Voodoo, Animism, and Top Hats
The last month has been whirlwind of travel, of new places and people, different cultures, food and huge learning curves. Now comes the part where I actually have to write it all down and tell the stories. And that’s when I realise my chicken scratchings of notes are horrible so a huge thanks to my amazing sister, Suzanne, who is a very talented copy writer and editor!
I’ve always thought that travelling is the best way to learn. You can read the history of a place in a book, or watch it in a movie, but actually visiting the place, experiencing the culture and talking to the people, is a much better way of understanding the past and present. Every place I’ve visited in the last few months is different from the other but there have been themes or commonalities between them all as well, that being religion. It’s a concept I’ve struggled with for years, as it often seems the most turmoil and pain in the world comes from conflicting religious beliefs.
Living in a Hindu country, religion is around me all the time and I truly believe that I could live in Bali for my entire life and still never completely understand. There are unifying themes across religions about loved ones, spirits, or ghosts that haven’t passed over; and also themes about how we pay respects and help maintain their memory.
Nyepi, Galungan, Saraswati and more, are all ceremonies or special dates that provide Hindus with an opportunity to celebrate, rather than grieve, their loved ones gone. It pays respects to their gods and shows the spirits how to find their way home. It’s a peaceful and loving religion, shrouded in incense, colour and tonnes of flowers. I forget how accustomed I’ve become to daily offerings and time off work for worship, until I visit non-Hindu countries. I have this strange sense of how bare the streets are and how something seems missing from houses, until I realise there are no offerings on the street and no temples in the houses.
In May I went to Rottnest on a family holiday. We spent many school holidays there as kids, to an extent unaware of the islands tragic history. We’d visit the cemetery and as children do, have some morbid creepy fascination with the headstones, wondering about their lives and what happened to them all, particularly the headstones of the children. It was only as we were older that we learned more about the violent and appalling treatment of the indigenous Australians who were taken to the island. There are buildings on Rottnest that are, in my opinion, definitely haunted. Some create shivers down the spine and I can’t walk past them fast enough or without acknowledging what I think happened there.
Rottnest Island today is known by Whadjuk people as the resting place of the spirits. The island is considered to be the place of transition between the physical and spiritual world, and when the spirits are ready to pass over, they go to the west end of Rottnest and a whale takes the spirit to the final resting place. There are 17 registered Aboriginal heritage sites on the island and the island holds significance across Western Australia as it was an Aboriginal prison and many died there as a result. When Noongar people visit a river or ocean, they throw sand into the water as a sign of respect and to let the spirits know that they are not alone. My family did this when we were on Rottnest recently to acknowledge what happened and to remember those who suffered so greatly on what is now a very popular holiday island.
I left Rottnest to head home to Bali then went to Maumere, Flores. While many people know of Labuan Bajo due to its diving and stunning landscapes, Maumere is in fact much bigger and has a large population built around the infrastructure of the town and the universities that bring so many students from all over Flores to the area. The town itself is large, sprawling and very dry, but the landscapes just outside the town are spectacular. Maumere is predominantly Catholic, however there are small Muslim enclaves throughout the town, in particular in Wuring where the Bajo fishermen live.
There are so many stories I want to tell about Maumere however they will need to be for other blogs, but you must put Maumere on your visiting list when in Flores. It’s a totally different experience and as tourism is new to the area, you can expect a truly authentic stay. Make friends with the local people you meet and you’ll discover the most incredible tour guides who can’t wait to share the stories of their people and culture.
Something I’ve found fascinating all over Indonesia and in particular in Flores, is the powerful connection between multiple religions. All across Flores, they celebrate Islam or Catholicism, however always in conjunction with animism. Animism is the belief that all living creatures, places and objects posses a distinct and individual spirit. Interestingly many anthropologists have referred to animism as the collection of beliefs of indigenous people and in distinct contrast with the more ‘recent’ development of organised religions. This however does not hold true in Flores. While Maumere has stunning churches and practices Catholicism, it blends the beliefs of animism into daily life as well. I asked how it worked, and was simply told, it does. They go to church and pray, then pay respects to deceased family members at the family gravesite – a small piece of land that is at every house, often tiled, fenced off and with a headstone. At Christmas for example, it’s normal practice to attend church and then ‘share’ family meals with the deceased as all the family sit on the tiles around the grave, helping the spirits know that they are home, safe and not alone.
I was truly humbled by the incredible people I met in Maumere, who gave up their own days off (it was the ascension of Christ that day) to show me around Maumere and the Sikka District. I hope the following blogs and articles written will do justice to the people and their culture. I went to Maumere to write one story and ended up spending three days learning from people I now consider friends.
Back to Bali, then next stop Toronto and New Orleans for conferences with an amazing company I work with called Mitra Prodin. I’m so very lucky and grateful to work with the people I do in Bali, Mitra Prodin being an inspiring company that offers employment opportunities to thousands of women from all over Indonesia.
Which brings me to New Orleans. New Orleans is the home of voodoo, and as someone who is fascinated with the macabre, the history and its stories of ghosts, witches and vampires, was an instant attraction. In fact, the hotel we stayed in was haunted and we met a direct descendant of Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo. Every street in the French quarter is lined with shops or stalls telling fortunes through tarot or palm readings, selling objects of voodoo worship, or the weird and wonderful attire that goes along with it. I bought a top hat which is possibly out of place in Bali but felt very appropriate in New Orleans.
We did the obligatory ghost tour and although I was well prepared to be scared all night, it was more of a history and architecture tour with the occasional witch, vampire, ghost and voodoo story thrown in for good measure. What I did find interesting on the tour was the evident link between religions. Most practitioners of voodoo align themselves with a religion and much like in Flores with animism, the chosen religion is Catholicism.
Voodoo has a bad reputation to be honest, with so many movies and pop culture turning it into more of a black magic. However, the origins of it didn’t start out quite so sinister, as it was used to talk to loved ones who had departed their physical body but perhaps the spirit hadn’t passed over. The other purposes of voodoo were to speak to spirits of deceased loved ones or for healing. From this came the popular concept of voodoo as we know it today, with voodoo dolls being used in magical ceremonies. I asked our guide how they blend the practice of voodoo and Catholicism and he replied much the same as when I asked about it in Maumere – it just works. We go to church and then go home to our own voodoo temples or shrines and communicate on a different level.
When I think about why I struggle with religion and how I feel so much violence and suffering is brought about by conflicting religions, I wonder why we forget that a huge part of religious belief is actually paying respects to those who are no longer with us and helping their spirits pass over or feel safe. My last lot of travel has been a beautiful reminder that there are places in the world where different religions and beliefs can exist and live harmoniously side by side.