Wednesday, November 07, 2001

Life is finally starting to fall into a recognizable pattern for me down here—lepers and streetkids sniffing glue under the table. No ecotourism for me—instead of travelling halfway around the world to look at a 1000-year old baobab or kapok tree or whatever and priding myself on doing my part for the planet, I do sociotourism and go look at the poor of other countries and think what a great and special thing I’m doing for society. Seeing people with legs bowed wide from rickets walking down the street in brand-new Levis jeans is fascinating, as was seeing my first Amazonian Indians on the bus—they had things that looked like cigarettes pushed through the piercings in their ears, and preppy pastel-coloured rowing sweaters tied around their necks. Which is pretty fly. (Also since women are equally strange inscrutable creatures from East to West, you’ll get a few of those too—the Bohemian, the Gringa.)

I’m trying to paint every day, the old colonial tenements and fruitstands and bathing holes on the side of the downtown drag, but it’s tough because then when I go out I keep meeting distracting people. Buildings here have all been left out in the heat and damp for too long, and every cracked pilaster has ferns growing out of it, just like all the church steeples have shrubs growing right on top—last Tuesday I was out in the streets below my apartment painting some of these when a Rasta-looking guy started poking his head out of the building behind me and making conversation—he was working for a welcome centre for street kids, and they were all going to be arriving in a few minutes and did I want to come and join the activities? (Obviously the guys running this place were Baptists, who else, and of course they showered me with pamphlets in perfect English, but this is all beside the point.)
The kids started coming and making swipes at my paintbox as they walked by, but we started talking and it gradually became clear that some of them were actually more interested in having their pictures drawn than begging me to go down the street to buy bread for them. So I filled up a page of portraits of tiny thin-limbed 15-year-olds, and they all signed their names slowly underneath, and I got to spend the rest of the day playing foosball with them and shooing them out from under the table when they hid there to sniff the glue they had under their shirts. The next Thursday I went back at the coordinator’s request to give them some drawing lessons—I brought them all pencils and showed them the proportions of the human face and stuff. Final analysis: the homeless kids in this part of Salvador can’t follow the principles of double-vanishing-point perspective, but they’re also completely unbeatable at foosball.

Wayne from Winnipeg up at the Canadian embassy in Brasilia put me in touch with another Canadian here, James, who he said was a wonderful man, someone deeply involved in humanitarian activities and someone I should get to know. James looks about 60, and he’s from Saskatchewan—seriously from Saskatchewan. We had some trouble getting together initially, and once when I called him to remind him of our plans, he just spent a minute going “Oh jeepers. Oh jeepers. Oh jeepers,” over and over again. Which is a wonderful thing to hear after being away from home for so long.
So it turned out that his parish (this one was Catholic) was planning an afternoon at a support centre for lepers the following weekend (this last Sunday), and I was invited along. They were all being cured, I could shake anyone’s hands but I was advised not to talk too close to their faces. The disease doesn’t look like I’d imagined—of a room of 70 people, only one man had a missing nose. Shrunken extremities were way more common than missing ones—they weren’t so much chopped off as worked down on a lathe. James made a big deal of me during his introductions, getting them all to sing a blessing for me with arms upraised. I was grinning like an idiot up there in front. He asked if I wanted to say anything, and I just quickly went through the usual—so wonderful to receive blessings from friends in other countries, the world needs to be more united and the only thing that can do that is love. Going around serving the pop during the lunch afterward was much more my thing, I could look grinningly obsequious without looking out of place.
I stayed behind after the Christian coalition had left, when it turned out that a huge number of people there wanted their portraits done too. About halfway through, my subjects had all boiled down to middle-aged women and adolescent girls, who make up my core fan base the world over. I’m going back in the coming weeks to give everyone copies.

Final analysis: Ama, a big black woman from the centre, was shockingly kind to me on my way home, waiting at stations and accompanying me on buses all the way back downtown. It’s so rare to meet anyone who sees a white man as anything besides an easy mark—the ones so see beyond this and are willing to talk are the ones who can make the world worthwhile.

The Bohemian: My upstairs neighbour is a woman from Rio working on her Ph.D. in ethnoscenology, which seems to be theatre studied from an anthropological angle with a lot of pot thrown in. She’s a beetle-browed woman who throws her head all the way back and open-mouthed to laugh; we’ve been doing a language exchange on and off for about a month, and she lends me interesting books on African religions in the area and the remains of old kingdoms of escaped slaves. The best thing by far that she’s shown me was a class on the dancing that’s used in the African rituals here, I’ve made plans to go back and paint the drummers. She was living with a very goodlooking gay Frenchman until a few weeks ago, and I’m beginning to realise that she was deeply in love with him despite his bringing young men home every night—she keeps saying that “meeting old friends is even better than meeting new ones,” and that all the men in her life have been “in passing,” and etc. etc.
I begged a big favour of her on Monday, asking if she’d come to the Federal University with me to vouch for my using their free computers, which are normally reserved for the students. We walked a fair ways in the hot sun and sat waiting in institutional buildings for a couple of hours, while it became more and more obvious that I really wasn’t going to be allowed. She was starting to look impatient, so I suggested that if she wanted we could just drop the whole thing, and I’d find other computers to use. She flipped her lid. She said she was incredibly disappointed in me, she thought I was better than that, now she realised how spineless I was, she’d never see me the same way again. We have to follow things through to the end! I bent over backwards trying to calm her down, apologizing in twenty different ways, and it was only long afterwards, after we’d gone to a different department where she was the one who suggested we turn around without asking, that I realized that some of these men-in-passing she had known must have been very spineless indeed, and she would always be on the lookout for this fault in the men in her future.

The Gringa: Every Brazilian in the touristy parts of town opens his spiel by asking, “You into capoeira?” Because every young foreigner is in town for capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art with the somersaults and cartwheels. One night last month, just after having moved into my apartment, I was walking home with groceries on my back when I heard two kids talking English—I turned to them and said, “Look, I’m going be obnoxious and introduce myself here.” We exchanged phone numbers; of course they were capoeiristas, but they knew some foreign cartoonists in town too and said they’d hook me up. The cartoonist who ended up calling me was Wendy, a girl with a syrupy Louisiana accent of a type I figured had to be a bit of a nervous put-on, but which left me wondering two things on my walk over to her hostel: 1) was she hot and 2) (and perhaps more importantly) how would I see myself reflected in this fellow traveller, what would I learn from her about my own self-projection and motivations? Wendy greeted me wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a gold tooth, a camouflage T-shirt, plaid shorts, and psychedelic leggings, and holding two cups of mint tea. Let me make this perfectly clear: this is a country where women wear catsuits. Uniformly. She drew well; she drew with permanent markers cut up with razor blades, and with those she drew punks having sex and sticking each other multiply with needles. On our way to my place, where I was going to show her my work and give her lunch, she told me about her manic depression and about being attacked by her 30-year-old coke-addict sister just before coming to Salvador. She’d come for capoeira, of course—her nickname at the classes was “Weirdo”, and she simply couldn’t get why all the other girls wanted to be called things like “Hummingbird” or “Little Mango”. Wendy was funny like this, and brilliant, describing old boyfriends as limpets and making me work to earn my keep in the conversation. Well, she was depressed as hell in Salvador too, and she was planning on just buying a few herbs and things in the market and then splitting out of town the very next day.

Final analysis: I’m left with absolutely no idea as to what one gringo cartoonist might mean to another here, or what one country is supposed to see of itself in the other. All I know is my life is shaping up, slowly; I’m speaking Portuguese and gradually meeting more real people of depth and transparency (for every attack from Bohemians there are domino games in the park with Lana, etc.); and next week I’m going off with the Bahá’í youth here, who rule pretty much invariably, for ten days at a little village in the countryside called Pombal.

Further bulletins as events warrant,



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