Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My first interview

I had wanted to collapse after the runaround day we had had looking for Biggie and Dr. Abreu. That morning, I had envisioned a lighter load during the day with a stop in at the gallery opening where I would leave Michele to hang with Eneida and I would continue on to see Dona Valdina. After our escapades in the streets, I knew that Michele was done. She said that she wanted to rally, but needed to rest. Later we found out that Eneida couldn't make it either. All for the better.

We had bought some snacks and recharged the house cell phones at the 24 hour drugstore on the corner before going in to rest. I sat briefly, then changed my shirt, washed my face, found my mini tape deck read the directions and left for Valdina's home. From the map I saw that her neighborhood was Engenho Velho da Fundacao. If I translated it correctly, this suggested that it had been the site of sugar plantation previously. I did not have enough time for the bus, so I took my first taxi. Being a good New Yorker, I gave broad directions, focusing on particulars once he got into the district. I had wanted to bring flowers, but hadn't seen a shop. By coincidence just outside of her district we came up a steep hill and were surrounded by a huge cemetery with walls like a castle fortress. On either side of the road were several flower shops still open though it was past seven. I wanted to stop, hop out, grab something; but no-time was too tight. Near to her house I got out of the cab and pulled out her notes of how to find her home. In my rush I had not taken the time to look up a few words she had used to describe her address. Now, I needed those clues. She lived near a fork in the road, off of a steep hill. The road seemed to be a throughway or artery in her neighborhood or district with a mixture of discount stores, small shops, an acaraje stand and the barber shop with the tiles on one side that had been my reference marker. Not sure which fork to take, I paced up and down the hill on either side of the fork before deciding that I needed assistance. A middle aged light caramel colored woman stood half in her doorway surveying the street. I knew that this was not Valdina looking for me, but she was probably a good guide. She pointed across the street, and said the door on the left and the house on the right. I was confused, but I crossed the street started to mount the stair, and she called out, "Nao, pra la, a outra porta. Sim, sim aquele." The second door opened onto a darkened screen porch. There was no bell, so I went in. Once inside I realized that I was not in someone's entryway but in a paved yard that had several doors and two story cottages coming off it on either side. I walked towards the light and heard voices. I saw an open doorway which revealed a small room where two women and a child sat talking. Poking my head in I asked for Dona Valdina. "Em frente" Next door. I walked to the next house, it seemed more solid than the others. There was a soft light in the front room, but the home was quite dark in contrast to the adjacent homes where people seemed to have come in from work and were fixing dinner. I knocked. A voice called out, and a moment later a slender dark skinned woman with a elaborated tied headwrap in muted olive drab, gold and black, strong black glasses, a dark sheath dress and a raspy deep voice greeted me, welcoming me inside. In the low light I saw that she had been sitting playing computer solitaire as she waited for me. As I prepared to sit down, she turned off her computer and turned to face me. Valdina was one of the three closest friends of my mentor Danny. She was one of the few people who had quickly responded to my email query. We had spoken once, and now here I was. Dona Valdina had a strong and wise face, a careful measured gaze. Her skin was smooth, of a matte teak color. She moved with grace and economy. Her face reflected a powerfully strong countenance that suggested an elder's wisdom, a take no prisoner's warrior posture and a certain benevolence (if you were worthy; of what I wasn't sure).
Two doorways were at either end of the room. One had a fabric drape and the other a wooden door. The room where we sat in was populated by books on several shelves along each wall, (some of which I recognized), an large carved antique wooden cabinet, her computer, a taupe laminated desktop, a few chairs, a small low table and some art work that was hard to decipher in this light.
Quickly, she asked me did I find her home easily, then...why I had come, and what did I want. Anxious with my answer and my Portuguese, I haltingly stated the purpose of my work, to research Afro-Braisilian cuisine and culture and compare it with African American counterparts I knew from deep South and Sea Island cultures. I pulled out my notepad, but I realized that I needed to record this session, and I couldn't remember the Portuguese word for tape recorder. I paused and asked her if I could show her what it was I wanted to use. When she saw the mini deck, she assented and we continued. She spoke quite forcefully and clearly, enunciating all of her words well. This made following her Portuguese easier for me. She reiterated that the base of Afro Bahian cuisine was smoked dried shrimp, garlic, onion and Dende. Other things were used. But this was the base. The shrimp had to be properly prepared, dried and smoked over a fire, not artificially colored or prepared industrially. She spoke at length about the method extracting Dende Oil from the kernel and the fruit. I asked about the distinctions between culinary practice in the home or restaurants and the cooking employed for the Candomble ceremonies. Where ingredients multi purposed? How did the iconic dishes reference or inform the daily cooking? Not being an initiate, I realized that there would be a limit to what she could specifically relate to me. But, she continued, discussing history and modernization, community cooking and distinctions within the region.
Midway through our conversation she made reference to a trips to abroad. Cuba, Africa and the United States. Focusing on Africa, I asked her what parallels she drew to the cooking she experienced while in Luanda and Benin. She stated that she had not had time to really observe the culinary culture, but she saw some similarities. Continuing on, Valdina related how in America she had met a Nigerian and he identified foods that she had prepared as being similar to his home foods, albeit with different names. Later on in this trip, I will sit with the tapes and attempt to translate all that was discussed. I may need help from native speakers, but at least I can begin to dig deeper. After about an hour, we finished up. She suggested that I come back for meal preparation days, on a weekend or special day. I said that that would be ideal, since I would often be free to come in on the weekends from Itaparica. I asked if I could take her photo, and she quickly removed her glasses. I had gotten so used to them, I stopped seeing them as being separate from her face. Was it an act of vanity, hmmm...probably irrelevant? I shot a few images and I was not satisfied with what i had done. I did not feel comfortable to keep shooting or move about the room to capture the right vantage point. Hopefully that would come later.
I said goodnight and she walked me into the yard, where we briefly embraced.

Back in the neighborhood, the lights seemed brighter. The street had calmed from the afterwork buzz I had heard upon my arrival. I walked to the acaraje stand for a snack and a point of reference. They were frying a fresh batch. As I waited, my bus pulled up. Snack aborted for a quick exit. The money taker told me that I would have to change buses. He instructed me where to get off. Another unfamiliar neighborhood. Now it was around 9:30 PM. At the next bus stop I asked a street sweeper in red coveralls for the list of buses that stopped there. He indicated that the bus went by here but didn't stop. I would have to go around the corner to catch my bus. I thanked him and walked in the direction that he pointed me to. When I was out of his sight, I saw some graffiti and took a few pictures. I reached the corner after a sharp bend in the road, and I could not see where he was indicating. I saw a man smoking with a flame red shirt just inside the doorway of the restaurant, Club Acaraje. I asked him, and he directed me back towards where I had come from. Confused, tired and hungry, I obliged his directions, only to be berated by the street sweeper when I came back into his view. I felt that I had slighted his authority. He quieted his town and began to more carefully show me where it was I need to go. Not just around the corner, but down the street a ways. I began to realize that I was near Campo Grande. By this time, many buses had passed me by, some of which were mine. I found a well lit square by the park and stood near a curve in the road. Not wanting to miss the right bus. Doubtful, I walked to a food stand, thinking that I could get confirmation and a snack. Hot Dogs. Not my speed right now. I learned that I needed to be up the road about 20 feet to catch the bus. Soon after my bus came, and I made it home before 10:30. Exhausted and harboring a tickle in my throat I sat down and had a glass of wine, some Queijo and Pao Milho (airy coconut corn bread) relating my story to Michele. Michele had spent the evening working on her online Graphic Design teaching class. She was glad to hear of my success. Ever supportive and nurturing, she is a great partner and friend. I downloaded the tape, listening to snippets before I took a brief shower and climbed into bed. Now I felt like I had the beginning of a foothold.

1 comment:

ellen said...

ah, scott, this is such a satisfying report about your first interview. very enterprising, ever the creative improvisor. good to record all that you can, for memory and better translation. thanks for this nourishment and sharing of wisdom.