Thursday, August 14, 2008

Do Seminario do Dende a Cachoeira

You cannot ever be too cocksure in a new place. Anxious to absorb all that I could and hopeful that I could, would make relevant connections at the Seminario de Dende at Senac Cooking School in the Pelourinho, I had decided to stay on until the end. Or at least until the cocktail reception and book party at 6:30 PM, for Raul Lody's new book. He was the director of the seminario and a key anthropologist of Afro-Brazilian culture. I had introduced myself to him, he was gracious but we got nowhere. I was constrained because that same day I had plans to go to Cachoiera, (Cash-o-where-a) for A Festa Da Irmandade da Boa Morte. The Festival of the Sisterhood of the Good Death. More on that soon.
The first of the last two speakers of the day at the seminario was truly sawdust. I am sure she is a competent woman, and seemed quite intelligent. She is the chief administrator of Senac and is based in Sao Paulo. Senac appears to be a national vocational college with branches in Tourism, Cooking, ___________ & _____. She deals with food. I am sure she has great strengths as a CEO, she acknowledged that last week was her thirteenth anniversary in her position. But she must not have been hired for her elocution skills. She attempted to demystify the editorial and publication process for books on food and cooking. As relevant as it might have been, it could have been turned into a Powerpoint presentation or a printed brochure. I lost my taste for more speechifying and decided I would be better served to try and catch an earlier bus to Cachoeira. I wanted to be able to arrive at a more reasonable hour, navigate the town, find some dinner and get oriented with regards to the festival. Thus, I left the seminar 45 minutes early, 5:30 PM and made my way to the Lacera Elevator and out of the Pelourinho. The bus stop at the foot of the elevator was a major transit link for city buses. Fairly quickly I found one marked Rodoviaria Volta B-Brotas, (Ho-dough-Vee-ar-ee-ya: Bus Station). I hopped on, chilled down and made ready for my trip into the Bahian countryside. Heading east from town, we went through the tunnel cut into the same hillside that Pelouinho sits on top of. I had made this trip yesterday from Barra to buy my ticket in advance. Everyone said that the festival was breathtaking, and a major magnet for Brazilians, foreigners; in particular African Americans.
A Festa is said to be the first act of solidarity by black people for black people in honor and in struggle for the people who had died enslaved in Brazil. It has been held for over 200 years, initially begun in Salvador. The sisterhood of black women in a direct bloodine descendancy from slaves dedicate their lives to honoring the struggle of the ancestors, express real and metaphoric tears for the murder and subjugation of their elders and live a simple ascetic life, dressing traditionally, holding special vigils, prepare ritual meals and ceremonial rituals which culminate in this week long festa, which began on Monday. It was suggested that I also sample some regional dishes, Manicoba-a rich Afro-Indian meat stew thickened with manioc leaves, Caldo de Sururu-A mussel broth or soup, Fejoida com Feijao Preto-Fejoida with Black Beans, Licor da Cachoeira among other dishes. Taylor, one of the founders of Sacatar had tried to connected me with his friend, Edmilson, described as a flamboyant gay man who spoke French, Portuguese and no English; someone who had a good head for the festival, could be a general guide to Cachoeira and had room to put me up for a small fee. Unfortunately, he never responded to our emails. As a safeguard, I had found an internet site with some Pousadas listed, and made reservations at two to be safe.
Bus tickets sell quickly, so I was advised to purchase my ticket ahead of time. They printed my name and reservation time, 8:00 PM was printed on the ticket, like an airticket. I used that trip to a Rodoviaria to clock the travel time, so that I could be ready on the day of the seminar, forty five minutes. Therefore from the Pelourinho stop is should be approximately a 20-30 minute ride. My bus, a tortuga, appeared to stop at every corner in Engenho Velho de Brotas (Engenho Velho indicates the site of a form Sugarcane Plantation during the colonial period). I asked the moneytaker on the bus for an explanation of the route. "Vai ficar tempo", It takes time, was his response. It was now 6:50PM. I thought that at least I would make my scheduled bus. My phone rang a few times with calls from the States, which distracted me from the sluggish ride. When I finally saw the highway up ahead, the eastbound lanes we needed to taker were bumper to bumper and barely moving. As we mounted the on ramp we headed west towards the ocean. I was confused and distraught; my cool unraveled. I realized that our route required us to head west to some intersection where we would reverse direction and head east to the bus station; 5 km later.
The third time I spoke to the money taker, he was too through. When I asked how much longer? He came back with, "Um rato. Vai ficar tempo pra chegar pra la. Nao posso dizer cuanto tempo. Temos muita congestacao, trafico". Awhile. It takes time to get there. I can't say how long. There is a lot of congestion, traffic. Voce deve buscar Shopping Iguatemi. Look for the Iguatemi mall. Being pragmatic and crazed, I said, "But don't you do this everyday? The same route?"---Yes.
"Entao....How long, you must know the time it takes....?" "Vai ficar tempo. Nao sei." I cursed the lives of functionaries. There had to be a better answer, it was now 7:29. I wasn't sure if I would even be able to catch my scheduled bus. I considered trying to get out in traffic, flagging a cab, or what I wasn't sure. I didn't quite know where I was to make clear decisions. Then I saw Shopping Iguatemi, and thought that it all might work. I had had such good luck up until this point, I hoped that it didn't portend a bad scenario ahead in Cachoeira? I found my queue on the Santana bus line at 7:50. The only concern I had had, was that I was waiting on money from America and what I had was what I had, and there were not many reals or time alotted for dinner. Agua sem gas and a small bag of boiled peanuts were the realities for now.
The ride took about two and one half hours. None of the overhead lights worked, so my preparatory reading sat in my sack. Behind me two chatty Brazilian men flitted time with their chatter. Two young ample bosom women marked by revealing cleavage and hugging jeans got on, and the men had a target. I dozed off between my peanut splurges and their cat and mouse. While I was awake I appreciated the rolling hills in silhouette under a shadow of clouds. Closer to our destination an almost full moon rose as I anxiously watched one street towns and random roadside stops blink by. The larger villages caused this bus to function like a cityline, stopping five or six times on shuttered streets that reflected a stray bar or a streetside card game. I bolted awake as I came to consciousness in Cachoeira. Overstimulated by my day and ride, anxious for the weekend and underfed, I had slept deeply for 20-30 minutes. I realized that I had no idea where I was going, and that this town would have several stops. Inquiring with the moneytaker, (all the buses have one; I wonder if it is also a crime detererrent?), neither he nor the driver knew the street I named, even as repeated it with a new intonation. Rua Ana Nery. "Porque voce nao saia na Rodoviaria da Cachoeira? Sera melhor." As my feet touched the pavement street hawkers chanted at me and the passengers on the bus-cerveja, agua mineral, amendoine, refrescante-Aqui.
The bus made a U-turn and disappeared over a rusted steel suspension sitting over the river. Across the river there was also a town, more brightly lit. Should I be there? Is that were the commercial streets and Pousadas were? Giovanna had said that the bus might only stop in Sao Felix nearby. Maybe that was Sao Felix. I walked to the riverfront and saw lights ahead, deciding that at least at the lighted place I could ask. The crowded bar sat adjacent to a playground, soccer field and town park. At the street corner one group was split between three people at table and two in their car, doors flung open beer sheening all of their lips. Walk away from the river, (into darkened streets), direito ate ...Two blocks later, I found two men selling churrascinhos on a main drag. I stopped to ask again, and decided to buy one. I watched them cook over a hibachi with a small two speed electric fan hotwired into the street lamp to stoke the coals. They had just run out of beef, so I was given sausages, chicken and squash with a crown of raw onions and sliced cucumbers oozing vinegar. The meats were rolled in farofa just before he handed it to me with the next set of directions. A few blocks later, nest to a large church, I asked a guarda, and realized I was looking at the Pousada across the street from his station. I had found a website with Ana Bea's help. I couldn't get a Skype signal, so I used my cell and probably would pay tweny American for my calls. In front of their doorway was a chipped silver wrought iron gate, removable, like a toddler barrier. Almost one meter tall. I saw no bell, so I called out in a low voice. A woman, teenager turned in the dark hallway telling me to come in. I lifted the gate, replacing it as walked int their home. She led me into a squareish room dominated by a heavy wooden dining table and too many chairs. Grandma in a housedress and a headscarf sat on a sagging sofa. A dark skinned man, the girl who brought me in and two young children sat around the room glued to a telenovela.

A woman dressed like gram was in the kitchen in profile to us. She held a chubby sausage with her left hand, hacking slices in the air with her right. A stairway was in the corner and the roof was partially open to the sky. Moonlight spilled in adding to the TV glow. She motioned me into the kitchen, took me in as she sliced; asking what I wanted? The pot behind her sizzled with onions and garlic as I requested the room I had reserved. You called? Yes....She looked into my eyes, then she surveyed my frame. "Voce vai assentar com minha mae". Go and sit on the sofa next to my mother. Grandma creamy coffee colored, breasts long past firm as they sagged to her mid chest under her garmets pulled up a seat next to the sofa and motioned to me. I sat. The man, not Dad, in a sleeveless black V neck tennis sweater with white trim, black dress shorts and a black apple jack hat muttered something at me that I didn't follow. I was exhausted, and now had no room, nor did I know where the other possiblity was; it was late. I needed my wits now, all of my cognitive skills to follow this conversation in a lazier dialect than that of Salvador. I quickly became the focus of the conversation, though they spoke about me, not too me. Until Grandma turned , smiled and whispered, " Voce nao e globo?" I repeated, "Globo?" (does that mean globe?). "Voce parece globo." I answered, "Nao, nao sou globo, mais obrigado." No, I am not globo, but thanks. She continued muttering and looking at me with a sultry gaze. Where was I? Was she senile? A woman called out and came in beer gut leaking over her pants. She asked for coffee and the teen girl whipped out cafezinhos for everyone. She sat on the sofa and immediately began to speak to me in English, telling me that there was housing for men only down the street two blocks. I wasn't sure I wanted that. I just imagined trashed guys, loud late at night. Our hostess stepped from the kitchen and quickly told the man to leave and ask at one of the neighbor's homes for a room. He left and returned quickly empty handed. She looked at me again, and said to the room more than someone, "Mas ele me ligou." But he called me. Maybe I can do something for you, but I am waiting for someone from Sao Paulo. Grandma kept on about globo as I finished my coffee. Now the dona addressed the man, mentioning someone's name. He stood to leave and they all looked to me. He wanted me to follow.
Around the corner, and up the block, a smallish woman with thick wavy brown hair cracked her door and I listened to him discuss my situation. She opened the door for me and he left. The room was in shadows, she led me down a short hallway speaking as she walked. I made out a a ceramic roof high above this railroad flat, kitchen at the back, TV in the backround. None of the rooms had cielings, so true privacy would be at a minimum. Out of the shadows, a young girl came from the farthest room as we talked. A measured cadence of snores emanated from the door behind me. Dad? I was shown a room, sky blue walls, double bed covered with a mossy satin spread and matching quilted velvetine headboard. A square of lace appliqued to the middle of the spread. A carved wooden armoire with sliding doors, two of them broken stood along the far wall. A picture of the young girl I had seen at an earlier age, praying was framed adjacent to a reproduction of female nude charcoal drawing. We stepped out of this room and she asked, "How many people? How long?" "Just me. Until Sunday." Immediately she whispered to the young girl. It depends upon the price, doesn't it? How much will you..." They looked at each other again. $80? I repeated the figure. "Yes, ok; $80. I asked for a toilet as they whispered on. Returning, I set my things on the bed and asked about food. The girl volunteered the leftovers and a drink. I looked up, and accepted a glass of water, as her mother'e eyes nixed the food. What did I want-dinner? It was too late, I just wanted a snack. They sent me to the central square a few blocks away. In the street again, now hereing cicadas, I stopped to photograph the church when I heard the daughter whistling and jogging up to me. "Chaves. Voce precisa um chave." A key-duh.
The praca was three streets long with a center island, grassy and studded with plastic chairs and street food carts. Several full bars, cafes and restaurants opened onto the square. Brazilian rock, countryish blared from loudspeakers mounted on street lamps.Noisy people sat, chatting under strings of small white light bulbs strung in the trees above the square, watching the itinerant souvenir sellers set up camp and tents. I chose one, sat, ordered a beer and negotiated a bowl of Caldo Bacalhau with the owner from among the ten or soups she had written on the plywood menu. Unctous and satisfying with a taste of roux or starch, it did its job. I got up to pay and split, watching to men thrust their tongues into each others mouths. Was one of them Ed? Too late. When I got back to my digs, mom and daughter were still whispering incessantly. Thankfully, they had locked my door. They showed me how to work the lock. I am too trusting. I unpacked and hung up the few things I brought, grabbed my toothbrush and went the toilet again. Now a young boy half awake was watching the TV. Mom called to me in her choppy, poorly constructed Portuguese, "I had missed the invocation and the first procession. I needed to be at the Irmandade by 10:00 AM to see tomorrow's procession. Go early." I thanked her and crawled into bed. As I turned out the light I spied a pair of sequined slippers peeking out from under the bed. I think that I had taken her daughter's bedroom. It was almost midnight and fell asleep quickly. Drifting in and out of random dreams, I heard music faintly.
Abruptly, several hours later before dawn, I was shocked into wakefulness first by three rounds of fireworks, then the peal of church bells and finally an hour's cacophony of roosters. The fireworks had shocked them too. Starting individually, they united into a crowing chorus, like strays dogs howling until daybreak. By seven I was up and out walking the streets to see where I had come to. I stopped in the church, watching devout parishioner's pray momentarily. I walked against traffic, paralleling the river as townspeople hurried to work or to prepare for the festa. Side streets and alleys carried me past massive colonial buildings, some intact, many crumbling. Waling away from the town center, all of the residential neighborhoods had small one or two story brick homes covered in plaster with the same arrangement of small iron gates creating a buffer with the street. The interior rooms of almost every home was fully visible. Outside of every other house, people hung their bird cages with all manner of birds from Budgies to Parrots, singing in the day. I could see that this town had been rich 300 years ago, now it was holding on, appearing solidly working class; with exotic birds in cages, satelitte dishes and a donkey here and there. I came to an edge of town, the east side I think, and found a playground along the river. Happily I did a Tai Chi set, as morning fishermen cast their nets from narrow pirouges. I heard a distant drum, then faint singing coming from across the river. I isolated three long, low buildings as origin of the music. Thinking it might be the parade band or an early gathering of festivants, I decided to walk over the metal bridge and find the musicmakers.
Approaching the Rodoviaria in daylight the Rodoviaria it was impressive sitting at one foot of the bridge adjacent to the Ferroviaria (train station). I crossed the battered span barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic to find Sao Felix, a cathedral and a farmers market at other foot. Hungry now, I bought some bananas, found a cafe with full of men glued to the Brazilian women's Olympic soccer team final's. I ordered a Banana Real or Banana Turnover and coffee. Across the way a man ate a full plate of fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. I ordered that too. Shortly afterwards a plate arrived with only poorly scrambled eggs. I asked after the potatoes. They had run out. Hmm...Bread? He returned with a puffy roll. I made an egg sandwich, the game finished and I left. I never found the music. Possibly, my ears had been playing tricks or eating breakfast upset the timing. Returning to Cachoeira, I found signs leading me to the Irmandade/Sisterhood. The streets choked with people talking loudly in anticipation of the procession, briefly became quiet as a tuba bleeted in the distance. I saw the procession of women coming down a steep hill with a marching band at the rear.The tune could have been written in New Orleans.
Looking around, looking for camera angles and positioning, someone called my name. Big (pronounced Biggie), from the Pelourinho. We embraced, laughed and checked in with each other. He was playing private tour guide to a black actor and his wife from L.A. I recognized his face, but couldn't name him. Adroitly, he began to I.D. key players in the crowd, local politicians, historians, the minister of culture. People he thought I should know, based on my research topic. I exhanged cards and handshakes with all of them, including the govenernor of Bahia. Is Big an Exu at the crossroads? Next, he introduced me to a group of Black American journalists and a tourism executive. We bantered back and forth. One of the women, chatty, flaunted her book, Black History for Dummies. I decided that the church service held more intrigue, and pressed myself into the throng. It took forty minutes of jostling to get to the front of the aisle between the pews where the Irmandade were seated. Periodically, people got up and left from the heat inside the sanctuary overcrowded with locals, other Brazilians, international tourists, a visiting French bishop and many black Americans. Having been raised Episcopal I can always navigate a Catholic Mass, even in a new language. I studied the faces and dress of the sisterhood. Today they were dressed in a variation of the Baina costume. They had full circle boldly printed hooped skirts, lace under trousers, a white blouse cut like a priests supplice, red satin shawls with black lining, thick ropes of beaded Orisha necklaces and silver chains and lace headwraps. I took communion in honor of my mother and marveled at their sense of faith and solidarity as their leaders shared the altar with the priests.
Back in the street, other marching bands, Samba de Roda troupes, dancers in Afro-Indian tribal costume enjoined the nascent procession. The street thicker with flesh pressing flesh feverishly waited for the women and their idol, VIRGEN______to exit the chapel. Finally an hour later we returned to the chapel and people crowded inside in anticipation of the next round of activities. I followed, looking for a copy of the historical brochure for reference and notes. I chose the right person to ask about the brochure and the culinary traditions of these women. She directed me to one of the director's who was heading our way. The man next to me, Luja, heard my questions and suggested that I follow him to see the food being prepared. His aunt was the chief commissioner this year, she could answer all of my questions and probably provide recipes. Wow. He grabbed me by the hand and ten minutes later I was upstairs in the refectory behind locked doors open only to the sisterhood, important officials and family members. I talked with Luja's aunt, Mae Joselita, or Mae Zelita to family and friends.His Mae was directing traffic in the kitchen to finish the Fejioada, Carne de Boi (Bull, Black Bean and Pork Stew) that had been started early that morning. The sisterhood was always served first, then their families and finally the general public. They had enough food to serve several hundred people. Mae Zelita asked what I was doing here, when I responded she turned to her family and asked for a translation. I guess Portuguese needs more work. She then offered me a plate and advised me that tomorrow we could sit and share recipes. I could not be in the kitchen, but I was free to photograph. The beans were perfectly cooked with a nice bite to the tooth. I navigated through a reddish sausage, a leathery strip of well done beef, (maybe Carne do Sol), a braise-shoulder (?), rice and farofa. It could have been Monday evening in New Orleans with a plate of Red Beans and Rice. The dishes ran right together. I shot some photos until my battery was spent, then negotiated the door to search for my charger. On my way out, Luja introduced me to his cousin, Anaclaudia. She insisted that I needed to experience everyday food and should come for a drink and a snack at 5:30 to her home in Sao Felix. She quickly gave me directions and I left.
I was later told the order of all the traditional dishes prepared for the festival. I had missed the first day with the symbolic distribution of black beans and corn in exchange for alms and the second day's famous White Meal of Bread, a Fridgeira da Bacalhau, a cool deep dish savory pie of salt cod and vegetables with an eggy top crust, White Wine and Seafood. Tommorrow's meal would be Cozido. This dish sounded similar to a classic Latin Caribbean dish of braised meats cooked with whole root vegetables and then served separately with the vegetables cut into hefty chunks. There's would have Beef and Goat. The last meal would be Caruru, a very African dish of stewed okra, camarao or smoked dried shrimp in the shell, herbs and Dende oil. Every meal ended with performances of Samba de Roda, and frenetic dancing.

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