My family and I recently relocated to Brazil, the motherland I left over twenty years ago. Our reasons for moving were whimsical, devised in the middle of a torturous Wisconsin winter: the lure of adventure, the tropical climate and, our one practical excuse, the opportunity for my husband and daughter to master Portuguese – a language I considered my own.
I’m originally from Recife, known as The Brazilian Venice, a city not devoid of its own history and magic. I would have been glad to move there. But when I learned that we would live in Salvador, Bahia, I beamed, telling my Midwestern husband things like: We’re going straight to the heart of Brazil, the cradle of Brazilian culture! I showed him videos of Candomblé and capoeira, taught my daughter the words to Gilberto Gil’s Toda Menina Baiana, poured over Pierre Verger’s photographs of Bahia’s mystical world. I reread Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, anticipating the day I could wander through those same lively streets, step on those ancient cobblestones, hear the echos of berimbaus and atabaques in the distance. It dawned on me that every Brazilian song ever written was about Bahia. I played them day and night, struggling to convey the lyrical poetry to my husband – as in the verses of Dorival Caymmi, sung by Caetano Veloso in Terra:
On the balconies of the lofts/Of old São Salvador/ Lie memories of damsels/ From the time of the emperor/ Everything, everything in Bahia/ Makes us want so well/ Bahia has its jeito…
“Jeito,” he asked. What’s that?
“It’s a way… A feeling …. A manner of being. You know.”
I had envisioned my journey as a somewhat romantic homecoming, the prodigal daughter’s return to the loving arms of the patria mãe, so nostalgically evoked in a distant land. We lived in mounting anticipation, from the time my husband received his teaching offer at Bahia’s American school until we arrived in Stella Maris, the ritzy beach suburb where his employers placed us: a flat grid of asphalt streets shouldered by wall after mildewed wall, each crowned by a combination of electric fences, razor wire, rusted spikes, broken glass. Between aluminum bars one could glimpse the privileged lives in the condos, or “villages” as they were called. Our own wall, of the moldy stucco and electric wire variety, shielded identical two-story units, a leafy space, a poorly defined parking area, a small pool, and a community grill for churrascos. Vehicles raced between speed bumps. Vans with loudspeakers blared the prices of grocery products on sale at local supermarkets. In a matter of days I realized that here too, home would remain an elusive concept.
In buses, stores, restaurants, people invariably frowned or stared amusedly at what the decades abroad had done to my Portuguese. After I uttered a neighborhood or street name, cab drivers enjoyed guessing my nationality: Spanish? Argentinian? Lebanese? Even when not speaking I seemed to exude a foreignness that attracted evangelicals and vendors alike. I acquired a collection of leaflets in English and Spanish baring the devil’s sneaky ways, with titles like The Truth About Halloween, How to Get to Heaven, Satan’s Spiritual Structure. At the beach, the offerings of jewelry, hats, bikinis, ice cream, sunglasses, cangas and fried cheese, at times uttered in Spanish, at times in some indecipherable concoction of languages (a trusty tourist call?), never ceased. On my first visit to the Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, a throng of competing hotel representatives followed me across a large square, espousing the charms of their respective rooms. “Welcome to Bahia, the land of happiness,” they began.
“I’m not a tourist,” I reasoned. “I live here.” They knew to ignore my lies, thrusting photos of tidy accommodations into my hands.
Then there was the subtle familiarity, equally surprising, of certain sounds and smells, the light at sunset, the ocean, trees, the voices and gestures of strangers, the casual touches exchanged even in the briefest of conversations. Small things evoked distant memories in me; a Bem-Te-Vi’s cry or a red Castanhola leaf on the sidewalk stirred the child I left behind, perhaps abandoned, long ago. Past and present clashed several times a day. It all felt surreal, oddly contrived.
When the traffic noise subsided for the day, a shrill whistle awoke us throughout the night; “It’s a bird,” my husband decreed, and we learned to tolerate it, maybe even enjoy it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the exotic nocturnal creature. Then one night, on my return from a late outing, a motorcycle followed my taxi down the street, its rider sporting a bulky bulletproof vest. He stopped next to me on the sidewalk, fished the charm dangling from his neck, brought it to his lips and produced a fierce whistle, momentarily deafening me. Seeing that I was safely delivered – despite my bewilderment – he nodded his goodbye and puttered back to the security post at the end of the block.
Though it afforded a few evening laughs – “There’s your bird, honey!” – the error illustrated the general disparity between my romantic expectations and the reality of my experience so far. I bemoaned our bad fortune. I knew what lay within reach. But how would I know the muse to so many composers, the birthplace of samba, Candomblé, Maculelê, land of happiness and laid-back ease, in this insipid, paranoid suburb? How would I ever find the secret doorway to Bahia’s mystical world? And where had all the music gone? Even during weekend barbecues, when our neighbors drank themselves silly, laughing, crying, often simultaneously, into the wee hours of the morning, we heard nary a guitar or pandeiro or drunken rendition of a popular song.
I found refuge in the ocean’s astounding, ever-changing beauty. At low tide, the reefs exposed crystal-clear pools filled with tropical fish, a paradise for my three-year-old; at high tide, magnificent waves swelled and rolled into giant cigars, rushing toward us, sizzling at our feet. An afternoon walk along the pristine shoreline, a morning at the pools with my daughter, and my restlessness waned to a tolerable malaise. I met a few locals, people who worked and lived at the beach, their tents guarded by packs of dogs whose names I also came to know. In their company, I felt guilty and ungrateful for my constant bellyaching. How often, from landlocked Wisconsin, had I pined for the blue vastness of the ocean, the power and mystery no small or great lake could emulate? Countless, countless times.
I resolved to make the best of our circumstances; I would once again become, like the stray dogs, like the child I had once been in Recife, a peaceful, relaxed, carefree beach dweller.
Luana Monteiro is the author of Little Star of Bela Lua: Stories from Brazil.
(Photo by the author).