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Iemanjá - The Sea Queen: February the second in Salvador, Bahia

Photo by Rennan Peixe , Yás no caminho de Iemanjá , CC BY-SA 4.0

It was only on my second Summer living in Salvador that I actually experienced the February 2nd festivities as they should be, quietly observing the rituals of faith as a celebration that has been going on in Rio Vermelho for over 100 years, as a tribute to Iemanjá, by local fishermen - honoring the protector of their work.

On my first Summer, a newcomer and still ignorant about local traditions, let's say that I got the wrong day, time, place and clothes, and that I almost offended the Saint by not showing up on the morning of the 2nd ...

All these mistakes as, curious about the festivities, I decided to hit the streets starting on the night of February 1st. I went down the long slope that separates my building from Rua da Paciência (Patience St) - the center of the night festivities - all dressed up in white, as I believe the occasion required.

Elsewhere in the city, at Dique do Tororó, the festivities begin with offerings to Oxum, Goddess of the fresh waters, so that, they say, she doesn't get jealous of Iemanjá. At Dique do Tororó, at that time, yes, everyone wears white, but on Rua da Paciência, I was the only one in whiteI actually landed in the first part of the party, much less focused on Iemanjá, properly speaking, and a lot more like a big carnival , let's say, “a warm up” for the following day.

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In this first part of the festivities, bars and restaurants in Rio Vermelho organize public attractions and the neighborhood is filled with a parade of percussion groups, wind orchestras and “nano-trios”, that is, tiny “electric trios” made of speakers with wheels, pushed by devotees, revelers or activists - sometimes all at the same time - all carrying their baskets with offerings and playing religious, carnival or protest music. Often, all at the same time, because, as it can only happen in Bahia, every open air party, balancing the sacred and the profane, is also political.

Some of the most famous attractions of the night take place at the Lalá cultural center. As elsewhere, the producers set up a stage on the sidewalk, facing the street, but they also sell limited tickets for access to the facilities during the 24 hours the establishment is open for the event.

It is a great option for those who, like me, enjoy partying on the street, but also think that chemical toilets are not exactly the peak of civilization., On top of it, buying an advanced ticket for Lalá is a way of supporting an Institution that, year after year, has been a focus of resistance on February 2nd. As I didn't know any of this on my first day, I was left at the street, in the middle of the crowd that, at various times, found itself literally crammed between the stage, the revelers with their balloons and, unbelievably, buses and cars that Salvador's city government had failed to reroute somewhere else (fortunately, after that first year, this serious mistake was corrected).

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Around 2 am, I went up the steep slope that separates Rua da Paciência from my building, slept in those wrong white clothes and woke up to the dawn fireworks at 4:30 am, knowing very well it was time to go down again, if I wanted to not be at fault with Iemanjá right at my first attempt to honor her. I slept the rest of the day.

The second summer, however, I decided to do it all differently. Days before, my boss, upon discovering that I was living in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, told me: "You know that the neighborhood's tradition is to offer a feijoada in honor of Iemanjá and open the house to friends, right?" I didn’t know, but, as I don’t like to undo local traditions and, at that point, I was already in debt to the orixá. I tried to order a Bahian feijoada - made from mulatinho beans, not black bean, like its more famous version served in Rio - and open the 65m2 apartment to friends, especially the balcony, which effectively works as a private party box.

To ensure that I would be ready on the main day of festivities, I did not join the street party on the night of February 1st, I went to bed early, and again woke up to the dawn fireworks, only this time, I was ready to enjoy the proper celebration of Iemanjá.

All dressed in white again, this time, like almost everybody else on the streets, I walked down with my building neighbors who, every year, organize themselves to enjoy the party together. As early as the first rays of sun shone, I found downstairs what I would learn to call “shift change”: the moment when the young and glittery public of the previous night, with their cans of hot beer in hand, gives way to an older and more diverse audience, who are there either out of sincere devotion to Iemanjá or to closely observe the rituals of that devotion.

Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, Presente para Iemanja Praia do Rio Vermelho3 , CC BY 3.0 BR

People arrive with their flowers, brought from home or bought from street vendors that also sprout at dawn and line up for the shed set up between the Church of Santana and the house of Iemanjá, in the fishing village, to deposit their offerings in the various balaios, around of which the atabaques ceaselessly sound, played by the people of santo from the most diverse places and terreiros and that, year after year, arrives in Rio Vermelho to, together with the local fishermen, literally make the party.

Listening to the drums, I remember that, in Salvador, the Iemanjá party is the only one that is not officially syncretized with any Catholic entity - unlike Santa Bárbara / Iansã (December 4) and Senhor do Bonfim / Oxalá (second Thursday in January) - although this syncretism often appears in the mysterious "whitening" of the orixá, which, in its most common version, symptomatically looks a lot like the catholic Our Lady.

In mythology, Iemanjá is vain and likes gifts, from that arose a tradition of offering gifts such as dolls, combs, mirrors etc However, today, due to environmental concerns, those gifts are not as well regarded, best case, they should be made of biodegradable material, because, in practice, the gifts were polluting the Mother’s house.

Photos by: Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, Presente para Iemanja Praia do Rio Vermelho3 , CC BY 3.0 BR / Ganímedes , Barcas ofrendas a Iemanja , CC BY-SA 3.0 / Leandro Neumann Ciuffo , Iemanjá (5297404821) , CC BY 2.0

Today, what we see is the most common offerings are white roses - but also yellow, red and even blue, to match the colors of the saint - which gives the air a characteristic smell, along with the ubiquitous lavender.

I never felt like leaving my humble offerings in the official balaios, which will go by boat to the high seas, perhaps because, unlike the inhabitants of the city where I lived before coming to Salvador (São Paulo), I dread queues. I prefer to walk around the shed a little to see the ogãs dedicated to drumming and then go down to the sand with my flowers.

A certain cacophony of fireworks, drumming and singing echoes throughout the neighborhood and terreiros perform their rituals by the sea. The crowd thickens, visitors from different profiles mingle with members of terreiros, fishermen and their, shall we say, agents, who offer, on a trading floor, modest boats, for small groups that want a direct line with Iemanjá. For about 15, 20 reais (USD $ 4-5), 3 or 4 people can get into a paddle boat or motorboat, which sails up to 100, 200m from the beach, where the distant sound of the party fades and the silence of the sea prones even the most atheist to devotion.

Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, Presente Iemanja Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom AB , CC BY 3.0 BR

Without saying anything, the fisherman stops the boat, while the customers carry out their ritual. Mine, always in tears, I confess, in every one of these 5 years, was to thank and gently deposit the white flowers in the sea, looking at the horizon, now the city and the house that welcomed me. As nobody is made of iron, I take pictures, even because, seen from there, with the sun still low, the world is magnificent

Not wanting to make the boatman wait too long, aware that he needs more customers to make a little money that he certainly deserves, I ask him to go back to shore. On the sand, another group is already waiting.

Thanks given, offerings thrown, what is left of the festivities is now an anthropological tour. I like to observe the rituals on the beach for a while - that of the terreiros, with drums and baths, that of Brazilian anthropologists guiding foreign anthropologists, with giant cameras in hand.

On the street, little can be seen of the survivors of the previous night, except the street vendors trying to rest, sleeping on the floor, behind empty coolers, the B side of parties in Bahia (and in Brazil) public space, which reminds us that the joy of some lays on the extremely precarious work of others. I sip a warm porridge looking at the sea and go up the steep slope, to rest a little and wait for the guests.

Gradually, friends who were downstairs arrive, some who will later go down to offer flowers, and some who focused on the previous night (those who enjoyed the previous night too much are unable to attend hahaha).

To live up to the sacred-political-profane tradition, the house has white flowers, music, food, drink and political posters. The feijoada is in a pot on the stove and friends alternate between the kitchen and the living room, where there is cabbage, rice and manioc flour. The beer accumulates in the freezer emptied for the event and in a Styrofoam that later occupies half of the only storage place available in the house..

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In the middle of the afternoon, everyone huddles to the porch to watch the boats leave, gradually arriving at the small cove, to accompany the official boat with the balaios, guided by a frigate towards the high sea.

The sun sets and, from the park in front of the building, we begin to hear the voice of Sylvia Patrícia, an attraction already scheduled, organized by the residents of the street, which wraps up the day.

The commitment to offer feijoada to Iemanjá and friends impacts my relationship not only with February 2nd and with the orixá, but with the neighborhood as a whole. By chance, I went to live in a place that, because of the view of the party, made me feel part of it. I come home feeling part of a tradition.

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