Capoeira Turismo

salvadorJust 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.

bimbaacademyWe 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.

poorfeetAnd 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.




Quem é você, Brasil?

IMG_2598If Google Translate hasn’t lied to me, then the heading should translate as, Who are you, Brazil? This is the question I have been pondering during my travels and since my return a week ago. This incredibly complex country seems so elusive, so unknowable, so contradictory.

In traveling from Rio all the way to the north of the country, it becomes evident that one is, in fact, traveling in a schizo place where nothing makes sense. And maybe that is part its appeal, like the allure of danger that hides behind every crumbling, unlit street corner at dusk.

The lush patches of jungle that cohabit with sprawling, pastel-colored colonial mansions in the wealthy areas contrasted with decaying, rusting wire fences and piles of trash just down the road in the slums seems not to make sense. Even the stunning palm tree-lined, white sand beaches with fresh, aquamarine water that should cover every page of Travel + Leisure magazine are fraught as some are for rich white people, while others are for the poor black people. So, this breathtaking natural beauty is somehow scarred by the impossibly complicated and unbelievably unjust class and race politics that ensures the elite Brazillionaires thrive in luxury while the rest of the country struggles for everyday survival. Except that on any given weekend, the rich white people are hiding out in the air conditioned malls while the darker-skinned folk have fun at the local beach. Beauty, celebration, worship are as central to Brazilian life as rice and beans. Some may go hungry but a choice has been made to enjoy life whenever and however one can.

And so. In a country of hundreds of millions of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, united only by a common language and possibly a religion, how to make sense of and describe such diversity? How to reconcile the fact that your friends are robbed at knife-point by children high on crack, that they’ve had guns put to their backs while walking down a busy street in broad daylight, that you yourself have been the victim of a very financially disabling fraud with the incredible kindness and generosity of others? The man in the ‘Shopping’ (mall) who fixes your friend’s glasses for free, the kind hotel and restaurant staff who go out of their way to help you, the relaxed and generous nature of locals you meet along the way, the sweet Brazilians who still kiss you on the cheek even though you are sick, who bring you food and drink and ask you how you are and want to talk about you and your family despite knowing you can’t understand a word they are saying.

So, Brazil, as you stand in front of me, as I hold you at arm’s length and consider forgiving you for the financial harm, for freaking me out with the way you treated me and my friends, I will also think about your complexities and strengths and decide that I have only scratched your surface and, if I ever have the opportunity again, I would like to get to know you more, to get under your skin, the way a psychiatrist gets to know a very challenging patient.

Light and Dark

1463926_10151801442536853_955077282_nThe past few weeks have been a blur of sunshine, palm trees, green waves and blue sky. However, as I have moved up the coast, I have encountered Brazil’s darkness too. Like most humans, I love to go to the beach, to feel wet sand under my feet and to wade around in clean, salty water, the waves lapping around me. Naturally, I wanted to experience the famous Brazilian beach culture – sipping fresh coconut juice in a skimpy bikini under a palm tree while watching children in only shorts play soccer on the sand. I can’t keep count of how many beaches I have visited. And indeed, these cliches are true – the beaches are incredibly beautiful, as are the people, with their taut bodies and coffee-colored skin.

Of course, Brazil is also known for much darker things, and it is the contrast and coexistence of the light and the dark that is so striking. Stories of being robbed at knife-point abound and indeed, these incidences have happened to most of the travelers I have encountered. The divide between the rich and poor is staggering – of course, everyone knows this about Brazil, but it’s not until you see it with your own eyes that you can feel just how fucked up and unjust this society is. Days ago, I was staying near the beach in a nice suburb of Recife in the north of the country, walking along the (shark infested) shoreline and seeing sleek new apartment buildings stacked along the boulevard contrasted with the sad state of affairs a mere twenty minute bus ride away. In the center of the city, the once grand colonial buildings are crumbling, their bright blues, pinks and yellows fading. People addicted to crack walk around expressionless like zombies. Street vendors hustle as the street dogs scavenge amongst the desolation. Exploring a Brazilian city can feel as if you are moving between two countries.

But I hear that there are much worse places in other parts of the country. Places that would be too dangerous to enter. Places too sad to even think about as people die of hunger, drug addiction, violence. It’s not news, and indeed, these tragedies happen all over the world, but  here, in the midst of a deeply schizophrenic culture that is so strikingly divided along class and race lines, the reality is hard to face.

And in the midst of all this beauty, danger, sadness and celebration I have a kind of meltdown involving tears and snot. Some deep-seated emotional issues were triggered and  I was overcome with feelings of vulnerability. And then, looking around and seeing so many terrible sights – children on crack, people missing limbs and rows of teeth, prostitutes and maybe the saddest sight of all – the workers toiling and hustling all day and all night just so they can get by, living day-to-day as the concept of ‘getting ahead’ doesn’t exist – I catch myself.

There’s a kind of culture shock coinciding with my own internal upheaval. Brazil is the setting and I am but one minuscule character in this ongoing drama. But there’s no need to lose perspective and indeed, I have to feel grateful for all that I have. Tomorrow is another day: the sun will rise, and regardless of the state of my physical or emotional wellbeing, it will also set. The drums will keep beating.