Man on street carrying sack

Photo © Michael Sommers.

I’m back in my adopted hometown of Salvador after close to 6 weeks in São Paulo, and as usual I’m suffering from a bit of culture shock. Although in some ways Brazil is quite unified, in other ways it’s so crazily diverse that traveling from one state, region, or even city to another is like traveling to another country (and often includes some time travel as well).

I loved São Paulo’s efficiency, energy, and diversity, but missed the strong sense of culture found in Bahia – along with the warmth and good humor of Baianos (not that Paulistanos are cold and serious, but, as a general rule one seems to laugh more in Bahia). As you can maybe tell, I’m in comparison mode – a side effect of traveling to other parts of Brazil is that I inevitably end up seeing Salvador and Bahia through a different lens as well.

For instance, upon arriving in São Paulo, I went out to a bar at the famous downtown corner of Avenida São João and Avenida Ipiranga (immortalized in singer Caetano Veloso’s ode to the city, Sampa) with my friend Luiz. A contemporary dancer and choreographer, Luiz understands more than most people I know about navigating the different Brazils. He grew up and spent his 20s in Minas Gerais, spent most of his 30s in São Paulo, and now in his 40s is trying to make Salvador his base. The “culture” shock he experiences in moving from one state to the other fuels his work – and his life; we really click in terms of our share passion for simultaneously analyzing Brazil (and various aspects of Brazilian culture) from the point-of-view of outsiders who are insiders (and vice-versa).

There are moments that you’ll see some form of misery that for some reason gets under the radar, hitting you unexpectedly and profoundly.

Anyway, so Luiz and I were sitting for hours at this sidewalk bar in the center of town, which like many centers has its scruffy elements, and Luiz said to me: “Have you noticed that nobody’s asked us for anything?” i.e. for money, cigarettes, food – something that often occurs in Salvador when you choose to sit outside (be it at a bar or restaurant, on the beach, in a park, etc.). And I actually hadn’t, but I realized he was right. I also noticed that during the 6 weeks I spent traveling in and around São Paulo, nobody asked me for anything either.

So last night, I returned to Salvador by plane, arriving shortly after sunset. A full pumpkin moon was dangling in the sky and the city was spread out like a patchwork of fireflies against a dark velvet sea, and I thought how beautiful it was compared to São Paulo‘s rampant concrete jungle. After haggling for a taxi (knocking the price from a gringo-worthy R$99 down to a more amenable R$50), we raced through the city’s valley highways with the humid sea air like an embrace and I was thinking: “Wow! How different! The air. The smells.” The shock of being home must have fed my appetite. Once I dumped my luggage, I went to the deli a block away to buy some food. I was standing at the checkout counter when I heard a coaxing male voice calling “Hey Amigo” to me.

The voice belonged to a street guy that I see off and on, parading around my well-off neighborhood. He wears a turban on his head and has a definite pseudo-transvestite vibe. He’s black, skinny as hell, obviously very poor (rags and bare feet), and probably some degree of crazy. He also possesses quite a beautiful face, a weird elegance, and sense of showmanship that I find striking. I think he picks up on this subtle admiration since he usually singles me out when passing by the neighborhood supermarkets to hit people up for food and/or money. To my recollection, I’ve never given him any of either. However, I have acknowledged his presence by talking to him which is more than most people in my mostly white, well-to-do neighborhood do.

“To give or not to give,” is a perplexing question. When I first arrived in Bahia, I was in a quandary as to how to respond; I took cues from my friends who with seeming nonchalance, in a bantering or mildly irritated manner blew such people off by: 1. Acknowledging their presence followed by 2. Commiserating that times were tough all over and/or decrying the general lack of change available.

If this didn’t work, the friends would take a harsher tone and the pedinte (literally an “asker”, which is a Portuguese euphemism for a beggar) would slink away to the next table. If we were in a restaurant, and the pedinte was asking for food, we would often ask the waiter to wrap up the leftovers and give them to “the asker” upon our departure. The rule seemed to be if you encouraged these people, they would never leave you alone. The reality was that blowing off became an automatic reaction, like swatting away a fly – and a necessary protection in a country where evidence of poverty can sometimes be bleak.

(Perhaps Unnecessary Aside: Most of my friends are from poor and working class backgrounds).

It was only years later – when a visiting Canadian friend broke down in tears at the supermarket checkout after two children begged her to buy them some cookies (my friend insisted on buying them milk as well; all the while, a Bahian pal and I barely glanced at the kids) – that I was hit by a sudden thunderbolt of guilt and realized that, like my friends, I had built up the defensive shell necessary to live (and stay sane) in Brazil.

This isn’t to say that the shell never cracks. There are moments that you’ll see some form of misery that for some reason gets under the radar, hitting you unexpectedly and profoundly. Letting down your guard, you react on sheer human impulse – by giving money or food, realizing that it’s so little, and so temporary.

And that’s what I did with this street guy standing in front of the check-out counter at my deli asking me for food because it was his birthday. While everybody (the checkout girl, the other customers, the security guard) pretended he wasn’t there, I gave him a box of whole wheat crackers. Knowing it was nothing. Knowing that I’ve now created a precedent. And knowing that I had arrived back home, to a place where warmth and beauty comes with complications.