded her to get back to Buceo to check if something else had happened, since our Montevidean insider had told us the real show happened by night. We retraced our steps. Upon nearing Buceo beach again, we saw in the half-darkness a motion of people, plus some mysterious dots of lights in the sand.

As it turned out, countless makeshift altars had been erected, ornamented with veils and garlands and Christmas lights, statuettes and figurines and coloured candles; many groups of umbanda devotees were there, singing and dancing or laying hands on people. In the sand there were many holes, dug by hand, each containing one or several lit candles, protected from the wind, and many families were still coming, bringing their thermos and mate, and starting new holes. There was definitely a good vibe on that evening, cool and full the murmurs of the sea.

The time to return came and then we discovered we didn't know how. We'd lost our reference points. We went to wait for a bus at the closest stop we saw, but it never came. We were nervous and tired. We looked and walked around until we found the place we'd come from in the afternoon. Bingo! It was (apparently) the right place. The bus came, and it broke ten minutes later in the middle of nowhere... Ten minutes after that another bus came — not the same line, but it was close enough (again we had to explain the driver that yes, we did want to go to the Old Town, but no, it was no problem for us if he left us three blocks from there). We got off near the Citadel's Gate, I think. Five blocks of coolness and dark, and finally rest in our hostel.

To be continued...

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