SALVADOR DE BAHIA NOTES FROM A JOURNEY Sunil Deepak, 2002
Brazil is not unknown to me - I have been here many times. I have also been to city of Salvador in the past. I love this country and this city. I love Brazilians' love for life - suddenly on the road, the persons walking in front of you can break into a dance (especially in the evening, after some glasses of Cerveja or Caipirinha)! I love their love for Cerveja and Samba. I like the fact that it is difficult to describe a typical Brazilian - the people here represent the different streams of civilizations coming from all the continents of the world, mixing together and producing a very wide mixture of features and skin colours. The mixing of these racial streams hides countless individual stories of persons meeting, falling in love, making families and at the same time, many of these stories are about tragedies of man's cruelty, rape, killings of innocents, oppression of the weak.
Like India, Brazil is also a country of immense contrasts, with enormous gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Majority of persons in its slums are blacks of African origin.
Discovery of Americas
Mr. Colombo (Columbus), an Italian from the northern sea-port city of Genoa, "discovered" the Americas more than five hundred years ago on behalf of the king of Spain. Actually people had been walking over an ice-bridge connecting northern Europe to Alaska and north America during the ice ages more than 10,000 years ago, and then spreading all over the continent. However, America's name is connected to Mr. Colombo as his "discovery" led to the real commercial exploitation and Spanish colonial rule of this continent. This was followed by centuries of plunder, exploitation and suffering as whole tribes were wiped out, as centuries of civilization and culture were robbed and the survivors were converted to Christianity and asked to give up their traditional religious beliefs and practices, including traditional medicine. In the mean time, the natural and cultural resources of Americas were taken away to Spain to fund the wars. When the indigenous population groups were crushed and killed, another round of suffering started through the slave-trade, picking up young persons from Africa and bringing them to the New World to be the slaves. This whole process is part of what is called "Civilization of Americas".
The Church played a key role in this subjugation of the continent. At the same time, most of history of this period comes from records of some missionaries - they did record all the horrors of this conquest and safe-guarded bits and pieces of Amerindian cultures for posterity. Without them, we wouldn't have known about the history of this conquest and its impact on the indigenous groups. Now the situation is much different and even the missionaries are aware of the need of protecting whatever is left of the Amerindian culture. They are also taking an active role in safe-guarding of Amerindian customs, languages, stories, etc. in different parts of Americas. Through reformist or protest movements like Theology of Liberation and religious syncretism, new ways of living together between ancient cultures and dogmas of religion are being created.
Behind the story of discovery of Americas, there is another story - the story of finding an alternative sea-route to India. Mr. Colombo was looking for India and not the Americas and when he saw the first island in Caribbean, he did believe that he had reached India and so, all the natives living there were called Indians. Since then, five hundred years have passed and the world continues to call the indigenous persons of Americas as "Indians" - to differentiate them from "Indian" Indians, they can be called Red Indians or Native Indians or Amerindians. Each American Indian group has its own name - Gaivos, Yanomami, Macusha, Wai Wai... So you might as well ask - now the whole world knows that they are not "Indians", they are the original Americans, so why do we insist on calling them Indians? The situation gets even more confusing if we think of the Indians taken to Americas 150 years ago as indentured labour - they are also Indians living in Americas and are called East Indians or Curry Indians or Desi Indians!
A friend's story
Deolinda Bittencourt de Santana is a Brazilian friend I adore. Her grandfather came from France and he married a Gaivos Amerindian in Amazon region in Para state in the north-east of Brazil. Deo's father was born with the white European skin and the features of his father, and he got married first to a white lady. He had three children from his first wife, who died while giving birth to their third child. He then married Deo's mother, who came from African stock, who had been brought to Brazil as slaves. He had seven more children from the second wife (including Deo). Out of these seven children, three have received the African heritage from their mother while other four have got their father's blue eyes and blond hair. Together with her family, the indomitable Deo could well be a symbol of fighting spirit of Brazilian people with her African, European and Amerindian heritage. A big hug to you, Deo.
The Beach in Salvador
Salvador is the capital of Bahia state of Brazil, facing Atlantic ocean and it has a long sea-beach. The city is divided in two main parts - Cidade Velho on the hill and Cidade Bassa near the sea shore. I am staying in Amerilina, just fifty meters from the sea front in the Cidade Bassa.
Tourist books define the Amerilina beach as dangerous and tourists are not advised to go for a bath here. It seems that many persons have lost their lives in the sea waves of Amerila beach. I watch the high waves capped with white froth rushing in like crazy horses, crashing on the rocks at the beach in an incessant rhythm. When the wind is stronger, it brings sea drops to my hotel window on the second floor. Local boys are probably unaware of these warnings about Amerilina beach written in the tourist guides since they ride the waves, dominating the crazy horses by their surf boards with an admirable grace.
The beach is one enormous football field. Goal-nets and field boundaries rub shoulders with other nets and football field boundaries. Boys and men, organized in different clubs, wearing the colours of their club, occupy the different fields all the time on Saturdays and Sundays. On a free day, I spend hours watching them play with boisterous energy of the young and I can almost understand the passion Brazilians feel for this game.
One evening as the sun goes down, together with some friends, we sit on the beach, drinking sweet Guiaba (Guava) and Maracuja liquors, getting drunk and talking about serious things like life, WHO and fight against leprosy till late in the night. It is beautiful.
The anger of the poor
The hotel staff warns me to be careful of street children when I go out, as they are also supposed to be dangerous. The advice says - do not carry too much cash on you, divide your cash in different parts of your body, if someone stops you on the road to ask you for money or watch or something, do not argue, just give it to them! After, all the warnings, initially I am really afraid to go out. I go out for morning walks without my watch or any cash. I never see the street children from too close - some times I see them standing outside the supermarket or near the crossings - they don't look dangerous, they look like the poor street children in Delhi.
I have visited some favelas (slums) in Salvador with Cristina, a friend who works there for a development project - yes, compared to the high rise glossy buildings of Salvador, they seem terrible but they seem much better than our own jhuggi-jhopris colonies in India. I think that the poverty and degradation that one can see in almost all cities of India can not be matched by any other place in the world where poor live (except may be for children living in the garbage dumps in Kenya and Philippines). (Right - Cristina, Paolo and other friends in a school in a favela of Salvador)
I have long discussions with Cristina and Paolo, her husband and an IT expert, about the differences among the poor slum areas in India and Brazil. Cristina loves India and had worn a sari for her church wedding in Brazil. Why there are so many crimes and violence in favelas of Brazil? Slums are not so scary in Mumbai or Delhi? Cristina feels that the centuries old oppression and exploitation of "lower castes" and tribals in India does not lead to violent revolutions because of religious beliefs - people believing in reincarnation and karma are more patient and accepting of social injustices! I tell her about the Naxalite movement and the armed revolution in Andhra and Bihar, but in reality, I don't know the explanation of this difference.
Then one night, I see the street children at work. It is 3 AM and I am awake. I get up from bed, standing in front of the window, watching the roaring waves of the ocean crashing on the rocks creating non-stop music. Suddenly, my attention goes to a movement in the car-park on the right. Two young boys, must be 13-14 years old, standing on the road, keeping a watch. Others are moving among the cars, opening one car. One of the boys looks up at me and sees me, but they don't move, just stare at me. In a few minutes, two more boys holding a suitcase and other things stolen from the car, come out of the parking, and all four of them walk away. I am so shocked and probably the whole thing is over in a few minutes. Afterwards, I keep on feeling guilty for not having shouted or called the hotel reception for stopping them. A couple of hours later I come down for my morning walk along the beach and in the hotel reception room, I see the hotel guard sleeping on a sofa right in front of a big window facing the car-park - from that place, he should have seen the car thieves very easily!
Spanish and Portuguese influence and Yoruban culture
Brazil, like rest of Americas has been heavily influenced by the Spanish and Portuguese catholic missionaries accompanying the colonizers. Salvador means 'Saviour'. Other important cities of Bahia like Feira de Santana, Sant Antonio de Jesus, etc. also carry similar names inspired from the Bible.
Yet there is another religion and culture which co-exists with Christianity in Brazil, some times hiding in it to avoid persecution (in the past) because pagan religions were not welcomed by the colonizers while "bringing civilization" often meant wiping out the pre-existing notions of gods, nature, culture, etc. This other religion, Candomble, originated in Africa, among the Yoruban tribes occupying central and western Africa. Yoruban slaves brought their own gods called Orisha with them, to the new world. The Orisha gods, their myths and legends were deeply rooted in Yoruban psyche. Since the European masters in the Americas were against pagan gods, the slaves had to hide their Orisha gods among the Christian saints - thus the different Orisha gods were substituted by Christian saints having similar characteristics, so that they could go on praying to their gods but outwardly seemed to pray to Christian saints. With time, this has led to many syncretic features in the Yoruban traditional praying. After independence of Brazil, the Orisha gods have finally come out of the hiding and have re-established links with Yoruban counterparts in Africa. Bahia as a whole and especially Salvador, are the centres of Orisha culture in Brazil.
This did not happen just in Brazil but also in other countries of central Americas, where Yoruban slaves had arrived.
For example, the Yoruban religion is called Candomble in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and Vodun in Haiti. The goddess Obatala, characterized by compassion and mercy, is called Obtalia in Cuba, Oxala in Brazil and Guede in Haiti, while she is worshipped in Christian churches praying to Our lady of Mercy and Our lady of Mount Caramel. The Yoruban god Eshu, who is a fun-loving messenger of gods, is Eleggua in Cuba, Exu in Brazil, Legba in Haiti and hidden under Saint Simon or Saint Anthony of Padua. The river goddess, Yemoja is known as Yemalia in Cuba, Yemanja in Brazil, Agwe in Haiti and hidden under Our lady of Regla and Mary of the Sea in the Catholic church.
Brazilians and attitudes towards sex
It is evening and I am walking along the Amerilina beach. Suddenly, it starts to rain. Big drops of water crashing down with the tropical fury. I run to take shelter in a petrol pump. There are many other persons like me, who come running to stand under the canopy of the petrol pump. Inside the petrol pump, there is a small supermarket, which has an interesting poster on its window. It is against noise pollution and it says, "If you wish to show your strength, show it in your bedroom and not by playing the music loud. Research has shown that persons making lot of noise, suffer from impotence."
It makes me laugh and at the same time, makes me think about differences in attitudes to sex and human body, among different cultures. In India, you can't imagine such a poster coming from Indian Government, asking people to make less noise and making reference to sex! In the land of Kamasutra and Khujaraho, sex is a taboo and un-Indian, a western conspiracy to corrupt young minds. Protesting against noise seems useless in India, especially if every temple, gurudwara, mosque and church feels authorized to chant their prayers and songs with loudspeakers (they think perhaps that the God is hard of hearing!) at all times of the day and night. Even worse are the Hindu "Jagratas", singing "prayers" on loud-speakers the whole night. Even if you feel very pious and want to listen to these prayers at 2 O'clock in the morning/night, the effect is spoiled as most 'prayers' are based on tunes of popular film and pop songs.
Churascheria and Eating meat in Brazil
Brazilians love eating meat. For eating meat in Brazil, you must go to a Churascheria (pronounced Shuraskeria). Most Churascherias have possibility of self-service, where you take what ever you wish to eat including meat and then pay according to the weight of your plate. Near Amerilina beach, there is a nice and simple churascheria, where for 1 to 1.5 Euros, I can have good food.
But the fun of churascherias comes if you take their fixed menu, where you sit on your table and take a few vegetables from the self-service counter and then wait for the waiters to bring you the meat. A procession of waiters will follow, each coming with different kinds of meat for you - pork-kidneys, chicken-hearts, different parts of beef, sausages and so on, all grilled on fire and for as long and as much as you are willing to eat. At the end, you pay marginally more than what you would pay from self-service, but you can really eat much more. By the time, I finished eating there, I usually felt so much filled up with meat that at the end, I didn't feel like going near meat for weeks!
Paying for your food by weight and not by contents of your plate, is not limited to churascherias - such restaurants are very common in Brazil and because the cost is very limited, they are really great. They take away all the tension of looking at menus and giving orders, and waiting for your food to come, without knowing about the size of portions. You have a big buffet to chose from, take your pick and then weigh the plate for paying. I wish, other countries can also copy this technique. I loved it.