Word on the Street

There’s always some barulho in Salvador.  Vendors hawking their wares, friends yelling to their neighbor in the street, and people banging on the side of the bus to get it to open its back door.  Not to mention the beeping.

Here in Salvador, there is a unique culture of car horns.  At first I was taken aback by the licentious beeping.  I come from a culture in which honking is considered rude and only to be done in emergency situations–that is to say, “Watch out!”  No one likes the angry driver who is constantly blowing his horn.

Employing this same belligerent connotation to the unconstrained beeping that I heard on my way from the airport, I found it hard to believe those who told me that Baianos are among the happiest people you’ll find.  “If you’re so happy and full of sunshine,” I thought, “then why are you constantly blowing your horn??”

But after driving with my host mom, one of the nicest women on the planet, and losing track of how many times she honked her horn, I realized that I had misjudged the beeping barulho. 

In fact, the culture of the car horn is far more amiable than I had initially imagined.  What is generally viewed as “bad manners” in the United States is the tool that treats transit with far greater politeness here in Salvador.

Like a bicycle bell, Baianos use their beep to warn others of their oncoming presence, as well as to ask permission to enter traffic, to grant it, and to say “thank you”.  The cars thus converse with one another as follows:

*beep*: “Hey, can I back out into traffic in front of you?” 

*beep*: “Sure, go ahead!” 

*beep*: “Thank you!” 

and sometimes…

*beep*: “You’re welcome!” 

Each exchange of light, little tones–always the same intensity and frequency–communicates concisely, quickly, and clearly different information depending on the situation.

The creation of these conversations stems from the sharp turns, blind corners, and very nature of driving itself, in which lanes are invisible and red lights are optional.  Thus, for the motorcycle brushing up along the blind side of the bus, it becomes necessary to say, “Hey!  I’m here!”  Or for the bus bending around a sharp curve to say “Look out!  Here I come!” 

While this medley of Morse-coded messages may sound like the angry chorus of frustrated transit, the beeps are part of another language–a discourse driven by bus, car, and motorcycle alike, spoken out of the reality created by the shape of Salvadorean streets.