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Brazil’s Untamed Heart

200612ss_brazil_1-article
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Photo: Ben Watts

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?"

"Yes."

"Very large bundas…"

"Muh-huh."

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.

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