Thursday, April 10, 2003

For two months, all I’ve wanted was to settle down and write a letter home, but instead—as Blake would have it—I’ve been busy living a pestilence & dying a meteor & being no more. Each week I’ve sketched out a message saying I was on my feet and doing well, except that that never turned out quite to be true, and instead I got weeks where my only indication of time was which contestant got voted off of Big Brother Brazil. To make a long, ridiculous story short, Carnival finally ended March 6th, I moved into my new apartment on the 16th, installing a phone in this crummy 1920s building took a week and a half, with the original electrician coming back to break holes in the walls and mostly standing here shaking his head, and the Internet was forever on top of that. But that’s all over now—I’m off the ropes, my swollen eyes are lanced and open, and I’m getting my bearings at last.

It’s 2003 in Salvador, Brazil: Lula’s in office promising to feed the nation, and the price of the barest necessities is double what it was, but the churning, sun-scrubbed crowds still look something like their old selves. Beneath the mango trees and mossy overgrown cathedrals, the white girls are still strutting around in their little bikinis, and the black guys are at the beach playing soccer with their butt cleavage on display; and the especially well-favoured white girls smile out from the beer posters plastered on the dives at every corner, and the especially unfortunate blacks suffer from a painful disease called vitiligo that turns their skin white from the joints outward.

I got here on February 2nd, happy and relieved to see my old friends running out of the Bahá’í centre with smiles on their faces. All the new marriages, divorces, new babies, no deaths—yet—though it was too bad I’d just missed a big conference they’d organized on the African diaspora, but a two-week drum workshop was about to start, and I could probably join in if I wanted. I wanted to see my American friend Mike first, because he’d just come back himself and we were going to rent a place together. That was when he told me it was impossible to rent before Carnival, and that he was going to wait it out at a friend’s place. This, then, is what the two-week drum workshop was like.

The regional Bahá’í centre sits on a hill way off on the edge of Salvador proper, right near the airport, with old fruit orchards looking out on a working-class sprawl of naked brick and corrugated iron. About forty kids from other working-class sprawls piled into the bedrooms the following day—classes were from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for thirteen days, with chores in the morning, clothes-scrubbing during afternoon break, and swarms of mosquitoes at night. The instructor, a Hungarian-Colombian named István, was hoping to cram in a profound respect for the roots of African art and culture along with a few percussion techniques—it turns out learning the tam-tam raises bruises on your inner thighs and the backs of your fingers, like exit wounds. My first phonecall home was ecstatic, and I was basically in love with all existence.

Day 2: Trying to sleep. Laughing like lunatics for no reason. Still no land in sight.

Realized I’d crossed paths with the Hungarian-Colombian once before, in Haiti. As a young man, he’d stayed in Europe just long enough to get a Lit degree and translate a few novels, and then decided he wasn’t getting enough revolution or spirituality in his life, and fled straight to Cuba to become a master drummer and santería priest. By the 80s, he’d had enough revolution and spirituality that quality became a concern, and he declared himself a Bahá’í, giving up the bottle and drumming gigs with big-name European tours. In the summer of 1999 he was in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince ironing out a plan to help the Third World find spiritual and artistic self-fulfillment, and from across the room I thought he was a short, strange Hungarian man in a ponytail and a bad hat. It didn’t help, either, that I’d been asked to translate a hopeless paper he’d written on the value of voodoo traditions—but it did make it a welcome surprise to see that in Brazil he’d lost the ponytail and the hat, replaced the go-nowhere polemics with an urgent message and a genuine gift for teaching, and turned out to be an impressively likeable guy.

Day 8: During our nightly feedback session, a 15-year-old named Carla suddenly burst out crying and shut herself in her room. Everyone kept running up to her afterward to shower her with questions and hugs, so I was surprised when just before lights-out one of her best friends asked me of all people to sit with the two of them and talk. Carla started back at the beginning: her father had disappeared when she was little, life had been hard on her mother, and her mom’s boyfriend had beat her younger brother Carlos within an inch of his life. Christ—Carlos was at the workshop too, he’d taken a liking to me, lent me a bedsheet when I didn’t have one, always giving me candies, constantly getting into trouble. They’d found a drum with his nickname graffitied onto it that morning: “Bobó,” which is an accent away from “Dumbass.” Carla said he’d always been such a smart kid, but he just couldn’t get his act together … and their mother was hoping these two weeks would somehow miraculously turn his whole long life around, and everyone was feeling the pressure. Carlos came and sat down with us, and his sister started weepily laying into him: how could she tell their mom that none of this time had made any difference? It’d kill her. And Carlos just sank further and further away behind his brow, until finally I asked if I could have a word with him alone and went to find a couple of chairs at the other end of the hall. I apologized for a suddenly unforgivable swat I’d given him the other day—he’d started jumping on me when I was trying to take a nap—and said Carla might still be too young to say what it was on her mind, but if she was crying over him, it wasn’t because his mother cared so much about him, it was because Carla herself did, and if she couldn’t tell him she loved him now, I hoped she’d figure it out soon. It seemed like that’s what he needed to hear: we said a prayer, traded hugs, and he called Carla over to talk again. By that time a crowd of kids had gathered off to one side, and we all watched Carla and Bobó in the dark until suddenly they hugged each other too and came back smiling and wiping away tears. Mike asked me what was going on: I said I might know how to recognize the suicidal kids, but I still needed serious work with the ones who’d suffered physical abuse.

Brazil has racial inequality without the day-to-day racial tension, which makes local racism way too easy to disregard. I went to the laundry area behind the dining hall one day, to watch how this whole clothes-washing thing was done—my own pile of dirty clothes was starting to get sort of silly—and all the teenage guys were there arguing over what bands promoted black pride, and which ones were racist, and whether this had anything to do how good the music was, and I was just standing back fascinated until one of them turned around and laughed, “Hah, it’s just like the plantation owner watching the blacks do all the work.” I came back to wash a few shirts later when no one was around, pretty much to avoid more friendly jokes like that one. I did a slow, bad job and I’ve been trying to avoid it ever since. (There were two white Americans there beside me, and the Brazilians did an impression of each of us: Mike spoke in a slow, sing-song “Oh dear,” Jeremy was all English r’s, and I myself am a stutterer.)

Day 9: The way to recognize a suicidal kid is he doesn’t want any watermelon when everyone else is having some. This one kid Husayn, who dresses in black and listens to thrash metal (not a clear giveaway in itself, however), had chosen me to talk to a few times the year before, so when I saw him sitting off by himself with a grimace on his face, I asked him what he was thinking about. “It’s retarded.” Did I really want to know? Yes, I really wanted to know. Yes, I was sure. “Sometimes I think if I don’t kill myself I’ll end up killing someone else.” So you talk—I did as best I could to say his happy moments aren’t a lie, and his sorrow makes him human, and the contradiction itself is something great for the few who think to see it. That was a few days ago, but tonight he was so riled up that he ended up getting out of bed and lying in the middle of the main hall for hours. I figured I’d press the point, and went out to hold vigil and every so often hear him say, “I’d just go back to bed if I were you.” Finally he got sick of all my slow, still efforts at engagement, and went away to the washroom. For a very long time. Do you follow him in there? I opened the door just in time to see him release a mouthful of blood into the sink.

The regional Bahá’í centre is a beautiful place—people come just to walk among the trees, or talk with friends in the shade. Neighbourhood kids from down the hill come to pick jamelão, which look like black olives and taste like sharp citrus, or jack-fruit, which look like ten-pound tumorous lychees and are dangerous when they get ripe enough to fall, and mangoes seemingly year-round. But the longer I stayed there, waiting out the weeks and lucky to have a roof over my head, the more it seemed like the fantasy of a mentally unstable 12-year-old girl: a petting-zoo of horses and crested, blue-headed guinea fowl wander around from nearby farms, but on closer inspection the rabbit has its pelvis shattered, and its hind legs look like pieces of fried chicken on account of all the filth it can’t clean off; and on closer inspection the kitten at the end of the hall is spread-eagle on its back and dead. Just after the drum workshop ended, a 70-year-old woman showed up at the centre with casts on her arms and legs, hurling self-righteous insults at whoever happened to be helping her.

I spent a month there with the same few people, looking at every living option I could and coming back to square one, well aware that all the time and money I was wasting was nothing to what the others had to deal with, and doubly frustrated on account of it all. One day I walked into my room to find my very built roommates doing sit-ups, and as I turned on my heel for a quick escape, Anderson had just enough time to get in a crack at my own neglected abs. Thanks. You should read more. So that night I’m idly talking with Ricardo, when Anderson comes in reeling from his latest phone call from Jennifer Jade—picture a New York prima donna picking him up on a street corner in the tourist part of town; now picture me biting my tongue every time he comes in reeling from talking to this Jennifer of his. It took me forever to decide whether I was hearing things right—she asked him straight up if he could read, he was shocked, he went over her evidence, and here I was suddenly trying to figure out whether the man can actually read or not, and how the hell to get an appropriately ambivalent expression on my face. Turns out he can’t, and I should have guessed it all along. No father and his mom with mental problems, a third of the city can barely write their name anyways, and you can see how school wouldn’t have grabbed the guy. He was shamed into wanting lessons, now, and we got through a few before settling back to inertia. Get me going about Anderson and Miss Jade, and it’s like they represent absolutely everything wrong with the world: she’s a wannabe-lounge-singer rich girl who comes to Brazil with bodyguards, and tells her local boyfriend it doesn’t matter if he can’t read, she loves him just the same. And she does seem to, calling him every night and talking for hours on end in the broken Spanish they barely share—and Anderson reciprocates by talking about this goddess of his non-stop, to exclusion, and asking her to bring back two pairs of Nikes, and trying, sort of, not to flirt with every girl in sight. She’s coming in June, and staying in a mansion of a hotel. Says she wants to bring him back to the States. Curious to see how this all works out.

At the other end of the romantic spectrum is Cristina, a mother of six from the same poor part of town. I’d known her older sister for quite some time—she’s an auxiliary board member, part of the appointed branch of Bahá’í administration running parallel to the elected bodies, and so constantly setting up NGOs and educational projects and travelling every damn place to encourage people to do what they can—but until this trip I hadn’t even known about Cristina’s existence. Their family history is about as bad as you could care to imagine: their father was a penniless drunk who spent their early years trying to pass himself off as a witch doctor (there are very present African-Brazilian religions here, and then again there’s African-Brazilian superstitions and cults) before running off with some young acolyte. The mother dragged all nine kids and an unborn infant to Salvador to find him, and ended up living in disgrace in the same house as her husband’s mistress and mother—who then left the wife to her own devices at the maternity ward, and beat her when she found her way back … she finally found a house for herself and the kids, and in turn started beating the older sister, at least, with wire and strips of rubber, and left without leaving a forwarding address after finding this daughter a job as a housekeeper for a police chief with other ideas. How anyone can rise from having her mother hold a knife to her throat to become a leading member of the community is beyond me—she has faith, and she dreams about flying, nothing but flying. I got to know her younger sister Cristina because her housekeeping work had been thin enough lately that she agreed to take care of the insufferable 70-year-old at the centre. One night I walked into the dining hall to find her sitting over a closed book, quietly crying to herself. Lots of crying in this letter. I sat down with her and she started to talk: her own life had been so much the same, except that where her older sister stood on the side of the highway at 6 a.m. every morning to sell fish to feed the family, Cristina had been too embarrassed by the task and always came home saying nobody had wanted to buy. Her face still bears the marks of the beatings she herself had gotten. The man of the house she’d worked at had been predatory too—but she stayed with the job, like most girls seem to, and took refuge instead in a series of romantic relationships that inevitably seemed to turn into bad marriages … and this is where I found her, crying because she was lonely at 40 and her son needed braces, and the phone had been disconnected, and nothing ever seemed to go right. What can you talk about here, honestly? Yet somehow she ended up smiling. That month she started insisting I was like a son to her, and kept saying she wasn’t doing anything that afternoon so why didn’t I just give her all my dirty laundry so she could have something to keep her hands busy? Which I resisted for a while, to my credit. In the long run I agreed to have her come to my place once a week to cook and clean—and anyways it seems like I’m giving her something she needs as well, even if the exchange rate here still stuns me into silence.

So that’s about it for now. I’ve discovered that Carla’s very funny but throws sudden punches when her fuse burns too short, and that Bobó hosts a community radio show under the name Tony Carlos, and I talked with Husayn’s father and bought Husayn himself a copy of Kafka, which he read cover to cover. Jen-Hur was here visiting from the States while I was still getting the phone and Internet installed, and that ended up being a really good trip in its own right. We visited a few places in the interior that would have taken me forever to see again otherwise, talking with the chief of an Indian tribe who recently reconquered a city from the whites, and playing bingo at a place where first prize was a sheep. But I’ll leave the report till next time, because this is getting long enough as it is, and it set me up well for research I want to do in the next little while: I was invited back for an Indian celebration on the 19th, and I want to see how close I can get to talking to the area’s bishop. The next message should be a lot easier for me to write than this one has been, if only because I’ll be making things happen instead of just having them happen to me. Famous last words.

I think of you all more than is strictly flattering to me,



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