February 9, 2007

Culture For Sale
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

It saddens me somewhat to watch what tourism does to a local population. I want to talk with locals so they can tell me what it was like in the city before cruise ships started docking at the port and souvenir shops lined the main plaza. I want to hear what it was like before the people sold out their culture to make a dollar.

Cause

What attracts a traveler to a destination?

What attracts a tourist to a destination?

I have my own ideas about the differences between tourists and travelers, but wonder if (what I consider to be) a traveler can be turned into a tourist from a desire to see a massively touristic event (such as Carnival in Brazil), or if there's another descriptor that should be used instead. In the moment, how deep is the difference between acting like a tourist and being one?

A lot of my distinction between the two deals with state of mind and preparedness. I don't think merely attending a touristic event is enough to close an open mind, or the remove the toilet paper carried in a backpack.

Identity

I'm sure colonial Salvador didn't always look dumpy. All the historical center and the nearby burros of Salvador really need is a good power-wash and fresh coat of paint to revive a beautiful (colonial) city—but then I look at the neighborhoods and wonder if the now faded and rotting facades of century old buildings are forever bound as part of the identity of the city.

Like most large cities, I'll only see a tiny part of Salvador. Before I arrived here and started researching the city, I had no idea how massive the greater Salvador metro area was—with 3.4 million people it's the third largest city in Brazil, containing the highest proportion of people of African descent in the country (85%), and the largest black population in the Western Hemisphere after New York City.

Restored

Founded in the mid-1500s, the population growth of Salvador impresses me. By 1583, there were 1,600 people residing in the city, and it quickly grew into one of the largest cities in the New World, surpassing any colonial American city at the time of the American Revolution in 1776. By 1948 the city had some 340,000 people, and was already Brazil's fourth largest city. By 1991 the population was 2.08 million.

What I imagined would be another small city (of perhaps half a million at most), is apparently the former capital of country, and the second largest tourist destination, after Rio de Janeiro.

The crime rate (as indicated by the murder rate) is also interesting:

Central and Downtown Salvador are one of the safest city areas in the major cities of Brazil (and also one of the safest in Latin America), with a rate of only 12 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (almost four times less than in the city of São Paulo, for example). However the Salvador Metro region's murder rate is more than 40 per 100,000, which is one of the highest in Brazil.

Identity—Redux

Wait a moment—let me back up a bit about Salvador's identity. Every day I'm getting a better idea of what this city's all about (and what it's known for)…

  • Carnival—said to be more authentic and less touristy than the organized street parades of Rio;
  • Churches—rumored to have so many you could visit a different church for each day of the year; for this the city has earned it the nickname "Black Rome;"
  • Fitas—ribbons symbolizing a trio of wishes (more on this later);
  • Candomblé—Afro-Brazilian cult/religion;
  • Capoeira—contact-less dance fighting from slavery days;
  • African roots—culinary, religious, musical, dance, and martial art traditions; and
  • Colonial—a historic center that has been designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco (although the rest of the city is high-rise apartment buildings and colorless, two-story concrete boxes)

This Afro-Brazilian city has got some bite to it—not afraid to be gritty yet friendly at the same time. I'm enjoying the authentic flavor the city gives off when you get out of the tourist zone (something that I always seem to end up doing, even when I probably shouldn't). Small, jolly, older women who cook food up for me (usually bought on the streets) always melt my heart, and love to chat with them like I would a grandmother.

I like being in a place with such strong African roots, without the Bob Marley BS that usually piggybacks on the tourism that intersects with predominantly black communities. It's here in Salvador for sure, but to a much smaller degree than expected.

Little drummer boys

The sound of drums constantly fill the air in this city (during this time of year). I enjoy the initial wave of sound, but can honestly only take about 10 minutes of it before my eyes glaze over with boredom. Memories of sitting through 20-minutes of the movie Drumline come to mind, before I changed the channel (for more reasons than just the repetitive drumming scenes).

I still dislike seeing a city or country's culture sold off to the tourists—dancing (Capoeira) for dollars. I did a decent job of avoiding or escaping from it often enough in Central America, but have fallen far short of the mark on this continent.

Calm Before The Storm

My time here thus far has been relaxing—easily engaging in just enough casual activity to keep me entertained. Spending three hours at the beach or walking around town is enough to satisfy me completely for a day, freeing me up to do whatever it is that I do with the rest of my time (from washing clothes to chatting to reading or writing).

I spent just about the entire day reading in a hammock today. I have a hard time putting down a book when I start it, so polishing off an entire novel in a day is pretty common for me. I had been carrying around The Kite Runner since Argentina, waiting for the right opportunity to spend a day reading, and was pleased with the decision.

The Kite Runner was an addictive read about the life of a kid from Afghanistan, that (in the ladder chapters) talked about the Taliban regime in the country and some of the atrocities and absurdities (like soccer players forced to wear pants) brought with their control. It was a good story that definitely rekindled in me a hatred for the Talib—may they all live the rest of their days underground in caves.

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