by Terri Hinte
Somewhere between the twin poles of obsessive itinerary-planning and utter surrender to serendipity is my preferred travel style: I arrive at a destination with one fervent wish. I ask the local guides (and gods) to grant it, though I never have any idea how this will come to pass. Then I watch it fall into my lap in wondrous ways.There’s no better place to experience these encounters with kismet than in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where, as native-son novelist Jorge Amado has recounted in a dozen books, magic happens as a matter of course. On my first trip to Bahia nearly 25 years ago, my goal was to meet Clarindo Silva, the proprietor of a small restaurant/bar, popular with artists and musicians, called Cantina da Lua. And meet him I did, though I had no address or phone number with which to seek him. Within two days of my arrival, I was led to him through a series of circumstances (involving danger, apparitions, an angelic rescue, and a handsome lover) straight out of an Amado novel.
I returned to Bahia 15 years later as the houseguest of Goretti, the younger sister of my Rio friend Aleuda. Goretti, newly and painfully divorced, lived with her three grown sons in a modern apartment building in an area, she said, that had only recently been mata e dunas (woods and sand dunes). I think my presence comforted her. In turn she and her sons, particularly João, whose dark good looks favored the Portuguese bloodline of his father, took it upon themselves not only to make me feel at home but to point out to me every landmark of the city and fill in all the historical blanks.When they asked me “What do you want to do while you’re here in Bahia?,” I had a wish ready to share: Sometime during my week’s stay, I wanted to find someone who would “throw my shells,” the jogo dos búzios. This was the local method of divination that my Brazilian friends in California had told me about. I’d come to Bahia with a shattered heart, and I was willing to look for insights, healing, and perspectives from all possible angles.My hosts promised to help, but on my first full day in Salvador the main order of business involved the family car. It was in the shop and needed to be fetched. We piled into a cab, Goretti and João and I, and arrived at the garage where Goretti was forced to conduct the transaction without a necessary slip of paper, which she had misplaced.
Soft-spoken and moon-faced, she proved a surprisingly tough negotiator and after much haranguing, she managed to liberate her car. She walked over to me and handed me the keys.
“Here,” she said, as I gulped. “You drive.” She hadn’t driven in several years, she confessed. Medofear.
We loaded up the car and I slipped it into the densely coursing traffic. Bahians were aggressive, disorderly drivers. It felt just like the bumper-car ride at the amusement park. Being rammed from the left or right, or having someone drive right up my back, seemed a distinct possibility.
Goretti started issuing commands: left, straight, right, right again, two blocks then left. We were driving through narrow, winding cobblestone streets, and I had completely lost any sense of direction I might have started with. I remembered being blindfolded once at a children’s party, then rotated again and again till I could barely stand. When I was unmasked, I blinked unknowingly, recognizing nothing in the landscape around me.
We seemed to be driving for an eternity, as in a dream. Finally she said, “Here! Park here!” I backed into a tight spot on a bustling square, cars whizzing by, then got out and looked around. We were parked right in front of Clarindo Silva’s restaurant, the Cantina da Lua! The gods were having a good laugh, and I had to agree that it was a marvelous turn of events.
“Let’s have a cafèzinho,” Goretti said, as we took our seats outside on the patio.
The days unfolded slowly with no sign of a búzios reader. João was certain that someone in his capoeira class would have a reference, but nothing came of that. Meanwhile we went shopping, visited friends, had meals at home and at restaurants; with only 48 hours remaining before my departure, I had to accept that I might not get my wish. I thought briefly of my Rio friends making fun of Bahians’ laid-back approach to life. Is that what was happening here? I let it go.
On my second-to-last afternoon in Salvador, Goretti and I boarded a bus and disembarked half a mile from her house. Our destination was a large white house set back from a busy street high up a hill. We climbed the steep steps and Goretti knocked on the door. While she was talking to a young boy, and then his mother, I noticed that half a dozen healthy catsincluding a Siamesewere lounging in the vicinity. As a cat-lover, I took this as a positive omen: cats were not publicly pampered or venerated in Brazil.
“I have an address for Hildinha,” Goretti announced as she returned from her conversation with the residents of the white house. “She will do your jogo dos búzios.”
We descended to the street and then headed back up an immediately adjacent roadunpaved, hilly, and rocky. I was amused to pass by a couple of smiling goats among the pedestrians. They were far better suited than I for trekking over such terrain.
Goretti and I reached Hildinha’s plain cinderblock home and rang the bell. A young woman ushered us into a waiting area, and a few minutes later I was introduced to Hildinha, a slightly stooped brown-skinned woman in her sixties. She was dressed in a thin cotton-print housecoat and slippers, and wore a rag over her head. We proceeded to her “office,” a table with two chairs.
Hildinha set up her shells on a white lace tablecloth, at the edge of which was a row of coins and stones. She gave me a black stone to hold in my left hand. There was also a bell on the table, and a plastic bird that bobbed continually (and realistically).
She asked a few questions, if I had children, a namorado, and we were off on the subject of my ex. Hildinha vigorously shook the small white shells in both hands and threw them on the table. “He thinks of you every minute, and wants to return,” she said.
“Then why hasn’t he contacted me?” I cried.
Once again, the shells clattered noisily in her hands and landed with finality on the table. “Orgulho,” she declared. Pride.
At this I began to weep in anguish as she continued to shake and toss the ghostly-white shells. Each throw provoked an observationabout my mother, my finances, the obligation I had here in Brazil and the book I would someday write about it. Nothing assuaged my tears. “Você tem que cuidar das suas coisas,” she stressed again and again. You must take care of your own affairs, that’s the most important thing.
That was not what I wanted to hear! I was sick of my own affairs, and tired of taking care of them.
Almost as an afterthought, as I was collecting my composure and preparing to leave, she mentioned that my orixá was Iemanjá, with much support from Oxum. Iemanjá is the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the ocean, and corresponds to the Virgin Mary, while Oxum is the goddess of love and beautyanother personification of Venus, and Aphrodite, and a host of related deities from across the millennia. I would gratefully accept whatever aid they might proffer in the solving of my knotty, exasperating affairs.
For my last night in Salvador, Goretti had planned a return to the white house, or literally Casa Branca, which turned out to be a famous center for candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Casa Branca,” she told me. “How funny that it’s in my neighborhood and I’ve never gone till now.”
As we walked in the door, the first person I saw was Hildinha, physically transformed by a spectacular, brilliantly-colored costume and beaded, feathered headdress. To my amazement, Hildinha was the Casa Branca’s mãe-de-santo, or high priestess! She would be in charge of the ceremonies that night. I caught her eye briefly but she was engrossed in the details of the ritual about to take place.
At eight o’clock the drums began to pound, marking the entrance of the baianas, or Bahian women. Dressed in their traditional white blouses, voluminous white skirts, and colorful beaded necklaces, they swirled nonstop in circles, their skirts rustling and beads clinking as a feminine rhythmic counterpart to the fiery percussion and Yoruban chanting.
After a spell, the dancers streamed out of the room and up the stairs to a terrace where food was being served in mango leaves. Everyone in attendanceperhaps a hundred fifty peopleexited in their wake, and enjoyed a leisurely dinner break. There was another round of drumming and dancing and eating. Then we returned to the casa for a long finale: sometime after midnight the orixásmen and women dressed in the costumes and effects of the 16 principal candomblé gods and goddessesentered the room in a breathtaking, galvanic procession and danced till nearly dawn to the roiling accompaniment of drums and chanting.
That night I went to sleep still thrumming, still moving like the dancing gods in wide, steady circles.
Before leaving for the airport the next day, going back to Rio, I saw a review in the paper of a just-published book called The Story of My Life by Hilda dos Santos, mãe-de-santothe very woman who had read my shells. She was the spiritual leader of the largest candomblé temple in Salvador. I felt a little dizzy. It was a Bahian affliction; this intense, vertiginous sensation of constant synchronicity was almost unbearable to someone like myself who was accustomed to a life lived from appointment to grueling appointment. In Bahia, pursuing one’s true desires, no matter how modest, seemed to set in motion the most extraordinary Rube Goldbergian sequences of events that put you unfailingly in the right place at the right timewith roses bursting into bloom all around. No appointments necessary.
It’s not even as pat as “ask and you shall receive.” The asking is merely the first step in following instructions, from somewhere beyond (or within), for receiving gifts untold. Such as Hildinha’s deceptively simple counsel to me.
Terri Hinte is a metaphysically-minded writer and music publicist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has contributed to Travelers’ Tales Brazil and Wednesday Writers: 10 Years of Writing Women’s Lives.