Secrets of the Babalawo

30 Nov

Dario Zenea was in raptures in June of 1956 when he finished his course work and dissertation at the University of Havana.

How was the ethnologist who specialized in Cuban national folklore going to celebrate his scholarly success and graduation? Dario, whose parents were deceased and had no close relatives or intimate friends, decided to make his first visit to the city’s famous Tropicana casino and cabaret. That was a place he had always been curious to see for himself.

High and lean, the young graduate put on his best white silk suit. The pale-skinned brunette walked boldly into the nightclub one balmy June evening.

He had heard many times that the most economical location from which to have a look at the Tropicana was the central bar.

Dario made his way there, concealing his astonishment at the brilliant, variegated lighting of the giant cabaret-restaurant. The Arcos de Cristal with its parabolic concrete arches rose over the eating-drinking area that held 1,700 patrons at any one time.

This Havana attraction had opened back in 1939 as a semi-outdoor enterprise. Its lush tropical environment continued, a garden setting on the outer ring of the city. Tall forest trees extended through the high roof, hanging over the tables farthest out. Soaring date, palm, and coconut trunks gave the canteen a magical aura.

The visitor ordered a martini, standing at the long central bar. His dark eyes focused on one of the large stages on one side of the nightclub. The orchestra began playing a popular rhumba melody as a line of female dancers dressed in feathers and ribbons marched forth on stage ramps and began their movements and gyrations of temptation and romantic-sexual play.

Dario grinned with pleasure as he slowly sipped his glass of alcohol. But his thoughts suddenly shifted to his hidden purpose in coming to this temple of the flesh.

As the musical-dance number ended, he finished his drink and stepped away toward the entrance to the gambling casino. That was the focus of what he had in the back of his mind.

Dario stopped to gawk at the crowded room with its enormous chandeliers. Ten tables were engaged in roulette and crap games. A series of slot machines lined the walls along the side walls. Garish light flooded the area from ceiling lamps.

The young scholar circled about the casino, passively absorbing the excitement and delirium of the players and observers. His pale white face began to redden with the contagious emotions on all sides.

I have to keep moving and going on, he said to himself over and over. Do not attract attention from anyone onto yourself. Watch in order to learn the established patterns of those who seriously gamble here in the evening.

You must prepare yourself for making yourself into a future participant in these games of risk and fortune.

This is where you can make yourself a person with a totally different life and destiny, Dario realized more and more.

He left the Tropicana with elevated confidence that he could make a secret dream of his come true.

Dario had carried out the field research for his dissertation on Afro-Cuban culture in the eastern provinces of Oriente, Camaguey, and Las Villas, that held the highest percentage of black and mestizo population. He had given special attention to the popular Santeria religious traditions and the secret rituals and practices that still survived in eastern rural areas.

The researcher had learned to speak the local Creole tongue used by black villagers. At least a fifth of the population had some knowledge or connection with the Santeria that existed invisibly in the background of the island of Cuba.

Darius consulted with Afro-Cubans who had migrated to Havana to help him in his search. “I am seeking a practicing babalawo who is an expert servant of the Great Orisha known as Orunmila. That is the type of intermediary I am hunting for,” he told a number of Santerians he had come to know.

Dario picked up the name of Juan Valdes and found out where he lived in Havana.
He decided to make his way to the address of this amateur priest and question him on some questions of great interest to what he was now engaged in.

The small apartment of this babalawo, a priest-like Santerian, was located in old, central Havana, on Callejon de Hamel. Dario walked past walls covered with Afro-Cuban murals in bright, sunny colors on his way along the narrow alley where dark skins predominated. He knocked on the door where Juan Valdes lived and a heavy, squat man with coffee color appeared.

Dario introduced himself in a hushed, ordered tone. “I am a student of Santeria and understand that you have the reputation of being a capable, experienced babalawo upon whom many persons depend for guidance.

Valdes stared into the pale face of the stranger, making a rapid evaluation.

“Please come in,” he muttered. “We can talk at ease in my front parlor.”

Dario followed him into a shadowy interior where it was difficult to make anything out. The babalawo guided him to a rickety sofa chair and sat down opposite this unexpected visitor seeking something still unidentified.

“Several people I know have recommended that I find and talk with you,” began the university graduate. “You have concentrated upon a divine orisha that I too have a deep interest in.”

Juan seemed to perk up. “And what is the name of this particular orisha?”

Dario suddenly smiled.

“Orunmila, who gives the followers who serve him the highest knowledge and wisdom. He holds and protects the sublime secrets of life, I have been told.”

Juan leaned his head forward. “Orunmila is in charge of the Ifa that came from the Creator of everything, the orisha named Olodumare. That supreme divinity gave to Orunmila responsibility for keeping and preserving the Ifa that contains total knowledge of all matters.

“Possession of the wisdom called Ifa allows Orunmila to be the supreme oracle within our universe. Such capability and power makes Orunmila the perfect witness of the destinies of every particular human being.

“There can be no better advisor to any of us than this particular orisha.”

Dario, growing excited, posed a sensitive question. “Could you bring me into contact with Orunmila, so that I would be able to share in the wisdom of the Ifa that the orisha holds?” He looked expectantly at the babalawo.

Juan did not give him a definite answer to that.

“I will have to know you much better,” he coldly declared. “What you are asking of me is difficult and deeply hazardous. It cannot be agreed to in a single moment of time. I will have to think the matter over with care.

“Why don’t you return here in about a week? You will receive an answer to your request at that date. Something so important as the Ifa of Orunmila should not be dealt with casually or inattentively. Few subjects can be so important as it is.”

Dario rose to his feet. “I shall go now, but come back here next week, sir.”

A week of waiting followed during which the confident seeker rehearsed what he planned to ask of the babalawo once he gave his agreement to cooperate in working with him.

Dario returned to the small apartment on the day determined by Juan. The latter announced his decision as soon as his guest was seated.

“Yes, I have judged you a fitting person to learn what I can teach you about the Ifa that I myself have succeeded in obtaining through my own efforts,” said the older man. “Your fervor and inspiration became evident to me during your previous talk with me, my good man.”

“Although I have read many books concerning Santeria and interviewed a number of practitioners in the eastern provinces, I myself have never had any sort of direct experience with the orisha spirits. They have been distant objects of study for me. But I shall now have the opportunity to change that condition through what you can accomplish in assisting me.”

“What precisely are you interested in achieving?” bluntly inquired the babalawo.

Dario beamed radiantly. “I want to find out how to know what is going to happen in the very near future. Modern psychology has a technical word for such a predictive capability, it is called precognition. Knowledge of what is soon coming, that is the goal I have in my mind.

“Everything that I know about Sangeria indicates that such ability can be developed and perfected if one becomes a follower of the orisha we call Orunmila.

“What do you think, Juan? Could I attain such a difficult goal? Can you teach me how to make accurate divinations about what will occur very soon?” He gazed into the eyes of the babalawo with excitement and anticipation.

“It will take time and a lot of effort on both your and my part,” murmured Juan slowly. “But yes, I am certain that you possess the potential for what you dream of. The Ifa of Orunmila will in time produce startling wonders and grant you the thoughts that you are seeking, Dario.”

“I am ready to begin immediately,” declared the young scholar.

Juan bestowed upon his pupil a dilogun with sixteen consecrated cowrie shells suspended from it.

“This will open the door to the divine orishas for you,” said the babalawo with a gracious smile. “It will reveal to your mind the signs and patterns that are invisible to common human eyes. Only you will be able to see what you wish Orunmila to reveal to you. No one else will now this special, secret message that will tell you what you want to know.

“I shall use my experience and special knowledge to help bring the Ifa of Orunmila to you in answer to what you request to learn. You seek precognition of what is near and about to happen. That shall be delivered to your thought by the eruele embodied within the dilogun around your neck.

“That is the essence of what will be happening to you, Dario.”

“I shall be deeply indebted to you,” said the adventurer into the unknown.

The first experiment in the field of precognition occurred at the Habana Riviera casino. Wearing the epuole on a chain around his neck, Dario placed only a very few chips on the roulette tables in order not to draw attention to himself. The venture was a winning one, allowing him to quit gambling early and leave with some proceeds.

After several profitable evenings there, the novice player went on to another hotel casino, the Nacional. He carried out a similar small-stakes operation there, exiting the scene before anyone had any suspicions about what he was up to.

Since his babalawo was curious about the results of being equipped with the dilogun provided him, Dario visited Juan to report on how things were going for him.

The new Sengarian decided the time was right to make a full confession.

“I have been applying my new precognition to casino gambling tables,” he informed his mentor. “I should have told you earlier what my plans were. But there have been significant winnings for me, so far.

“My plan has been to move among the casinos here in Havana and not bring any attention to myself. In a few days, I intend to attack the summit of our city’s gambling activity, the famous Tropicana. That will be the grand finale of my career as a player with Ifa inspiration, a gift from Orunmila and from you, my friend.

“Would you accept a share of what I obtained through precognition, since you are the one who made my considerable victories possible for me?”

For several seconds, the babalawo appeared confused and unable to speak. At last, though, he answered in strong, decisive words.

“No, Dario. I do not act for personal gain. My vocation is one involved with the mind and the soul, it is spiritual rather than material in its orientation.

“You are free to do as you wish, but I must warn you that the Tropicana casino is a place that takes away more than it ever gives out. Rumor has it that big gangsters from the United States are in charge of gambling there, and that they use rigged gambling equipment that no one can defeat. Only a limited amount of money is allowed to be taken away by any single patron. No one is ever able to beat the house there. I heard that even the dice used at crap tables are dishonest bust-out dice, if you know what that means.

“If I were you,” warned the babalawo, “I would not dare to challenge those ruthless American mobsters on their own grounds.”

Dario made no rely, one way or the other. He quickly said good-bye and left.

Gambling at the Tropicana turned to be unlike the experiences at the other major Havana casinos. The stakes were higher, as was the inner tension felt by Dario.

From the start, there seemed to be a greater degree of invisible, indistinct resistance of some immaterial nature about.

The new player at the Tropicana roulette wheels sensed that something was different and wrong, but had no way of determining what it might be.

Losses began to accumulate for him, jarring his sense of confidence.

Dario decided to quit for the evening and return again the following night.

There would be time next day for him to go and see his babalawo once more.

Perhaps Juan might give him some guidance on how to get back on his previous winning streak as a precognitive gambler.

That was his serious, sober hope.

“What can be the matter with me?” asked the worried young man. “It is not as easy as it was when I was just beginning. Why did the Ifa of Orunmila leave me last night? Has it taken some kind of rest? Is this only a temporary condition I am experiencing? You must grant me some guidance.”

Juan, seated opposite Dario, looked away to one side, avoiding looking at him directly.

“I would advise you to rest for a little while and stay away from the casinos entirely. Let the Ifa from Orunmila make whatever adjustments that it can. Only return to the tables of fortune when you feel that your previous condition as a winner has been reborn and can be exercised with renewed confidence. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes, if that is what you wish, Juan,” softly declared Dario.

Since there was no more to be discussed at the time, the disappointed gambler rose and departed.

Dario went to the Tropicana two more nights and had repeated disappointments. He suffered even greater losses than previously, losing most of what he had gained by gambling at the other casinos.

What is going wrong? he asked himself. Why was the dilogun he wore failing him? Why was his precognition failing to bring him winnings? The messages brought into his mind were inaccurate and incorrect.

Dario returned to see his babalawo after a night of restless turning and very little sleep.

“I don’t understand what is happening to me,” he told Juan. “There is some force or factor impeding the Ifa of Orunmila that has been my magical way to victory. Why am I losing all that I won before?”

The babalawo made a sad grimace. “I shall accompany you to the casino tonight and attempt to discover what the trouble is, Dario.”

The latter promised to return and take his mentor to the Tropicana with him.

The pair rode a tramcar out to the periphery of Havana, to the razzle, dazzle of the nightclub that contained the gambling mecca where American tourists came to watch and play. People remembered that Ernest Hemingway and Marlon Brando had been seen there in past years.

Brilliant, garish lighting created an aura of excitement and adventure from the very entrance. The noise was that of a spectacle of greed, with fortune made and lost. Roulette wheels, cards, and dice formed prospects of future days for those involved in the high-risk games going on.

Dario began operations with small bets on numbered positions next to the spinning wheels of luck. He lost time after time, but continued on with ever increasing numbers of chips he had purchased.

Depressing defeat repeated itself over and over, till he ran out of chips to wager with.

He turned around to the babalawo standing just behind him. “I need to buy me some more of these chips,” he declared with a deep frown on his whitish face.

Juan suddenly placed his right hand on the left hand of the gambler.

“No,” he whispered. “You and I must leave this minute. I have figured out what the problem is here.”

The two made their way out of the Tropicana casino, out into the balmy Havana night. A short distance from the magnificent building, the babalawo stopped and faced his student. The latter did the same.

“There is an orisha force, a spirit with power, opposing and blocking the Ifa from Orunmila. It has made the dilogun I gave you ineffective and useless. There will no longer be any successful precognition on your part, my friend.”

“How can that happen?” said Dario in desperation. “What is going on?”

“It must be the orisha called Elegua who is interfering and harming you. He is called the devious trickster and has the ability to sabotage what Orunmila tries to accomplish.

“Elegua is selfish and often shameful in what he does. Who can say? Perhaps the American gangsters who control this casino have some kind of partnership with that specific orisha. They may happen to have their own babalawo who protects them from any outside Santerian interference of any kind.

“There is no chance for you to win at the Tropicana, none at all.”

The pair made their way away from the casino, to the place where a tramway would return them to central Havana.

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