She Tells of Tree Tales

My friend Amanda tells me that the trees in Campo Grande talk to her.

She’s gotten to know them after many morning laps around the central city square in her matching spandex jogging suit that every baiana somehow squeezes into, their bodies painted in floral print that makes my fashion-forward friends want to puke.

I contemplated buying one for myself, but when I shared this thought, my other friends laughed so hard that I quickly stuffed the dream back inside myself before they found out that I was serious.

Amanda doesn’t care though.  She has a jeito all of her own—her ‘fro bobbing back and forth as she weaves beneath the trees, listening as they whisper wonders.

The big old giant on the corner always grumbles over secret sprinkles as his roots sit above the ground in separate sections, conveniently forming stalls that stand firm in the well-fertilized dark-brown dirt.

Peeing in public is nothing to blush over even in the middle of a bustling day downtown.  My friend once saw a weary walker sitting near a puddle in the square.  It wasn’t until she passed by that she perceived the puddle to be promptly pullulating, nourished by the trickle dribbling down the woman’s floral-printed pant-leg.

The tall, willowy tamarind tends to bemoan the boys and their white kite strings that slice through the sky only to snag themselves in her tresses, tangling their tails in the labyrinth of her swinging vines.

I once saw a boy flying a kite in the middle of a busy main street, dancing along while flapping his flimsy piece of plastic.  The two of them were dodging in and out of disinterested traffic until suddenly the string snagged straight onto the front of a passing car, whose arrested antenna arched back, bending beneath the tension created by the fierce grasp of the boy on the other end, who sprinted, shrieking behind the automobile, determined not to the lose the tug-of-war.

The branches of the muttering mangoes mask the mugs of their macaco (monkey) members who meekly manifest themselves upon presentation of palatable provisions.  Their wisely whiskered faces win the hearts of all American estrangeiros sick of simply seeing squirrels skirt the sidewalk saplings.

Perhaps Amanda tells the truth about the treasures of the trees that are found just by listening to the language of their leaves.


Check out these fantastic fotos of trees that my mom forwarded to me.  I especially like the image of the Jabuticaba, a Brasilian tree whose fruit grows directly on the trunk and branches.


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.

Out of Context

I don’t really know what I look like anymore.  I’ve been called so many different things that it’s hard to cling to one physical identity over another.

My previous personal descriptions have long been thrown out the window as I’ve struggled to understand the perceptions of my physical presence here in Brasil.  I have found that my mirror changes with each new place I go, as every community reflects (or perhaps projects) a diferente physical reality.

I left the United States as a brown-haires, brown-eyed, slightly-shorter-than-normal white girl with round cheecks that dimpled when I smiled and that unfortunately tended to squeeze my eyes shut in photos.  Long days at the beach have since bronzed my skin and bleached my hair, and yet, I still look more or less the same, and in the States would use the same physical description as before.

But in Bahia, the mirror is held with darker hands.  Here, my sandy-brown hair is briliantly blonde, my bronzed skin a betraying branco, and my hazely-brown eyes as good as blue.

I am a circle amidst a sea of squares, and I know it just as much as they do.  No matter how much I try to wiggle my tongue around the local gíria, or slang, speaking “bem baiano” at times, still I can’t seem to escape the question, “Você é de onde?”, which sometimes even proceeds an introduction.

One day when my friend Rebecca and I got on the bus headed to our afternoon English class in the bairro Lobato, reviewing our lesson in Portuguese, a man in front of us became convinced that she was from Italy.  When she said no, he proceeded to guess every country in Europe and Latin América, from France to Argentina–all except the United States.  Gleefully beside herself, Rebecca finally told him, “americana!”  For her, being an estrangeira from Argentina is at least better than being branded as American.

In the city or in the suburbs, on the beach, the bus, or in the classroom, everyone who sees me knows that I don’t really belong here.

In my whiter, lighter circles of friends, I’ll sometimes pass as brasileira, but never as baiana–only carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) or paulista (from São Paulo), if I’m lucky.

But on the streets of Salvador, my loira looks spark all kinds of unwanted attention, turning the tables on this seasoned observer, placing me in the uncomfortable position of constantly being watched.  When my personality would just like most to slip from one shadow to the next, unnoticed and unseen, my fairer skin screams instead, “Look at me!”  And when people look, they recognize, “Ah, ela não tem cara de brasileira, não.”  I know.  Here in Bahia, é óbvio, né?

However, all it takes is less than a two-hour plane South down the coast to Rio to completely transform the looking glass.  When I took a trip to Rio de Janeiro with my study abroad program a few weeks ago, I felt as if I had entered another world.  Another bigger, brighter, lighter, and whiter world in which all the buses were numbered and actually claimed to run according to some schedule (one which I never quite figured out in my 4 days there).  I felt as if I was in the middle of New York City and somewhere in Europe.*

The hardest part of Rio was trying to find its carioca residentes.  That city is filled full with foreigners, mostly European tourists and English teachers (of course, the fact that I stayed in an international hostel didn’t help my impression).  Besides the breathtaking beauty of the city itself, the best part about Rio was that I became Brasilian!  Or at least I was mistaken for one.  That or someone from Portugal, since my Bahian accent and introverted histency was confusing.

My bronzed branquitude blended beautifully in the chic neighborhoods of Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leblon as well as in the comercial center of the city.  There, if I avoided English, I passed and my fairer appearance was accepted at any corner juice bar, where I could order a deliciously cheap cup of açaí to-go like a local.

Yet, when my friend Rebecca and I hiked a trail behind the favela Vidigal which climbs the mountain on the far-right said of Praia de Ipanema (facing the sea), we quickly realized that we were the only two white people in the bairro.  Once we reached the trailhead, however, we passed mostly white-skinned Brasilian tourists from São Paulo and other parts of southern Brasil.  Back on the beach again in Ipanema was another story, and we would’ve passed for Brasilian if not for the fact that we brought napkin-wrapped sandwiches from the hostel instead of ordering food from the beach barracas.

The image in the mirror morphed yet again when our plane touched down in the city of São Paulo.  In the short walk from the plane to the airport, I was convinced I was dying from frostbite in the rainy, upper-fifty degree windy weather as all I had packed were shorts and tank tops.

I had never seen so many naturally blonde Brasilians in my life!  True to the stereotype, everyone in the airport was classily dressed in chic jackets, pants, and scarves (it was cold, people!), and as I looked into pairs of blue, green, and hazely-brown eyes, I felt simultaneously accepted and wierdly out of place as my bright Bahian colors and tan skin betrayed my foreignness as there’s no coastline in São Paulo.  Seriously though, I had forgotten how white people could get.

Rafting down the river beneath the Falls of Iguaçu and yelling in Portuguese to Rebecca as we raced back and forth along the border with Argentina towards the thundering waterfalls, we were baptized yet again with new identities.  While our very presence at the tourist centers of the city gave us away as non-locals, the fact that we spoke Portuguese convinced everyone we met that we couldn’t possibly be American.  Most often we were mistaken for/assumed to be Brasilians on vacation in Foz do Iguaçu.  One woman from São Paulo actually thought we were joking when we would say an English word here and there, as it is comman for Brasilians to play around and throw in an English word in conversation.  She didn’t believe us at first when we said that that was really our first language.

Being thought Brasilian, instead of merely being present in a Brasilian space is a wonderful thing.  And the sense of belonging that results from this recognized inclusion is a wonderful feeling.  Acceptance creates security for your soul.

That is why, as I boarded the plane to Salvador, I was filled with apprehension at the thought of losing this welcome misinterpretation of my national identity based on the south-eastern and south-western Brasilians’ social reflection (or construction) of my phsycial appearance and linguistic ability.  I didn’t want to give up these precious sentiments of acceptance that I felt due to the false conclusions of others as a result of their own social and racial norms.

As I bounced along the bus from the airport in Salvador to my apartment in the city’s center, I felt–even more profoundly than before–my foreignness.  I realized for the first time that while I felt as if I was coming home, to the rest of the bus I was just another blonde, blue-eyed tourist.  I have lived here for the past 4 months, dogonnit!  But as I looked into the dark eyes of the man next to me and felt the curious glances of the old woman two rows back, I understood just how irrelevant 4 months can be when all people can see is your reflection in their mirror.

While I’d like to be dramatic and end my story there, I have experienced more hopeful angles that keep me anticipating greater complexities in the outward understandings of myself.

The day after I got back to Salvador, walking along Rua de Graça, I heard someone call, “Moça!”  I looked up, startled from my concentrated navigation of my feet along the broken sidewalk tiles.  To my pleasant surprise, a woman proceeded to ask me directions to Campo Grande.  What was even more exciting, however, was that I actually knew what that was, where that was, and how to tell her to get there!

You couldn’t have stretched a bigger smile across my cheeks as I skipped and tripped along those same old broken tiles, my eyes no longer on my feet, but lifted high above the ground, as I headed back home.

*Disclaimer: I’ve never actually been to Europe.

Dois de Julho

While the rest of Brazil celebrates independence on September 7th, here in Salvador, Bahians take the streets on “dois de Julho” (July 2nd), when after several battles the province finally expelled the Portuguese, several months ahead of Emperor Pedro the First’s official declaration of independence.

Along with the rest of city, we headed to Pelourinho, the historic heart of Salvador, where the major independence day parade takes place.  The parade occurred in several acts, as each part was punctuated by breaks during which the onlookers, which had previously separated to the sides, flooded the steep narrow-bricked streets to buy the flags, cotton candy, ice-cream, and sweet coconut-lime juice which is basically ambrosia in a plastic cup.

However, after several spurts of marching bands, the parade commenced in full force and everyone joined in, spectators marching alongside feathered natives and uniformed bands, a jumbled mixture framed by the tawny uniforms of the police, who separated the celebration from the few of us still observing the spectacle, perched on the outside edge.  Even so, the Brazilians in our group urged us to move our hips along to the beats of the parade, blurring further whatever divide there was between the dancers in the streets and the spectators on the sides.

View of the old Medical School Building (1808) from our parade spot.

View of the old Medical School Building (1808) from our parade spot.

Many of the decorations were actually remnants of the Festival of São João that happened days before we arrived in June.

Many of the decorations were actually remnants of the Festival of São João that happened days before we arrived in June.

Fighters of independence

Fighters of independence

One of many marching bands

One of many marching bands

The vendors here never cease to amaze

The vendors here never cease to amaze

CIEE staff and student monitors! (From left: Jacob,  Nataniel, Flavia, Luize, Rebeca, Renaldo, Mariel)

CIEE staff and student monitors! (From left: Jacob, Nataniel, Flavia, Luize, Rebeca, Renaldo, Mariel)



Another band

Another band

I have no idea what this guy is doing with a cow's head...

I have no idea what this guy is doing with a cow’s head…

On duty

On duty

All-female drumming group

All-female drumming group

The hat makes the outfit

The hat makes the outfit

Some of the participants in the parade were dressed as actors in the story of independence as Portuguese soldiers, slaves, and indigenous Brazilians.

Some of the participants in the parade were dressed as actors in the story of independence as Portuguese soldiers, slaves, and indigenous Brazilians.

A float representing the characters involved in independence.  On top of the float is the indigenous, Brazilian, European racially-mixed figure of the Caboclo, which symbolizes Independence.

A float representing the characters involved in independence. On top of the float is the indigenous, Brazilian, European racially-mixed figure of the Caboclo, which symbolizes Independence.

Even Jesus made an appearance in the parade

Even Jesus made an appearance in the parade


The parade was much more political than any other I’ve seen, most likely due to the recent “maniftestações”, or protests, that have been occurring throughout Brazil’s major cities, including Salvador, over the high cost of transportation and the politicians’ precedence of World Cup 2014 above the problems of the people.  Certainly President Dilma Rousseff’s inattentiveness doesn’t help the situation.

"To fight is not a crime.  Liberate our prisoners."

“To fight is not a crime. Liberate our prisoners.”

Lining the streets...

Lining the streets…

Protestors: "There does not exist a cure for what is not sickness."

“There does not exist a cure for what is not sickness.”  At several different points, I was crushed against the wall as packs of protestors passionately chanted slogans.  And yet, the atmosphere was still jovial as the people watching cheered on those demonstrating, and the entire procession remained peaceful.

Spectators, such as Luize, even grabbed demonstrates signs to pose for pictures in support of their cause: "I also want a better Brasil."

Spectators, such as Luize, even grabbed demonstrates signs to pose for pictures in support of their cause: “I also want a better Brasil.”

Big eyes

Big eyes

As with any celebration in Bahia, the festivities concluded with everyone clearing the streets, headed to the nearest restaurant to memorialize the day with beer, moqueca (fish and vegetable stew), and, of course, a feast of feijão (comida típica da Bahia).  Que gostozo!

Street Life in Salvador

Journal entry: (02-07-13) One month ago…

“I feel very overstimulated right now.  Even just existing here in Salvador is overstimulating.  As I walked back home from Suco 24h (heaven is a bowl of açai at any hour), I couldn’t even pray or think.  It was all I could do to just be aware of my surroundings, as I was walking alone, and just take it all in.  Salvador is a big city.  A huge city.  Think New York City, but Latin American-style.  But there are all apartments instead of houses, mountains of favelas in place of ghettos, and Dr. Seuss trees with vines reaching down toward winding highways.  Long-tailed, whiskered monkeys are the squirrels of Salvador.”  

I’m used to Detroit, where the streets are straight, the corners are sharp, and the biggest hill is the gentle incline of the highway ramp.  A map of Salvador, on the other hand, consists of a series of loops, where one winds the ondulating layout of the city by way of nearly ninety-degree-angled “ladeiras”, or steep roads, that link like ladders “Cidade Alta” and “Cidade Baixa” and the jumble of favelas in between.

When asking for directions, instead of hearing responses such as “take a left, then a right, and then another left”, the answer almost every time to any destination is simply “direto”, or “straight”.  You can only fully appreciate the irony of this word in Salvador after you have followed the bending road “direto”, and eventually, around several twists later, found yourself precisely at your desired destination.  Then you will know that in Salvador, no matter how many highways and by-ways there may be, choose almost any road, and it will be a “direto” route to your home.

(This post inspired another blog post in Portuguese for my class at the university.  Check it out here.)

Scaling the steep, stone-strewn streets of Pelourinho, the historical heart of Salvador

Scaling the steep, stone-strewn streets of Pelourinho, the historical heart of Salvador