Uno, dos, tres it’s on

June 18, 2005 Sábado, na Rua do Paço, Salvador, Bahia

Our room faces east, for better or worse. By 8:30 the sun streaming through the curtainless windows has brought me out of deep sleep into mild discomfort. Still… there are far worse alarm clocks.

Our room consists of three bunkbeds, and although there are only two of us, we have expanded (gas-like) to fill the available volume with clothing and books. Brazil is… Quite Brazilian. A world apart from the States in so many respects. Life in California seems a half-remembered dream. Or nightmare. Our days are spent arguing with vendors, exploring, meeting. Such splendor! Brazil, Brazil is two things: The first, a glorious and rotting colonial country. The opulence of centuries past remains, crumbling in the heat and humidity of the tropics. Walls and buildings that predate the first English-speakers’ footsteps in Virginia abound. These are echoes of an Empire I can only imagine; when tiny Portugal and Span ruled the world with technology and fast ships. A stone’s throw from our pousada is a praça famous for its slave heritage. The slaves were sold here like cattle, and the pole where the rebellious met with torturous whipping death still stands in the center. Yet the people here are even less concerned with their history than I am.

A populous so varied and intermixed as this has no real edges or barriers on which to fix its anger; no fronts to defend. History is simply another commodity to sell to the tourists.

The other ingredient, I’ve discerned, is a sort of burnt-out modernism. The only comparison I can make with the U.S. is fad buildings. Walk into a roller rink or bowling alley; a building which, in its era, was filled with people and now slumps, unmaintained, into the dirt. Broken windows and crowded slums everywhere. The poor Brazilian carves a living out of the colonial / modern city the way an Indian would out of the jungle: hunting, scavenging, abandoning. And who can blame them? Nothing is young for long in the heat of the Bahian sun. Cement and wood and adobe and flesh rot with the same alarming speed, all one can do is slow the decay.

And yet so much here is beautiful. Churches, churches on every street corner. Churches built on the backs of Angolan slaves to honor the god of a rich and fallen empire. Churches like these, with their silent, judgmental saints and their drooping altars, quiet even the most obnoxious tool. Alongside is the undercurrent of Candomblé, strange dress and ritual which miraculously coexist with the Catholic austerity of the surface.

Capoeira is everywhere. Streets, academies, everywhere. A world of allegiances and politics as unreliable and chaotic as the markets in the Lower City. Some, some respect us. Americans who have taken the time to learn the language and art so central to Bahian life are a rarity. We share a bond with the locals unlike the most well-traveled tourist, we know the songs and violence which they live. Not another white person have I seen pick up and play a berimbau. To others, however, we are fakes. Capoeira is not our life, not our living or religion. As experienced and involved as we are, we will always be students, never disciples. This is a dark portent for many street capoeiristas, and they glare and leer as we pass.

We took a class last night, at the Academia do Mestre Bimba. A humble place, for such a famed building. Cup of a carpenter and all that… Still, after demonstrating humility and seriousness, we were welcomed. With those who played aggressively, we defended ourselves. With those who played politely, we smiled and enjoyed. Their capoeira is different, more traditional, vertical, and, despite all their vehemence, very close to the street. I came expecting to see traditional capoeira, which we have. Yet my heart still lies with the control and strength of CDO. Whatever its faults, it is, to me, the best capoeira.

We make many friends. Portuguese is a pretty and simple language in its basic forms, and Bahianos admire us greatly for our meager abilities with it. We are far from average tourists we are inquisitive, polite, knowledgeable, and poor. We ask questions and listen to the answers. To many, we are still simply American targets, but to others we are friends, Americans like they’ve never known.

Harassment is tiring. Politeness turns to insistence, and finally rudeness. Fuck off, you scum, I don’t want your god damn bracelets. What else can we do? Children are the worst.

So much analysis and so little actual description. I apologize, dear friends. Today we ventured into Cidade Baixa, the Low City. Salvador is a city divided by sheer cliffs into two halves, connected only by a huge and gaudy elevator and a winding, deathtrap shipping road. The elevator is a thieve’s paradise, a bottleneck for adventuring tourists which everyone, native and foreign alike, must endure. The striking views are a perfect distraction for pickpockets. The Lower City is more typical, a harbor surrounded by an commercial slum populated by the poor and the “middle class”. We ventured deep into the skyscraper ruins of the Low City today, and although not welcomed, were not harassed. Such a strange geography makes for a twisted and complex city, full of narrow roads and sharp corners. The Low City, traditionally, is inhabited by the lower classes, but from what I’ve seen of Cidade Alta, the poverty is by no means contained. We live in the mingled waters of the Pelourinho, the old town, between the high and low cities.

Before I leave you, an image. First, let me say that Brazil is by no means a cliché third world country. Brazil and Latin America are worlds apart, and one shouldn’t take this image as a universal, archetypal picture of Brazilian life. In front of the Naval headquarters, a sprawling blue and yellow colonial-style building, we encountered five or six children throwing rocks into a mango tree trying to knock fruit down. Ratty, thin children assaulting mangos under the watchful eye of white-clad Brazilian naval guards, stonefaced defenders of tropical wealth. A strange sight to behold, regardless of one’s interpretation.

Tomorrow we had for the beaches and decide our next destination city. Two choices, inland or coast. Industrial towns are out of the question, so we must choose between Ilheus or Ouro Preto. We shall see.

The beer is wearing off, and with it my exhaustion. I can hear the lilting forró and pounding baterias from my open window. Welcome to the jungle, fool.

Até mais,

-T.

Albergue do Juventude do Peló, 10 PM

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