Just like those in the worlds of Islam and Christianity who make pilgrimages beyond borders every year to worship their gods and celebrate their religions, so do capoeiristas. I knew that people went to Brazil to train, of course, to be closer to their schools, groups and teachers, but I didn’t know that this Brazilian-African dance-fight was being so marketed to tourists, especially in the northern region of Bahia where capoeira first flourished during the period when slaves where brought over from Africa.
And while I was much more a turista than a capoeirista during my month in Brazil, I was very curious about this phenomenon and eager to explore and experience this for myself. With that in mind, my companion and I made our way north up the coast to the city of Salvador in a blur of night buses, beaches, dodgy cities and two very expensive and delayed flights.
We stayed in the Pelourinho, the majestic historical center of Salvador, a city of almost 3 million people and known as the City of Happiness and somewhat more nefariously, the City of Saints and Nearly All Sins. This beautifully preserved area, which is famous for being one of the settings in Micheal Jackson’s video ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ and for its pastel colored colonial buildings, sits high above the rest of the city and looks out over the vast expanse of green ocean and blue sky. Nestled amongst the churches, restaurants, souvenir shops and hostels, there were several capoeira academies with long, established histories and prominent lineages. Some seemed to market themselves towards curious tourists who might want to try out a class or two, like if I was in Paris and wanted to take a French cooking class, but I wasn’t actually a chef. Others, such as the estemmed Fundaco Mestre Bimba, catered to teachers and very experienced, hardcore students, the capoiera equivalent of Le Cordon Bleu.
For better or worse, the global capoeira world is a small one. And the Pelourinho is a microcosm of this. Within days, it is obvious who is there for the capoeira and before you know it, you keep bumping into them, conversations usually going along the lines of ‘did you go to (or are you going to) this class/academy/roda?’ Also in this cultish world, there are very few degrees of separation and so within minutes of playing the ‘Do You Know..? Game’, it is almost as if you are family.
Of course, this martial art attracts a range of people from all walks of life, from different life stages. I was impressed by the foreign women who were so dedicated to the art that they traveled to dodgy Salvador and other dangerous places in Brazil alone, with only one thing on their mind – to train as much as possible. There were the beautiful bleached-blonde femme-fatales from Russia and Poland, a British doctor who channeled the single-minded focus that got her through medical school into improving her capoeira. There were young Israeli guys, fresh out of the military looking for their next adrenalin rush, and of course, Brazilians of all ages, shapes, sizes, abilities and social classes who were either locals or had made the pilgrimage during their summer vacation.
And because this is Brazil, it was hard to get the correct, current information on when and where classes were. Things started late and sometimes not at all. Websites and phone numbers didn’t work and the only reliable way to find out where the action was was through word of mouth. But, for my first class, I happened to be in at the right place at the right time and was able to join a semi-private lesson with a beautiful young woman who was perhaps a Soviet gymnast in her former life. And this led to the teacher, a short, tanned, stocky, muscular man who didn’t speak a word of English, pushing me off into the corner to train by myself while he occasionally tore himself away from his cellphone, stepped over the turtle that was waddling around, to come over and yell at me. Because I didn’t have time to tape my feet like I usually do, and because the floor was made of concrete, and because the teacher made me do the same kick over and over again that requires one to turn around with weight on the soles of the feet, soon enough giant blisters developed. By the end of the hour and a half, the soles of my feet looked like I had been in a war – all burnt and bubbly with the thick protective layer of skin falling off. Long story short, the good doctor bandaged them up and I had trouble walking for the next couple of days.
Eventually, I was able to train again, but this time, with shoes, at an Angola academy. The teacher was a mestra, and while she also didn’t speak English, she was incredibly kind and patient and the approach buoyed my confidence. I don’t know that I’ve ever sweated so much in my life, but overall, it was a very positive experience. That night, I also went to the Friday night roda where all the mestres from the lineage came to play. It was inside one of those grand colonial buildings and the room was reminiscent of an old classroom, with desks placed at the far end of the rectangular room. Well, in fact, it was still used a classroom, I suppose. And so, the students piled in and formed a circle. The mestres sat with their instruments at the front of the circle, all in their whites. The students ranged in age from 5 to 50, and there were about thirty members of the public (friends, family, and tourists) who had come to watch. It is a slightly terrifying experience to be summoned by a master and to have to play with him or her. You can’t refuse and no matter your level, ability, or experience, one is always thrown into the deep end and feels like an absolute beginner all over again. But it is survivable, and on this night, I did feel a sense of accomplishment, that the student had learnt from the teacher and grown in some imperceptible yet significant way.
Of course, the best part for me is always to watch the games, to see the trickery and cunning that goes on, especially when the tone is playful rather than violent. Despite my damaged feet, I wasn’t disappointed.