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Brazil’s Untamed Heart

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Photo: Ben Watts

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.

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