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La Sala dos Milagres 

Wednesday, Mar 25 1998
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Hands, everywhere hands. Pressed up against a half-opened taxi window; reaching in, tugging, thrusting fistfuls of shiny ribbons at me; pushing other hands away. Hands grabbing my hands, stuffing them with wads of ribbons. My hands shoving them away. Voices pleading, crackling with bravado and determination and poverty and puberty. Voices calling out prices, calling compatriots to come, voices shouting to stay away. "Dare we get out of the car?" muses my companion as we idle in a scorching square on the outskirts of Salvador da Bahia, a crumbling beauty of a city that was once the capital of colonial Brazil. "Or will we end up like Montgomery Clift in Suddenly Last Summer?"

I’ve heard those voices in Saigon, while sitting in cafés on Pham Ngu Lao Street as children wander from table to table, begging for change, until they’re chased away or ignored away. I’ve felt those hands clutching at me in Egypt, the taxi drivers and guides gathered on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor imploring a day’s worth of business in the times when the tourists had stopped coming. Those hands, those voices, invoke a complicated maelstrom of emotion. Anger, compassion, resentment, guilt.

Exiting the taxi, I grasp my bunches of ribbons as a talisman to ward off the new wave of fita vendors and head up the steps of the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Bonfim — the most important church for followers of Candomblé, one of the largest Afro-Brazilian religious cults. These ribbons, it is said, should be tied around the wrist, and then three wishes made. The wishes will come true if the fita is allowed to fall off naturally. I figure if this were true, there wouldn’t be so many kids desperately selling ribbons for a few pennies. I tie mine around the corny tourist chachkas I bought at the Mercado Modelo.

Inside, worshipers offer their prayers, the tranquillity disrupted as the more daring ribbon sellers creep up the steps to the open doors, whistling and whispering to get my attention. But I already have more ribbons than I know what to do with. And I want to tell them that I’m not rich, I’m not living large in some luxe hotel. It’s too hot. Just leave me alone.

I slip away from the voices into a side chapel, distinguished not by altars of gold — for the Bonfim, built in 1745, is a church beautiful for its simplicity — but by evidence of faith. This is the Sala dos Milagres. I savor the silence, the solitude, this sanctuary from the clamor outside. But in this room of miracles, more profound needs are laid bare. And even here there’s no escaping those hands. Votive offerings dangle from the ceiling on ropes: surreal rows of arms, of legs, of heads, of hearts, all rendered in shimmery white wax — dozens and dozens of life-size replicas of ailing body parts that devotees claim have been cured. Testimonials dating back decades are tacked haphazardly over the walls, a kind of freeform collage made up of thousands of handwritten notes, photos, post cards and artworks that give thanks for recovery.

Outside, those hands and voices offer up another kind of testimony. As do the endless tableaux of hopelessness that await in desolate small towns on the 26-hour bus ride back to Rio. Some prayers are never answered, some voices never heard. I head out to buy more ribbons.

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