Salvador da Bahia, Brasil

March 21, 2009

I’m a lousy travel writer.

When I try to write about the experience of spending a week in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, my words resemble the obliquity of Hemingway: “It was hot. They served fish.” And when I try to write about the culture, the way Portuguese sounds to my untrained ear like nasal French and Italian and Spanish all over, or how the women are Amazonian and the men are thick with muscles, how ass is cash and muscles provoke sex, it would appear as though I did nothing but stay inside and watch telenovelas. I cannot reduce my total feelings. I cannot present a summary. Brazil is uncategorizable, because it is so large. My trip was wonderful, because it was so complex.

One cannot relate one’s travels without sounding a little bland, embellishing a few details (as with all stories), omitting illnesses or dangers or hostilities, name-dropping here and there to keep up the appearance of authenticity–but ultimately the travel writer is describing a world that is unknown to the reader, unexisting, and quite possibly too perfect. I even thumbed through a few copies of National Geographic to see how the trick is pulled, and saw that the performance can’t be done without showing some strings. I’ve never been interested in slide shows, and straightforward documentaries bore me. Who cares how each hour of the day is spent? Perhaps I’m impatient. The rough curves of fiction are enough to satisfy me. I refuse to describe the boring moments, the steps I took and to where and for what. There are enough second-rate journalists and travel magazines that take up space.

Here it is, then, my recollection of a trip to a city in Brazil, with no strings attached, because I’ve cut them off.


A worthy life begins one way and goes another. It’s not the simple honesty of this statement that interests me, but the different possibilities from its practice. For instance, something that begins as a difficulty, like heritage, transforms a person into an exotic fossil. And something unconscionable, like slavery, offers someone an identity. Race is not a characteristic of a region but an interpretation shaped by history. In Brazil you see the white and the black and the less-black and the brown coexist, but without much malice. That is, without a sense of injustice. No one is outraged and no one is looking for charity. The African descendants here have tried to keep their traditions active, have incorporated foreign elements to make themselves seem relevant and acceptable. Unlike the States, where the black man was debased to the point of nothingness. The chains of slavery may have been locked longer in Salvador, but not tighter. The oppressors have been overrun by the natural will of the people, which is to touch everything and to be touched. That’s not to say that there isn’t forced poverty, or class clashes, or the other man-made distinctions that lead to airplanes from Salvador to Rio filled to capacity with only light-shaded passengers.

But on my trip I learned what it means to be mixed, to blend two traits into a strength. There is no dominant blood. Race and nationality are dice rolls thrown before we even get to the table. On the Ilha Ponta de Areia, around the bend from the beach there were some mottled roosters and hens and various dogs and cows pecking in trash and human feces. Did these animals represent the island? They were alive, anyway. Isn’t that sufficient? The men anchored their boats and drank and sometimes fished, while the women shrewdly cooked for us and counted coins and sometimes smiled from their jokes. The children were our waiters, when they weren’t juggling balls or chasing each other.

And that’s how it goes: five hundred years of boiled port-town interactions, a mere hundred years of racial freedom, and the residual leftover after the evaporation is a mixture of business and pleasure, of doing what you like and getting paid for it, of living in the slums but with everyone you love. A heterogeneous nation, where the only national identity is based on a field game.

By the time I landed, Carnaval was long over, but the bleachers still remained, and partyers swaggered about in baked hangovers. We worked; that’s what we were there for. I was sent as a volunteer, along with twenty others, to assist in various non-profit organizations. My assignment was to help the nuns at the Madre Teresa missionary, entertaining children from low-income families, keeping company with abandoned old women, and painting the walls of a nursery. We alternated between these tasks dutifully and cheerfully; for us this was only a brief exchange, an insight abroad. For them it is an eternal reality. We were driven through the streets of Brazil in a van–chauffeured, like stereotypical Westerners: Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Aussies, not a single colored person among us. Only one member of our group was of any interest, a girl born in Poland, raised in Australia, and now living in England. I gazed out the tinted windows as the scenes shifted, like watching a movie, image after image floating by until I found myself within the movie as an actor, without a speaking role, forced to ride and watch as the staff repeated to us the golden rule: look, but don’t touch.

One evening, restless from sitting on our hands, we received special access to a Candomblé ceremony. We descended into a room painted light turquoise. Three black women like three black Fates wore necklaces of three different lengths. The lengths of the beads determined the role of each in the ritual. Eleven Japanese tourists, some fresh from Egypt, attended with us. Only one among them speaking English–a Los Angelina, of course, my whole life is sunk within that pit, that valley of shadows, really–and of course we talked about Saitama and the fresh breath of travel. The ceremony service went for over two hours, with the ladies in charge smoking cigars forwards and backwards, swallowing the ashes so as not to desecrate the floor. They slapped us all over the wrists and face and body while they convulsed and changed their voices and took on different personalities. They lit gunpowder, which woke the sleeping Japanese with shrieks of Sugoi. Edí in the corner was constantly drumming up hell. And in the end? A Lord’s Prayer, a request for peace on Earth, a bit of talcum powder on the neck, a toast with rice milk, and we were released back into the dark streets.

By night our throats were dry and we got our drinks from Rio Vermelho or Pelourinho. I remember the plazas were thick with mechanized drums. Getting drunk at São Jorge gave us time to study the men who meandered from table to table. There was no sexual aggression; they only wanted to enjoy the music. Another Tuesday we danced a poor samba as the squares rumbled with an escaping rhythm. The Pole thought our American antics were funny. What was so American about them? I asked. What was any of our countries but lines on a map? A huge debate on regional behavior. How can a person who hops around different countries stigmatize some people for acting on behalf of all people? What impressions countries make, what assumptions we have! Some imitations and reflections on the English language. Some vomit. Outside the taxi-window, another protective bubble, we passed alleys of loafing bodies. The whores lined the streets like clay statues. We drove from decadence to decay and back again, enough to make my head whirl.

Forgetting the people–the structures themselves were masterpieces, graffiti spread on the walls like drapes covering a filthy window. We forget the grime and what the building is made of: we only see the decoration, the art. Some graffiti is commissioned by businesses; most are done in defense of a social issues; and all make mention of how to contact the artist. The sidewalks are made of mosaic tiles, each piece delicately chosen, probably by slaves, for kilometers on end. You walk over waves of white and blue, the same pattern repeating over and over and over, but perfectly. An entire city conscientiously fashioned as an art piece. The faces of buildings that looked onto streets were freshly painted in gorgeous and unreal shades of blue, red, green, pink. But the sides were all smoke-white, and the mold melted to form branches or veins.

And I read, of course, who could keep that precious time away from me? Francisco Mesquita de Soares was murdered in Ocara on July 25th, 2000, an assentado on the land of a fazenda, stealing water from a public lake to nourish his family. Found amongst his meager belongings was an AP story about the students of Tianeman Square; scrawled underneath was his note: “They did this knowing they would fail; nevertheless they fought. Will they be remembered by this crazy world where so much happens each day? Were their actions futile? I myself decide they are not futile because the Chinese children inspired a Brazilian man to act for his children. I carry their spirits, for they walk on water.”

That seems to me the most Salvadorean, the most Brazilian, the most humanitarian part of the entire trip. A city, a country, where what a human is, and where a human comes from, are two unrelated things. The world is a small place, small enough to let an Armenian dance like a Brazilian, to let a Brazilian honor a Chinese adolescent, to let an Australian argue with a Pole, and to accept an Albanian woman adopting an Indian identity.

Love and peace— Garen