Thursday, 28 June 2007

Wednesday, December 16, 1986

I feel like a Henry James character - I have a guilty conscience about exploiting people via the exchange rate, but everyone is out to exploit me! I bought a berimbau, two whistles, an agogo (cowbells) and a colimbré (?) for $10 at Cz$28 per dollar, and still somehow I feel I've been had. Oh well.

Yesterday, I did a quick tour - saw the Mercado Modelo, bought fitas (after bargaining down the price), bought stamps and discovered that the Portuguese word for envelope is "envelope" (pronounced "enveloppy").

I wandered the Pelourinho district - a rough place even in the daytime (and the capoeira schools open at night). Three malandros offered an exorbitant exchange rate (Cz$32 to the dollar) if I sold them $200. I thought better of it.

[Here's the whole story: Every time I arrived in the plaza facing the Lacerda Lift in the Upper City, I was greeted by a young boy - a different one every time - who showed me a very good exchange rate written on a bit of paper. It was tempting. If I exchanged the dollars I still had at those rates, I could have lived like a queen for the rest of my stay. I asked my hosts what they thought and, in typically Bahian fashion, they shrugged and said "give it a try."

Still suspicious - thinking that if it was too good to be true it was probably false - I decided to test it out. The young kid of the day took me to Cantina da Lua - then an infamous dive and now a popular watering spot for tourists - and the three malandros sat down at a table with me to negotiate.

"We'll give you that rate for $200," said the head honcho.

"But I only have $20 on me," I replied.

When they saw that I was serious and wasn't going to offer them what they wanted, they all left except for one bright spark, who said "Give me the $20 and I'll go and fetch your money."

I said, "No, thanks, I'll wait for you to bring it here, then we can swap."

He shrugged and walked away.

It became clear that the scam was either to give unsuspecting tourists a wad of useless bills - because of rampant inflation at the time, valuable notes soon became worthless - or simply to take off with their money and disappear in the labyrinth that was Pelourinho.]

I took the Circular Bus to Campo Grande, the hub of Carnaval. Not much going on there during the week. My main accomplishment was getting 8 letters ready to mail. I sent fitas to everyone who would know what they are. I still have 17 people on my list. Cards and enveloppies are cheap, but stamps are a killer!

Today, I paid for the berimbau, etc., to pick up later, took a bus to Campo Grande, walked to the federal university's dance department, then walked along the precarious "sidewalk" of the beltway along the bay back to the Mercado Modelo [little did I know that this was and is one of the most dangerous parts of the city].

For lunch, I had cocoa juice mixed with orange juice and acarajé (again). The man who sold me the berimbau has taken a fancy to me - he even offered to let me stay at his mother's house till March! I don't know...

Monday, December 14, 1986

I'm having trouble budgeting - the only thing for sure is that I have to be very conservative in my spending. Rent and food are going to take up most of my $$.

One thing for the chronicle - I arrived in Salvador on the day of a general, nationwide strike protesting the government's austerity measures. The only result was that the beaches were full on a Friday.

People are understandably unwilling to shoulder the burden of repaying a (foreign) debt from which they received little or no benefit. I hear many people grumbling about the haves and have-nots, the latter being in the majority. It seems that the main effect of democracy is that people can openly express their grievances. The sources of grief remain much the same.

Today, Z and I went to a christening. Well, we missed the ceremony, because her friend couldn't follow directions and pick us up, so we hitched a ride with a portly, friendly man in a tiny white speedo. He looked as though he was in his underwear and, in any case, he was nearly naked. But - no problem.

He dropped us off and we waited at a crowded bus stop where one full bus after another passed us. People either piled into empty trucks that stopped for them or crammed into VW buses, or waited, played drums and sweltered.

We finally hired a taxi and the distance turned out to be barely 100 yards! At the party, we sat, I smiled and listened, and eventually submitted to interrogation. I was a bit irritable because of a painful sunburn, but managed to behave myself.

There was a feijoada (bean feast), lasagna, beer, Coke, cake, fruit salad, photo taking, proud drunken papa, proud beaming busy mama, and an alternately sleeping and crying baby. The photo album proudly recorded the (quite large) family jewels of the new scion.

I finally saw the sights of Salvador and was initially disappointed after hyperexpectation. That soon wore off. Z gave me a fita (Bonfim wish ribbon) and we rode back to her flat in a bus that went by the bay at sunset, the lighthouse, the baianas selling acarajé (bean fritters). I saw a restaurant named after the book by Jorge Amado that had made me come here: Tent of Miracles. I'm really here! The guidebook shows the candomblés and capoeira and the Historical and Geographic Institute library. Ótimo! Tomorrow, I plunge in.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Salvador, Sunday, December 13, 1986

My second day in Salvador! I left Rio at 10 am on the 11th, taking the "ônibus leito", a 17-seat sleeper bus. "Emílio", the man who sat next to me, is a descendant of a Tennessee family that fled the US for the Brazilian Northeast after the Civil War! What irony - abolition took place in Brazil about 20 years later. (I'm watching a variety show on TV [O Cassino de Chacrinha] with half-naked carnavalesque dancers in the background as they interview a vet about pets and have a man lie on broken glass.)

More about the trip - we had several stops and I ate most meals with E. We talked quite a bit. Along the way, the terrain was mainly green, sometimes treeless with a number of thin cows and horses, at times heavily forested with a number of light-limbed trees. Some of the hills were cut away for the road, revealing brilliantly sunset-coloured earth.

Closer to Salvador were large cocoa orchards with squat, broad-leaved trees. The rest stops became squalid as we moved North. I tried cocoa juice (similar to soursop) twice. The second time (and the last stop on the journey), the milk it was mixed with was sour and the serving hatch full of flies.

On the whole, the journey was relaxed and enjoyable, but I was hot, sticky and tired at the end of it. The noise, heat and movement of the bus made it hard to sleep.

Yesterday I went for a walk with "Zara", one of my hosts. Her sister "Tamara" was there when I got back. Today, "Tamara" worked while "Zara" and I went to the beach (Jardim de Allah).

The beach is gorgeous, with waves breaking over low black rocks, sand that seems to be mixed with grains of gold, and palm trees.

Tried a fruit like a large, soft-skinned quenepa, sour and refreshing.

Wrote 7 postcards.

Rio, Thursday, December 10, 1986

Went up to Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and took a photo of "Guanabara mitológica" - a lovely statue of the mythical personification of Guanabara bay overlooking that eponymous body of water.

Well, I went, I saw, I sprained my foot (almost). Sugarloaf, Ipanema, Copacabana, all in one afternoon! Call me supertourist.

This city contrasts gorgeous, paradisal beaches and coastal vistas with mediaeval scenes of maimed (or shamming) beggars, children cadging cigarettes and miserable poverty. I've been to the bus station and the beaches - two ends of the continuum. Two people, a man and a woman, each carrying a baby, asked me for money at the bus station within two minutes of each other when I went to buy my ticket to Bahia. To the first - the woman - I gave; the man was not so lucky. I could hemorrhage pity.

After stopping back at the hotel and calling my future hosts in Salvador, I took off for Sugarloaf (the maid took the penny I left out on the shelf, as a test. Nothing else seemed to be missing, though. It was eerie, almost as though I had manipulated her into taking it.)

I took a bus almost as far as the cable-car terminal at Praça Vermelha, near Praia Vermelha and its reddish sands (must be clay content). I saw the beach as we ascended. It was a bit frightening, lurching slowly up the hill as awesome vistas spread out before us. We stopped first at Morro da Urca - very commercial, but nice view. "Climbing" Sugarloaf has been a goal of mine for as long as I've known it existed. I really feel as though I've been to Rio now - even more so than after the "showpy". I now have more postcards - I need a ton to fulfill all my obligations. I must write to my sister as soon as I get to Salvador.

I had to pay my respects to Ipanema - and it was incredibly lovely, with coastal mountains curving away into mist, clear, cascading, blue-green waves, white sand, people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colours (mainly shades of brown). I trucked back to Copacabana through side streets, as the two beaches are separated by a fort - I saw quite a few military installations today, and at least one mini-machine gun. The walk along Copacabana's famous tiled sidewalk soon became a trudge. I bought a Guaraná soft drink from a Brazilian from the Pomeranian-speaking German colony near Rio (Espirito Santo). Each of us thought the other was Argentinian!

I hurt my ankle trying to catch a bus, took the back streets, trudged some more, and finally hopped a bus back to the hotel. The Hotel Novo Mundo rented me a room for March 2 - what luck! I was afraid I'd have to spend the night in the street. Even so, I don't think I'll get much sleep - Carnaval on Fat Tuesday!

My experience of Rio has always to be bittersweet: a delicious seafood meal (Mariscada a la Carioca - how appropriate), balanced by overpriced, overpoured beer that took the bill to nearly as much money as I'd brought (no tip for the poor innocent waiter - I needed it for the taxi). The maitre-d' had told the taxi driver I was going to Copacabana - much further than just across the park.

The driver was put out when he realised how short the fare was but I promised to make it up to him. I ran up to my room to get more money - but the key jammed in the lock! What slapstick.

Well, the concierge got me unstuck, I paid the driver, and even though I tipped him I'm sure he short-changed me by 10 cruzados - not a big deal, less than 50 US cents. Oh, by the way, I found the penny. All in all, though, I'm thrilled at "my day in Rio". Having such a short time to enjoy it makes me appreciate it more.

Everyone seems very disillusioned with the police - the taxi driver said that the police rob people and book them for resisting arrest if they fight back! (He was a pure Carioca, by the way. I understood about 50%, the rest I intuited.)

Tomorrow, the great adventure - 27+ hours on a bus up route 101 to Salvador!

Rio de Janeiro, Wednesday, December 9, 1986

The view from my hotel window
Arrived in Rio at about 8:15 am, l.ocal time. Got sent to customs by a system that reminds me of a game show - press a button and a red or green light flashes at random (or is it as random as all that?). I got the red light, so I went to get my baggage inspected. Turned out for the best - the inspectors told me how to get a taxi. I had some herbal medicine in my hand luggage that they obviously thought was marijuana, because they eagerly whisked it off for testing. Fortunately for me, it really was comfrey in those capsules.

I was very lucky. The first hotel I tried had a vacancy. My room is on the 11th floor, with a gorgeous view of Flamengo beach and Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) - of which I took several photos. Oh yes, it was raining when I arrived; but by the time I had taken a nap, it had eased off.

The air of fear is palpable - and catching. Distrust is everywhere. It was very difficult to exchange money. Ironically, the best hotel around did it without any trouble - and at a good rate! Apparently, the government is cracking down on the "parallel" market in dollars, but only on the Brazilians involved.

I'm fighting off a cough and sore throat that threaten to be the dreaded Taiwan (?) flu. What lousy timing! Well, I'm tired, anyway. Just as well that I have a place to stay for two nights before I hit the road again.

I was reminded today that draft beer is called chopp (pronounced show-py). I soon put this knowledge to good use. As the delicious, ice-cold drink poured down my throat, it came to me that I'm really in Brazil!

Monday, 18 June 2007

Cobrina and Joao Grande in 1986

"Eu vou pra Bahia"*

I suppose the time has come to explain how I wound up in Bahia. The briefest reason I can give is that I sang "Eu vou pra Bahia" so often when playing berimbau that I brainwashed myself into going.

Capoeira had led me to Jorge Amado, whose novel Tent of Miracles introduced me to Manuel Querino, who became the inspiration and focal point of my MA research. Ironically, I knew much more about Brazil when I was up to my eyebrows in books and writing my MA paper. Once I'd graduated, the details were already starting to fade as I was finally being recognised as a Brazilianist by my friends and employers at the Centre for African American Studies (CAAS), who invited me to give a lecture on Querino to celebrate and mark my newfound status.

That lecture was the beginning of the end, because one of the people who happened to be in the audience was Consuelo Novais Sampaio, a visiting professor of History from the Federal University at Bahia, and a good friend of my MA advisor (who also introduced my lecture), E. Bradford Burns. When I told her that I was thinking of going to Nigeria to study Yoruba, she said, "Why not study it in Bahia? They teach it at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies!"

I didn't need much persuading. The entire reason for making Brazil the focus of my MA in Latin American Studies was to get a grant to visit the country. Unfortunately for me, the topic I chose - Brazilian race relations - was so sensitive at the time that the soon-to-be-defunct military government rejected any scholars intending to study that subject. My advisors - particularly E. Bradford Burns and Johannes Wilbert - suggested that I water down my proposal to make it more palatable.

Either because my heart wasn't in it, or the Brazilian government saw right through me, it was rejected and I finished my MA and graduated without setting foot in that oft-sung land. I ended up paying for the trip with money obtained from a grant to study Yoruba at UCLA and - in true LA style - a game show. My 31st birthday party at CAAS was also a bon-voyage party. I left for Brazil on Tuesday, December 7th, 1986, intending to spend three months in Bahia doing preliminary research for a PhD in History. I was already enrolled and planned to get started on it as soon as I got back; but as Robbie Burns once wrote, the best-laid plans "aft gang a-glee". I decided that, instead of studying the place and its people, I would rather be a part of it. Since then, I have learnt and grown a great deal from living in a society to which I will never fully belong. The following entries will contain excerpts from the diary I wrote at the time.

*I'm off to Bahia

Capoeira, California style

Back in the early to mid-80s,* the main Capoeira group in California was the World Capoeira Association, founded in San Francisco** by Mestre Acordeon, aka Bira Almeida (shown in the above photo), the Brazilian author of the polemically titled book Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Acordeon organised a major Capoeira gathering in 1986, way up in wine country. As usual I was the designated driver, so a bunch of Capoeiristas piled into my Dad's Cutlass Supreme (complete with cruise control) and we cruised up the coast to Frisco.

Acordeon’s school was located in the Mission district, but the venue for the event was a castle-like facility (complete with sauna) north of the Napa Valley, owned by a Bagwan-like cult. Capoeristas from all over the country took part. In those days, they boiled down to Jelom Vieira's group from NYC and students and mestres from LA and San Francisco. There seemed to be a healthy, friendly rivalry between Acordeon and Jelom. I thought it was funny that, in most of Jelom's rodas, the opponents ended up wrestling on the ground - especially when his opponent was Acordeon! I haven't seen that style of Capoeira before or since, but it was also the denouement of Ag'ya as filmed by Katherine Dunham, so I can't say it wasn't authentic.

The other leading Brazilian Capoeira mestre in California was Henrique do Nascimento, whose father, the poet, activist, sculptor, actor, scholar and politician Abdias do Nascimento, is a fascinating figure who unfortunately does not otherwise fit into this particular narrative. Henrique was involved in several Capoeira events in Los Angeles, but I don't remember seeing him play. I do recall going to a party at his home and tasting a batida (a potent mix of cachaça and lime juice) for the first time. Naively assuming it was lemonade, I took a hefty swig, and spent the rest of the party trying to sober up so I could drive home!

Back then, the most important characteristic of Capoeira in the USA was that it was dominated by Regional mestres. The only teacher who gave us a glimpse of Capoeira Angola was Paris. Even so, I got it into my head that Angola was the truly authentic style, and when I made plans to go to Brazil, it was Angola that I wanted to learn.

*I left the US for Brazil in December 1986, to give a more specific timeframe.
**Mestre Moraes once told me that this was like founding the International Hot Dog Association in Brazil - an apt analogy on more than one level.

Friday, 8 June 2007

More musings on "race"

"From a genetic perspective, all humans are Africans,
either residing in Africa or in recent exile"

Svante Paabo, Anthropologist
What, you may ask, do these endless musings have to do with Capoeira? Everything, in my opinion, because "race" relations and perceptions have always tinged my interaction with that African-Brazilian martial art, as a melanin-challenged "white" woman (more like undercooked crisp-colour).

To start off this bout of musings, let me say that I consider myself bright, with occasional sparks of brilliance and more than occasional plunges into abysmal idiocy. I can back up my claim to being bright with IQ results (135, which is nowhere near genius but good enough for the likes of me) and a first-class degree in English literature, albeit from a US university, which makes it a "summa cum laude". Like most Mensa candidates, I'm socially awkward, if not inept, but working on it, and that process is aided by the maturity that comes with over half a century of life in this cruel, sometimes tender and always chaotic world.

In addition to being blessed and cursed with intelligence, I have also enjoyed the considerable privilege of growing up in the Caribbean, specifically in bilingual and multiracial Puerto Rico, aka Borinquen, my lovely island, the birthplace of my brothers and sister and homeland of my heart. It would have been paradise if it weren't for the colonisers, but that's another story. (El Gran Combo is singing "Que Viva Puerto Rico" as I write)

Thanks to that combination of nature and nurture, I grew up with what I could call my only "super-power": X-ray vision. Instead of being "colour-blind", I see right past colour to the inner human essence that makes all people members of the human race - the only "race" there is (a view borne out by human genome studies). Which is not to say that I'm incapable of seeing the surface - just that I am capable of finding it beautiful, no matter what colour it is (white, black, brown, yellow, red, but probably not green or purple).

I may be more evolved than most or just an anomaly, but unfortunately I haven't met many people who share my "ability". Instead, "black" people tend to think that I have a "thing" for them, particularly men (something like the viewpoint expressed in the title of Spike Lee's film Jungle Fever), and most "white" people think I am at best eccentric (a euphemism for "barking mad"), or at worst a criminal or "race traitor".

I have fewer problems in this regard in Brazil, where I have always embraced and taken part in Afro-Bahian culture - for many years I chose to live it instead of studying it, and it has been a very enriching and fulfilling experience. While in Los Angeles, I ran into many barriers set up by African-Americans who - mostly because they have been traumatised by the pathological and tragic version of race relations that has developed in the US over the centuries - don't like to see "white" people anywhere near them, and are particularly offended by a pale face in the crowd when they are celebrating their history, community and culture. (I once witnessed the heartbreaking exclusion of a black student's white mother from an African-American-only graduation ceremony at UCLA.)

I was almost barred at the gate (literally) when I went along with my Capoeira group to give a presentation in LA in the early 80s. It all started when we were invited to perform at a celebration of African-American cultural expressions. We all piled into a car or two - my memory is hazy but "we" probably meant Cedric, Odie, Cornell, Steve, and yours truly - and drove off to the event. I often chauffeured for Capoeira players - particularly on trips to San Francisco - but on this occasion I’m fairly sure I was a passenger. Which accounts for my desperation when we arrived at the front gate and someone said, "Not her. She can’t come in." There was no muttering about "white devils", as I’d heard on another occasion, but it was clear that my pale skin was not welcome there. But then someone saved the day by arguing, "Hey, we need her to play berimbau so we can play in the roda." It was true - I could still play the instrument much better than I performed the martial art, and since someone had to do it, I would free up the African-American Capoeiristas to perform. The objections faded in the face of this argument, and the organisers let me in.

I should also say - and this is very important - that the occasions on which I have been "barred at the gate" on account of my colour were, and still are, more than compensated by the wonderful friends I have made as a result of my "gift". When people of African descent are able to overcome the trauma triggered by the sight of my "white" skin, and accept me as a sincere friend and an ardent admirer of their culture, they become more than friends - they're family.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Interlude (part 2): Musings on "gender"*

Yesterday, at the CSA conference, I heard a very interesting talk on "Honour, Gender and Combat" by T.J. Desch Obi. I hadn't noticed that there was a panel including three Capoeira-related subjects scheduled for 11:15 am on Thursday on the 54-page programme until my friend and colleague Danny Dawson pointed it out to me, for which I am profoundly grateful. (Unfortunately, the only talk that focussed specifically on Capoeira was cancelled - the panelist did not turn up.)

Obi's talk ties into the work that another friend, Marcus Trower, is doing on wrestling - he also includes the role of women in what I will loosely describe as martial arts. According to Marcus's book, The Last Wrestlers, women serve more as a goad and/or prize for wrestlers, particularly in Nigeria (see his comment below).

According to Obi, women are (or were) mainly involved in Trinidadian kalenda stick fighting as the elite male fighters' "sugar mommas", but some were fighters themselves. Called jamettes, they sang kalenda war songs, which formed the basis of calypso, and were led by an older woman called a matador. Sometimes the jamettes had to beat their kept kalenda fighters with their own sticks to keep them in line.

I was fascinated by Obi's emphasis on the "femininity" of the jamettes. He stressed that the women's involvement in kalenda did not "masculinise" them. As a contribution to Obi's very interesting research, I offer these musings on gender and femininity.

Women have always been warriors. Like the lioness, who does the hunting and rearing, women have to be able to defend themselves and their young. Being weaker (on the whole) than men just makes that all the more necessary. Just as kalenda fighting involves more than sticks - an "insult fight" similar to playing the dozens is a key factor - self-defence does not always involve brute force. Forms of mental/psychological manipulation commonly known as "women's wiles" are equally effective weapons. "Women's intuition" is an effective way of staying out of trouble, or dodging a blow without seeing it coming. Women also have a higher threshhold of pain than men - or so I'm told - and childbirth bears this out.

In my experience, most of the girls and women I've known who got involved in martial arts have been extremely feminine. The main problem for women in Capoeira is developing upper body strength, but the majority of the women I've met who became deeply involved in it - whether straight, lesbian or bisexual - were all paragons of "femininity". In other words, with one or two exceptions, they didn't imitate men in their dress or behaviour, and they very much liked men, whether as mates or lovers.

Ironically, as I'll describe in more detail when I get to it, I was forced to stop practising Capoeira physically because of two inherent conditions of womanhood - pregnancy, followed by the need to support my child and husband (like a jamette). However, as I hope to show in this blog, I've never stopped practising it mentally. I still try to think like a warrior, although I've laid down my metaphorical kalenda sticks. And I still wear lip gloss and earrings ;-)

*Funny how "gender" usually means "women"!