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Tossing Cuban pebbles with a Santeria priest

People visit Cuba to see vintage cars or the unique architecture or learn how to dance the Salsa. I visited this banned Island for these reasons and one other. I want to learn more about the Santeria Religion.
Old cars in Havan
Santeria, a Cuban religion, is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs held by the slaves brought to the Island to work the sugar plantations. The slaves believed that our lives are controlled by spirits. If you attract good spirits, your life will be good. However, if you attract bad spirits expect miserable events to occur in your life. The Catholic Church tried to change these beliefs and was only partially successful. The Santeria religion went underground with the start of the Cuban Revolution but was decreed legal by the Cuban Government in 2013. Modern day Santeria is a product of these forces. Approximately one half of all Cubans practice some version of Santeria.

My first challenge was to find someone who practices Santeria and who would be willing to take me to their church or introduce me to one of their priests. Each of my days ended with a handful of promises but no leads. On my third day in Havana, I met Pedro, a lifetime resident of Havana. This small, muscular pedi-cab driver spends his day and sometimes his nights transporting people through the streets of Havana’s Old Town in his three wheel two passenger bicycle. I told Pedro my problem and he agreed to find a Santeria Priest who would be willing to talk to me. I was excited! I was finally getting somewhere.

The next morning Pedro came to my Homestay Room (Homestay is a Cuban program in which you rent a room in a private home) and told me that he had set up a meeting with a man who lives in the same building as Pedro and that we should leave “now”. I wondered “was this a scam”? I took a chance cautiously sat on the red cushioned back seat of the pedi-cab and started my 20 minute journey. Pedro drove like he owned the road. He rang his bell to warn pedestrians, shouted greetings to his friends, dodged pot holes and took short cuts through narrow bumpy alleys. Soon I was lost. Was this a mistake? I’d soon find out.
Pedro with his tricycle
We stopped in front of a building that looked similar to the other buildings in Old Town, Havana. The front of the building had a sign for a long gone cafeteria, the paint covering the building was faded and peeling, broken pieces of the façade lay scattered on the sidewalk in front of the building. Two big openings which used to contain windows were boarded up. The street in front of the building had a partially covered trench going from one side to the next. I could see three other open trenches nearby and at least two big holes in the sidewalk in front of the building next door. I said to myself “this does not look good”.

Pedro urged me to come in. He explained that after the Revolution, many large buildings were abandoned and that families moved into these building, claimed a space and called it their home. We walked past an abandoned elevator shaft, a boarded up stairwell, two walls filled with graffiti praising the Revolution and finally down a long, clutter filled, dark, dusty hallway to a doorway on the right side. This is where Pedro and his family lived.

We entered into a small but neat apartment about the size of a single car garage. The outside of the building might have been rundown but this portion was certainly not. A new refrigerator and stove still in there boxes occupied a corner. Pedro’s brother was painting the wall a light green color while another friend was installing a kitchen sink. Pedro told me that they hope to lay new tile next week.

After showing me his apartment, Pedro took me to another section of the building to meet Dino Hernandez, a tall and muscular man, with penetrating eyes, a deep baritone voice and most importantly a Santeria Priest. Hernandez and his wife lived in an apartment similar to the one I just left. This apartment however, contained a Santeria Altar. The Altar, about the size of a wooden card table, located in the far corner of his living space, was covered with a clean white cloth. On it were an eighteen inch high statue of Saint Frances, seven clear, wine goblets filled to the brim with water and arranged in a semi-circle, three white unlit candles, two pictures of deceased relatives, and some artificial red and white flowers. Every part of the altar was neat and well cared for.

I slowly entered the apartment unsure of what would happen. Hernandez, his wife, brother and several other friends greeted me with hearty hugs. I felt like I was reunited with family and friends absent from my life for a long time. Hernandez told me that it was important to have a very friendly atmosphere in the room so that friendly spirits would come, stay and communicate with him during a reading.
Decaying building in Havana
I sat on a high back wooden chair directly in front of Hernandez. Hernandez’s wife started the ceremony by placing a shawl on her husband’s shoulders and an apron over his lap. Both were made of a light purple material, with elaborate needlework and filled with rhinestones. He poured rum into a large yellow goblet and drank it on one gulp. After two more goblets of rum and several pulls on a large Cuban cigar, Hernandez began to drift into a trance. The room, filled with the sweet smell of the cigar, filled with the sounds of Hernandez speaking in a sing song rhythmic voice using words I could not recognize. He swayed left to right, back and forward, rolling his eyes shouting in his baritone voice. He smiled and delicately touched the pictures on the altar next to him. At this point I once again asked myself: “What did I get myself into this time?”

Hernandez asked me to ignore everyone in the room and to look at him. He picked up five black round, flat stones about the size of a credit card, threw them onto the floor onto the space between us and bent forward to study them. The stones told him that I should be careful of my health and also that I was in great danger as I traveled to and from work. He identified a person in my family who is my guardian spirit and to whom I should show great respect. He told me many other things. Some were not true (my wife is not a brunette) but many were very accurate (my son and I have a good relationship). The reading lasted for about 30 minutes. The others all sat quietly in chairs or on the floor listening to the reading unfold. By now the bottle of rum was half empty, the first cigar was gone and a second one was getting very short. He informed me that evil spirits are preventing me from easily achieving those things I want to accomplish in life and that he could rid me of those spirits and encourage the good spirits to remain by my side. I said:”Let’s do it”. The reading came to an end; I paid $20 for his services and prepared to leave.

Hernandez asked me to return the next day for my cleansing. He also told me to bring a change of clothing . Once again Pedro showed up at my Home Stay room at about 6p.m. Once again I went for a wild ride to Hernandez’s apartment. I found him and Paul, his assistant, waiting for me. Since my last visit, Hernandez had placed another altar in front of the permanent one. The new altar was made of about one dozen branches, each about two inches in diameter , covered with shiny dark bark, with the ends glued to a twelve inch round base. White feathers, glued to the sides of the branches completed the creation. Lying next to the altar on the floor was a big armful of branches about eighteen inches long, lush with sweet smelling green leaves. Paul was kneeling on the floor dividing the branches into three piles, each about the size of a large bouquet of flowers. Hernandez urged me to sit on the chair which I used the evening before and watch the preparations. After the branches were sorted, Paul picked up a white rock about the size of a tennis ball, placed the rock between his hands and crushed the rock into a fine powder. He then got on his hands and knees in front of me and used the powdered stone to make a circle on the floor about four feet in diameter. He stood up, inspected his work, knelt again and drew a line across the diameter of the circle toward the new altar. Paul finished by placing a newly lit white candle at the end of the line. Hernandez explained to me that he would force the evil spirits to leave my body, follow the line, go toward the candle and enter into the new altar.

16111422137Hernandez asked me if I was ready. I felt very nervous but said “yes” with a voice that quivered. He told me to change my clothes in the bathroom. When I returned he asked me to step into the circle, straddle the line, face the altar and close my eyes. I did as told. Hernandez immediately poured rum into his goblet, filled his mouth with rum and sprayed the liquid from his mouth over my face and arms. He started singing, smoking his cigar and rolling his eyes going into a state of rapture. He reached for one of the bundles of branches and started lightly slapping me on my back, stomach and legs. I felt a slight sting every time he hit me. The pace picked up and another mouthful of rum came at me along with even louder singing and talking. Paul pulled a big scissor from a box near the altar and started to rapidly cut two inch holes in my shirt and pants. After about twenty tears, Hernandez spewed another mouth full of rum and continued slapping and singing with even more vigor. Paul once again joined the fray. He put his fingers into each of the tears making the holes even bigger. Eventually all of my clothes were torn off and I stood naked. Gonzales told me to step out of the circle; Paul gathered up my shredded clothes and placed them inside of the circle where I had been standing. Gonzales told me to return to the circle, and to stand on my torn clothes. Another rum bath followed with even louder singing and chanting. Gonzales told me to quickly leave the circle. Paul carefully placed the branches used in my beatings on top of the clothes and used the remainder of the rum to thoroughly soak the clothes and branches in the middle of the circle .He lit a match and tossed it onto the pile. I heard a big whoosh as the rum caught fire. Smoke filled the whole apartment. My eyes burned and I could taste the smoke in my mouth. I thought I was going to die. The fire finally went out leaving a thigh high pile of charred clothes and branches and a very smoky room. The evil spirits were gone. Things would go better now.

I went into the bathroom and got dressed. While gone, Hernandez’s wife came into the room with a broom, dust pan and mop and quickly cleaned up the mess on the floor. When I came out of the bathroom, the floor was neat and clean once again. Hernandez, no longer wearing his purple clothes, smiled, greeted me and told me that the spirits were gone and that they would no longer hamper my efforts. He gave me a bracelet made of woven yellow and gold colored beads telling me to wear it on my left wrist to keep the good spirits near and the bad ones far away. I paid Hernandez his $100 fee, found Pedro and took another wild ride back to my Homestay Room. When I entered my room I fell into the bed totally exhausted and slept for ten hours.
Old ladies in Havan
What did I learn? At one extreme, I can say that I wasted my $120 on useless experiences. On the other hand, I can say that the money was the best investment I have ever made. Did the cleansing deliver the results advertised? I can not really answer this question. I can only say that the reading and cleansing were one of the most dramatic experiences of my entire trip to Cuba. Only time will tell if my fortunes will change.

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