Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Stranger in the Homeland

Since this is Brazil, and there’s a lot on my mind about it, I’ll make this a two-parter, focusing first on the arrival and Salvador, and the second part on the island. Desmond Tutu, my new hero, is onboard, and I already have some good stories about that, so I’ll write a little about him before arriving in South Africa.

Anyway, Brazil… things had been building up all week for me. I’d been one of the interport lecturers and tried to point out some of the funnier nuances between the cultures that I noticed over the years (the consequences of a different understanding of personal space, the melodic nature of the language, the greeting with kisses on the cheek, etc…), and much to my surprise, it was extremely well-received. As a result, I found myself agreeing to be the tour guide for about 25 students and staff members who wanted a native speaker to show them around.

Next time I’ll pay a little more attention how many times I say “yes”. You see, I might be Brazilian, but this trip was strictly tourism. Brazil is larger than the continental United States, and a traveling from Salvador to see my family in Sao Paulo is analog to flying from Hawaii to see family in San Diego. I’ve never been to the northeast part of the country, and since I was only going to be there five days, I was going to stick around there and make the most of the visit.

And I was extremely excited, and I couldn’t hide it under my perpetual grin. Think of how giddy I get heading up to the cabin in Tahoe and multiply by 100. Seeing Salvador from the deck hit me really hard - I couldn’t wait to get off the ship. This is a historic town that I remember studying as a child, and the landmarks were easy to pick out from where we were, and, it’s Brazil we’re talking about.

So when “my” crew finally got together near the purser’s office to head into town, I saw that this wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see the city on my own terms – sharing the experience with others but not having the pressure to translate or explain everything, over and over. As we headed to the historic Pelourinho (Whipping Post) area, it was pretty clear that I was happy if people tagged along, but that I wasn’t going to wait for anyone, especially if they wanted to shop along the way. It was perfect. I got a great feel for the city, and eventually (thanks to several people who thought the group was a little big themselves) we dwindled to a perfectly-sized group of five people and headed over to the Barra area to watch yet another sunset.

(Remind me later to write why we go out of our way to watch just about every sunset this voyage has to offer)

We head back and get ready for the welcome reception, for which I’m a bus leader (translation – I get some money back). This is a big party with 300 of our students and hundreds of (horny) Brazilian students. As groups are leaving on the buses one-by-one, I’m the last of the bus leaders, and the last group is so small that they didn’t notice me and I didn’t notice them leaving… on the bus I was supposed to board. I find out that they left from Dean John Tymitz (of deus-ex fame), who runs into me as he is escorting two girls on a private van to the party. I hop in with them and find out the two of them had been mugged in the Pelourinho area in broad daylight a few hours earlier. They were ok, though a little shook up and missing $4000 of camera equipment. They wouldn’t be the only ones to be attacked.

The reception was fabulous. There is a great Capoeira demonstration, followed by a live performance by Saduka or Sudaka (I don’t remember which). Please google and download their music. It was spectacular – it was techno-ish with a very Brazilian twist. The main musician played the berimbau, which is a one-string bow, but played it so well that it sounded like a 12 string guitar. I’ve listened to the berimbau all my life, but I’ve never heard anything like that.

It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had dancing. But it was on a Tuesday night in the off-season, and the party was shut down at midnight. The Brazilian students insisted there was nothing going on, but we knew better. I got together with Jason, Yas, Rita, Martina, Erin, and we all piled up in a taxi and headed over to the Aeroclub area where Club Cancun was hoppin’.

We get there, and there are three problems with our group:

1. Open toes are not allowed. Most of the girls were wearing sandals.
2. The club is 21 and over. I never heard of that in Brazil, but two of the girls are well under 21.
3. They require original passport for foreigners. As recommended by SAS, no one carried their original passport for fear of losing it.

That meant I was the only one able to get in, even though I used my Brazilian registration card that still has my picture as a 10-year-old. I talked to the manager, trying to do a “jeitinho”, Brazilian-style, and get them in, but to no avail.

They left. I stayed.

The party was going strong and looked like it was going on the entire night. And for the first time in my life, I felt like a foreigner in Brazil.

It became obvious to me inside Club Cancun that by missing my adolescence in Brazil, by spending my formative years in the U.S., that I might have been missing something. I didn’t have any cousins to lean on, and I finally saw that there are times when not having an accent works against you. By sporting an accent, there is an implicit understanding of your behavior and nuanced mistakes can be dismissed as part of some cultural misunderstanding. Without that accent, people attempt to reach a level of communication with you in which a lot is sent between the lines. It is easy to take for granted how easy communication becomes when you are immersed in a culture. Since I haven’t been in Brazil in this environment before, and this was my first day back in a while, I felt a little lost at times. But the solution is simple – lower people’s expectations by letting them know right away you’ve been away for 15 years. Since Brazil is an extremely warm and friendly country, they will probably make fun of you while going out of their way to make sure your initiated (or in my case, updated) into the culture. It was really interesting to me.

Two things stood out as different in the club from anything I’ve seen in the US. The second thing is that in a chic bar such as Club Cancun (and probably many places), they have dance leaders that lead the crowd in line dances, and the crowd loves it. Seeing this was like seeing a bouncer lead 1050 Folsum doing the Macarena. This should catch on – it is on the same, corny-yet-so-much-fun level of karaoke, especially when the crowd is so much into it.

The second thing I noticed is the gradient of races on the dance floor. Brazil is a much more culturally mixed country than the US, for reasons I won’t go into here. Racism is not based on “black” or “white”, but on a gradient. This integration is striking for someone who has grown used to very sharp lines of separation.

I left the club to the ship at 3:30am. Despite the fact that it was Tuesday, there was no chance the party was going to end for those people before sunrise. I needed to go pack and go to bed for Fernando de Noronha. I got back to the ship, set my alarm, and wrote a note on my door for people to make sure I was awake at 7am so I wouldn’t miss my flight.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the island. I’m putting a picture up for Tom, who requested that I photograph his Rinsipirator throughout the world. Try explaining what this device does in another language.

Finally, I'll start linking other people's blogs if you want more stories. Today, I'll link to Beth's, our administrative assistant. She says she's written about Salvador, so you can search for "Rico" if you want more stories from there:


1 comment:

Anne said...

Rico, I'm loving the blog. I had a similar experience with the clubs in Brazil. It was a Tuesday night and the crowd started to thin out so we figured we'd go back to the ship and get some sleep so we didn't miss our early morning flight to Morro de Sao Paulo. Hum, no luck. We exited the club to find the sun was up, the streets were full of cars and we were in complete shock we had spent the entire night dancing and the club was still full the next morning. How do the Brazilians do it?

Please keep writing...OFTEN! I'm sitting here at 584 Mayfield dreaming of days past (and let's hope future voyages!)