Brazil

     A friend told me, “You can’t swim in the same river twice.” I learned what that meant in Brazil.
     I had been to the city of Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia roughly a decade ago, where there seemed to be a party going every night in the old city and along the beaches, with great music, cheap beer and warm and beautiful people.
     The first night there this time around, I headed to an area called Rio Vermelho, known as the new entertainment district. Getting on towards midnight, I went into an almost all-black club. The local population is mixed but majority black, while the World Cup tourists were almost all white.
     As a band was setting up, I marveled at the number of drums being put in place — in all, five different sets of drums, along with a rhythm guitar and a set of keyboards. Seven band members took their places along the back row.
     Out front were another four, a tattooed man who played what might best be called an electric ukulele, accompanied by a singer, a bassist with an enormous guitar that was at least six feet long, and a charismatic young man with a huge smile tapping out a sharp rhythm on a tambourine over a mike.
     The area around the stage, on the second floor of the bar, with balconies looking over a plaza, was packed. And when the band, Paparicco, began playing, the whole place rocked, many dancing along with the band members who had a set of routines that often put their backsides to the audience.
     Seeing Paparicco play that night was as close as I got to the place I had seen in the past.
     After a long set, the club began to thin out and people stepped out into the warm night, where a car full of military police was stopped in the middle of the street, lights flashing.
     In the lottery for FIFA tickets, I had won tickets to two games in the Fonte Nova stadium: Germany-Portugal and France-Switzerland. They were both great games, with lots of excellent goals.
     But our hotel, one of the few where reasonable accommodations could be had, was a business hotel next to one of a pair of giant malls that had become the town squares of the city, with buses and taxis lined up outside, and crowds of ordinary Brazilians buying large amounts of goods inside. I counted 38 automatic tellers in one branch of the Banco do Brazil in the mall, almost all in use on a Friday.
     A huge food court took up part of a ground floor where almost every restaurant served buffet style and people piled as much as they could on a plate. On another floor, I bought French jersey at a Nike store that sold official jerseys for the rich sum of 349 Brazilian reais or 175 dollars each. Brazilian customers were lined up at the check-out counter.
     In the central part of the city, the traffic jams had become so extensive that in the evenings, we at times paid our taxi driver and got out to walk, since it was faster.
     The old city or Pelourinho area, that I remembered as the place where local residents went for music and drinks, was crowded with tourists, men from Brazil and Europe mostly, who often could be seen negotiating with local women for a night’s company.
     It was obvious from the amount of people buying stuff at the mall, the crowds in the bank, the number of people driving cars, the forest of high-rise buildings, that Brazil’s economy was on the move. It could be seen even in the general shape of the population, with people much less fit than I remembered.
     But somewhere along the way, the place lost its unique, laid-back atmosphere, and became a big, gritty city where the roads started filling up before light and stayed full well into the darkness at the end of the day.
     The old sweetness was still present in the people of Bahia. The cab drivers, for example, were almost all friendly, talkative and paid by the meter. The staff in the hotels were genuine and helpful. I can still see the warmth in the smile of the cafe-skinned girl who served me coffee at the McDonald’s in the food court, and remember the friendly nature of the short, over-weight, white manager at a tiny café across from the Nike store, where I watched one of the games.
     On the plane on the way back to California, I talked to a student from Villanova who had been living in Salvador with a host family.
     She said all the family members were madly working all week. They only had time together on Sundays. “And then they add onto the house, usually on top,” she said, “and they save to buy a car.”
     She had seen striving and consumption but no upward mobility, nor a middle class. She described a family mired in its economic position, with little hope of escaping, living a kind of rat-race life, trying to make enough to pay bills at the end of the month.
     And yet, she was determined to return to the region, after a summer stay back home. I asked her why, and she said, she wanted to live independently, rather than within the constrictions of a family.
     As for me, I was glad when the wheels of my plane separated from the tarmac in Salvador, having tried to swim in the same river again, and having inexorably, after the flow of time, failed.

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