Let me set the record straight from the start, I am not critical of any religion, I can appreciate religious syncretism, I can respect Catholicism, Evangelism, Buddhism, Islam, Paganism – to name just a few – and whatever the beliefs of others and I am determined to be liberal towards any religion…despite not being particularly pious myself. There was the very real fear of spontaneously bursting into flames as I stepped up into the church on the eve of my wedding. Fortunately this did not happen. So, living in Colombia and having spent years in the Americas has opened my eyes to many practices which are of great importance.
Now, having been raised in an incredibly protestant fashion, with mandatory visits to church every day and twice on Sundays for six years at one school and then on every other day and on Sundays at another establishment, perhaps by the age of 18 I had had my fill of organized religion and purposefully shirked any responsibility to this that I may have once held before having it forced from me by too much exposure. I am not going to be as petulant as to try and calculate the number of times I have attended church, let’s just say that I’ve been more than a lot.
At first in Mompós I was relatively bemused by the beliefs instilled by my manager and my mother in law, and the way, when things were not going as they wished in life, they would just as quickly go to mass as to ask the local shaman/ wise man for advice. Then there was the almost daily practice of trying to read the coffee grounds in my cup. So much so that I started to drink out of a black mug and preferred filter coffee that was harder to read as it left fewer coffee grounds. For me, these practices always resembled a way of hedging a bet and making sure that both sides such as the Catholic and Pagan were covered.
But, of course, this is the way that religion is out here. I have attended a candomble ceremony in a favela in Bahia, Brazil, I have taken ayahuasca (known as yage in Colombia) in the Peruvian Amazon, have been blessed on multiple occasions in Ecuador, attended traditional rituals in Colombia and Guatemala. In fact, there’s not a great deal I have not experienced when it comes to original aboriginal religious ceremonies. Only recently on my last trip to Cuba my wife and I were able to meet and consult a Santero.
But now, I realize this is normal. It is all a version of syncretism and a way of preserving original beliefs within a Catholic existence. Perhaps being in Mompós has made this clearer to me now, but, I feel comfortable with it. When the Ministry of Culture’s workmen were tearing up the Plaza de la Concepcion to put down adequate drains, restore and ultimately repave the square, they found an indigenous burial ground beneath. This of course makes sense since the Spanish were known to build their important places of worship on top of those that were of significance to the local population, therefore making the adaptation from paganism to Catholicism much easier.
So, when we found that we were being subjected to witchcraft in the Casa Amarilla, presumably down to envy from another business owner, due to the high flow of tourists we were receiving, and I was advised to bring in someone to bless the house and find the source of the mala vibra, I was not in the slightest bit perturbed. We just did it.
And of course, this is what we had to do. Perhaps these beliefs are not the kind I was brought up with, but, these energies affect my staff and their well-being and so I must be respectful and understand the difference. So, a local wise man came round, felt a heavy presence which led him to one of the potted bougainvillea plants outside the front door. Moving this huge ceramic piece aside, it was clear that the soil had been disturbed.
Buried just a couple of inches below was a toad with its forelegs tied together.
This spell was supposedly meant to destroy my business. What interested and perhaps shocked me the most was the fact that someone would rather ruin my business than place a spell that could improve their own business. It’s a kind of “we’re sinking, so you’re going to sink as well” attitude that is of benefit to no one.
Anyway, the spell was lifted, and business continued as normal.
So now, in my own show of syncretism, I am no longer skeptical when the local priest comes round to bless the house or the local wise man comes to share a word and drink a coffee with us. There’s a balance here and this must be respected. When my coffee grounds are read, I perhaps have a laugh, but am sure to be respectful and when my manager plays the lottery with the numbers she sees in the cup or with those she dreamed of the night before, one has to wonder about the energies at play. Maybe one day she’ll win the lottery and who’ll be scoffing then?