From the top of Sugar Loaf hill, the city unfurls below like a full skirt gone awry. Azure waters, in numerous finger-like inlets, make deep forays into the land on all sides. Miles and miles of white sand beaches trace an undulating hemline, trying to keep up with the ocean’s writhing. A swath of forest reveals itself, surprisingly manicured in all its wildness.
Ipanema beach on the Sunday we arrive is bursting with youthful energy. You can barely see the sand for all the men and women covering the beach with beautiful tanned and toned bodies. We stumble around fully clothed like lost sheiks who have somehow found themselves in the midst of a nearly nudist colony. We see bumps everywhere, I mean breasts and bums, and in the distance the humping landscape of rocky hills jotting the landscape.
I can’t seem to get away from sexual imagery, but can you blame me when women and men clamber onto buses wearing nothing but the briefest bikinis and briefs? Enough has been said about the women of Rio, but I insist that the men also deserve their fair share of praise—lean, yet muscular. Can the inhabitants of Rio help be anything but vain and beautiful when they live in this terribly beautiful city?
Where else can you be driving along a main street and suddenly be confronted by an enormous rock, and just when you think you are going to crash it opens up a tunnel to let you through? Where else can you find a forest in the middle of the city? After a few hours on the beach, we dare to unhinge our clothes and our limbs, and our movements get a little loser as our minds grow drugged by the sun, and our bodies seduced by the hot sands beneath our feet.
But, we pause. All is not lose and flowing, for not too far away, on the hill right opposite the mansion of a plastic surgeon, one of the wealthiest inhabitants of Rio, lies the largest favella (slums) in Rio, full of disenfranchised youth. We cannot strip to our bikinis for that would expose our passports hanging from our necks, and someone might snatch them from us. This danger adds more excitement to our already feverish bodies, and we are mercilessly tantalized with the decision of whether or not to strip.
The next day, we take a tour to see what lies behind the glamour and glitz that is beautiful Rio to view the shantytowns it cannot hide. The poor in Rio claim the land on hills that nobody wants, and now they have some of the best views in the city, even if it is from the edge of a precipice. Our tour guide is hopeful about an emerging middle class that is transforming the favellas, and we see several positive signs—auto mechanics who work on the sidewalks, a bustling market, and constant improvements made to the ramshackle buildings. Slowly a lower middle class is being born, inching this particular favella into respectability.
Respectability is not too many shades away from the color of skin in Rio as with the rest of Brazil. The country was one of the largest exporters of African slaves in the world, and the ratio of black to white was almost three to one at the beginning of the century. After a few less than successful attempts to lure Anglo-Saxon immigrants, the country grew reconciled to changing the color balance through miscegenation with the hope of gradually eliminating black skinned people altogether, and in doing so harboring a new more “civilized” Brazilian. To the surprise of conservatives, it is in the very blackness of Brazil—the African presence in towns like Salvador de Bahia, and the acres and acres of forest area in the wildest of wild Brazil—the Amazon river and forest—whose soil resists all attempts of cultivation and agriculture—that it has found an enduring industry that might outlast and surpass its previous goliath industries of rubber, sugar, and coffee—tourism!
We, the tourist animals, suckered into exploring snatches of Brazil, make our way finally to Salvador de Bahia, the last leg of our journey. We have visited the Amazon, the Pantanal, the grand Iguacu falls, and there is only Salvador keeping us away from San Francisco, and the United States. We are tired after our wild adventures, caught in the nets of tourist operators, and by now the excitement of adventure and the novelty of traveling has worn out. We are not sure what to expect from our last stop, and we wonder if there is anything to expect at all or if we are touristed out.
The historical district of Pelourinho is charming as expected. The colonial buildings are endearing as they nestle against each other, almost touching. They are painted in different colors, making me recall the wondrous plumage of the tropical birds we just left behind in the Pantanal. Stone cobbled streets sew black wavy lines in-between haphazard rows of buildings. Men and women hang their heads out of small windows in the buildings to chat with each other, and the scene is picture-postcard perfect. Regal black women seem almost strategically placed on street corners wearing long gusseted skirts and dresses from an era gone. They try to attract our attention to their small stalls where they sell acaraje, an African style dish made up of peeled brown beans that are deep fried and covered with a sauce made up of dried shrimp, pepper, and tomato. The air is heady with the smell of food cooked in dende (palm oil) proclaiming to the world the heady combination of African-Portugese-Brazilian cultures that is distinctively Salvador de Bahia. The scene is picture perfect, almost too much so, and I am starting to accept that there is something as travel burnout, and that perhaps it is time to go home.
Within a few hours, I come to see that the town is not what it seems to be, and there is a lot more to it than its pretty façade, made prettier for us tourists. This first comes to light as I am walking toward the enclosed porch on the ground floor of our beautifully renovated and very expensive posada (guest house) to enjoy a cup of tea and the wonderful view of the bay, to forget all about city and just pretend there is nothing there but the ocean and us. That is when I come across the model of the plantation with slave workers. The model describes in graphic three-dimensional sculptural detail the work-life of the slaves on a plantation. Several men plow the field with manacles around their necks connected to a prison ball. One worker is being punished, and his hands, legs, and head are manacled together such that his tongue sticks out. What kind of bestiality allowed this to happen! What kind of endurance sustained the people in this town through the ages! The image of our nice clean only-for-wealthy tourists pousada is shattered, as is the idea of spending an uneventful touristy week at this location. We are forced to remember Salvador’s slave past, the time when it was the capital of Brazil’s sugar industry, and the center of its slave trade. All thought of tea and the view go out of the window, and I am close to throwing up. Somewhat chastised at my tourist aspirations, I sip a much more humble cup of tea as I gratefully snatch in glimpses of the view. I look at the black women serving me tea, the picture of civility, and I cannot help but wonder if they, by chance, had something to do with placing the model of the slave station where it could not be missed.
The feeling that things are very different in this town than what they appear is reaffirmed when we see the ornate, almost decadent, Igreja Sao Francisco church where the slaves who were forced to build the church several centuries ago. At first, we are dulled into appreciating the gold studded ceilings and cherubs, which looks like any of the other excessive architecture of that period. Then, I think I am seeing things when I notice that some of the cherubs’ faces are contorted and their sexual organs are hacked off, and a few others look positively pregnant. Our Lonely Planet guidebook enlightens us that the slave artisans who built the church fought their oppression and the suppression of their own religion by intentionally distorting the sculptures in the church. The penises they endowed on the cherubs were so large that the sacred authorities ordered them effaced. I am no longer surprised when I find out that the capoeira dance that is the dance of favor for many of Salvador’s youth originated as an African martial art developed by slaves to fight their masters.
We walk the streets of Pelhourinho not knowing what to expect, but knowing better now not to jump to any conclusions. We are greeted by an all black female band of drummers passing by. They are dressed in dresses made of hemp, the same hemp worn by their slave ancestors, and they are led by a girl with a manacle around her neck and whose mouth is covered with a cloth. The girl in the lead represents the chained slave unable to speak, but right behind her the other girls in the band are gaining ground, going crazy, banging on drums that are larger than their bodies, and dancing wildly. They are as wild as the lead girl is quiet and subdued. A crowd roars behind the drummers, dancing and clapping. There are tourists in the crowd, but there are far more natives. We get sucked into the procession, and soon we are also dancing and clapping our hands. Somewhere, somehow, I manage to get my hair braided from one of the many girls offering their braiding services for a small fee, and the braids hug my head, Boyz-in-the-Hood style. And we continue dancing, braids and all, and I am smiling.
And then, as the drummers pass by, the streets come alive as if touched by a wand. Every other street has a band or a musician playing, and some streets have two. The streets have been taken over by dining tables and chairs, and people are drinking caipirinhas, cachacas, or else cervezas. And they are laughing, chatting, and singing to the music. And it becomes clear to me that beyond the tourist jargon, despite the tourists, there is a joy and a love for life that runs deep in the lives of these people, a feeling that arises from those once most despised and brutalized, but that now reaches out to touch the heart of most Brazilians, even those who oppressed them and continue to oppress them, and even us lucky tourists who amble along their way. I feel the rhythm, and I feel blessed and joyful to have this time on this place of the earth, to feel the pleasure of the ground beneath my feet, the palm of my loved one in my palm, and drinking this air that is alive and dancing to the rhythm of a thousand people beating time to the music with their feet, and thrumming tables with runaway fingers, and I am happy to just be alive.