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The Throbbing Ritual of Macumba Contrasts With The Glitter and Glamour of Copacabana Beach

November 17, 1985|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio has charmed millions of visitors, but there's a fascinating side of this fascinating city seldom seen by an outside observer, which Sharon Dirlam shares here. --Jerry Hulse, Travel Editor

In a clearing in the forest, on the road up to the summit of Corcovado, was a macumba offering. There were goblets filled with wine, bottles of champagne and beer, flowers and ribbons, grapes and cookies. A feast for the spirits. A row of shadows cast in the hot afternoon sun.

Late that night, deep in a Rio slum and down a twisting dark alley, the spirits were beckoned again. In one corner of a large hall, young men sat with their eyes closed while their hands beat an incessant sambalike rhythm on drums held in their laps. Women danced and swayed in a snaky line, chanting.

The leader of the congregation puffed on a fat cigar and blew smoke at the dancers. As each worshiper approached him, the leader encircled the person with his hands, blowing smoke all the while, and then he shook his hands as if dismissing some evil presence, the way one would shake off drops of water.

As the long night wore on, the music got more frenzied, and every so often a dancer would twirl around until she crashed to the floor in a faint. Another would make noises that sounded like a caged animal, or a wounded spirit. Candles twinkled on the altar. Flowers lay wilting on the altar beside a small bird's bloody body.

The drums and chanting drifted for a while, then swooped off again into a throbbing frenzy of stamping, wailing and drumming, then slowed, ending in a long, silent focus on the altar. Then everyone smiled and said his goodbys, as if church were letting out.

As many as 80% of Brazilians believe in macumba, which encompasses ritualistic practices ranging from spiritism to voodoo. The premise is that every saint recognized in the Catholic religion has a corresponding spirit, and it is the spirit that the people reach out to. Macumba offers moral counsel, business advice, the promise of well-being and the sweetness of revenge. Many Brazilians won't make a move without first consulting the spirits.

One explanation of the origin of macumba is that African slaves taken to Brazil adapted the Catholic religion of their Portuguese masters, infusing it with their own religious beliefs. In Brazil today, rampant inflation and high unemployment may have something to do with a renewed interest in the spirit world.

Tour operators and the major hotels say they can get you to a macumba rite, if you are willing to pay anywhere from $25 to $50 for the opportunity. Or you can ask around and find one on your own, if you are feeling adventurous.

But be warned: There is an element of danger in venturing out into the slums of Rio late at night. The streets are dark and narrow, and everyone will tell you that Rio is a violent place, that you are not safe, that you may be robbed or mugged or worse, and that the police won't help you if you are.

In Rio, the threat is all too real. There are streetcars through the slums: Don't ride them or you will be robbed. Don't venture down dark alleys at night. Don't wear your diamonds to the beach. But after all, in what city would you do these things? The best advice is to be sensible.

But, of course, there is the flip side of all that there is to fear about the place: the glitter and the glamour of Rio. It's a city that throbs with a pulsing, animal awareness of sensual life.

Rio is filled to bursting with people who exist at the extremes of wealth and poverty. The slums are stacked up and down the sides of the city's hills and look directly across the way at the luxurious high-rise condominiums that line Ipanema Beach. Taxi drivers deeply mortgaged to their jalopies drive beautiful couples to the marble entryways of $150-a-night hotels.

Several lanes of heavy traffic circle the city between beaches and hotels, and next to the traffic is the famed wavy-tiled walkway lined with hawkers, shoeshine boys and souvenir vendors under brightly colored umbrellas.

The white-sand beaches rim the city like a wide band of lace on a voluptuous negligee. The waves are high, the undertow treacherous. The bikinis are all that you've heard about--and less. They are worn by bodies sculpted to a lean perfection--and more. Alas, far more. Women and men, the perfectly shaped, the wiggly and jiggly, the scrawny and the saggy, all stuff themselves into the tiniest possible bits of cloth and carefully position themselves on the sand to see and be seen.

Modesty, control, moderation--these are not words that find any particular favor in Rio. The city is a study in excesses, culminating, of course, in Carnaval, that world-class party played out on the streets of February until exhaustion.

Copacabana is one of the most famous beaches in the world, and it remains Rio's tourist center, with its row of fine hotels, good restaurants, theaters, shops and nightclubs.

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