Cassiani de Cassiani’s face is beaded with sweat but his smile remains steady through the regular wipings of his forehead. Whichever of Colombia’s 314 ecosystems we presently occupy on this dirt road sixty kilometers south of Cartagena is tyrannical. We are standing on the main street of San Basilio de Palenque, the first freed-slave city in the Americas and the last one still in existence, and my shirt is soaked. The heat and humidity is causing me to hallucinate. A man limps towards us, alone, a dwarf and a cripple wearing a cocked baseball hat and a basketball jersey and his face smeared white, the constant base beats of Palenque music coming from the gathering of local men sitting on a porch down the road behind him seemingly urging him forward. He pays us no mind, slurring loudly but in an unrecognizable language as he walks past. This village has done its best to resist outside influences for the last four hundred years, and today will be no different.
Most of the following is probably true: Sometime in the late 1500’s, Benkos Biohó, an African island king, was seized by a Portuguese slave dealer off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, sold to a middle-man with the last name of Palacios, then deposited on the fortified walls of Cartagena and sold to a Spaniard. Benkos quickly decided to forge his own path, organizing an escape with ten other slaves and making his way to the swamps and low mountains west of the Magdalena River and south of Cartagena. He founded the Village of the Cimmarróns, organized an army, helped to free other slaves, and repelled the forces of the King of Spain, making the Hollywood transition from a minor island monarch to a major pain in the ass for the Spanish one. But the best tales of heroism end with martyrdom, and Benkos Biohó, liberator of slaves, King of Handguns, and idol for generations, was duped into peace by the governor of Cartagena. In 1621, after walking ignorantly carefree through the city streets, Benkos was caught, hung and quartered. Today his statue stands in the San Basilio de Palenque main square, his back to Cartagena and his unshackled arms stretching out towards the west coast of Africa.
But his memory is strong, and San Basilio today is an economically depressed but culturally enriched town of about 3,000, most of them direct descendants of slaves brought to Colombia from Angola and Congo. Benkos selected the area for its defensibility and others found it by following maps woven into women’s hair; we drive the sixty kilometers in a rental car, stopping for two legitimate toll booths and, after an unplanned diversion into a roadside village, three illegitimate ones, set up by entrepreneurial youths stringing ribbon across the road. Eventually a large brown sign on the side of the highway directs travelers to San Basilio, along a long dirt road that ends in the village itself. We park in the main square and next to a church with a stained glass window depicting not only a historically inaccurate and ironically white Jesus, but one who looks as if he’s been conjured up by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Of two men lounging under a gazebo and out of the sun, Cassiani de Cassiani is the quicker to his feet and far more amiable, and though he speaks only Spanish and Palenquero (a Creole mix of Bantu, Spanish, and maybe some Portuguese), he assures us he has an English-speaking friend. We hire Cassiani as our guide for the day, and after picking up Alberto, whose “English” consists of a few recognizable words ineffectually mixed in with other sounds, Cassiani takes us on a walking tour and oral history of San Basilio.
Aside from the aforementioned Benkos Biohó and the foundations of the Palenque, Cassiani shows us the creek where the women still wash clothes and talk; shares that polygamy is practiced and that he has three wives; tells us of the importance of music in both current affairs (he is dancing or singing more often than he is not) and the role it played in defending the city in the early years; and describes the intense and lengthy funeral ritual of the Palenque. The women play an elaborate role in the ceremony, called Lumbalú, to include mandatory crying, singing, and – here’s where the translation gets tricky – eating. Of the dead. Though this generally isn’t much of a shock for me – I have long been attracted to the sky burial practices of some Tibetan Buddhists and my recent discovery of the Zoroastrian’s Tower of Silence (#161 of 422 things to do in Mumbai!) has only added to my long list of places to see – the casual nature with which Cassiani and Alberto assert that they may have dined on their gammy is a bit disconcerting.
“Do you mean cannibalism?,” I ask.
“No, (something in Spanish and/or Palenquero).” Both Cassiani and Alberto are animated in their denial that they are cannibals, and I quickly realize that this might be an awfully inconsiderate accusation to make towards someone you’ve just met, in their own homes, who are being so kind as to show you around their village. I try to clarify.
“Tu comes los muertos, o tu comes con los meurtos?”
I will admit my Spanish is, to be overly generous, flawed, but we leave our initial meeting with Cassiani under the distinct impression that, at one time at least, eating mami- and papi-bits was a way to both honor and communicate with dead family members. Internet research does not support that the Palenque are cannibals or ever adopted the practice, but nor does it say they are not cannibals. And though “cannibal” seems a bit harsh, the word itself actually comes from the Spanish word caribal, in that the Spanish believed that the Caribs of the West Indies perhaps, occasionally, ate one another.
We make our last stop of the day at the home of Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, just on the east side of a barrio-dividing line none of us can see and at the site of the future police station (San Basilio does not now nor has it ever had a police force, and disputes are resolved by village elders). Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, master of the tabla, apparent novice on the marimbula, and Palenque goodwill ambassador, sits in his back yard, shirtless but with an impressive silver award hanging around his neck and a smile as bright. He lists the countries he’s been to, all of which invited him to play and to sing, and then does the same for us. It is mesmerizing, in part because we are witnessing something so foreign, in part because we have been rewarded for taking a chance without preparation, and in part, no doubt, simply because we are here.