A guest post by Edivaldo Soares
I’ve come to Rio de Janeiro for a wedding. The groom is my wife’s cousin, but he isn’t a particularly close cousin, and family loyalty accounts only for part of why I’m here. There must be another reason, and the reason is what it always is these days when I get into a plane: I travel to complicate my idea of what it means to be in this world.
On the drive into Rio de Janeiro from the airport earlier, I had noticed the bridges and highways. For them to have been built, there must have been some kind of more or less efficient interaction between the economy and the national and metropolitan political structure. The same, or a similarly, more or less efficient interaction is necessary to keep the roads and bridges in good repair. Below the bridges, which are made of concrete, there is evidence of dredging. Beyond them, rock has been blasted to create tunnels through the mountains. In some neighborhoods, unpromising land was salvaged for construction, some of it shoddy; as in most cities, what is rich and what is poor can be seen in the landscape. That journey in is in early morning light, and the favelas hang on the sides of the mountains. But apparent, also, is the fact that this is a rich country.
Long ago all we knew of other places were adventurers’ reports and the material testimony of far-fetched goods. The other place was always wondrous wonder or wondrous disorder, and Herodotus selected anecdotes only for their strangeness. The distant shore is a place for our dreams to rest, and foreign countries exist not for their own sake but for ours. “Long ago all we knew,” and it remains so even now: India, Italy, Morocco, Brazil: each is summarized to answer in a different way the pre-set question of travel. At night the mountains of Rio look like hills. Seen from the bridge bringing us back into the city, a dense network of lights on each describes a dark shape. Each hill is like a chocolate cake covered in confectioners’ sugar. This is the land of football, carnival, and samba, a joyous place, given to simple pleasures, unserious in all the best ways. Everybody fucks everybody, the races mix without anxiety, and the country is blended into shades of caramel, a preview in microcosm of what the world will look like someday. That is the story; but these are not the things I think about when I first enter the city. My thoughts are on first principles, that a city is a built thing, a made thing. To start with the land is “discovered,” won in a battle or in battles, and is tamed and ordered through the efforts of centuries so that its ports and its hinterlands are able to feed, serve, and entertain a large population. A city that manages to do those things well, grows until it becomes a megalopolis.
As cities go, Rio de Janeiro is not unusual. The first thing I note, as I begin to mentally review the infrastructure, as I begin my haphazard inquiry, is how similar the built environment is to that of every other great city I know: the overpasses and underpasses, the street vendors, the massive buildings in various states of newness or disrepair, the patient commuters crowding the bus-stops, the evidence of things built by politicians, things built by consensus and on the back of a complex capitalist economy. Only later do I begin to note the dissimilarities: this is another city, an unusual city, and it is another country. It is, above all, in another continent and hemisphere, and there is a deep strangeness to a place in which the land and its water are related to each other by an almost familiar logic, where the geological processes as well as the evolution of animals and plants have led to different results. At night, I see Venus in an unexpected part of the night sky. When I run water down the sink, I look for the Coriolis effect. Within a few days, I have seen bays, inlets, birds, insects, leaves, and fruits unlike any I knew before, with variations in color, smell, cries, size, and scale. Only the humans are basically the same, the behavior of the humans, their self-defence, their sentimentality, their needless cruelties. Only the humans need no special interpretation—or so I think—the humans and their dogs.
I see only one black person on my flight to Rio, the dry-skinned and skeptical man who peers at me from the mirror in the airplane toilet. Everyone else on the flight is white, or just one or two Mediterranean shades south of white. But on disembarkation, I see two other black men, one about the color of the current American president, the other darker than me, older, and wearing a “Jazz New Orleans” t-shirt. The darker man stands with me and a handful of others in the passport line for non-citizens. The Brazilian line is considerably longer and looks like the Brazil I saw in Astoria. But several of the baggage handlers and groundstaff—I begin to look around now, and get into a mood, and begin to count—are black, some of them mulatto, some slave-dark. There is an aggravated division, though I don’t want to come to such conclusions so early in the journey. This is not the story the world tells itself about Brazil, or that Brazil advertises to the world about itself.
There are many more blacks on the streets. At a crossing, young black boys swarm the cars, selling cell-phone chargers and newspapers. They look like Nigerians, like the boys who descend on cars at intersections in Lagos. But places are not transparent, and understanding why things in a place are as they are does not come easily. I know that my understanding of divisions between the races is formed by American history and by my own experience in that country and can only take me so far in here. Would I come closer to the truth if I read a study on Brazilian race-relations? I would come closer to a truth, I am sure; but there’s a truth also in the immediacy of my own experience.
Later, I visit two beaches, whites-only beaches (or so the casual visitor would think) about two hours from Rio. One is for a richer clientele, the other less so, but almost all the blacks I see at both are vendors or workers. At the richer one, in Buzos, I enter a restaurant for lunch. The maitre d’ ignores my greeting, pretending not to see me. After a few awkward moments, I seat myself. Then I notice him whispering instructions to a black waiter, and it is this waiter alone who serves me and speaks to me while I am there. It is tempting to think the incident explains itself, but what what one sees while traveling is rarely self-explanatory. Each place has its own worries and there’s a sense in which what is visible is the wake of a particular history, fleeting, active, but answering to a large and unseen thing. Each society deceives itself in particular ways. The forms of oppression that were practiced here for so long lead to specific pathologies in the society. In Rio there appears to be more socializing across the races than in the US. But there also seems to be an elaborate and finely-tuned colorism at work: among people who would all be considered black in the US, there is a hierarchy of color. The northern European whites and the Mediterranean whites are more likely to socialize with fair-skinned blacks, and it isn’t unusual to see groups of blacks in which everyone in the group is within a narrow range of color: very dark, brownish, yellow, and so on. It isn’t the one-drop rule. The number of drops matters.
The guidebooks are full of warnings about the blacks, though of course the warnings are not expressed so baldly. One must not visit favelas alone, one must be careful in certain districts, and be alert on the metro, and avoid walking at night. It appears to be sensible advice, but there is a hysterical tone in the warnings. The warnings are intended for white tourists. I am a young black man, and my mode of dress and bodily attitude make me blend in easily with locals. I feel more welcome on the streets than in fine restaurants, marked out by my inability to speak Portuguese than by anything else. I hear the warnings from others too, and they are the sorts of things that New Yorkers would say to visitors to their own city: the talk of “bad” neighborhoods, the kinds of people—whole classes of people—that one should avoid, the experiences the visitor couldn’t possibly be interested in except from the safety of a tour bus going around the human zoo. But whether to Harlem on a Sunday morning or to the favelas in an organized tour, “bad neighborhood” is a code term for other things, a rhetorical move that separates some imagined “us,” rich enough to travel, white enough to see ourselves reflected in television melodramas and in advertising, from “them,” whose presence at our travel destination is an inconvenience.
Rio is by some distance the most geographically spectacular city I have ever visited. Riding the cable car up to the Pão d’Açúcar adds something genuinely new to my experience of the world. The sea and its numerous inlets at the moment the sun is setting behind Corcovado, the streets and houses hundreds of meters below with their evening lights just coming on, and those lights seen all together nestled in the undulating land like so many fresh rivulets of lava, the massive monoliths scattered in the bay, and all of this viewed from the great height we crested in a nineteenth-century contraption: it was an awesome rush of sensation, an unanticipated seduction of the eye, fairy-tale stuff. The gneiss monoliths were extruded in ancient times when the continent that is now South America sheared itself away from Gondwanaland. How beautiful it all looks at dusk from the mountain named for the shape of the tins at sugar refineries. The shape of the coast created calm bays, calm bays are ideal ports, ports build great cities, and Rio de Janeiro became the entry and exit into one of the world’s great expanses of wealth: sugar, mines for precious and semi-precious stones, and slaves.
In the Lapa district of the city, I meet a man who is selling “African” things at a street fair. He is Sengalese, short and with delicate features. I ask him how much some woven Islamic caps cost and see, in his bright eyes, a flicker of recognition: he responds in English, and immediately becomes curious about me, where I’m from, what my name is. His name is El-Hadj, and he tells me he has been in Rio for twelve years. He speaks English well, with a considered tone. “It’s a very difficult country,” he says, unprompted. “They are very hard on blacks here. Things are difficult if you are black.” For Brazilian blacks, or for Africans? “Both. But harder if you are Brazilian. I am an African. I know my rights”—I am struck by this usage of rights, which sounds rather American to me—“but these Brazilians, it is so sad, you know. After five-hundred years…” He taps his head.
El Hadj imports the goods from Dakar—trinkets, figurines, printed cloth, and hand-woven material—for sale in Rio, but his real work, he says, is that he is a journalist He is just trying to earn some money on the side to do his master’s degree in Brazil. He has a calm and calming presence, with none of the tense energy or obvious fatigue of some of the brothers who do this street trade. He still writes, for French language outlets, some of which are published in Senegal.
“The slavery is not over, you see. The blacks here try to be close to Africa. I think they are closer to Africa than those in America. In some ways, they are more connected to African culture. Because that is our problem as blacks, you see, we have surrendered our culture, the good things in our culture. Not all of it is good, but we should not give up the good things. This is our biggest problem. But Brazilian blacks…” Again, he taps his head. “And the whites in this country, forget it, they will give the blacks no chance.”
“What about you? Do you move around freely?”
“Yes, sometimes, when I enter a nice mall, they really look at me strangely, you know. What is this guy doing here?” I tell him I have experienced the same. He said, “But it is a good country, a very good country. The food, the culture. I like Brazil, even though it is difficult. The women are beautiful.”
He has to attend to one customer, then others come to join her, black Brazilians, dressed in white. Their affect is like that of the Afrocentric blacks in Brooklyn. The women begin to admire bales of El Hadj’s wax-print cloth, and I leave him.
The place at which we arrive after crossing the world is a surprising version of home. It is home not in the far-fetched and marvelous view from the mountain, but in the street-level, the bankers, the maids, the internet service, the electrical grid, the supermarkets, the unctuous waiters, the video games, the question marks over the cab drivers, the schools and churches, the clean bathrooms, the dirty politics, the traffic jams, the little pockets of “authentic culture,” the noise from kindergartens at midday, the translated American bestsellers, Celine Dion on the radio, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on the television, the bored police officers with their brooding firearms, the indifferent water pressure from the showers, the sports pennants hanging from windows, the adults dressed like toddlers on game-day, the beer, the wine, the graffiti, the transvestites, the auto-repair shops, the gas-stations, the cowboys, the cowhands, the hospitals, and the cemeteries.
What has us setting off to distant destinations in the first place? Perhaps “us” is wrong and travel writing, and travel thought, ought to begin in the singular, in some acknowledgement of the “I” that speaks. I am Yoruba, and in this country, of all the places outside Nigeria, the Yoruba heritage is visible. The orixas of the northeast of Brazil, are the orishas of the southwest of Nigeria. Xango is Shango, Exu is Esu, Yemanja is Yemoja, Ogu is Ogun, and Obatala is unchanged. The gods are all here, the language itself survives in ritual, and Yoruba drumming has found its way into the samba and, greatly decelerated, into bossa nova. Farofa is garri, the sweet and sour flour of the cassava plant, a staple food of Yorubas on both sides of the Atlantic. In the lifetime of my great-grandparents, slaves were still arriving in Brazil from Yorubaland. In the same generation and later, there were those who returned after slavery in Brazil. Names like Pereira, da Silva, and da Costa survive, and those families became important, particularly in Lagos. The architectural innovations the Afro-Brazilians brought back to Lagos, Abeokuta and surrounding towns, the stucco facades, the two-story buildings, mark those places to this day. But none of this means an easy delight for me, a Yoruba man visiting Brazil. It suggests only that this country is the site of some trauma to which I am related, a trauma the memory of which catches me at sudden moments.
I’m writing these words Tijuca, a working-class neighborhood of Rio, on a rainy afternoon, and there’s a white cloud sitting on a green mountain in the distance. The cloud is so densely white that it appears to be just as substantial as the forested mountain itself. I am reading Machado de Assis’ masterpiece “Epitaph of a Small Winner,” which is itself set in Tijuca, a wry book, a funny and humane examination of cynicism in Rio’s upper classes, written by a black man when slavery was still legal here. I remember—this an overstatement, but it feels right—I remember the things suffered here by Africans. It is strange to think I would have understood the pleas at the whipping post, that it would have been in my own language, the language of my people—my people sold off into slavery by my people. A blood knot ties each of us to ancient acts of violence. I am unhappy and at home.
But in writing all this, what I exclude is a proper sense of the pleasure of travel, and the intense pleasure of traveling to this particular place. I hate cheery travel writing, but I feel I have overcorrected in the other direction.
Edivaldo Soares is a heteronym for Teju Cole. All photographs copyright 2010 by Teju Cole; these and others may be viewed at his Flickr portfolio.