This is Salvador. The city looks HUGE from the airplane window! Coming from the DC area, I thought I knew urban sprawl; but the suburbs of northern Virginia can’t compare to the way Salvador sprawls. Skyscrapers and endless apartment buildings and equally endless favelas (Brazilian slum neighborhoods, often on hillsides) stretch out around the Baía de Todos os Santos bay like a long-limbed Brazilian tanning on the beach. You wouldn’t be surprised by the square kilometers that the city covers (maybe 20 km2 or 8 mi2) or the number of people that live in the city (about 3 million). You would be surprised by the way the city never seems to end: I see the tall downtown and expect to see apartment buildings near them that quickly peter out into distinct suburbs. Instead of a city and suburbs, Salvador and the surrounding state of Bahia seem to be divided into city and countryside without the intermediate step that my American mind expects.
Also new for me is the way the city hugs to the beautiful shoreline. Life seems to revolve around the beaches and the ocean; families, teenagers on dates, and older people all flock to the beaches and to the countless seafood restaurants nearby. The style of life is more casual, more prone to spontaneously burst into a party. One friend who took me and two other ProWorld volunteers around the city explained how parties start: you park your car, turn the stereo loud to play pagode (pop music from Rio de Janeiro), buy a few beers, and call a friend or two. Next thing you know, you’ve got a street party. People join in as they wonder by; the lines between stranger and acquaintance and friend seem to blend together here.
This is Salvador. The 200-year-old colonial church Igreja do Santo Antônio is packed with worshipers on a Saturday night. It’s the first day of the feast of Santo Antônio. My host mother, Dora, plans to attend services every night—that’s a kind of dedication this Episcopalian doesn’t quite understand. The church’s wide doors and many windows open up onto the main plaza of this old, old neighborhood. Through the windows drifts loud hip-hop music from the bar next door; that, too, is packed with people. And the square itself teems with Brazilian life. Children play soccer better than I ever will, a couple gets cozy on a bench in a dark corner, teenagers float freely from the back of the church out to the plaza. I stroll with Yamira, a fun and adventurous Cornell senior who’s also volunteering with ProWorld and sharing my homestay, and Giuliana, a young bahiana who lives with Dora and has helped orient me and Yamira.
This is Salvador. Yamira, Giuliana, and I duck into the ancient fort that once defended Salvador from Dutch invaders and British pirates. Inside the whitewashed walls, a capoeira school is practicing. Capoeira is a blend of martial art and dance; it comes from the time when sugar plantation owners would kill any slaves they saw training to fight. Slaves needed to practice martial arts both to prepare for uprisings and to feel a sense of power. They disguised their practice as a dance to survive the overseers’ violence. Capoeira still runs strong in Salvador, the capital of Afro-Brazilian culture and tradition.
The capoeira company that we saw included men, women, and children of all skin colors. Looking around on the street, you see a more continuous color spectrum than in the US. Race often defies categorization in Brazil—and in much of Latin America—because of the centuries of mistura between Iberian colonizers, indigenous peoples, and African slaves. Brazil’s heritage is particularly diverse: 40% of all African slaves shipped to the Americas went to the Portuguese territory, many indigenous peoples survived conquest (about 300,000 remain today), and waves of voluntary immigrants came from Italy, Japan, Germany, and elsewhere (credit to Lonely Planet for the details). Brazil is mind-blowingly diverse. But it is definitely not the idealized “democracia racial” that some claim. The same friend who took the other volunteers and me on a tour talked with me about race’s role in Brazil. (He’s studied for two years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the historically black college at which MLK studied, so he had a unique perspective.) He said that discrimination still keeps many darker-skinned people from jobs—perhaps not that different from the US. Most national politicians and celebrities seem to be light-skinned. Again, not so different. But in a country where almost everyone is a little bit of everything, it’s surprising to see how race still matters.
This is Salvador. I have a lot to learn, a lot to see, and a lot to experience. Thanks for reading!