As we've began the last three blogs, I'll start off with some frank honesty: I decided the title of this post to be “STRANGE TIME IN SALVADOR” weeks ago when I supposed to complete it after the elections but my final week in a half or so, it feels less true because lately, things haven’t felt so strange. Compared to my last two weeks, the first two weeks felt like a lengthy dress rehearsal before the final show intended to iron out all the kinks. And now that the show's begun, it's time to go, and honestly...I'm not ready to leave.
The unintended consequence of my Workaway falling through was that in one short month in Salvador I've been able to live in four different neighborhoods: Barris, Pelourinho, Santô Antonio (twice), and Barra (see pics in gallery below). At first, this contributed some dissonance, too, because it was quite hard to assimilate into a place when you didn't stick around long enough to grow a community. Adding to this, as a writer, you kind of feel like a creepy voyeur silently observing everything/one to hopefully witnesses something funny or interesting or confirmatory of some idea you fabricated long before arrival.
Ultimately this obsession was so distracting, the feeling of fraudulence so arresting, that I had to throw out the idea of daily writing in the way I'd approached it during my residency. For a period, I had to throw out writing altogether and fully lean in to the place and the culture as an idle observer—this was the best thing that I could have done for myself and my project. With the burden of "finding inspiration" behind, I could embrace life as a student of the city of Salvador, the state of Bahia, and the nation of Brazil. I went to museums (Casa do Rio Vermelho, the home of Jorge Amado and his wife Zélia Gattai, Museu do Carnaval were my favorites), art galleries, restaurants, thrift shops (brechos), churches, clubs, beaches, markets... all of this an education in the life of a soteropolitano.
Bale Folclórico da Bahia performing. I saw them in Salvador but wasn't allowed to take pics!
LANGUAGE LESSONS FOR DANCERS
When I was in college, I was part of a dance company called Black Movements Dance Theatre. Though I was a naturally good dancer and decent performer, I often got a version of stage fright when learning new choreography. If I was unsure of a "phrase" (the formal name for a series of collected movements) or sequence of phrases, I would rush through them to get to the end as quickly as possible, in hopes that in doing so, it would make my mistakes less noticeable and therefore protect me from being subjected to public correction. This would have been a good strategy, if not for the fact that when I did this, my dancing would look sporadic and stiff, not at all like the natural, fluid and beautiful dancer that I had many times proven I could be. The same thing happened with speaking in Portuguese—in rushing to answer a question, I'd use the estrangeiro dead-giveaway of a "Sim" ("Yes") instead of the casual throwaway "É" (literally, "it is" but in practice "Yeah"). I'd hastily say that I couldn't speak well before even giving a person a chance to speak and for me to respond...but if I inhaled, exhaled, listened, had faith in the things I knew I knew, my conversations would happen light and, if not fluidly, enjoyably.
Much like dancing, once you nail down the fundamentals, you can start experimenting with form and style. But good technique comes slowly and laboriously, so sometimes, if the performance demands it, many young dancers (young to the craft, that is, not their age) are forced to fake it until they make it. Listening to a lot of spoken Portuguese everyday, I found there were certain colloquial terms and forms that are highly repetitive in everyday speech. At first, I ignored these, prioritizing grammar and vocab as my ticket to understanding and this was seriously misguided. While a perfect tendu (pointed foot, French for "stretch") is ideal in the long run, the investment of time in obtaining one while preparing for a concert or performance is time wasted. The same was true with speaking. Who would have known that the simple adjustment of the affirmative “É” from “Sim”, adding a casual "tipo" (the equivalent of the way we use "like" in English) would so drastically improve the transitional quality of my conversations with the baker, the butcher, the waiter at Rango Vegan?
Much like choreographers, people appreciate when you try, are encouraging when they see you're learning, but can get impatient having to correct the same mistakes. In my last days, I finally asked (it was ridiculous that I was so embarrassed to not know something that I waited that long to ask) about the proper name for the fried jelly donuts I'd been eating daily, sonho de goiabada, and for the remaining days was able to request this directly, instead of pointing to it, saying, "issos" and holding up fingers to clarify the amount I wanted. After this, I finally felt comfortable enough to chat with someone I spoke to everyday and he, as many Baianos are, was excited and enthusiastic about sharing his language and state with visitors.
A look into my many housing situations while in Bahia!
I WRITE (BECAUSE I CAN'T SAY) WHAT I LIKE
When I first arrived in Salvador, the talk of politics was, amongst other things, isolating. In my most honest moments of reflection, I concluded that being politically informed and an overall opinionated person was a major part of my identity and the language barrier stripped me of this. As a result, my personality was, for the first time, founded on sweetness and friendliness (and to some extent, my looks). In one of my early days, I was at a grocery store on a street off Av. Sete de Setembro picking out some produce when a few men that were shopping, the (fucking CUTE) guy loading the green peppers and avocados from crates into the store bales and the three butchers behind the meat freezer conversed loudly about the presidential candidate, the only words I could make out were "Nordeste" and "Bolsonaro" before they all erupted into raucous laughter. This was a common occurrence in Brazil that was an entirely unfamiliar experience to me: listeningto the contentious and anxious and cynical conversations about the infamous BOLSONARO, BOLSONARO all around me, but not being able to understand (or opine) on any of it. As I explained it to a friend that in those early weeks, he was like a ghost whose name I always heard echoing in the streets. With demonstrations or manifestaçãoes, happening as frequently as weekly, the city carried an identical energy to the US right before/right after Trump was elected.
Bolsonaro has openly expressed his political and personal apathy for the Northeast (Nordeste) and the people of the region who are, unsurprisingly, overwhelming black and indigenous. Much of this logic revolves around the relative economic unproductivity of the region compared to the south's Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and lesser known cosmopolitan, vacation cities like Florianópolis. This presentation of the North is an insultingly myopic take on the cultural and environmental epicenter of the nation, in spirit and in veritable truth.
Just as in my home country, I am dubious of many of our political systems and institutions' capacity for retributive justice. On the worst days, I am hopeless in any reformation that doesn't begin with outright abolition. On the best, I am reminded that I do have some hope, and that hope lies in people. I have faith in the belief that it is our nature see our own inherent dignity reflected in others, but centuries of hegemony and violence have perverted, if not outright destroyed, this instinct. I have hope for the people of the Nordeste, and their ability to survive and demand an end to a contagious world order that puts profits over people. I believe that there are enough people and therefore enough power, to not only flip the scales, but realign them entirely and present a new equilibrium that prioritizes justice over performative equity, that cares about the environment and how our treatment of it affects the people who survive off it— a pareto equilibrium that protects the economy, the people and the land. If there's one strange thing I learned about myself in Brazil, in spite of my jadedness and cynicism, it is this: I believe in the power of a good and resilient people to resist this cruel and unjust world.
As I close off this series of Brazil blog posts, I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from Arundhati Roy: "A better world is not only possible, [but] she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing..."
How appropriately dramatic is this pic lmaoooo