Tuesday, August 26, 2008

O Camino a Carmo

Tuesday evening, at dinner I discussed the possibility of a brief sojurn to Salvador. First Hannah and Rahul and I were going to go. We planned to to to the neighborhood of Vitoria to see an opening at Acbeu, an exhibit at o Museo Costa Pinto entitled; Herança Africana no Universo Baiano – Um Filá de Liberdade, African Heritage in the Bahian Universe, a Line of Liberty. As an adjunct to the exhibit my new friend Ana Bea Simon was presenting her research on the history of slave jewelry traditions; and their was an animated film from Senegal I thought that Hannah should see for inspiration. We discussed shopping for art supplies, Sim cards and books, taking a bag lunch and returning home by eight o'clock. By morning, everyone had a reason to go. I realized that we had left a little late while we were walking the quarter mile to the Kombi (VW van shuttle) stop near the hardware store. I flagged down an approaching Kombi, who took us to Mar Grande to the Lancha, or wooden ferry boat into Salvador. We had a minor dispute over the fare, alleged to be 2 reals and 30 cents. Later I realized that he had decided not to pick up any other passengers intending us to foot the equivalent bill for a full van. Coming home later in the week after another excursion, I learned that this van with seating for eight to nine people, carried fifteen people plus a driver and a moneytaker at rush hours. Gotta pay the rent!.

The boat ride over was sweet and uneventful. The sun was already high in the sky at 11:15, the current was steady but calm and the hawkers were out in full force with ice cream, beer, cocadas, pastries and boiled peanuts. Landing in Salvador approximately 35 minutes later, we tried navigating the Sim card situation. I footed the bill because everyone else had not brought their ID. In the end, my phone was the only one that would not accept the "semi-legal" switch. Our plan was to put local Sim cards in our cellphones. This would give us a local Salvadoran number and we could buy a pay as you go plan to enable our phones to make local calls. My snappy Blackberry screen, immediately told I had an illegal Sim Card implanted in my phone. I new that this would lead to some kind of god-awful roaming charges or something. I am still negotiating with one of my fellows to buy my new Sim card from me at the going rate. Oh, well. We grabbed a quick bite at a Churrasco restaurant that I had found with Michele before going to the upper city.

We took the gondola to the upper city with our list of errands to accomplish before descending to catch a bus to Vitoria a short ride away. I had an address and directions to Mestre Moraes Capoeira studio. Rahul's main errand was to purchase a Berimbau; a professional model, not a lame tourist version. We walked in clumps, Rahul and I in front leading the way, and the others just behind in sharing conversations and photo ops. We walked across the main square towards the former site of the actual Pelourinho to find, "Ladeira do Carmo"-The Hill of Carmo; another neighborhood just west of the historic district. I asked twice to make sure I was on the correct path as we descended down from the Pelourinho and up the steep hill towards Carmo. Halfway up the hill we came to a worn but beautiful church on our left with a long stone stair and two towers. Up ahead their was another church and the Office for Historic Preservation of the district.

Rahul was getting anxious, and kept at me to see if we were on the right path. I assured him that we were set. He told me of how he likes to collect traditional folkloric instruments when he travels, learning to play them and including them in his recordings. On fellowship near Osaka, Japan a few years previous, he went in search of a artisan made Shakuhachi flute. He was directed to the wrong train track and rode 300 miles out of his way. I now understood the root of his anxiety. To placate him, I walked into the courtyard of the Convent-Pousada-Museum at the top of the hill. A weird triumvirate, but the right place to ask directions. We were on track.
I turned around to signal the group, assuming that they too were anxious. I realized that we were alone. They were nowhere in sight. I had been so focused on our path, I had not checked on their status. Behind us, the hill had two forks. If they were following us, they would eventually track us down; but I felt that they were long gone. I laughed, since I had my prominent mop of hair and a fire engine red shirt on, Rahul was the only Indian subcontinent type for miles and he also was wearing striking colors. Oh, shit. I am the one who knew the way. I reflected that Lauri had been to Salvador before, and that this might be a wonderful opportunity for Hannah and Nathan to try out their nascent Portuguese. And away we went.

I began to fall in love with the worn seedy quality of these narrow streets and buildings. The neighborhood was relatively quiet with few pedestrians in sight. Here and there we spotted a pickup card game around a folding table in a shady spot, or a grandmotherly type wistfully staring out of her second floor window at nothing in particular. The buildings were full of character and in general need of repair. The urchin boys actually looked gaunt as opposed to some of those who frequented the Pelourinho. And we kept trudging forward. We came to a rotary with a 20 foot tiled tower, shaped like Big Ben, with glass and no clock embedded at the apex. I mused to Rahul, "Hmm-Had it been gaslit, was it an old watchtower? But, there was no apparent way to get inside of it." this was an odd sliver of a neighborhood. Many signs for Rooms to Let, funked out Pousadas, seamstresses, junk shops or Delicatessens.

The road coursed uphill again, as we passed another gondola I had not known about. I sensed that this is how Pelourinho had seemed twenty years ago. As long as I assured Rahul that we were on the right path, he stayed calm. I could see that the road was heading toward a cul de sac. I was anxious that in fact we had missed a turn. On our left was a majestic view of the bay froma vantage point I had not previously seen. I began to realize that this must have been the neighborhood that I had tried to locate with Michele. The neighborhood that was home to some of the contacts that I had been given back in NYC. Particularly two key Capoeira masters and a historian. Reaching the circle, we found a street vendor running a sausage cart with her husband and young son. I asked again, and she pointed across the way to a chalk white fortress shrouded in palms. At the center of the circle was a crop of trees shading half a dozen pre-teen street boys, who looked like they could be trouble after dark. At six o'clock position of the circle, there was an esplanade to fully engage the view, and a partially completed nineteenth century Cathedral at high noon. I had read that if the colonial Portuguese community did not complete a church or public building they did not have to pay taxes to the crown. I guessed that this had been the reality for this church.

We walked up to the fort and found a long stone archway behind a half open thick wooden door. The archway opened up into a central square, where an attractive young woman had a folding table and some brochures. A few lanky security guards in red and black uniforms stood nonchalantly nearby. All of the buildings were built of white stone with white walls two feet thick, and red ceramic roofs. This former colonial fortress had been turned into a major Capoeira studio and performance space, by Mestre Moraes; one of the Capoeristas I had been told to look up. We were pointed to the far building on our right, and walked in out of the bright sun to hopefully find Rahul's instrument. The room was cool, sweet smelling, with filtered natural light accented by one or two piercing beams of bright sunlight from the window facing south. In the corner were two teenage boys, one round and brown and squat with afro and a tambourine. The other gangly with rattan colored skin and coarse short hair. He was strumming a Berimbau. A auburn haired woman with a gymnasts frame was opposite them, assembling more instruments when we entered. Periodically, she corrected their notes and rhythms.

I translated for Rahul, and then went over to listen to the boys play while she picked out a Berimbau for him to look at. He called me back after a few moments when they expended the few bridge words that they could share. A Berimbau is a one stringed instrument made from a bowed pole of wood, (traditionally from the Beriba tree), a calabash and taught wire string. It is strummed with a whittled wooden stick identical to those used in Candomble ceremonies and a black stone positioned like the frets of a guitar. The player moves the instrument against and away from their chests to change the resonance of the notes, while strumming the string. I had previously known that the Berimbau a drummer and some percussionists accompanied the Capoeiraistas during training and performances, or Rodas (Ho-Dahs). What I hadn't known is that there were always three Berimbau played together, A Gunga or Bass, A Berra-Boi, Medio or Tenor and a Viola or Soprano. It is thought to have been developed by 19th century Afro-Brazilian slaves.

The woman, who was also the assistant master of the school had pulled out a Medio for Rahul. She was teaching him how to armar, or assemble and disassemble it. He was ready to pull out his money, when he overheard the two boys playing across the room. He asked them to come closer to him. Suddenly, he changed his tone, and told me that possibly she was selling him an inferior instrument, or at least one different than theirs. That was the moment that I realized that they were playing a Gunga and he had a Medio. She decided that he needed a lesson. First she played a Medio, then she had the young teen play his Gunga, with his pal on tambourine.

Then they joined forces, playing and singing together. It was worth the price of uphill trek. I was completely sated. Rahul vacillated between the tonal variations of the calabash. I suggested that since you can put them together, or disassemble them within ten minutes, that he buy both. In the end, he agreed. He joined their group, learning the simple fingering; which alternated two strokes below and three above the stone, while moving the resonating calabash onto or away from your chest. She told him to wait for awhile before he tried to add voice to the rhythm. It is not as simple to play as it looks. He ended up buying a carrying case, the two calabash, the beriba pole, two strings, two different strumming sticks of different woods one high pitched and the other low, and a woven straw caxixe rattle for $68.00 reals. A steal!

We thanked them and reversed our steps, hoping to encounter our homeys along the way. I bought the two books I needed for research and we headed for the gondola, the art store and the ferry home. We had lost our window of opportunity to check out the museum. Now winded, I needed a pickmeup. We stopped for a Beiju or Manioc Crepe in the Praca da Se . Mine had coconut and white cheese, his Coconut and sugar. I took pictures of Conceca, "Mais, voce pode chamar-me Ceca." As we wolfed them down, I told Rahul that this snack might have cost us our art supply shopping time.

We jogged to the gondola and got to the alley of art supply stores as all of the gates were being pulled closed when the New Yorker in me wormed inside one of the accordion gates as it slid down its track. The man operating the chain from the street looked disgruntled, but the cashier told me that if I was quick she would serve me. Rahul needed some special art paper. Lost in translation, it turned out I had misunderstood his English. He did need paper, but they type he needed was not available here. Shit. I needed typing paper, though not right now. I decided I had to to buy my paper, since they had accommodated us. We walked the five blocks to the ferry, and found our friends boarding the same boat. They had split up, after we separated, with Lauri going off on her own to catch some of the photo exhibits up for the August spotlight on photography around town. She was already on the island, waiting at the dock for our boat to arrive. I was shooting random experimental images while the others talked over their exploits. Just as we came to port a kind faced middle aged man asked me if we were going to Quinta Pitanga, the original name of the former girl's school, before Sacatar took it over. Having noticed our art supplies and motley nature, he suggested that he could drop us off in his cab, parked near the dock. It was both fortuitous and comical. He seemed to have acquired a selection of CD's appropriate for all types of locals and tourists, reflecting the music of their homelands. Aussie Nathan got the Bee Gees, and Rahul hummed to himself while the Americans echoed the chorus of I Will Survive, among other disco hits. It had all worked out.

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