Vol. 19, In Brazil: Carnival Time
[The doorbell just rang. Went to the balcony and a woman was below with her child. She asked about the woman—the rasta, as she calls her—who used to live here. The rasta used to give her food for her and her family. I told her she wasn't here, she asked me for some sugar. I put some in a plastic bag and threw it down to her. There is one day of the month (or is it year)—the day of some saint—when it is accepted (and expected) for poor families to ask for bread and other food. They begin to know which houses give and which don't. Before the rasta left, our house was one that gave.]
The energy in Salvador is electric, but at the same time extremely laid back. Having fun is easy, but it may take some effort to get where you're going. Yesterday, we decided to go to the beach on the island of Itaparica—Ilha Itaparica. We walked from our neighborhood (Santo Antonio—a collection of old, crumbling pastel colored houses occupied by families and elderly) down the hill (Ladeira do Carmo) through Pelourinho (the old, bustling, cobblestoned tourist center) down the Lacerda Elevator (an elevator that takes you from the upper city to the lower city—Cidade Baixa) through Mercardo Modelo (a huge market selling arts and crafts of all types) to the port where we finally took a 40-minute ferry ride to the island.
By the time we got there it was noon and we were hungry. Right off the port, there is a row of restaurants sharing the same sheltered area. At first we didn't realize how many different restaurants there were, until we drifted to the edge of one and two people came at us with two different menus. At first we took the menus, then it dawned on us we were being drawn away from the restaurant we had selected, into places with different tables and different colored chairs. We thanked them and went back to the restaurant we selected.
My favorite thing to eat in Bahia is the fried fish. It's beach food. Like the fried fish in Jamaica. But in Bahia, instead of coming with Jamaica's bammy (yucca) or fried festival (cornbread?) it comes with beans, rice, and a tomato-green pepper-onion salad. The conversation went something like this.
Me: Ten peixe frito? (Do you have fried fish?)
Him: Temos de tudo. (We have everything) He added a little wink.
Me: Que tipo de peixe é? (What type of fish is it?)
Him: [I can't remember the fishes he mentioned, but the one I wanted wasn't in the list]
Me: Voce não ten vermelho? (You don't have red fish?)
Him: Não. (No)
Me: Queriamos um peixe enteiro. (We wanted a whole fish.)
Him: Espere ai. (Hold on a sec.)
He disappears to the back, and returns.
Him: Temos peixe enteiro. (We have whole fish)
Me: Que tipe é. (What kind is it?)
Him: Vermelho. (Red fish.)
The fish was tasty and was worth the wrangling. My cousin who I was with recalled a talk Nikki Giovanni gave in irritation about people who speak with authority about things they know nothing about. I could have, hypothetically, accepted that there was no redfish, then we'd have had a whole nother lunch.
When my cousin first arrived to visit me, she wanted to save money. So, we decided to take the bus from the airport. We took one bus to the bus center of Lapa. Then at Lapa we needed a bus to Aquidaba. Someone sent us downstairs. I read all the signs advertising the bus routes on all four platforms and chose platform D. On platform D, I couldn't find a bus going there. A family there advised us to go upstairs and take the Barbalho bus. We go upstairs. The woman we ask says let me check with someone else. The some else seems pretty knowledgeable and he says, there's no Barbalho bus, but there's a bus that will leave you at Aquidaba. Back downstairs, this time to platform B. He gave us names of specific buses, but when they came, the drivers said no, they weren't going to Aquidaba. It didn't look like they wanted to provide me with any information, but I just stood there. Finally a bus driver told me what bus to catch. When it rolled up, my cousin didn't bother to follow me. She just assumed when I asked the conductor, he'd say, I'm not going to Aquidaba, but as luck would have it, he said yes, and then proceeded to drive away. A group of women ran up screaming, he stopped for them. I yelled at Rashida (my cousin) to hurry up. She put her suitcase on the front of the bus, then ran around to the back to board. As she was stepping onto the bus, the driver started to drive away.
The reason she couldn't get on the front of the bus with her luggage is there is a turnstile in the back of the bus that counts passengers. The turnstile count needs to match with the cobrador's till (the cobrador is the person who takes the money on the bus). When I first came to Brazil, street kids and other really young kids would slide under the turnstile (young children's parents still carry them over it), and if you wanted to save money, you and a friend squeezed in together. I saw a man do that with his friend and the cobrador started fussing at him, he pointed to the back, there was a video camera recording everything. They're beginning to regulate everything here. And many things are shinier and newer than when I first arrived. The airport has had an amazing facelift—marble, glass, air conditioning, fast food, clothes stores, two floors. It looks more like the airports I'm accustomed to in the U.S. and less like an open air building that you just walk through to board your plane. No more walking on the runway to get into the airport, now we exited straight into the terminal. Many painters who had a stall or who were just selling on the street, now have their own studios and shops. Things are in development everywhere.
A black woman who was visiting here, staying at the same house I am, brought an Ebony magazine with her. The woman of the house has been studying English and she welcomes any opportunity for exposure to the language. After skimming the magazine, she came to me and said, "Kiini, why do the black women in the U.S. straighten their hair?" It's a good question of course. Looking at the hair ads in Ebony magazine, the shiny bone-straight hair does stand out. But I thought it was a strange question. Strange because the women in Brazil are no strangers to hair chemicals. The difference is, here, everyone goes for the curly hair that the stereotypical Brazilian is expected to have. The women with African/Black hair generally opt for jherri curls or braided extensions. The women with hair that can be persuaded have some type of curly perm. Short hair is generally not done on women. During this trip though, I have seen more women with twists and braids done with just their natural hair.
In response to her question, I said, "It's the same as here, the standard of beauty is not African. The worldwide standard of beauty is European, and while I'm sure most black women wouldn't trade in their blackness for anything, our natural hair just isn't considered feminine or beautiful." We talked about images in the media. In Brazil especially, if you watch television, you would think there were barely any black people here. But there are as many African looking Bahians as there are mulato looking Bahians. I told her if I didn't have locks my hair would probably go up and out, rather than hang down, and there are very few environments in which that type of hairstyle is considered feminine. She told me she perms her hair, if she didn't, hers would go up and out too. But she said she has too, because her job wouldn't accept her without it.
On the surface, it looks like all the Brazilian women have long curly hair, but this trip, I've noticed three weaves (that's three more than I ever noticed before). The standard of beauty here is extremely rigid, but it can also be freeing in a strange way. Besides the hair thing, all the young women have tight bodies. Smallish on top, curved on bottom. They all wear sexy tanks exposing stomachs, and tight jeans or short skirts. Everyone is expected to be sexy sexy. But then, the skinny people aren't the only ones doing it. If you're big, you'll still rock your skintight minidress. Pregnant women wear cut off tops and short shorts showing off their bellies. EVERYONE WEARS BIKINIS. A few older women or extremely large women wore tanks. But everyone else—pregnant women, little girls, tight-body teenagers, big belly middle aged women, fat mothers—wears bikinis. I feel encouraged every time I come here. In the U.S., you are expected to cover up if you have any rolls of fat or cellulite. It's as if a body larger than the media-mandated size is a crime or a failure to be hidden from the public eye. Here, I'm reminded that my body deserves air and sunshine too. In Bahia, whatever size the woman, celebration of the body is what it's about.
Salvador has three carnival circuits. The Pelourinho circuit, the Campo Grande-Castro Alves Circuit, and the Barra/Ondina circuit. I live in the neighborhood right next to Pelourinho, so it's easy for me to slip down the hill and hang out there. The Pelourinho carnival is the most traditional. It's small bands on foot—drumming groups, pagode groups, samba groups—individual costumes, huge body puppets. Because the streets are so small and the carnival bands are so small, it has a very intimate feel. You get caipirinhas (the national Brazilian drink: cachaza [sugar cane rum], limes, sugar) or caipiroskas, beer or some other beverage and dance behind the bands that are playing tunes you vibe with.
Both the Campo Grande circuit and the Barra/Ondina circuit are for the big trucks. It seems to me (though I could be wrong) Campo Grande is more working class people, whereas the Barra circuit are for middle class (and often more white) Brazilians. Similar to Trinidad's carnival, people pay money to dance behind the trucks. The groups are called blocos and the costumes are usually a silk-screened t-shirt with designs and the band's name, and some type of shorts or short skirt. Most of those trucks play pagode or Axé music (the popular music) and most of those songs have dances that go along with them. So it's thousands of people, wearing the same costume, jumping up and down, often doing the same dance.
You don't just pay for the costumes and the music when you pay to play with a bloco, you also pay for the safety of being inside the bloco. You are surrounded by ropes and the only people allowed in the ropes are those with costumes. You can go through boisterous crowds and dance for hours within the safety of your crowd. Last night we could have used that safety. We went down to Castro Alves Square (the end of the Campo Grande circuit), in attempt to see Ile Aiye. But when we arrived, they had already passed. By the time we got down to the square, all I could see was the yellow of the Ile Aiye costumes disappearing up the hill.
We danced through the crowd at the Praça Castro Alves relatively easily, but by the time we reached Avenida Carlos Gomes another truck turned the corner and started climbing the hill behind Ile Aiye. Despite this obstacle, we decided we were going for it. We wanted to rush past the new bloco and catch up with Ile. We plunged into the crowd. Brazilian crowds aren't the politest. [I should correct that to say the crowds I have been in during Carnival and other street festivals (and while waiting to get on or off a boat or a bus) in the city of Salvador haven't been the politest.] They don't like to wait to let people past, they shove you if they want to get by rather than saying excuse me. Their lack of crowd finesse is exacerbated by alcohol and the excitement of carnival. As we climbed the hill, we were jostled around a bit, but none of the pushing seemed excessive or unmanageable.
We passed the costumed people in the bloco with no problem, but when we got right next to the truck things changed. The shoving became more intense on the side of the truck. Probably because the music is loudest, the singers are visible, and because of the width of the truck, there is less space on the sides of the street. While we were working studiously to pass the truck, the musicians started a new song with an aggressively hyper beat. The young boys around us started slam-dancing with open arms and jabbing elbows. People went down, we were jerked around, and my cousin lost her shoe. We went through three of those flare ups before we realized we weren't getting past that truck. As long as we were next to the truck, people were going to be dancing wild and shoving. Their dancing reminded me of a recent post that came across Kalamu's e-Drum listserv written by D.J. Spooky/Paul Miller. He talked about the strange new dance craze in Rio (I think, not Sao Paulo), where gangs get together for violence and dancing. It is an almost choreographed fight/dance and if you fall out of step you could get hurt or die. It seemed that here, these kids were just interested in having some wild fun and if people got hurt, that would be a bonus for them. Some people were deliberately shoved. I've heard stories of people being deliberately punched. My host, Cesar, says he stopped going into the crowds years ago, because he tired of seeing streams of people with bruised eyes and cut lips or jaws. I've heard stories of Brazilians girls pinching and punching a friend's girlfriend, just getting their frustrations out on her white body, lashing out at what she represents. A white tourist told us the story of him deciding to jump in with the crowd who had gathered at a free Olodum concert and he somehow found himself on the ground. Instead of getting helpful hands, people started kicking and punching him. He crawled out of the crowd to safety.
In this case, a guy who had been helping us navigate the crowd saw us floundering during the worst flare up and put out his hand to me, I grabbed it and he pulled us out of the madness. We went to a side street to rest. It turns out he is a drummer for Olodum, and he didn't recognize me even though his face was extremely familiar to me. He just wanted to help us out of the rough spot. He asked why we weren't in a bloco, saying it was too dangerous out on the street for us. We chatted about the wild aggression of the crowd and I asked him if he thought they'd be dancing like that to an afoxé band like Ilê Aiyê, where the rhythms are African and more deep, grounding beats, rather than high-energy bouncy beats. He agreed they probably wouldn't. He said we wouldn't be able to pass the band and suggested that we wait until it passes and try to go up a street that's more calm. We decided that we'd better just turn back and catch Ile Aiye tomorrow. I believe the violence of the crowd has everything to do with the poverty of the city and the lack of options of the citizens. As Bob Marley says "a hungry mob is an angry mob."
The tourist-native tension in Salvador is high. It's interesting to me to see two entities that would never interact on their own home turf come together out of necessity. Pelourinho is a pretty grimy place—it stinks like the New Orleans French Quarter. There are a ton of beautiful people, artisans, crafts, museums, cultural performances and art exhibitions in Pelourinho. There are also numerous hustles and exchanges of flesh and currency happening in Pelourinho at any given time. The people of Pelourinho are the working poor or working class (those who work in shops or those who rent the shops would I guess be more middle class, but they are of the artist class which is always hard to identify because they aren't culturally middle class). The street children come to Pelourinho to beg a few meals, young women with their baby strollers or carrying sleeping children in their arms beg for the leftover coins of tourists. They are quite insistent beggars, unafraid to place an intimate hand on your knee or lean an elbow on your shoulder. Other poor folks come with their bags to pick up beer and soft drink cans for recycling dollars. As I'm writing this, I'm just realizing I'm seeing less street children in Pelourinho this year, I wonder where they've gone. Was it the result of the campaign to clean the homeless off the streets of Salvador?
Sexy women and men come to Pelourinho to be picked up by tourists for money or comforts. They usually end up being the tourist's partner and guide for the duration of the tourist's trip. Some of the relationships are clearly on the level of prostitution, others are murkier relationships. There are those Brazilians who honestly seek friendships and relationships with tourists, but it's odd because they only date tourists. I'm not sure if it's something like fetishism or exoticism for them or what. Last night, my cousin and I were just imagining one man's life, because of his profound relationships with tourists. Does he enjoy the transciency of these relationships? Is it heartbreaking every time a girlfriend or a group of friends leave him? What is fed in him by being intimate with tourists? Or is he hanging on, hoping one of them will be his ticket out?
Many of the prostitutes and professional friends of tourists are really looking for a way to travel. They want out of Salvador and they don't have personal means to do so. Many Americans (black Americans included) are surprised to discover the basics of their privilege. One huge privilege that many of us take for granted is the privilege of travel. The U.S. is one of the few countries that the majority, if not the entire, world is open to. In countries all over the world, you would need to be born into a rich family or have special circumstances to travel. You'd have to stand on long lines to prove your worth to some embassy or visa-granting office. You'd have to pay, you'd have to have a certain amount of money in the bank, you need sponsors, or you need to be traveling with a pre-approved group. In the U.S., anyone who can afford a ticket can go. In other countries, here in Salvador, you must get permission. I know quite a few Bahians who have left the country through marriage. There was just an article in the newspaper about the rise of prostitution during these tourist-heavy summer months. The Brazilian government knows that sex and the desirability of its citizens is a major draw, and so most promotional materials feature beautiful, young, brown-skinned, fuckable Bahians. I have tons of stories to tell about relationships between tourists and Bahians, and I also wanted to get back to Ilê Aiyê, but I've gone on too long already. Today is Carnival day and my quest to see Ilê at least once this carnival continues. I'll report more next week.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
: : : August 2001 - present : : :
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
I submitted a story this week. I should know about it in about a month
No acceptances or rejections this week.