I just finished a wonderful photography workshop in Bahia (a coastal region of central Brasil), with Ernesto Bazan. Ernesto is a terrific mentor and a man with the ability to explore new worlds, make connections with locals, and share his love of both a country and people with his students and friends.
As happened with Cambodia, Vietnam, and parts of China, I have fallen in love with Bahia. For starters, people spend much of their day on the streets, eating, playing, catching up with friends, dancing, singing, and working. That is enough to win me over! At the risk of generalizing, people there are friendly, open to life, mostly live simply and honestly, and are a giving people who seem to expect nothing in return. Thanks to Ernesto, I was fortunate to encounter multiple small and intimate worlds. First in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the very lively city of Salvador de Bahia, then on the island of Itaparica (including the peaceful town of Itaparica itself, where Portuguese colonial buildings are abundant). And after, back on the mainland, in the lovely, historical town of Cachoeira (nestled in a river valley, Cachoeira once prospered with the sugar and tobacco industries,) and nearby fishing villages and quilombos – very small, extremely humble, hamlets founded by freed slaves. On both the island of Itaparica and the areas surrounding Cachoeira, I was struck by a world that moves to its own rhythm.
Most people I encountered were willing to share a moment of their day. Despite great poverty almost everywhere, I discovered that openness and an attempt at communication on my part would trigger a smile and a similar response. The people were warm, welcoming, and appeared undisturbed by us as we walked around with cameras. Throughout my short travels in Bahia it was clear that the people are not suspicious of strangers; rather, they are eager to talk to them. As Calvin Chen (who took the photography workshop with me and eight others) wrote on Facebook, “It’s been a lesson in humanity and humility. Imagine being in a completely foreign country, unable to speak their language… knocking on a stranger’s door… and not just be allowed to photograph, but to be welcomed into their lives. I’d call that nothing short of a miracle.”
Salvador, the oldest city in Brasil, was the first capital of the country, and is greatly influenced by African culture. In fact, throughout Bahia, Africa is present – from dance and carnival to food, music, and religion (The majority of African-heritage Brazilians were brought to Brasil beginning in the early 1500s by the Portuguese. Brasil abolished the slave trade in 1888.). Food-wise, coconut milk and dende (orange palm oil), and sweet tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, pineapple, caja, and pitanga, are ubiquitous. Many foods are sold on the streets including the delicious acarje which is a fried patty made of beans and sometimes okra, and dried shrimp which is served with a tomato salsa. It seemed that people congregate everywhere for drink, or food. I searched for the best moqueca (a fish stew) and ate as much mugunza as I could (a corn and coconut milk breakfast pudding).
Salvador is very large – most tall buildings are actually not commercial spaces but apartment buildings. The downtown and historic centres are made up predominantly of colonial-era architecture which is mostly in disrepair. It is a city with a population of over 2.5 million… edging toward the 3 million mark. The streets are crowded with people and cars (gridlock, although not as bad as in Sao Paulo, is an everyday reality). Also like in Sao Paulo, motorcycles are everywhere. On the other hand, Itaparica and Cachoeira, are beautiful towns which have retained their colonial charm. Fishing villages appear sleepy but the people work hard, as do those who work in agriculture.
Brasil is not a European, North American, African, or East Asian country (although Bahia reminds me very much of Southeast Asia). Instead, it has a finger in each pot. It is a poor country that, over time, once amassed more than 40 million slaves (nearly 40% of its population). According to the article, Brazil and the Invention of Simulated Poverty,
Although the country is an important agricultural and industrial power, with the strongest economy in Latin America, poverty is widespread in Brazil. Despite recent improvements in income distribution, the issues of income inequality and social exclusion remain at the root of rural poverty. Brazil is a middle-income country and is rich in natural resources, but poverty levels and human development indicators in poor rural areas are comparable to those in the poorest countries of Latin America. In the country as a whole, about 35 per cent of the population lives in poverty, on less than two dollars a day. But in Brazil’s rural areas poverty affects about 51 per cent of the population.
Despite poverty and hardship, people in the countryside generally appeared to embrace life and live with satisfaction. As an outsider, it seemed to me that the Brazilians in Bahia choose to pull themselves out of their circumstances by trying to make the best of things and find as much joy as they can in the small pleasures of life. These pleasures are all too often ignored in the world I live in. I was struck by people who, at least on the surface, were thankful for the good in their lives, and celebrated accordingly.
The bottom line is, Brasil has more than its share of issues: poverty, crime, poor education for most (just to name a few). It is a complex place with complex people – many of whom have burdensome lives. Yet, it is a beautiful country that is rich in its natural landscape, cultures, colours, food, and customs. I fell in love with Bahia, where the people, like those I’ve met in Southeast Asia and China, have great dignity, and reminded me that life is precious.