Apart from the place and time of my arrival in Chile one thing was clear at the beginning of this journey. Just as ever before, I am still trying to avoid the tourist tracks. That’s why I will land at the hot tropical ends of Brazil and then, moving away from the popular southern coast, I will cross the vast farmlands of the giant country. In other words, instead of Rio de Janeiro, I will see Brazil’s new capital composed into the Brazilian Highlands, and instead of São Paulo, I will traverse the endless fields of the Campos region while visiting some of its cities and towns. Doesn’t this sound good?
I’m used to the wondering looks when I naturally say something like “I’m not going to Rio now”, because that’s the very thing one should not miss. I need to clarify at this point, that I’m not indifferent to national and cultural centres, but Rio is easier to pass by on a future shorter tour of South America. Now, being a solo traveller with a somewhat flexible schedule, I feel this is the right time to wander around in remote, godforsaken places that are no less interesting either. With this addition, most people understand my point.
Brazil, for the first time in my life
I arrive in the city completely unprepared, with no plan, so I rely on my guides completely.
I hit a wall with public transport at first, as the free airport shuttle bus takes me to the nearby metro terminal, from there I can’t travel without a travel card. I can only buy it with cash, which I don’t have yet, and there is no ATM in the metro terminal. I just catch the bus back to the airport, where I change money… it’s ridiculous that a 21st century ticketing system is combined with a 19th century payment method and there is no information at the airport.
Buses also accept this chip card, but here comes another challenge: to get through the narrow metal gates installed on board, next to the ticket controller person. Even though these structures would fit perfectly in any contemporary art museum’s collection, they are a real struggle for someone with a large backpack.
In a noisy “semi-favela”
I spend the first few days with Marta and her brother, with whom we exhaust all levels of verbal and non-verbal conversation. But it works just fine.
My hosts show me around their neighbourhood which with its chaotic winding streets, row of unfinished houses and streamsides coloured with litter, looks more like a slum (known locally as favela) than a proper suburb. Marta answers with a firm no when I subtly hint at this. “Don’t even think about it,” she says and smiles. The fact that children shout and firecrackers go off in the street during the day, men walk on the streets with their T-shirts off, and a few houses away a drunk wife locks her husband and child out of the house and screams while they beg outside, she thinks that’s perfectly fine around here – “they’ll stop soon”. Then I point at the hillside, isn’t that it? – Marta hesitates, “well, maybe that’s a favela…”
As I can see, shanty towns cannot be defined with absolute certainty, but perhaps the difficult terrain on the hillside has the strongest determinant – these steep surfaces cannot be built without compromises. These informal settlements are known by different names across Latin America, but in Brazil the proportion of the population living in favelas is particularly high (6%, 2010). This percentage is even higher in the major coastal cities, and Salvador ranks second nationally! The reasons?
A melting pot of cultures
The Portuguese found it very difficult to set foot on the continent. The first governor and bishop the Portuguese sent here were simply eaten by the natives, and it was only in the mid-16th century, that Europeans began to settle. It was then that the period of permanent settlement began: Salvador became the capital of the new colony and one of the hubs of the South Atlantic trade triangle, which gave its prominent role in the slave trade.
The first conquistadors reported 2.5 to 4 million indigenous people in what is now Brazil. Due to epidemics, wars and hunts against them, and the hard work of the plantations, their numbers fell below one million. At the same time, the importation of African slaves became common, at first mainly for sugar cane plantations. During the period of the 16th to 19th centuries, an estimated 4 million Africans arrived in Brazil, and Salvador played as the major distribution port of them.
Slaves were later granted basic freedoms, but not land or housing. This class, together with the large rural population that flocked to the cities later in the 20th century, started to build their homes illegally where they could: on the inaccessible and therefore uninhabited hillsides, initially without any public services.
Lack of employment and poverty lure many people – especially young ones – into crime – burglary, robbery and drug trafficking are common. And the drug gangs that dominate the larger favelas control these enclaves, often wedged between the wealthy residential neighbourhoods.
In the slums, apart from the general and often violent crime, the main problems are the gangster-on-gangster confrontations and clashes with the police – a world brought to life by the 2007 film Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad). The brutality of criminal gangs, which often employ minors, is often met with a brutal response from these special forces, and public confidence in the police is far from being perfect, due to regular raids and informal deals with the drug lords. Not so the reputation of the newly formed pacifying police units in some cities, whose task is to ‘tame’ the favelas, with varying degrees of success.
These first few days make me certain that, of all the countries I have visited so far, Brazil is the one with the most striking income-based social divisions.
Colonial past, diverse present
As a result of Portuguese activity, Salvador and its wider province of Bahia was the perfect place for a mix of peoples and cultures. Self-reported data from the most recent 2010 census reveal the following ethnic composition: 51% Pardo (multi-ethnic), 28% black, 19% white, 1% Asian and less than 1% indigenous. A national DNI survey conducted in 2019, however, shows that the city of Salvador has a 48% European and 44% African people (in terms of DNI), with a much higher proportion of indigenous (or Amerindian) inhabitants, 8%, than the very low proportion based on the above-mentioned self-reporting. (The values for city and province are almost equal.)
In addition to the genetic mix, of course, the local culture also brings diversity. Thriving religious, musical, dance and martial-arts traditions meet here with culinary delights.
After the first two days, I move on
My navigation app recommends all sorts of five-digit bus routes to reach my next host’s apartment. But since my bus isn’t coming, another driver takes me to the intersection where I have more choices. But here, too, the offered bus doesn’t come, so I start walking along the Avenida Oceânica coastal road.
From the world of favelas and “semi-favelas” (which is a self-created terminology and it’s slightly derogative, I admit), I arrive at a closed world.
After getting off the bus, I turn into a dead-end street. In the middle of its entrance there is a yellow security car with a lightbar on top, from which a guy in a commando vest keeps an eye on the residential area’s portal. He’s not even looking at me, I guess I’m not the kind of guy they want to keep out of this neighbourhood. Then I ring the doorbell at the high barred gate of the right building, and an elderly guard in a full-glass building asks for my details… Brilliant, they know about me, and the gate opens. Thanks to Maria and her sister as well as their friends, I arrive for mouth-watering smells that make me starve.
The housing blocks of the upper middle class are built in groups with gated and monitored streets and security, 24/7. Here between these gated communities stretches a jungle-like wilderness and poorer people’s slums. In the picture, the low-lying trail between the nearby and distant buildings is filled with the sound of some walkers’ whining, while the nearby small favela is filled with the sounds of firecrackers and all-night parties.
After a pleasant morning and breakfast, it’s time to go sightseeing! Wait, not really, not yet. Today we’re going to the seaside with my host’s friends, taking advantage of the stronger, still pleasant breeze coming from the ocean.
And I see everyone else is doing the same. The weekend in Brazil is not about sitting at home. The waves are really fantastic here on the Coconut Coast stretching northwards. Too bad I don’t have a surfboard with me right now!
Plenty of restaurants line the beachfront, of course the girls know the specialities of each one – as we roll past they comment non-stop – I’m really enjoying it. I don’t say a word, because if I want the best of the local seafood, I really need the best kitchen!
I must admit that even after letting them choose the restaurant, I left the selection of my food to them too, as I didn’t have a chance to translate the three-page-long menu of seafood. But the basic recipe is simple: seafood with African ingredients: coconut, palm oil, peanuts, pepper.
For the refreshments, however, I need no help: “Quatro caipirinha por favor!” I just ordered the Brazilian national cocktail, made with the world’s best sugar cane liqueur (cachaça) with lime and sugar. And of course, mixed with ice and an amazing Brazilian sense of rhythm.
After lunch, we head back to the sunny beach to recharge our batteries for the Brazil – Guatemala match, which will be followed by dinner and a house party in the evening – again!
There’ s no stopping.
I stay on the open balcony of Maria’s friends’ apartment and enjoy seeing the small crowd cheering for their team – boys and girls alike. At the same time, by looking out of the room, I notice that the same Brazil-Guatemala match is vibrating behind the windows of all the apartment buildings around. After the 4-0, the firecrackers go off and the Saturday night party starts on immediately. This is the way to live!
Late in the evening, we’re heading downtown – at last! Salvador, with its 4 million inhabitants never sleeps: the promenade is packed with pedestrians, picnickers and, of course, street vendors.