My Buddy the Babalau
Thursday, Dec. 8, 2012
I was the first person on the roof this morning for the breakfast buffet. I grabbed a plate of fruit and a coffee and started skimming through my book on Santeria that I had brought with me. This morning the group are all heading across Havana bay and over to Regla. If Havana were San Francisco, Regla would be Oakland. Though a part of Havana, it is its own municipality. The community is close by, working class, and has mainly to do with shipping.
In Regla there is a Church I have visited before. It is named ‘Nuestra Señora de Regla’. Here, catholic and Santeria rites are observed equally. When we arrived I helped Jeanne out of the bus and we all stood by the waterfront as our guide familiarized us with the church and its meaning to Regla. A white headless chicken lay soggy and sloshing on the shore of the water, on the other side of the sea wall where we were standing. Jeanne spotted it and I informed her that it was a sacrifice, probably given up to one of the Orishas (Santeria saints) last night or early this morning. I had watched one of these rites before, at a distance, the last time I was here. I moved her to the other side of the group, upwind of the death smell. My suspicions on the dead chicken were confirmed by the guide when one of the people on the group asked him about it.
“You were right! How did you know that?” Jeanne said.
“I read stuff.” I said, not wanting to elaborate on the rite I had witnessed two years ago. The guide took us inside the church to see the famous statue of the ‘Blessed Virgin of Regla’, patron saint of this church.
She is black, wears blue and white robes, and carries a white child in her arms. There was a mass going on, the first day of Advent, so the church was fairly crowded but no one seemed to mind. Still I felt rather subconscious and intrusive so I stayed in the back so I wouldn’t be a distraction.
After that, we went a few doors down the street to the Santeria museum, where artifacts and costumes were displayed. Each orisha or saint-spirit has their own color, name, and area of nature that is their domain.
No photos were allowed unless you paid the customary five pesos. Since I had been there I decided to save it. But I was as always, captivated by the religion and its origins. It is perhaps the most enduring of all of my many passions. Yemaya, mother to the Orishas and Santeria equivalent to the Virgin Mary, has her direct roots from the Yemaya people of west and central Africa but through her name derivations she even has roots to ancient Egypt and the goddess Isis. This place is a myth-lover’s paradise. Here is the Virgin mother being worshipped as she was in Africa and even in Egypt thousands of years ago. Brilliant! Dig deep enough and the world religions begin to tie themselves together. I almost couldn’t wait to get back to Muraleando and tell Mario what I saw.
After the museum we walked a few blocks and it started to seem familiar. I was on a dusty street with no people walking about, and a line of very high doors, over ten feet. The number on the door where we stopped was 13. I knew this place and had forgotten about it. How the hell did I forget this place, it was the home of a Babalau, a Santeria priest. Our group had visited his home when I was here with the cartoonist group a couple of years ago. The guy’s name is Silvio. He stands about 5 foot even and looks to be about 55 or 60. On my previous visit, I had drawn a picture for Silvio, it was a cartoon of Snoopy sitting on his doghouse, shaking hands with Ochun, a lovely female orisha and the protector of Cuba who hovered over the doghouse smiling. I signed it with a note, Jeannie Schulz explained to Silvio then what Snoopy meant to us in the USA and he placed it on his altar which was a large glass cabinet along with several taxidermed creatures, candles, skins, bones, necklaces, trinkets, dozens of little figurines, and religious paraphernalia. I was very proud that Silvio had placed it on the altar, I wasn’t expecting that but I couldn’t help but wonder if he had kept it all this time. Was it still there?
We all filed into his small front room and I greeted him and shook his hand. He seemed to brighten as I studied his face for a hint of recognition. He started just a little bit as he stared into my face. He smiled warmly and shook my hand but said nothing. I wondered if he had a moment of recognition but couldn’t place me. Everyone filed in after me as the guide explained more about Santeria and about what Silvio does. As people were getting settled and had started to listen to the guide, I made my way toward his kitchen where his altar/glass cabinet was. I saw the drawing, it was right where he had set it two years ago, and even had a couple of small cobwebs on it. It was a little dusty. It had never moved. I was stunned. His wife discovered me and asked if I was all right. I pointed at the picture and told her that I had drawn it for Silvio two years ago. She smiled broadly and interrupted the speech to tell Silvio that I was the one who drew the picture. He came in to the room, completely confused. He reached up and took the picture down and stared at it and then looked up at me and smiled. He laughed a little bit and slapped my arm a few times. He had recognized me, he just didn’t know where he had seen me before.
[Admittedly, I was very heavy during this mural time, about 25 pounds more than I was the first time I saw Silvio. No wonder he didn’t recognize me. Because of my knee pain, I wasn’t able to exercise all this year and thusly gained about 25 or 30 pounds. Now, at this copying and posting of my journal and one month post-surgery, I have lost all of those 25 pounds and am back to my old weight again.]
Silvio moved back into the entry room and began to speak through the guide’s interpretation, to the group and answer their many questions.
I asked someone from the group to take a picture of Silvio and I next to the cabinet and here it is.
The drawing is on the back wall, just above Silvio’s head.
I told him I would like to see him again some time.
Back on the bus it was a short ride to Regla’s neighboring town of Guanabacoa and another Santeria museum. I was getting pretty nervous because I was supposed to meet Luis at 12:30 at the taxi stand and it was already 12:20. But I had never been to Guanabacoa or this museum and I love setting foot in new places a little too much to care. This museum of Santeria was spectacular, it had full costumes of the orishas that are used in the religious rites of Santeria and better descriptions of them too! One area of the museum had magnificent drums including one made out of human skull and leg bones. I just HAD to photograph that for my kids so I went back to the desk and paid the five pesos to take pictures.
Soon we were back on the bus again and back in Old Havana, a full half hour late for my taxi to Muraleando. Luis had left to take a fare to Miramar so his brother Eddie had drove me to Muraleando. Eddie is 70, very cool, and speaks very good English. I arrived at Manolo’s house at 1:30 and quickly got to work. I still had an entire mural to paint, the one inside the entrance to their community arts center, the “new pride of Muraleando”. Manolo greeted me and told me about the big unveiling tomorrow. This, I had already been told about. T.V. news cameras, I did NOT know about. Manolo jokingly tells me to wear a tie.
I finished the second mural at 5:55 PM, 20 minutes before Eddie was to come get me in the taxi.
I had hoped to finish overall tonight because the group is going to Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, tomorrow morning and I really wanted to see the old place and the boat.
I walked around alone again this evening, I found a bunch of tables in the street in front of an Italian restaurant so I stopped for some spaghetti with Arrabiata sauce. It was terrific. After dinner I kept walking past the beautiful ancient-looking St. Christopher church and over to my old hotel, the Tejadillo. I was charmed to see it again and hoped to see the two musicians I enjoyed at that time but sadly they were no longer there. New musicians had claimed the Tejadillo bar as theirs. Around the corner another favorite watering hole of mine was there, the Bogedito Del Medio. It was packed in, noisy as hell, and had tourists spilling out into the street so I turned around. I didn’t feel like one of them anymore. I walked back to my hotel and they weren’t serving any more food at the bar so I went up on the rooftop restaurant and had a couple of rolls and a mojito while I write in this journal about my day. It is a quarter to nine and I’ve got a perfect view of Morrow castle, just there on the other side of Havana bay. The air is very cool tonight and the guitar player is trilling a Spanish love song. I hope that cannon from the garrison goes off soon.
Chapter five, coming soon!