Brazil’s Untamed Heart
Published: April 2009
By Gary Shteyngart
Far from glitzy Rio and São Paulo, the city of Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, is the country’s vibrant Afrocentric soul, a place of samba and Yoruban chants, caipirinhas and candomblé.
The bunda. In its female incarnation it is the soul, the moral sustenance, the very psychic infrastructure of Brazil. It is the subject of song, of innuendo, of contention and violence, of worship and delight. At a literary conference in workaday São Paulo, I brood about the future of the novel, the state of American publishing, and the rise of the made-up memoir, until a young man in a sparse goatee leans forward and whispers loudly and rhetorically: "Our women have nice bundas, yes?"
"Very large bundas…"
All of the men breathe a sigh of relief. The state of American publishing—whatever. The visiting writer likes the bundas. He seems to smile and smack his lips. He is at one with the Brazilian experience.
A few days later, I head to Salvador, capital of the great black state of Bahia—the first colonial capital of Brazil and now a topsy-turvy modern city of more than 2 million. The statue that greets me by the city’s center is an innocuous-enough Modernist piece entitled Fountain of the Market Ramp. But no local would ever call it that. The fiberglass symbol of Salvador is known simply as "bunda." And it’s a bunda, all right. A great double-fisted one, lit up at night, with water spilling over it like sweat on a dance floor. Unlike many visitors, I did not come to Salvador, or Brazil in general, looking for gigantic asses. But here I am, drenched in the tropical heat, beneath this weighty, salacious object, and all I want to do is understand what this life is about, what makes these people—say, the old blue-skinned man carrying a sack of flour on his head while whistling a catchy forró tune—suffer and love. We have no wings, and yet we take to the air. We are not fish, and yet we snorkel. I have no discernible behind, and still I head for the Bahian dance floor if only to observe and learn something about the physical life, which I enjoy mostly in my dreams.
The samba place is called Fundo do Cravinho, which means "Back of O Cravinho." At the actual O Cravinho, which looks out on terreiro de Jesus, the main square of Salvador’s Old Town, one can get soaked to the gills by way of different types of cachaça, the national firewater, but in Fundo do Cravinho the drink of choice is ice-cold beer, tall dark bottles of it. In the front, dapper locals and the occasional over-soused foreigner trade conversation and clink caipirinhas; in the back it’s all bundas and beer and biology and gleaming white teeth. A month has passed since my trip to Brazil and I’m sitting in an overly tidy East Coast apartment looking out over a landscape of nothing. But in my ears some immovable, wordless melody from Fundo do Cravinho is fluttering about like an anxious bird. I can’t transcribe the beats, but the tinny ringing in the back of my mind sounds like tiri puh-piri, piri wiri; tiri puh-piri, piri wiri; uh, uh, uh, [very emphatically] uh.
And when I close my eyes, I see a hangar-like space, bad lighting, blue plastic chairs, moist green walls, and hip- hugging couples dancing with minute precision, as if their lives depended on it. I recall the bundas, more with awe than with lust, because in Salvador da Bahia, the ass is not an ass. It has legs and arms and a mouth; it spins and shimmies; it rotates counterclockwise, one cheek leading, the other accompanying. It does all this naturally, without bidding; it does this atop glistening black thighs, within cheap white shorts, sometimes below the quarter-moon of early pregnancy. The giant green tantan drum leads the way, and the ukulele-like cavaquinho strums to me things I cannot understand, except that the life cycle here is fluid and tragicomic, and that I am enchanted and curious but utterly assless in Brazil.
The city of Salvador juts out into the bay of all Saints, but the baia is just preliminary, for Salvador stretches clear across the Atlantic into the heart of Yoruba culture, into modern-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. The story of Salvador, indeed of the northeastern part of Brazil, is in large part the story of the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences. Pretty much everyone here is black. The food is bathed in palm oil, an African staple. The popular mode of prayer is candomblé, a fusion of Catholic rites and elaborate ceremonies centered on offerings. The result is a curious authenticity that diasporas often carry with them from one part of the world to another. When I wish to visit the Russia of my youth, I don’t take a plane to Moscow or St. Petersburg, cities that have changed completely since my salad days. I go to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where the year 1979 has been frozen in amber. Salvador, in its culture and religion, similarly casts a glance back at the Old World. When you’re watching a performance of capoeira Angola—a mixture of nonviolent martial arts, interactive ballet, and musical comedy—or biting into a fritter of black-eyed peas, Brazil can seem more African than Africa itself. And when you look at the restored colonial architecture, at the azure tiles in the beautiful convent of São Francisco depicting Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755, Salvador appears to the eye somehow more Portuguese than its old, tired parent across the sea.
The lay of the land is startling. The Upper City, where most of the colonial treasures are scattered, perches high atop a 236-foot-high bluff overlooking the bay and the sunburned commercial buildings of the Lower City (the Lacerda Elevator, in all its Art Deco glory, connects the two). But Salvador stretches in all directions to encompass the human condition, high and low. Here are favelas, or shantytowns, that are as poor as any place on earth, clinging impossibly to eroding hills, oddly attractive from a distance, spirit-shattering when seen up close. There is the wealthy neighborhood of Barra, bristling with sleek, heavily guarded skyscrapers that evoke Miami on a shoestring. And in all directions out of the city and across the bay are sparkling white-sand beaches that, taken with a chilled beer or a well-macheted coconut, evoke a kind of fundamentalist paradise, minus—and I can’t stress this enough—the virgins.
Most visits to Salvador start in the Upper City neighborhood called the Pelourinho, which means "the Pillory." In the prominent squares of Pelourinho, African slaves were whipped and humiliated—their reward for carrying up the cobblestones that line the Upper City, not to mention erecting the churches and municipal buildings that sparkle to this day. The local Jesuits, in fact, once asked that the whipping post be moved to another part of town—the cries of the victims were interfering with their meditation and prayer.
On this journey I am fortunate enough to have a Portuguese-speaking companion, my friend Albertina. We arrive at the popular Redfish pousada, and check into a tall, airy, brightly colored room with lots of toy turtles and fish, Brazilian Indian "nightmare catchers," hanging from the rafters.
Once out on the Pelourinho streets we stumble for Iberian comparisons: Seville with black faces?Salamanca with a rhythm?Baroque and Rococo façades look down at us, saints and angels point their fingers, slender Art Deco town houses flake paint onto the crowded sidewalks, everywhere samba and reggae accost the visitor out of man-size speakers, and the heartless noonday sun presides. If you dim your eyes a little the colors you see floating before you are blue, yellow, green, and black. The streets slope down without warning, then ramp up into the sky. One minute the bulbous spires of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos are at your feet; the next thing you know, you’re staring up at the sky-blue façade of the church, built for slaves, by slaves (they were not allowed to worship with their masters), and still bursting with the sounds of the Yoruban- language mass.
The Museu Afro-Brasileiro on the main square of terreiro de Jesus gives you a good overview of Bahia’s unique Afrocentric culture, touching upon the three C’s: candomblé, capoeira, and the Carnaval, which is said to rival Rio’s, although some locals bemoan a slide into commercialization. But our most moving visit is to Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo. In this outwardly imposing structure, the African slaves were held downstairs in inhuman conditions, next to an even darker hole where they would hide to escape punishment. The former slave quarters are now home to a solitary squatter, a 95-year-old woman with one tooth, whose laundry hangs in the breeze. "I’m ninety-five years and ninety days old," she tells us, speaking out of a withered face that appears to hang off the peg of her skull. Her eyes are surprisingly agile and blue; her smile is genuine. She points out where the slaves slept and ate, nondescript parts of the room that only take on meaning once you realize that this woman is a descendant of the very men and women whose quarters she occupies. She speaks lovingly of Princess Isabel, who freed the slaves in 1888, as if that milestone had happened yesterday, as if perhaps we hadn’t heard the news. She was, after all, born only two decades after emancipation.
Next door, in the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, is an 18th-century life-size statue of Christ at the whipping post by the half-Indian slave Francisco das Chagas. Christ’s blood is made up of hundreds of rubies inlaid into the wood—but it is his expression of deep suffering and otherworldly resignation that catches the eye—the clenched, upturned hand, the masterful rendering of the calloused feet, the elasticity, and shock of physical pain. This is Christ as could be conceived only by a slave. The statue endures, unchanged—unlike the neighboring Carmelite convent, which has been converted into a high-priced boutique-style pousada, complete with butler service and spa.
Ten years ago, none of this was possible. Pelourinho was a dangerous, forsaken area. Then gringos started helping themselves to the most scrumptious Baroque tidbits and opening up quaint Redfish-like inns. Now the area is policed to within an inch of its life, but much of the authenticity is gone, too, replaced by Internet cafés and Jamaican-style hair-braiding places that have monopolized many a pastel-colored street corner. One is reminded of Salvador’s realities—I am told that 60 percent of the population lives in favelas—mostly by the parade of street kids begging us for every little thing we own. One tiny boy even begged for the last drops of water in Albertina’s plastic cup, a pathetic gift she gladly handed over.
After a few days in Pelourinho’s stunning but contrived colonial wonderland, we look forward to seeing the rest of the city. Salvador is not a small metropolis, so we decide to use our stomachs as a compass. First, I should mention the most notorious staple of Bahian cuisine: dendê. Daily ingestion of dendê, or palm oil, as saturated as a slick of heavy crude winding its way down Lake Erie, is a delicious way to die slowly and with major complications. The best place to start the process is Yemanjá, located on a highway spiriting past Salvador’s northern beaches and named, appropriately, after the Yoruban goddess of the sea. The décor is decent enough, but you’ll mostly be looking at the waitresses, with their smooth brown skin (pity your own sunburned hide) and cheekbones from here to ya-ya. A friend later tells us that Yemanjá hires the most beautiful mulatas, as the locals unabashedly call mixed-race women. Albertina and I split a moqueca, the Bahian seafood stew loaded with onion, garlic, parsley, and pimenta (hot-pepper sauce), and cooked in coconut milk. Yemanjá produces a version with crunchy soft-shell crab and fatty lobster, to be spilled over rice and chased with long drafts of beer. You can send your fragrant moqueca into overdrive with a little extra pepper sauce and a dusting of smoky farofa, the toasted manioc meal Brazilians dump on just about everything.
Satiated, but mostly excited for more, we strike out up the beach to get a taste of some real Bahian street cuisine. In the main square of the nearby seaside village of Itapuã, a very busy woman named Cira, dressed in the traditional baiana white head wrap and full dress, dishes out her famous acarajés, deep-fried, mashed-bean "sandwiches" that she fills with such delicacies as dried shrimp, vatapá (a homey yellow porridge of shrimp, garlic, cashews, coconut, and dendê) and pimenta to taste. What makes Cira’s acarajé so brilliant is the crispness of the outside contrasted with the softness inside—it’s like a giant street knish filled with striking flavor, such as that of the thermonuclear pimenta (the phrase sem pimenta apparently makes the madness go away).
Next, we take a long taxi drive to the other, more working-class, side of town, heading for the Sorveteria da Ribeira, a bare-bones ice cream shop where we gorge on flavors such as coco verde, squeezed out of the freshest, youngest green coconuts; umbú, a somewhat plumlike fruit with an addictive tang; and the all-tart maracujá, or passion fruit, which leaves my mouth throbbing and refreshed, my sun-addled brain rightfully chilled and greatly subdued.
After a week of fried peas, palm-oiled seafood stews, and tropical ice cream, we have dinner with my friend Dr. Albert Ko and his wife at Paraíso Tropical, in the chic seaside neighborhood of Rio Vermelho, which serves a modern take on Bahian cuisine. Compact, humming with energy, and trained at Harvard Medical School, Albert is possibly the most honorable gringo in Salvador, having dedicated the past 10 years of his life to fighting infectious diseases in the favelas. Befittingly, the food at Paraíso Tropical is healthier and lighter than any we’ve tried so far, and the restaurant’s outdoor garden is lovely. There’s less palm oil here; even the farofa lacks the usual dendê heaviness. We feast on shrimp and octopus with rice and guava, and I make the acquaintance of a fruit I’ve never met before: the sour pickle–like biribiri, which is as fun to eat as it is to pronounce.
The conversation turns to Albert’s work and to the situation in Salvador and Brazil’s northeast, which is significantly poorer than the southern parts of the country, where the world-famous beaches of Rio and the megalopolis of São Paulo are located. He offers to take us to the favela that he is researching, to show us how the majority of Salvador’s residents live.
The next morning we head for the Pau da Lima neighborhood, so far away from the city’s high-rise beachside towers in terms of ambience and wealth that it might as well be in Chad. I have come across many poverty-stricken areas, but I am not completely prepared for what turns out to be a descent to the nth circle of hell. The favela is composed of shacks of red-orange brick and mortar, which cover a hillside (the frequent mud slides are inevitably deadly), and each step down into the valley unearths a different level of despair. I learn that even the favelas are stratified: the rent on the shacks is higher at the top of the hill, near the paved streets and the stunted services the government provides.
At the bottom of the hill we are completely off the grid as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Stuff, as they say, flows downhill, and here the smell of raw sewage is overpowering. There is a midday quiet, dogs sulk, a rooster struts, ducks waddle, boys kick around a football with easy grace, and, to Albert’s anguish, a barefoot child plays in a mound of waste. The disease Albert is working to prevent is leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that causes liver and kidney failure and is spread from the urine of infected rats. Playing barefoot in an open sewer is the last thing a child should be doing here.
We talk to a woman of 72 who complains of high blood pressure. "A lot of rats," she says, "very big ones, they come inside the house sometimes." She lives at the very bottom of the hill, in a shack that serves as the terreiro, a house of candomblé worship. Wooden statues of male and female African deities stare at us amid the muck. I spot Exú, with his big red penis: he is one of the prime movers of the universe, without whom there could be no life. I have to breathe slowly. I am experiencing that familiar Western sense of losing control, that crumbling of the elaborate façades our civilizations have put up to keep the knowledge of this kind of inequity at bay. And then I realize that I misheard this ancient woman’s age. She’s not 72, but 52. The average life expectancy in Brazil’s favelas is around 50 years.
"It’s a privilege to work here with these people," Albert tells me as we are driving up to Pau da Lima. I thought he was being overly noble. But after a day spent following him around the neighborhood, I understand why someone would feel blessed to be of help in a place where cruelty seems to trump kindness at every turn. "Because of the drug dealing, the violence, many of the favelas in Rio are already lost," Albert says, after introducing me to the members of a local association whose meetings he chairs. "But here in Bahia there’s still hope we can turn things around. In ten, twenty years it may be too late." The members of the Pau da Lima association meet in a little community center on the neighborhood’s main drag. There are teenagers here, along with middle-aged men and women in T-shirts and sandals, and an old man with few teeth who is dressed in freshly pressed trousers and shined shoes. A 17-year-old girl in dreadlocks, wise beyond my years, let alone hers, presents a report on distributing powdered milk to children with disabilities. The local botanical garden will give a lesson in recycling. In unique, self-contained moments, the desolation and hopelessness outside is flooded with an intensity of spirit that overwhelms the easy cynicism I have carried with me from New York. It is hard not to feel at least a pinch of optimism in Pau da Lima. It is hard not to want to help.
I have seen Salvador’s smiling face, calloused fingers, and quivering bunda, but now I want to understand her heart. One of my last evenings in the city could pass for a clandestine operation. A young man shows up at my hotel. I am put into a small Renault with my fellow traveler, a quiet Colombian doctor with a voodoo fetish, and soon we’re speeding through the decrepit suburbs of Salvador heading for a house of candomblé. In the simple whitewashed terreiro, I meet Luis, our guide, who is a thoughtful acolyte of the African religion. The Colombian and I are slotted amid a row of locals, incense clouds my eyes, and soon men and women of all ages clad in Bahian white (they are all black-skinned, except for one fat white Brazilian, wearing what looks like a toque) start a slow, ponderous procession around the room to the beat of drums and an undulating Yoruba chant. They welcome the 16 orixás, spirit guides who connect each worshipper to the high god, Olorun. Each orixá has his or her own dance, liturgy, and colors. Tonight we are celebrating Xangô, the orixá of justice, the guardian of lawyers, judges, and government workers. Personally, I like the pregnant Oxum, mistress of rivers, who stares vainly in her own mirror and protects those toiling in the arts and crafts.
As the drumbeats crescendo, people occasionally fall to kiss the ground or stretch out their arms in veneration of a particular orixá. White dresses swirl around me; sweat erupts in geysers. The bodies are round and strong. It may seem profane, but I am taken back to the samba I saw at Fundo do Cravinho on my first night in Salvador. A huge pai de santo, or resident holy man, emerges in a bright orange robe. He dances gently with a small child. Suddenly it is 1538, and we have returned to the time when the first unfortunate African feet touched the ground these modern-day Bahians are now kissing. Women come out with the offerings. They are dancing with huge plates of acarajé, carurú (an okra dish), and yellow and white corn. Then I notice a pretty young woman convulsing, possessed by the spirit of her orixá, her very body speaking in tongues. The pai de santo quickly intervenes; she is wrapped in white cloth and carried off. I nervously finger the round Ativan pill in my shirt pocket. But the dancing continues. Women walk around with towels, wiping sweat from the congregants. We are welcomed to eat the sweet and salty foods with our hands.
Candomblé was banned by the Portuguese masters, but as far as anyone can remember drums have echoed through the night in Salvador’s African quarters. In this religious worldview, I am told, there is no guilt. There is no hell and no paradise. Respectful and communal, terreira is one of the last redoubts of purely oral tradition in a world speeding along with flashes of image and garbles of sound. Like everything else in Salvador, I leave it reluctantly, worried that tomorrow I will not find anything to take its place.
WHEN TO GO
Bahia’s tropical Atlantic coastal region remains hot and humid year-round. April through July are the rainy months. Both foreign travelers and local vacationers crowd the streets during the high season, December through March, which is the most festive time of year, centered around February’s Carnaval.
Delta, American, and United all serve Rio and São Paulo from major U.S. hubs, and Continental offers nonstop flights out of Newark and Houston to São Paulo. From there, Brazilian carriers TAM and Varig make the two-hour flight to Salvador, the capital of Bahia. U.S. citizens need a visa to visit Brazil ($100; contact the embassy at 202/238-2700 or http://www.embassy-worldwide.com/country/brazil/).
This Sao Paulo-based boutique travel agency specializes in custom luxury itineraries from Bahia to the Amazon. Robert Betenson is an invaluable local resource for everything from locating the perfect pousada in Fortaleza to gallery hopping in Caruaru and finding secret beaches in Natal. email@example.com; 011-55-11/3071-4515
WHERE TO STAY
Convento do Carmo Hotel
Conveniently located in the Old Town, only minutes from the beach.
1 Rua do Carmo, Pelourinho; 55-71/3327-8400; www.lhw.com; doubles from $385, including breakfast.
Eight-room guesthouse filled with hand-painted furniture. Rooms are bright, with terraces and open-air showers.
1 Ladeira do Boqueirão, Santo Antônio; 55-71/3241-0639; www.hotelredfish.com; doubles from $111.
WHERE TO EAT
Acarajé da Cira
Rua Aristides Milton, Largo de Itapuã, Itapuã; lunch for two $3.
98B Rua Edgar Loureiro, Cabula; 55-71/3384-7464; dinner for two $28.
Sorveteria da Ribeira
87 Praça General Osório, Ribeira; 55-71/3316-5451.
Local spot famous for its traditional moquecas and other Bahian cuisine.
4655 Avda. Otávio Mangabeira, Pituba; 55-71/3461-9010; dinner for two $33.
WHAT TO DO
Arrange a visit through your hotel or through Singtur, which has guides for both city and candomblé tours.
Fundo do Cravinho
Samba hot spot with live music nightly.
5 terreiro de Jesus; 55-71/3321-7802.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
Seventeenth-century church combining Neoclassical interiors with Baroque and Rococo carvings in the sacristy.
Largo do Carmo.
Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo
Originally founded in 1636, this church was rebuilt in Neoclassical style in 1828.
Largo do Carmo.
Housed in Brazil’s first School of Medicine, this extensive collection of crafts chronicles the strong African influence on Brazilian culture.
Antiga Faculdade de Medicina, terreiro de Jesus; 55-71/3321-2013.
Famous bar with a vast selection of cachaças and other local, traditional drinks.
3 terreiro de Jesus; 55-71/3322-6759.
20 Praça José de Alencar, 2nd floor, Largo do Pelourinho; 55-71/3492-2212.