I can barely think. What´t is like here? That´s usually the first question I ask, so I will try to answer.
It is lush and full of rolling, steep green hills. The city of Salvador, where I am, was established by the Portuguese, who never wanted to settle here. They wanted to exploit and run, so they built the city center–the Pelheurino (´slave market`)–high over the bay and built a fortress around it. The city then developed down from there, the houses in bright primary shades of yellow, blue, white, and red terraced into the hills, built one on top of the other like happy Legos. They stack up the hills and down to the Bay of All Saints–the Bahia de Santos de Todos–where the city gets its name. Bahia. We pronounce it buy-ee-ah. But you say it quickly.
The beach situation is ridiculous. Our hotel faces the bay, so we cross the street and walk down public stairs to get to the beach, which is packed with people hardly wearing anything (my x-rated American bikini is rather modest here and it is so hard to not constantly pick at the wedgie but…), and you´re swarmed with vendors and admirers the minute you hit the sidewalk. People have set up carts about every 20 feet selling sticks of meat, a bean fritter called an acaraje that you can get filled with cheese and avocado paste and boiled shrimp still in the shell. The same street foods are sold on the beach by men, women, and children hauling coolers and containers–nuts, cashews, fish, natural sandwiches (don´t ask; I´m not sure why they are called´natural`), beer, Brazilian liquor, water, sodas, ice cream, cheese on sticks they will grill over a metal pot full of smoking coals (it´s delicious), and t-shirts, bikinis, necklaces, beach umbrellas…all of this is happening while men stare and call for your attention, and it all seems like some fun kind of appreciation of you eating your grilled stick of cheese in your lycra string which you call your bathing suit. I really like it but it intimidates the shit out of me; the noise, the bustle, the unfamiliar percussion of the language that both skips and slides and bounces and bumps in noises and laughter. I love the sound of Brazilian Portuguese, but I am nowhere close to being able to understand anything, and that is a very humbling predicament to be in.
Now, about the admirers: I have none.
This is not because I am not beautiful. Hell, in Brazil, WOMEN are beautiful–just the mere fact that you are a woman makes you precious here. It is such a strange feeling to be respected for your feminitity that I feel more awkward about that than I do my inability to pronounce nasal dipthongs. (linguistic nerd sentence) Women have an enormously revered place in this culture in Bahia because the women built the spiritual world that this city rests upon. Women are everywhere, and the men really seem to enjoy their presence. Now, it ain´t no brotherly love–it is sexual, don´t get me wrong, but I think Lauren said it best when we first got here Sunday morning: ~i´m glad to be back in Brazil because I am beautiful here. I am not always beautiful in LA.
It´s just different. So, most of my experience here is purely observational, because I am both too skinny and too light to be of any interest. Men look at me and it´s like ´meh.´ The black girls, though? Oh my god, they are queens here. I mean, men stopping what they are doing to watch them walk by. It is so wonderful because I know from many years of long conversations that black women in America pretty much have to get looking white before someone will say they are attractive. The world is crazy–so, my black girlfriends, I hope you can get to Bahia someday because here you´ll see the truth about yourself. It´s a whole culture that naturally agrees real beauty is African beauty. And, we have one 22 year old on this trip who looks exactly like a voluptuous Adrianna Lima (famous Brazilian Victoria´Secret model), and we can not go freaking anywhere without men trailing behind us to follow her. And they just kiss their fingers and touch their own faces repeating bella bella bella. When they´re done admiring her, they go back to whatever it was they were doing before, and it´s over.
So, I get to spend a little time in the similar shoes of black women in America as I walk invisibly by, and I like it. It helps me understand the world better, history better, my friends better, my former students better. It helps me better understand the subjectivity of beauty, of the differences in the way women can carry themselves when they feel like a society respects them for what they are. It is really hard for me to fully articulate what I am trying to get at right now–I apologize–because this travel experience for me is so overwhelming, so alien, so triumphant, that mostly all I can do for now is just try to take it in. So, these blogs will be random thoughts, probably, so I can go back and use them to piece together my thoughts in hindsight.
I am exhausted. We take three hours of class every morning, and the classes are demanding, difficult, and non-stop instruction in African dance and the dances of the orixas–the gods and goddesses that make up the spiritual world of candomble, the Bahian worship of natural forces of nature and life and death. In candomble, you find out the orixas who govern your life, and, if you become a devotee of the religion, you can study to become an initiate, and then you can dance as your ruling god or goddess. Dancers fall into a trance, ´go to sleep´as they say, and the energy of the god enters the human body in a sacred ceremony. We are learning the characteristics of these dances and are going to our first candomble ceremony tomorrow night. I will find out who my governing orixas (or-ish-as) are on Saturday. My bet is on Nana, the grandmother who lives in the swamp.
I´ll let you know.
I´m almost out of time for my internet session, so I will leave it at this for now. Thanks for reading. Axe, beloveds.