losing her religion

I know that she’s looking for something, and I’m willing to follow her until she finds it.

But she doesn’t find it. Not when I’m with her, at least. Maybe in the absence of me, her spirit is set free.

She’s looking for a traditional fortune teller, because there’s something in that spirit of hers that says she has to find it. There’s a religion she’s looking for, fascinated with, that she has to connect with, or the trip will have been useless.

The first day the others go out together they see her; an older woman, probably in her late forties, perched on the edge of a wooden seat next to a fountain. The kind of fountain that people drop pennies into to make wishes on. It’s quite the postcard picture. She’s dressed in all white, some of it a little dirty, because she’s been sitting there the whole day waiting for people who are not locals to buy into the tired sign in front of the table with shells and an assortment of items – I guess the type of items that fortune tellers have on their little boards to connect with the otherworlds. Half in disbelief, half doing the thing that you do when you’re in a foreign country and buying into the whole tourism experience, they sit down in front of her. And when they come home and tell us about how accurate the predictions are, I see her eyes grow wide. She says we have to go look for this woman tomorrow.

Of course we don’t find her. We do run into a Santeria priest who looks almost incredibly normal. Not like the ones back home, pompous and pressed in their sanctimony. He lives in a hole in the wall and is talking to his neighbour before we walk in, about another neighbour, most likely. He’s a hefty guy with a bit of muscle – all men in Cuba have to serve in the army after high school, and they maintain a military toned build, more or less, even when the terrible army years are over. He has a makeshift bench-press in the middle of his tiny sitting room, a few steps from the dead rodent he slaughtered in sacrifice this morning as part of his daily rituals, opposite from his earthenware painted in blue and yellow, representing some Santeria gods, Yemaya and Oshun. There’s still blood around its neck. When he speaks to us, about the history of Santeria, he constantly apologizes for his bad English, which is actually really good, and he intersperses it with Spanish – mine is really bad. Then he shows us where he sacrificed the rodent, and we pay a not compulsory tribute, then go.

She’s not completely content, but she accepts it and leaves. The next day, we go to a worship ceremony. It’s held in a derelict building, about 7 floors up. We pant and heave all the way to the top, past the non-functioning elevator, and up stairs that we are almost sure are going to fall apart, with no hand rails to stop you as drop back to the bottom.

There are a couple of people gathered in this simple room, in spite of the heat in the air. It doesn’t really have a door or a wall that makes it a room – as if the constructors got tired when they got to the top floor and decided not to finish because no one was going to come up here anyway. It’s more of a ramshackle hallway, than anything else, about 4 metres by 3. There’s women in tank tops and their children in shiny plastic sandals, and wizened grandmothers balancing on their canes. There’s one kid with a developmental disability, clapping and singing gleefully, innocently. There’s lithe smooth skinned men, swaying to the beat, but not too much, not just yet. They’re all standing in a ring around a one-armed man wearing shorts and a vest, who is facing two sweaty, muscled drummers, two thick drums between their legs. With his one hand, he’s banging out a beat on his thigh and creating the melody that the crowd is supposed to respond to. I can’t understand the words, but I’m watching, silent, fascinated. At some point I start to clap, even though I can’t mimic their invocations. He’s whirling in the middle of the room like a tropical dervish. The people are singing too, cheering, laughing. It feels more like a party than a worship ceremony, but you can tell that it’s different – from the distance they keep from him as they celebrate, and from the offering bin that goes round for everyone who participates in the performance, and everyone watching. I feel light-headed for a second, and I wonder if I was transported into the ethereal once again by something I didn’t see coming, and I find myself thinking that maybe religion transcends all words, all languages, all backgrounds; I think about the stairs we climbed up, as if to heaven, leading us on a path we didn’t know to follow, and how everyone in these rafters is just searching for truth and we are united in that cause…and then I realize that it might just be the thick cloud of marijuana smoke that hung over this unusual congregation, and I can’t tell what is truth any more.

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