Friday, November 04, 2005

Pure Brazil

November 1 – Salvador, Brazil
We thought we’d surf. There are many things John does better than me and one of them is surfing. So he paddled out on the little rented board into the rough Salvador, Brazil chop and tried in vain to catch a wave. The waves were there and they were strong (as Brazilian waves seemingly always are) but they were breaking poorly and it was no use.

I was swimming with him and when we got back to shore we found we’d been blown 500 feet down the beach by the strong cross current. We walked back to our stuff, passing the plastic tables with the drinking Brazilians on the hot cream sand. Then I grabbed the board and headed for the waves.

“Iye,” a woman called after me. I looked back and saw she was calling after her child and kept walking. “Iye,” she called again but I kept walking this time.

“Brook,” John shouted from the shore and I looked back and then walked towards him. Another thing John does better than me is speak Portuguese and now he was talking to the woman and translating.

“She says you’re crazy to go out there,” John said. No one was in the water past their knees and red markers warned of the tide. But I trudged on with the rented board and proceeded to not come close to catching a wave.

When I returned to shore John was still talking to the woman, Jahnee. “She asked me to go to dinner with her tomorrow,” John said when we were alone. “I don’t know what to do. It’s a little strange. She’s divorced. She has three children.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said laughing.

“How old do you think she is?”

“I don’t know. It starts with a three.”

“Yeah, it does.”

We returned the surfboard and then John went over to her blanket to get her number and firm up plans. I waited by the water and then he came back. “So, do you want to come too and go with her hot sister?”

We walked back to their blanket and John introduced me to Jahnee and Danubia. The sisters didn’t speak five words of English and I don’t speak five words of Portuguese and we were going on a double date the next night.

Loyal readers will say, “Hey, Brook, I thought you weren’t writing about girls in South America.” And I will say, “Well, that was the plan. But this was just too good.”

The next day John was getting cold feet. “I don’t know, something seems sketchy about all this. What do you think?”

I thought he was right. You do hear stories of friendly locals who spike your drink or abduct you or rob you or worse. But they were mothers—we had seen their kids—and they seemed genuinely friendly and genuinely divorced and what was the worst that could happen? Okay, the worst was pretty bad, but what was the worst that was likely to happen?

“I’m not bringing any credit cards, I can tell you that much,” I said.

So we got on the bus for our seven o’clock rendezvous. As we paid our bus fare I made a mental note of the 53 reais I had on me; just less than $25. “I have about the same,” John told me.

And as the bus rumbled away from our pousada, the wheels started turning in our heads. “If we go out for a Bahian dinner that’s going to be 50 reais for two people,” John said. “We’re not going to have any money left.”

We had been so worried about having little cash for the robbers that we brought too little for our night out. And of course, we were too smart to bring ATM cards with us either.

“I didn’t think this through,” John admitted. “Or I thought it through too much.”

I feared Danubia would do some thinking through too. Jahnee had met a nice, tall, blonde, American boy—John—who speaks good Portuguese; and then paired her younger sister with some idiot—me—who can hardly say “hello.” (By the way, its “oi.” I at least know that much.)

As feared, when we met Jahnee in the Pelourinho, Danubia was absent. She was finishing work, I eventually learned.

If you think its fun being the third wheel, try doing it while the other two wheels are speaking an incomprehensible foreign language.

“Are you getting any of this?” John would ask from time to time, hoping my miserable Spanish would be of some help.

We looked out over the city and warded off some beggars and walked through the area where I got mugged a few days prior. John and I tensed up a bit when we got there, and spent a good part of the night looking quite literally over our shoulders.

Then Jahnee brought us to a little bar. I was ready for a drink. There was a giant wooden barrel with 20 taps jutting out and the bartender poured a small plastic cup of one of the brews. Then he added a few clear drops from another spigot.

Jahnee handed us the drink. It smelled of spices and tasted like a strong mulled cider. The three of us shared the tiny cup and were still finishing it as we walked back out across the Pelourinho. The cup was still a quarter full and I wondered how we had drank so little and imagined Jahnee putting the cup to her lips but not swallowing any; I wondered what those clear drops the bartender had added at the end were.

“No more,” Jahnee said and poured the rest onto the ground. I wasn’t sure if that made me trust her more or less.

We took a bus to some other part of town and walked forever. “She used to work in the factory over here,” John translated.

“These train tracks are only used once a year for a parade,” he said later.

A sleeping homeless man stirred and walked towards us. We walked away. The streets were dim but not dark, sparse but not deserted. It was residential but still sketchy.

“This is like a lovers’ lane,” John told me when we walked out to a little peninsula just past a nighttime soccer game.

“You bored?” John asked, because we could speak English freely without being understood.

“No, this is hilarious. When will we ever have a night like this again?”

“You know I really like it, actually,” John said. “I know these are silly places to visit, but for the first time I feel like I’m seeing a real side of Brazil, where people live.”

We walked and walked and then finally, up a hill, having gotten off work and made it through traffic, was Danubia.

She looked good. She could be Ana Beatriz Barros´ ugly sister, which is quite a compliment. “Oi,” I said, using a quarter of my Portuguese vocabulary as way of introduction.

“No fala nada?,” Danubia asked John and Jahnee. No, they said, he doesn’t speak at all.

It was like swimming without legs, typing without hands, going out to dinner without any cash; I was hitting on someone without the use of language.

We tried speaking, of course. We tried the way you would try to fly a plane if the pilot was unconscious. You would try because there weren’t any other options and it was going to be a disaster anyway.

“Numero?” Danubia finally asked when I hadn’t understood three other versions of the question.

“Ah, mi numero? My age?!”

“Johhhnnn,” Danubia would call when we couldn’t figure it out ourselves.

“No John,” I would say, with patience. “Vente-seis.”

“Vinte e seis,” John corrected, translating my Spanish into Portuguese.

I was 26 and she was 25.

We sat at a table by the water and the three of them would talk for a while and then John would give me a re-cap. We ordered drinks and Danubia said she was surprised I drink.

“She said, you don’t look like a guy who would drink alcohol. I’m not sure what that means.” John reported.

I thought I knew. I was the wholly ineffectual, therefore imasculine guy who could barely say ‘hello.’ In that way, I was far to young to drink, even if I was vinte e seis.

But then we learned “cachacaero,” which means drunk, so I accused Danubia of being a “cachacaero” simply because it was one of the only words I knew.

“Noooo,” she insisted. “You are a drunk,” she countered in Portuguese.

I flicked her in mock-anger and she seemed to take offense to me touching her.

“You have a strange way of flirting,” John said, apparently unaware that I was employing the only means at my disposal.

Then we walked for a while and were at the bus stop. It was 11:30pm and felt much later. The girls said we had to be careful about which bus we took back to Barra because some of them aren’t safe at this hour. It wasn’t clear if we were waiting for them to get their bus or they were waiting for us to get ours. Eventually we got on the same one and then got off somewhere dark and scary. We were in Danubia’s neighborhood and she was trying to say something to me.

“It’s the eyes,” Jahnee said, betraying a bit more English than she’d let on. “She says your eyes are beautiful.”

“I think they’re asking if we want to stay at their place,” John said. “But really I have no idea what’s going on.”

There was a taxi nearby that would charge us 16 reais ($6) to take us home. The girls said that was too much, we should just go back in the morning.

So we walked down the long, dark hill, past gated front doors and shadowy allies. Then Danubia took a couple small rocks in her hand and looked up at a building. “Keep going, Brook,” Jahnee said, slipping some more English in.

Danubia tossed the rocks up at the gated window, and as we continued down the hill, she told the woman who appeared in the window to let her son spend the rest of the night there.

At Danubia’s gate the first key came out, unlocking the first heavy-duty padlock. We walked along a half completed (or half destroyed) brick wall to her front door where the second key opened the biggest padlock I’ve ever seen. Not even the Dutch Girls’ bikes are this well protected (or in need of such protection). Up a short flight of steps we reached a tiled patio with a view of a neighboring favela.

“There’s something strangely beautiful about the favelas,” John said. “The way they slope up the hill, the different colors of the houses, the geometric shape of them.” He was right and we were plenty close to get a good look.

Danubia warned us about the state of her apartment the way everyone who ever takes anyone home warns them about their apartment. In Manila and Delhi and Salvador, the homes of the third world middle-class have a striking similarity. They’re structurally modest and made of somewhat inferior materials. They feature the adult furnishings you’d expect (carpets, family photos, dining tables) but with the flimsiness and discord of a dollhouse. The door to Danubia’s bedroom was made of one narrow board, the width of a CD case.

“You must think we’re crazy, bringing people home who we don’t know,” the girls said.

“You must think we’re crazy, going home with people we don’t know,” I countered.

“Four crazy people.” Jahnee decided.

Danubia cleaned the dirty dishes in her sink but wouldn’t let me help. She offered us some food but we were full and tired. The sisters seemed to want to delay the bed thing. Finally Danubia grabbed my hand and led me to her room. Soon John followed. And then, as the sisters squeezed into a five-year old’s bed in the next room, John and I dozed off together. In the end, from the bar to the bedroom, the sisters’ intentions were pure.


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