Monday, August 17, 2009

Vacations in Brazil pt. 5

AOG, Praia do Forte

Before there was Brazil, there was Bahia. It was the country's first capital and remained so until Rio de Janeiro took over in 1763-only to be itself taken over by Brasilia in 1960 as the nation's seat of Government.

The entrance into Bahia is a mixture of tropical glamor and developing-nation social strife. From the highway, and at great speed, you see shanty towns to the left and right, with their red brick walls and partially painted and plastered walls standing proud against modernity and wealth. You soon begin to wonder how much do Brazil's poor participate in the country's wealth. Here is an article from an American journalist written in 1874 dealing with the city in all its racist XIX century glory. Fascinating read!

It is a feature of the city that towers resembling social housing pepper the skyline too.

They are taller than the buildings in the favelas, but much shorter than the towering middle class and rich miniature skyscrapers in the distance.

I notice that most tower blocks in this country have balconies, and that they favor light colors, especially white. Often, these buildings have a dramatic splash of contrasting accent colors. Be they electric yellow, acidic blue, or even purple or black. Bahia, if nothing else, is a colourful city.

The drive into the old part of the city, where we will be spending most of the day, is slow. Traffic is chaotic and it moves very slowly.

Although Bahia is built along a triangular peninsula, the old part is built on two levels, the Cidade Baixa, or lower city, which is where port is, and the Cidade Alta, or upper city, where administration, churches, and stately homes are located.

The peninsula sits on a spit of land sticking south-southwest into the Atlantic Ocean overlooking the inmense All-Saints Bay, where the place gets its name in Portuguese Bahia de Todos os Santos.


We drive all along the port before making a sharp turn right and up a hill into the "Pelourinho" neighbourhood, the heart of Bahia’s old town. The name itself is a testimony to Brazil's slave-owning past.

"Pelourinho" means pillory. And Salvador's pelourinho last stood at the top of the sloping Largo do Pelourinho, final point in a journey which began in the city's first open market in the Praça da Feira (today known as Praça Municipal -the open square at the top of the Elevador Lacerda).

The pelourinho stood at the market's center and it was where slaves would be whipped, often to death, to show the other slaves a lesson.

Keep in mind that an estimated 1.3 million slaves were imported into Bahia before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888; that is double the number imported into the entire United States of America.

Then sometime between 1602 and 1607 the pelourinho was moved by governor's decree to the Terreio de Jesus, where the Jesuit's church and school were located.

Unsurprisingly, the screams and groans of the slaves interfered with church services and teaching. So it was removed again and repositioned at the bottom of the Ladeira de São Bento (where Praça Castro Alves is now located).

Again it was removed, for the penultimate time, in 1807, and taken to the largo which would come to bear its name. It would stand there for another 28 years. Today it is nowhere to be found, but it named the main tourist area of the city.

As befits a city built on a peninsula, Bahia is hilly. The bus parks on a slope and we are let out. The guide, after mentioning the day’s schedule, giving us "free" water to drink on the bus, and reminding us not to eat since we’ll be eating later (though hours from then), lets us out and starts towards one of Bahia’s best known views.

Baroque relics

Along the way I see many a decrepit, yet once stately, buildings lived in by what I can only describe as local people of little or no wealth. I suppose that in a modern city, the old part of town is where the poor would live.

Many of the colourful buildings are in complete disrepair. It is heartbreaking to see such beauty allowed to fade and crumble. XIX century neo classical façades stand door-to-door with Baroque churches.

Decrepit Art Deco homes are left to fall apart, their paint chipping away with every season. Cars line the slightly tortuous cobblestoned streets. Not fancy cars. In many ways I wish they weren’t there. Aside from spoiling many a photograph, they spoil the feel of the neighbourhood. A few stores pepper the route.

I stopped at one which had old books for sale. Of course, here a "store" usually means somebody’s home. Outside their front door they leave a little stand with a few trinkets underneath their front window.

The lady, or gentleman, of the house stands guard either inside or across the street where she is chatting to a neighbor. I begin to wonder what the original owners of these mini-palaces and townhomes would make of having the descendants of their slaves living there.

Soon enough, street vendors fall upon us like hot custard. They will not leave us until we get on the bus to leave Pelourinho…over two hours later.

We walk past Baroque church after Baroque church. Uphill, downhill, to side, to the other. The street vendors, politely some, forcefully others, accompany our group throughout. None speak English. In fact, I will leave Brasil thinking that most Brazilians don't speak English, or even have a basic knowledge of the language.

Part of what makes our tour a slight bother is the presence of wave after wave of street vendors. I completely understand that they are poor people who really need the money. But from my egoistical point of view, I want to take photographs, enjoy the views, and not be pestered by vendor. But they do pester you. Alas, it is part of Brazil, so I try to make the best of it.

I don't want to seem cruel, but it does not help that what they sell is not beautiful to my eyes. I wish it were. I would have bought a necklace or something, but the things they produce, or that they are given to sell, are mostly laced-seed or rock/stone necklaces. And the predominant color is brown. I do feel sorry for some of them who have to carry hundreds of necklaces under the sun for a living.

Fat chicks in costume

We slowly follow our group into the Largo do Pelourinho square, where a marble slab marks the place where the whipping post stood.

As soon as we get there, a group of women wearing typical "Baiana" folk costume descend upon us.

They will gladly pose for the camera, in their full costume, whether you want them to or not.

This is how they make their living, but they do take a liberty by assuming you want to take their photograph.

One of them approached me after I did my best to avoid making any eye contact. I did not really want a picture of her, I rather capture the images of the city around me, polluted as it was, with tourists

The first thing she does is accuse me of having taken clandestinely her picture. I was taken aback and I showed her the last images I took, she was not on any of them.

Soon enough her guise is up and just starts to pose for my partner who has seen the whole farce and has turned it into an improptu photo op.

She smiles, gladly, and tells me very quickly that now she poses, and afterwards she wants the "contribuçao", the contribution.

This interest spoilt the moment a bit. "Nice for pay", I've never liked.

Of course, as soon as her friends see that one of them has caught a live one, they all flock, and I mean, flock to me to have their picture taken as well. They flirt and tell me how beautiful and sexy I am, etc.

I very quicly felt the slight undercurrent of prostitution in the air, and told them that the person taking my picture was, in fact, my partner.

At first they could not believe it. But then they laughed and flocked to him for me to take their picture.

Which I did, after making the chicks pose for the camera! (It was all very tropical Naomi Campbell).

No middle of the road images for me honey, you want cash? You work for it! And of course, they loved it.

I guess these women normally don't get so much attention from the tourists. Unless they want something else.

Afterwards came the haggling, something they told us about in the hotel. Everyone in this country haggles.

I am crap at haggling. I once left an Atlas of Cuba behind in Havana because the owner wanted to haggle.

The "models" wanted 50 Reals a piece. We said no. Then 50 for all 4. We still said no. I think in the end we gave them 30 Reals, about 12 Euros or 17 Dollars US.

Then we left the girls and headed up the hill to continue on our tour or the Cidade Alta with the rest of the group.


Timbo said...

Fascinating.....and amusing! Thanks for that wonderful mental being seduced by Brazilian prostitutes! Priceless!!!!

Ynot said...

Can you imagine anything so queer? What a laugh they were, stroking my stomach as I thought, chick keep your paws and your punani to your baiaiana self!