Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The carnival of São Luis de Marañao wiped my memory clean. If not for the bruises and a vague feeling of disaster, I would consider myself a new man. But whatever has been started must be finished, and I am lucky to have a few photos that might help me recall things. So here is our second day in San Simon.

Karla wakes me up a minute before my alarm goes off at six. She is so excited she hardly slept at all: we are going to the next village to see the rite of cleansing. I would normally just turn around in bed, but there is no bed, just the stone floor, so I get up without much objection. Probably, I wash my face and swallow a coffee. We get out of the house while the sunlight is still pink. 

We pass the church with its cartoonish clock tower and go down towards Barrio Jardín, to the house of Don Severo. (Later we are told that the revolutionary general Joaquín Vera wanted San Simon to become a city. The church tower got a phallic extension and a clock that shows the right time exactly twice a day. The clock had to be brought from God knows where on the backs of the villagers. After a hundred years this is still remembered, without much fondness.) Don Severo is waiting for us already and we set out to Tepetates where he will perform the rite.

Rather than take the road we go down along the river which dives steeply down from San Simon into the trees. Don Severo talks about his life - as a boy he used to come here often - and about his profession, which is about to die. His granddaughter Vanesa has what it takes to be a healer, and loves her grandfather. She has no desire for this kind of craft, though.

There is good work and there is evil work, and Don Severo does good work. Evil work still sells, but fewer and fewer healers do good work. Tepetates, where we are heading, has recently converted into some protestant superstition, nobody will come to participate in the ritual.

We get onto the road and into the fields. The sun is up. The land is so green and the sky is so blue; hangover feels like happiness. Carlos makes his first gulp from the bottle of aguardiente. An hour later we are in Tepetates.

We are welcomed in the house whose owner asked for the ceremony, and given atole. It is the best atole I ever tasted, we gulp it down quickly and get a refill. Don Severo tells us about Santa Rosa and how it is used to learn things. These days Santa Rosa is prohibited but the shamans can ask for permission to have it in their house for ritual use. Don Severo stops talking and concentrates. 

Karla goes to wash her hands and on the way back meets a woman who tells her the complete story of her life. It is not a happy story, but it is the only one she has to tell and only Karla to tell it to. Carlos decides to buy a chicken and disappears. Time passes very slowly. I drank too much yesterday.

Don Severo starts working. He plants a cross into the ground, and makes an altar. He spreads some leaves, then the paper dolls, then he puts  some flowers on top, then the candles, a Coca-Cola bottle with aguardiente, bags with the earth from various parts of the house, lights up the incense, starts talking in tepehua. The magic must have started flowing. Carlos turns up, sits down and takes out the dictaphone. He is big as an elephant, wears bright clothes, and his hand with the recorder is  right  in the middle of everything, between the healer and the altar. I will not be able to photoshop him out of the pictures. For Don Severo he does not exist, though. 

We cannot stay all the day in Tepetates. The big ceremony in San Simon is to start between midday and 2pm and Carlos must record it too. We leave Don Severo working and head back. Carlos claims to know a shorter way and we spend an eternity fighting with weeds and fences, under the midday sun. When we get back to San Simon I have no energy left. While Carlos and Libertad hurry to the ceremony I crash on the floor to sleep.

In two hours we wake up and rush to the house of Don Raymundo, where people are already dancing. On the way - just before Don Raymundo's house - we pass a group of people preparing to celebrate in a different way. There's a a homemade mannequin on a plastic chair in the street, with a beer bottle in his hand and laden with all sorts of explosives. Kind of wild, but this is supposed to represent the civilization, in contrast with the dirty indians dancing their un-Christian dances. 

You see, San Simon is not a homogeneous place. There are Barrio Jardín and Barrio Joaquín Vera, where tepehua is spoken and the healers perform old rites and the houses are made of sticks and clay, and there is Barrio Centro where the finest people in their brick and stone houses sell aguardiente to the indians. People from Barrio Centro are supposed to be whiter and closer to the big city fashion, and they will never participate in some pagan rites. They'd rather blow something up. We pass by and say hello, and get an uneasy hello as a reply. We must certainly look suspicious. 

There is a band playing in the the street, a small crowd is chatting and listening. At the entrance to the house, Carlos and Libertad are sitting on a bench, fast asleep, leaning on the wall. Someone points at Carlos with a grin and makes a sign meaning "he's drunk". Oh well, better drunk than hung over.

I forget the hangover the moment we step into the house. The incense smoke is dense. People are dancing around a long table which is full of things. Mainly, these are objects to be cleansed - earth, aguardiente, soft drinks and the clothes of Baby Jesus from the past years. The music is hypnotic, I start dancing and get carried away. I try to take some photos but I cannot stop dancing and do not want to use flash. (This is hardly an excuse but I don't care.) Meanwhile,  the healer Doña Nila sacrifices the chicken; death in her hands is swift.  Everybody participates. People take turns to pass a piece of soap and a cloth over the things on the table. Doña Nila smiles at us and invites to take part; we cleanse the clothes of Baby Jesus with a piece of tomato and a napkin. (This is weirdly rational: everything is to be cleansed with soap and alcohol, apart from the clothes of Baby Jesus. He won't get sick anyway.) 

The next part of the ceremony consists in dancing with Baby Jesus. Everyone takes him around the table once, and at each corner of the table Baby Jesus must to be rocked and lulled as a real baby. We also participate. Shortly after this I feel that I need fresh air and we get out into the street. (Now, two months later, I imagine myself dancing with Baby Jesus and my head explodes.)

We are invited to eat some tamales (remember that pig fed on seeds). Then we hang around in the street talking to some locals, who are, understandably, drunk by the time. "My father was a bandit" confides one of our acquaintances and asks for thirty pesos. It looks as if quite a few people in this village had a bandit for a father. A tipsy electrician climbs a lamppost lo install a lamp. 

In the evening, people dance in the street. The dancers are mostly indigenous looking ladies but there is also an extravagantly dressed girl on high heels, with her gay-looking boyfriend. She does not quite know how to dance the simple and repetitive village music and now and then swirls in some inappropriate salsa turn. 

At 10pm Baby Jesus starts his trip to the house of Doña Nila, in Barrio Joaquín Vera on the hill. The procession first goes to the church but we are invited directly to Doña Nila's house, where we stay chatting with her family till midnight. The conversation is quite surreal at times but we learn many things, such as the dangers of travelling to San Francisco. It is a totonac village a few kilometers away and the totonacs are wild, completely wild.

Finally, Baby Jesus arrives to the hill and the ceremonies continue for another hour. In the dark someone confuses me with Carlos, apologies follow. This is not the first time; for the people of San Simon Carlos and I look like brothers. We do look strange here, I admit.

By 1am everything is over. We are very tired but there is more work awaiting us: there is a party at the main square. The music strictly alternates between village dances and city dances; the public on the dance floor also changes. We do not miss a dance though, or maybe we do - here my memories fade.

Here are the photos.

The church at 7am.

On the road to Tepetates. Don Severo, Carlos, Libertad and Karla.

Don Severo concentrating before the ceremony.

Don Severo is at work. Carlos too.

A conversation.

Atole. In the kitchen. 

Streets in Tepetates.

Some good advice for the pregnant women.

The road from Tepetates to San Simon.

The ceremony in San Simon. Don Raymundo has Baby Jesus in his arms.

Doña Nila with a chicken.

Karla dancing with Baby Jesus.

Handing Baby Jesus to the next person.

Carlos finally wakes up and records the ceremony while dancing.

Let there be light.

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