Global Doc: Brazilian holiday

Author: Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02

On a Saturday night in Salvador, Brazil, the music varies from a live reggae ensemble to a solitary jazz guitarist to a hip-hop artist lighting up the stage at a club. Melodies reverberate off of the stone buildings and cobblestone streets for blocks in each direction, and three different bass lines are audible on each street corner. The party blares until midnight, then quiets so that the neighborhood can rest before waking up early to songs of worship from the numerous churches.

By morning, the voices of church choirs fill the quiet morning air, washing away the sins of the night before. For over an hour, the choir chants and sings, worshiping in a Catholic church, but influenced by the Orixa, the gods of their African ancestors. Prayers are submitted via colored ribbons tied around the iron gates surrounding the church. Over time, tens of thousands of supplicants have nearly covered the gates, transforming them into colorful symbols of piety. After the service ends, the band pours forth onto the square, the bass drum thumping in the rear, pacing the slow march down the hill. Women in flowing flower-print dresses and white church hats follow, some walking only as fast as their cane can carry them over the uneven streets.

On Sunday night, instead of spending a quiet evening at home, the people of Salvador flood the streets. Again, music fills the cramped Pelourinho neighborhood, and we hop from one place to another to drink it all in. The Olodum, a music school aimed at racial equality and keeping children off of the street, hosts a drum circle and percussion performance in the main terrace, while the Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi), celebrate their 65th year and invite all to the basement of their building for a mesmerizing dance circle. No pause ruptures the beat of the drums and the slide of the maracas for at least two hours. Outside, on the street at the J & K Café, a two-man band sings Bob Marley and Brazilian folk songs. A curvy woman with a raspy voice jumps up from the audience to sing several rousing numbers. Deep inside another bar, hidden from the street, an eight-piece band plays samba as, over on the main plaza, a rock band blasts into the night. Finishing the last of the night’s caipirinhas, we stumble away from the music, over the uneven streets towards home.

Salvador was once the colonial capital of Brazil and the seat of the King of Portugal, the only European government to rule from a colony. The current government buildings hail from the 18th century, and — like the rest of the country — are heavily influenced from European and African foundations. The cobblestone streets mark the neighborhood known as Pelourinho, or the whipping post, the site of slave auctions until nearly the 20th century. Today, no cars are permitted onto the cobblestone streets of the colonial zone so citizens and tourists can walk freely.

While the architecture is largely inspired by Europe, the cuisine of the Bahia region reflects the proximity to the sea and the Caribbean influence. Moqueca, the generic term for a stew comprised of seafood, coconut milk and palm oil, spends hours softening shrimp, crab and fish, and infusing the meat with the sweet flavor of the broth.

It seems with the rise of tourism, safety and organization have become paramount. Police are located at seemingly every corner or plaza in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. Tourist information offices in the airports and city centers will even book hotel accommodations for foreigners in need of a hand. In Salvador, locals intervened several times when we appeared lost, offering directions and steering us away from unsafe neighborhoods. Buses and boats to island beaches run at regular intervals with readily available schedules, a system not replicated in most of Latin America. Even street vendors, like the ones selling precious stones from some of the most productive emerald mines in the world, have bright orange vests identifying them as licensed professionals in the eyes of the government.

There is an ugly underside that hints at social inequality: Adolescent males roam the streets, begging for money and sniffing glue to get high, often passing out on a street corner at first light; a sizable homeless population sleeps on benches and in cardboard boxes; slums, or favelas, are bursting and fail to provide access to reasonable housing and basic sanitation services.

In the last 10 years and in the run-up to the World Cup, the government has implemented significantly more rule of law in the upper-middle-income country. Bars and stores post the rules of the state conspicuously on the walls. Campaigns exhort citizens to stand against the exploitation of children and selling alcohol to adolescents. Legal reforms can serve as the bedrock of growth, but the question remains as to when the prosperity of the last decade will be more evenly distributed among the country’s 200 million people.

Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.