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Features

Dispatch from Brazil

Sari Bellmer, Correspondent

I’ve been in Brazil for just three weeks now and it feels as though I’ve been here for ages, though I’m constantly reminded that I only just arrived. I am here in the city of Salvador, on the coast of Northeast Brazil. Here, verão (the summer) is coming to a close and the days are hot and humid—hot like North Carolina in August, without the daily thunderstorms. Last week the thermometer regularly read 35 C°—which is 95° F—and at least one day reached 38 C° (100 F°). Though sometimes the heat of the day is near unbearable, the ocean breezes come in at dusk and with them comes the joys of relief, celebrated each night with city-wide music and dance.

I’m given constant attention on the streets in Salvador, my red hair and light skin may as well be a huge flashing, neon billboard saying, “Look at me! I’m a foreigner!” which apparently brings great amusement to the men (and women) here. I’ll admit, I don’t love the endless cat-calls, kissing noises, “Oi gringa, linda, branca,” and physical grabbing that I receive each day. At the same time, I try to remind myself that Brazil’s history and social/racial structures inform the conception that being as physically branco (white) as I am means, in the Brazilian mind, that I am elite and rich and therefore a sort of spectacle. A little history: Whereas official racial segregation in countries like the U.S. and South Africa made it impossible for a group of racially mixed-inhabitants post-slavery, in Brazil there was motivation for the union of black and white people. Racial construction in Brazil is based on appearance—rather than heritage—so in the Brazilian conception it was possible to alter and change race. Politics and policies in post-slavery Brazil supported the practice of ‘whitening race,’ by associating mixed-race and mulatto people with progress in the country. This is all part of what’s known as the myth of ‘Racial Democracy’ in Brazil. In Salvador, it’s very uncommon to see a light-colored person, but the light people in Brazil are often associated with the most privileged and wealthy of social classes. I think of all this in the context of people noticing me here and can’t help but feel that maybe all the attention I garner is much more complicated than poor or crude manners.

The main concern in the city seems to involve trash, fruit, pay phones, and underwear. The sanitary work force is fairly dedicated here, there are government employees driving trucks around, picking up trash, and sweeping the gutters at all times of all days of the week. Unlike the US, pay phones are still holding their own here, they are scattered everywhere in the city. They don’t match my conception of what a pay phone looks like and at first I found them very funny because the booths resemble enormous, pastel lavender and turquoise colored football helmets, perched on sticks.  My other source of amusement is the huge market for women’s underwear. It seems that there are tables with stacks of underwear everywhere on the streets here, usually sold by middle-aged men with scruffy appearances. I can’t imagine that one city can consume so much underwear and am surprised if there is as great of a demand as there is a supply of it, but it must be popular because there are so many underwear vendors in some parts of the city. The other greatest street-market is produce—and this I can truly appreciate. There is fruit on every street: downtown, in the neighborhoods, on the outskirts or by the beach. There are mangoes, avocados, coconuts, pineapple, multiple kinds of bananas, and also endless fruits that we don’t have (or rarely have) in the US: pinha, jaque, acerola, caju (from which the cashew nut comes!), acai, passion fruit, guava, and many more.

I live with a Brazilian family in the neighborhood of Garcia. The neighborhoods here are generally lively. The houses and buildings have been built in haphazard arrangements on the sides of hills, cement and brick structures side by side and on top of one another. Sometimes the openings for windows have no glass or hardware and the walls are so thin that, from a distance, some houses look like they are made of cardboard. Of course, not all of the neighborhoods are like this. My neighborhood is neither very poor nor very rich, the streets here do not look particularly beautiful but the houses I have been inside of are very clean and fairly comfortable.

My Brazilian family is large and loud, I live on the bottom floor of a 4-story building, of which is occupied entirely by extended family. There are 17 people living here in all. I live on the first floor with my host mom, one of her brothers, her mother, a maid, her mother’s sister who has dementia, and myself. While I am here I have my own room, but it used to be my host mom’s and she comes in and out freely. My host mother, Daisy, is 41 and single with no children. She is passionate, self-assured and argumentative, but sees that I am taken care of and is kind to me. I won’t lie, she is pretty wild, she enjoys a party, and is not who I pictured when I initially imagined my Brazilian host mother (I had pictured an elderly Dona or a middle-aged mother with young children). Communication at home has consisted of charades and simple, solitary words said very slowly. Communication has definitely been the most frustrating and difficult part of being here so far.
Contact Information:

Saralyn Bellmer

A/C Damiana de Miranda

Avenida Sete de Setembro

No. 62, Salas 616 & 301

Dois de Julho, Salvador, Bahia, Brasil

40060-001
saribellmer@gmail.com

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