A midnight tryst with a voodoo witch

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The Independent Online
In the final part of his voyage up the Mississippi, Matthew Brace slips into New Orleans's twilight zone.

I hid in the darkness of the back seat of a taxicab creeping through the streets of New Orleans at midnight. Outside, on the corner of Bourbon and Conti, the faces of the drunk and the stoned gurned at me through the open window. Their sweaty cheeks reflected the red and green neon of the French Quarter strip bars and the crawfish diners. A big-legged woman bumped against the cab door and shuffled off down the street. I watched her denim hotpants struggling to contain her buttocks as she walked. Someone dressed as an alligator was trying to coax me out of the cab and into a Cajun music bar by waving a reptilian hand at me. The zydeco sounded foot-tappingly good but I had a date. We lurched on, picking up speed as we left the decadence behind. A hot, wet wind blew on my face through the window and lifted the strands of my hair that had matted and stuck to my forehead.

The cab dropped me on North Rampart Street, the frayed hem of the French Quarter's skirts. I found an iron gate protecting the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and waited for my priestess, wondering if I had pushed my luck a little far by arranging to meet her at the witching hour.

Miriam Chamani is the Queen Mother and founder of the temple. She has been here since 1990 when she arrived penniless but "full of the spirit" with her husband, a Belizean "obeahman" or herbal healer. She did not come with the intention of establishing a temple but knew she was destined to do religious work of some sort. Now she is the Witch Queen of New Orleans and divides her time between sacrificing things and showing tourists around the temple.

Miriam's assistant led me to a courtyard where I sat under three Christmas oaks. Miriam walked silently across the flagstones, past me and into the temple's ante-room. She was rubbing her eyes and clearly had been sleeping. I felt guilty for interviewing her at this hour. She said she didn't mind and with the casual air of a dinner party host handing round sherry and pretzels she brought out a foot-high candle and a frying-pan full of fizzing, smoking incense.

Engulfed in the sweet smoke I tried to draw from her the secret of voodoo. Either the incense, the late hour or the crushing fatigue that I had built up over the past five weeks travelling non-stop down 2,500 miles of the Mississippi prevented my brain from computing her explanations. I just about grasped her thoughts on the circularity of things (good and evil, light and dark, etc, etc) and I agreed with her beliefs about the afterlife - that our ancestors' spirits are all around us. I had hoped she would tell me that was true. But the higher realms of "gris-gris" as they call voodoo in New Orleans, sailed over my head and up into the lower branches of the oaks. I was baffled by the Versatile Order of Divinity and the Invisible Science of Life.

Miriam took me in to see the temple. In two small rooms lit only by candles were altars covered with offerings to ancestors and to the Gods. Half- full cups of black coffee, their residue caked to the china; glass ashtrays criss-crossed with the grey fingers of burned-out cigarettes; macabre dolls; strings of coloured Mardi Gras pearls, and grotesque African wood masks. Dollar bills were tucked into glasses and paperclip boxes and stuffed behind sepia photographs showing finely dressed descendants on sunny afternoons grinning for the camera. Everything was covered with a film of dust and dried splashes of candle wax. It was more like a proud, bereaved grandmother's treasure trove than the temple of a much-maligned religion.

"It is unfair to say that voodoo is evil. It isn't. We believe in many good things, like respecting your elders and doing good to people while you are alive," said Miriam. "The rituals are important. Our ancestors need sustenance and that is the best way to feed them. We give an offering to the Gods before we eat."

Miriam had a certain magic about her, a calming influence that was a pleasure to experience. She had a lazy voice and dancing eyes. She made me feel safe. Outside the window of the temple was one of the most decadent cities on Earth but in Miriam's temple was peace.

I asked her if she had a spell to silence a noisy neighbour and she laughed. "In New Orleans everybody has a noisy neighbour," she said. "You need to find out his name and talk to him indirectly through a mirror in your apartment - tell him his music is beautiful but not at 2 o'clock in the morning. He is a lonely soul. He is being noisy because he wants friendship, that is all."

I had expected her to impart to me the secrets of some wicked spell but instead she had nothing but compassion and sympathy in her thoughts. I left Miriam with the scent of incense in my hair, a love potion recipe in my pocket and my faith in humanity at least partly restored.

A few hours later at dawn, I went down to the Mississippi for the last time. I had followed this beautiful river from its source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. In five weeks I had got to know it well. It had become a friend. I brushed an empty bottle of nasal decongestant from a rock by the scummy waterline and sat down to say my goodbyes.

I felt privileged that I had known this mighty river and was sad to leave it. I felt full of the spirit of the Mississippi.