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Rio welcomes its New Year goddess.

IN Rio de Janeiro, there is a special party every New Year's Eve night on Copacabana Beach. Everyone is welcome, from the millionaires in the beach-front apartment-block penthouses to the poorest families living in the favelas -- the slums covering the hillsides overlooking those high-rise buildings. The guests number two million, and the atmosphere is full of friendliness, and an unquenchable optimism that next year, life will be better. The dark tropical summer warmth, the happy greetings and jokes, the music and dancing, the relaxed, strolling crowds make it possible to forget the city's problems, the violence, and the stealing by which the poor people survive. Long ago, African slaves brought their Macumba beliefs to Brazil (commonly considered as 'voodoo' by tourists), and the ceremonies are still observed. The sensible Jesuit priests gave saints' names to the pagan deities, and slaves and masters were quite happy with the arrangement. One of the chief goddesses is Yemanja (also considered as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, or Our Lady of Navigators), who rules the oceans, and if she is given a suitable celebration and offerings at New Year's Eve, she brings a good fishing season and prosperity to the area, and individual good fortune to those whom she likes. For several days beforehand, workmen begin setting up stages on the sand for bands to perform, and enormous banks of loudspeakers for relaying music along the beach. The party-goers have their own preparations to make, and I decided to investigate and to participate in these.

A special part of Rio for me is the old Centro district, where several narrow, cobbled pedestrian streets of shops provide a remarkable variety of goods for the 'real' people who live outside the rich beach-areas, and tourists rarely penetrate there. Two of my favourite shops are particularly busy before the New Year's Eve celebrations. One is Flora Brasileira, a rather secretive little chemist's shop. The entrance is disguised by large baskets of unrecognisable roots, twigs, leaves, branches of plants, and inside, the walls have shelves stacked with packets of herbal and homeopathic remedies, bottles of essential oils, creams, lotions, and ointments. Above the shelves are large jars with faded, hand-written labels for such items as powdered ox-horn for rheumatism or worms, dried sea-horses for headaches, powdered lizard for toothache -- it's like a sorcerers' supermarket!

On the glass-topped counter is a statue of the Macumba god, Ogum, who also happens to be St. George. Underneath are sectioned drawers, filled with a remarkable collection of cures, amulets and charms. There are pebbles from special rivers, seeds, nuts and dried fruits from distant jungles, tiny wooden effigies, carved bone figures to keep away evil, buckbeans to nail over house-doors to keep off the evil eye, charms to ward off or provoke spells -- just about everything except aspirin or sticking-plaster.

On this particular day, people were busy buying things to please Yemanja. One corner of the shop-floor was heaped with small wooden boats, perhaps two feet long, painted blue and white (the goddess's colours); these would be filled with offerings of food, drink, candles, and Yemanja's symbols, referred to as 'things of the dressing-table' -- small combs and mirrors (Yemanja is also related to mermaids). These were also combined in packets, together with bottles of cologne, powder, soap, blue and white candles, incense, and so I bought one, to guarantee the success of my preparations.

The other special shop is the Casa Turuna, a long, narrow shop containing a remarkable variety of goods, resembling a surrealist treasure-house. At the front of the shop are children's clothes, maids' uniforms, and bolts of bright materials, but hanging from the ceiling are dozens of Carnival masks and decorations made from papier-mache -- hats of every description, animals' heads (I longed to buy a life-size crocodile-head), and pairs of angel-wings of gold-dusted white feathers.

Beyond that, the shop is filled with Macumba goods; I knew that the religion was strong in Brazil, but I was amazed to see so many people buying the essentials for making offerings. There are piles of red clay dishes, bowls, pots and candlesticks, books, records, statues, incense, tobacco, oils, and hanging in clusters from the ceiling, like a kind of celestial hardware, are silvery tin items of regalia worn or carried by the representatives of the gods -- crowns, sceptres, swords, bows and arrows, axes, and Yemanja's fish-shaped fans. In a corner, a bundle of sinister red and black tridents belong to the mischievous Exu, a devilish-like spirit-mediator between the gods and mankind, who is easily offended. There are long necklaces of seeds, shells and beads, worn by the adepts at Macumba rituals, and behind the counter, shelves with more amulets and effigies. At the back of the shop is a large showcase of specially elaborate crowns and other adornments, but underneath them are a couple of shelves crowded with life-like ex-votos -- the yellow wax models of heads, arms, legs, hearts, and so on, offered by good Catholics in churches when prayers for cures are answered.

That day, I bought some more of Yemanja's special incense, and was amused to read a notice on the back of the packet: the manufacturer asked that when the incense was lit, a prayer should be said on his behalf. I noticed two obviously wealthy women carefully selecting bead necklaces to be worn in Yemanja's honour and, following them out, I was hardly surprised when they turned into the next doorway, which belongs to a charming little Catholic church. I bought quite a collection of Macumba books from that shop, my favourites giving recipes for suitable purifying baths, and of food offerings for the gods. Yemanja's devotees need to bathe in sea-water, adding white flower-petals, and the head should be washed in sea-foam -- though the slightest error in preparation can lead to 'dangerous mental disturbances'. Her favourite foods are shrimp cooked in onions, parsley, coriander, lime juice and coconut milk, followed by 'Food of Heaven', a combination of coconut and tapioca, served on a silver dish. Salt is called 'tears of Yemanja' and her symbols also include diamonds, pearls, silver, and the moon.

Offerings are made at any time, often in the quiet forest area of the city, but in the centre, at any street-corner or in any gutter, there may be beautiful roses, a little dish of food, a bottle of beer or home-made sugar-cane rum with a cigar -- and no-one, not the most starving beggar, would dream of touching these. The first time I saw an elaborate offering in the forest, I picked up several coins of a kind no longer in circulation, not realising that they were part of the offering, and since them, I've had mysterious lumps appearing and disappearing on my hand. A European doctor there assured me that it wasn't a common ailment; it was just Macumba. I should have consulted one of the women who can lift such spells; frequently along the main streets, boys thrust small leaflets at passers-by, advertising the services of experts in the supernatural, but I never took advantage of their skills. New Year's Eve begins quietly; people go to work as usual, until noon, when Rio's annual snow-storm miracle occurs. For months, office workers in the high rise buildings save waste paper, and as they leave the offices, they unload it in a remarkable great white blizzard. The afternoon passes with a building sense of anticipation until it's time to prepare for the night's fun. People wear white and carry flowers, and those with experience take a taxi in the early evening to the beach area, having a leisurely dinner at a restaurant, as the beach roads are closed to traffic during the celebrations.

Everyone waits while the rain comes down at 11.15 (it always does), huddling silently under awnings, in doorways, or just getting soaked. No-one worries, for at ten minutes to midnight, it will stop, and with a temperature of about ninety degrees, the light white clothes soon dry off. People walk down to the long, famous mosaic promenade or on the beach, admiring the Macumba groups' offerings carefully arranged in sheltered hollows in the soft, pale sand; candles are set out in star-shaped patterns, surrounding the food, drink and flowers, while songs and ritual invocations are pronounced. Added hazards are the hundreds of small fireworks being hurled about by enthusiastic revellers. Music from the loudspeakers is a sound-canopy over everything, then midnight is announced, and several spectacular firework displays light up the length of the beach. Then the people go down to the water to send off the gift-laden miniature boats, hoping that they will reach the seventh wave, where Yemanja waits to receive them. For personal good fortune, everyone throws their flowers into the water; if the wave carries the flower away, it means a good year, but if it returns to the shore, Yemanja is not pleased with the giver.

It's usual then to stroll along the length of the beach, sipping the deliciously refreshing liquid in a coco gelado, which is a green coconut, beheaded with seemingly terrifying casualness by a young man skilfully wielding a machete. There are food-stalls, many sidewalk cares, and strolling samba bands play for dancing. I was most flattered to be invited to dance by a local man (as I thought) in a cheerful group, and we had a wonderful time. He thanked me in Spanish -- he happened to be Argentinian, and had thought that I was a typical Brazilian (quite a compliment), so we had great fun over our mutual misunderstanding.

'People-watching' is great fun; there are the locals in white, open-mouthed dazed-looking tourists wearing bright colours, elegant or cheeky prostitutes, transvestites in amazing costumes and make-up, as well as the Macumba followers in their full-skirted, lace-covered white gowns. Leaving before about three a.m. is considered early, with many parties still going on, and beach-front hotel guests can expect no sleep.

To see full-blown Macumba, untainted by squeamishness, there are quiet beaches up and down the coast outside the city where animals are sacrificed in the ritual. This is no longer allowed on Copacabana, as the tourists were not happy to go for a jog the next morning to be faced with the remains of dead cockerels or goats. There is, however, plenty of interest on Copacabana, and to be a part of Yemanja's party is an unforgettable experience.

Wear comfortable shoes for walking, and wear white so that you look like genuine Cariocas. Taxis to and from the beach will over-charge; when looking for a taxi to get home, keep to the well-lit main streets. Most important always in Rio, don't take valuables, jewellery, cameras, handbags outdoors; they are too much of a temptation to the poor, who have no possessions in the world. It's necessary to be careful, but I lived in Rio for three years with no trouble at all. I've talked to abandonados (the homeless children who are being killed by the authorities for being nuisances) and they are not some species of vicious monster, just children trying to survive against incredible odds. Seeing it from their point of view, the tourists can afford to lose a camera or a wallet, but these children are lucky to live in a cardboard box, and they have no future.
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Title Annotation:Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Author:Hillman, Elizabeth
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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