Travel Journal: Salvador, Brazil

Observations from a Breakdown
Tumbling down the Brazilian highway seems more foreign than being on the moon. Even the pedestrian overpasses seem to resemble the lunar landscapes of science fiction and Hollywood cinema. The domed walkways painted fluorescent green and yellow decorate the highway in Martin dÃ?©cor and the color combination is painfully bright next to the drab browns and grays of the favelas. The settlement of Rocinha is the largest and most renowned favela, with a population of around 150,000. Rocinha is so famous, in fact, that bus tours are offered on days when the resident drug lord isn’t in a bad mood or warring against rivals. Rocinha and the rest of the shantytowns are tiny feudal societies financed by drug sales and protected by violence. Garbage lines the mud-packed streets. Kids in dirty flip-flops play beside open sewers, the stench rising as the day’s heat builds. It is said that just off the main road, boys with guns lurk in the shadows, ready to question intruders and enforce the lord’s rule. Ten minutes outside of Salvador, the slums dominate the banks of the highway, and yet the landscape is somehow still lost to giant billboards for baby food and soaring high-rise apartments. Escalating crime has encouraged the wealthiest Brazilians to flee to these expensive apartment complexes, surrounding themselves with electronically controlled fences and 24-hour guarded patrols. The once gracious entries to the city’s skyscraper apartment buildings are now surrounded with elaborate gates and metal gratings to keep vagrants from camping on the steps.

Despite the poverty, sprawling car dealerships also begin to dot the landscape. Honda and Fiat seem to have a strangle hold on the local market, and no Suburbans or Jeeps can be seen anywhere. The monstrous sport utility vehicles that crowd the highways and parking lots in the United States appear to be completely absent in Brazil. Even the occasional mini-van is unusually out of place, in danger of being overrun by the swarm of super compacts that buzz through the soggy morning traffic.

With attention back on the road, the sights become more tropical and the smells more industrial. The trees begin to crowd everything. The stench is a musty combination of what smells like human waste, sulfur, and truck exhaust. It’s a smell that completely fills the nostrils and can only be described as shit. Fortunately, the odor passes in waves like the sleepiness, both of which are gone for the moment. Factories and fast food restaurants begin to slip by in the heat and the poor neighborhoods continue to spill out around the far edges of the city, marching sloppily, endlessly, toward the horizon.

The morning’s hike to the RodovÃ?­aria, the main bus terminal, has delayed departure, but the comfortable leito bus now seemed better than the beat up coletivos that criss-cross the city. Despite the meager luxuries of padded seats and tiny water bottles, the bus still looks tired and disorganized. Students and backpacks haphazardly litter most of the seats and floor as though they have been washed up by the tide. Most of the passengers are marooned on reclining seats in rows of two, but several kids have chosen to go it alone and mute the world with oversized headphones. A kid up front drops his CD player, picks it up, shakes it. It is so beat to hell it has duct tape holding the batteries in. Another guy looks out the window neglecting the dog-eared Chuck Palahniuk book in his lap. Chatter is virtually extinct, even for those sitting with friends, except for two girls giggling in the last row who do not seem to realize it is five o’clock in the morning. Sleep is finally coming, and most of the bus is fading as fast as the scenery.

Trees pass, and suddenly the bus shutters and begins to slow. Somewhere along the way, the highway has discreetly scaled down to a two-lane road, and the massive landmarks of the city are completely lost. It has been hours since anyone has seen a roadside market, and yet murmurs of a pit stop trickle up from the back of the bus. The talking girls start chattering again, entertaining crackpot delusions of Starbucks’ mochas and blueberry muffins. Even before the bus can stop, the constant groan of the diesel engine has missed a beat and somewhere the transmission sounds like it’s chewing on itself. Slowly, heavy eyelids blink awake and even the gossipers seem to realize that the unscheduled stop is not a coffee break.
For a moment, everyone waits in silence and stares at the driver’s growing bald spot. The miniature Brazilian man who has been driving finally whirls around wide-eyed. He shrugs his shoulders, takes another look around the bus and spins back around to fish for his radio. Unconscious impressions of the little bus driver follow, as students shoot blank looks at each other. A guy up front, who might have been from Texas, breaks the silence, “Well, this is bullshit manâÂ?¦are we broke down here for Christsakes?” A girl in a couple rows behind him takes it one step further. “If that’s the case, then I’m getting off this goddamned bus right now,” she blurts out already halfway up the aisle. For a moment, it appears that the tiny bus captain is going to put a stop to this, but he just shrugs his shoulders again and opens the door while jumbled Portuguese squawks from the radio.

Minutes later, the once well-organized busload spills out into the road and disintegrates into a shuffling mob. No one knows what to do, so people kick stones or pace in front of the bus doorway with their eyes in the dirt. Climbing off the tour bus, the road seems impossibly quiet. For two days, the noise of the city had assaulted ears of even the soundest sleepers and the new silence is unexpected. Somewhere during the ride, the urban spectacle had given way to greenery that people north of the equator only see on cable. Here on the side of the road, the palms are less numerous, but each tree is so green that the color seems to pulse in every direction, taking space away from the sky.

People continue to walk, trying to stay interested. No one knows exactly where this place is, but a few people are trying to ask the bus driver in broken Portuguese. Others are wasting time with observations about the heat. The could-be-Texan says, “Well it sure is hotter here than in the city,” as if he was talking to someone he just met on an elevator. It is hotter, but today it’s a dry, smooth heat that breathes easily and makes the road shimmer from a distance. However, up close the highway doesn’t sparkle and appears to be falling apart at the seams. The pavement is bowed and cracked in the middle, and it gives the road the impression of lane lines where none have ever been. The old road sags and the shoulder looks like it has been disintegrating slowly, blowing away in the wind.

The entire landscape looks deserted, but fifty yards away a group of houses begin to appear between the trees and the road. Some of the shacks so closely match the color of dirt that they look invisible. Some look like more Northeast Brazil-style wattle-and-daub huts, while a couple others are ramshackle structures made out of brick, wood, cardboard and plastic. The eclectic building materials and sagging roofs make the group of houses look like a neighborhood of tool sheds. For a moment, the modest Brazilian village remains perfectly still and elusive, like a desert mirage that disappears with a blink.

Unexpectedly, a little girl ducks out of the nearest house to see where the noise outside is coming from. She can’t be more than two or three, naked and staring at the foreigners and their broken down bus. Only a few of the bus travelers notice the little one’s emergence, but the few that do watch intently, waiting for her next move. Before there she can make one, the girl’s mother steps out of the cutout doorway. The woman is lean and strong, with a slightly hollow face, but one that has a kind of irregular beauty to it. She moves with an unmistakable grace to scoop up the child, and her green dress struggles to keep up with her. She grabs up the baby and turns sideways to get a look at the scene of bus wreckage. The little girl spins around again in a fuss at being caught. Her mother holds her up with one arm and maneuvers the other around to brush dirt off her daughter’s arm. Several flies fight over the space closest to the child’s ear, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her mother pushes them away, but the child’s gaze stays fixed. The flies never really leave, and their erratic buzzing is as unnerving as a man who can’t decide whether he should sit or stand for some important news. The mother brushes them away again and calls to someone still inside the impossibly small house. A little boy stumbles out of the house with a yawn and his mother pats his head and points at the bus. He looks out and starts jumping and waving excitedly. The boy’s shorts are stained brown and black from playing in the fields and his blue tee shirt is stretched and worn and hangs loosely from his shoulders. The mother can’t deny his enthusiasm and tries to stifle a laugh as she coaxes him to settle down. She gently puts the baby down again and instructs the boy to play with her. He indulges child by sticking out his tongue and making nonsense baby talk noises that sound the same in every language. The child giggles and slowly stands up to waddle after her older brother. The boy laughs too, and waves to the bus again as he escapes his tiny pursuer. Some of the bus travelers that have been watching the scene wave back, and even those who are standing dumbly with their hands in their pockets flash a smile or a nod of recognition. A flicker of happiness spreads quickly among those nearby and now several more people are gathering. On the other side of the road, the bus driver is competing for attention. From his excitement it seems that another bus is in route and will be arriving shortly. It is an awkward celebration as the driver pats people on the back and shakes hands with everyone around him.

The girl who had been in such a hurry to get off the bus wanders up while munching noisily on a chocolate chip granola bar. She gestures at the Brazilian family with her granola bar hand and with her mouth full says, “Why are they so happy anyways? Look at them. They don’t even have shoes. And that little boy, he’s absolutely filthy.” She’s standing next to a guy that was laughing and waving at the kids a moment ago, but it seems that either her granola bar or her comment has suddenly made him queasy. “God damn, you just don’t get it, do you?” he says to her without looking at her. “What?” she replies, but he is already walking back to the bus and her question is never answered. Unconcerned, the girl resumes gnawing on her granola bar while looking at the playing children. She still doesn’t see that despite the crooked doorways, broken streets and worn out clothes, these people have a love for life that is inspiring and shines through clearly. They smile and yet their house has no floor and their feet have no shoes. The scene is heartbreaking, but not because of the poverty or the children or even their too-young mother. It’s this university bitch in Paper, Denim & Cloth jeans, Gucci sunglasses and platform sandals turning up her nose at people without realizing that they are happier than she may ever be. She takes a last look around, still missing it completely, and turns to head back to the bus. Without warning, the new bus creeps into view and the sun-baked students quickly abandon whatever they were doing. Even those that were so enthralled with the Brazilian children moments earlier are now moving back toward the rest of the crowd. Within minutes, everyone is shambling onto the new bus and jockeying for seats. Everyone is seated and for a second the world rocks back as another driver releases the clutch and shifts the new bus into gear. The old driver stands watch, looking around the bus with glazed eyes, not really seeing anyone, but counting them. He mumbles, “Okay, okay, okay” to himself and forced a smile or thumbs up sign to anyone he mistakenly makes eye contact with.

On the bus, people are already settling back into their headphones and magazines about football and fashion. Everyone looks content except for a girl two seats over who is looking out the window and crying. The bus has turned the corner and there is no way she can still see those little kids, but she is waving away. On the seat next to her is that same Chuck Palahniuk book with the slightly tattered pages laying open on its spine. The owner is walking up to grab a cold soda out of the cooler, but a highlighted section stares up blankly.

“When you’re an addict, you can go without feeling anything except drunk or stoned or hungry. Still, when you compare this to other feelings, to sadness, anger, fear, worry, despair, and depression, well an addiction no longer looks so bad. It looks like a very viable option.”

The new bus rolls on, past the dirt and the trees, chasing the sun into the west.

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