Sunday, July 12, 2009

A few notes about San Salvador da Bahia

This name - San Salvador da Bahia - used to sound as a sweet dream. Every part of it was exotic, starting with the length of the name and its geographical location and ending with a colourful chain of characters from the books of Jorje Amado. He was the one who created this Bahia dream in a first place.

I was about 13-14, when I read “The Sand Dunes’ Captains”, a book about teenagers of my age – with a totally different life. I got addicted to the writer and his book characters in an instant. I was captivated by the sand beaches and palm trees (a heavenly dream for somebody who lived in Siberia with 8 months winter and 2 months of summer in a good year). I was fascinated with black faces of the Amado’s heroes; I was 16 when I saw a young African man in Moscow for the very first time and I instantly thought that he was the most beautiful man I have ever seen – no doubt, Amado played a role in it. I was imagining condoble rituals, music of the carnivals and the taste of acaraju. In my mind I walked the poor streets of a lower city, had my evening promenades along the city harbour, recognised the shops and restaurants and knew people by face.
But in my wildest dreams I would never imagined that I will actually see it for real…

There is a poem by Silva Kaputikyan “Don’t face your first love”- Не встречайтесь с первою любовью. It is a wise advice. Nothing can compete with our imagination and our first strong attachments. My dream was dead and buried as soon as we left the airport: there were no recognisable huts and cabins – instead there were high rises of the outer “sleeping” suburbs. They were modern, colourful and reasonably well maintained. People in those apartment blocks could not worship Yemanja: there is no room for the African goddess of sea and love in standard concrete and steel apartments. There was something I expected though: a lot of sun, unbearable heat, palm trees, purple shadows on the streets and exotic flowers. There were small shops with big bunches of fruit hanging on the walls and very cheap meals (unfortunately, bad meals). There were black faces. There was a beautiful coastal line. A compatibility with my dream ended there.

San Salvador broke my heart. Especially, the old city: the city of past, the city of history, the city of plantation owners’ glory, the city of African traditions and wild characters of the books by Amado. It seems it is all gone with a wind. The rare remnants of history are meant to attract tourists: a few restored churches here and there (some are splendid), an odd old building (such as Portuguese Library) managed to survive the city decline, a couple of cobble stone streets are cleaned and painted to allocate local merchandise for passing cruise ships and a big blue building houses Jorje Amado museum.

Step one street further - and face the horror of reality living in the “yesterday”. Black from rot and crumbled down without maintenance, the old city is pitiful, scary, sad and ugly.
It is ugly, despite the leftovers of the intricate plaster work on the 17 – 18 century facades, elaborate fencing and old parks here and there. It is pitiful because of the lonely facades of buildings which are no more. It is scary because of the drunks and persistent salesmen. It is sad because of the over helming poverty and lack of maintenance.

The city of Old Sailors and Dona Flor disintegrated… became history.

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