Friday, July 17, 2009

Burgers are popular in Buenos-Aires

Argentina is known all over the world as a beef country. (Ok, Australians may contest the statement - but the reputation still belongs to Argentina). Meat (with a lot of fat) is everywhere.
Love for meat is developed in people sinse early childhood - I belive in it. I always thought that a family plays the most sigificant role in forming a person's taste.
In Argentina industry took propaganda in their hands.

This is a pack of jelly lollies in a form of a hamburger. It is just a matter putting salad leves, cheese, and other components of the burger in the right sequence.

Funny, in Puerto Rico we saw jelly hot dogs...

What do you think about it?

A few observations about the nature of racism... Comparison of Brazil and the USA

Education from books is irreplaceable. We cannot experience everything or to learn everything from the first hands. We heavily rely on written information and we hope that people who wrote it were responsible. Most likely, they are. But everything in this world is not about the facts, but mostly about our perception and interpretation. Sometimes life experiences present the role of perception in a new light and compromise education we’ve got already.

San Salvador da Bahia made some interesting corrections to my perception of Protestant and Catholic churches. Living in a country with a strong Protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, The Seventh Adventist) presence I had an impression that a Catholic church was a conservative and non-flexible form of Christianity which had to give way to more progressive Christian schools which relied on self-control and human values more than Catholics, and Christians realised the faults of Catholicism half a millennium ago. I had an impression that Catholics are brain washed people without a choice and a right for common sense. Some of the statements by the popes (about abortions, for example) make them sound senseless and narrow minded if not to say stupid. New Christian teachings do not have to be “true” (the number of them indicate that there cannot be so many truths) but they seemed to be more “people oriented”, more individualised, with a person being a centre point. This point of view undertook a drastic revision in Bahia.

I was pleasantly surprised with the absence of racism or any indicators of ethnic problems. It seems in Anglo-Saxon countries it is a common “issue”. Americans are deeply involved in sorting out who is guilty in doing what and who has which responsibility in resolving ethnic “issues”. Australians cannot stop arguing about Aboriginal “issues”. Ethnic “issues” in India are even beyond comprehension. New Zealanders had “issues” with Maoris. When it was mostly resolved we started talking about them (New Zealanders) as some kind of social miracle workers. Is not it a normal thing for people to live in peace with each other? Apparently not… Brazil is a pleasant exemption.

While in Brazil I kept asking about this phenomenon. Every Brazilian person I talked to about this matter agreed that there are social problems in the country, but there is no racism. The explanations which were given made me re-think some parts of history. Shortly, the theory is that Catholic religion is responsible for peace between ethnic groups and optimism of Brazilian people.

Latin America was under control by Catholic Church of Spanish and Portuguese empires, while Northern America was predominantly under the control of Protestants. Both Americas were slave societies with majority of foreign black population, some local Indian population and a very small population of white masters. But non-white population was treated differently in Roman and Anglo-Saxon parts of Americas and it made all the difference. According to the Brazilians, Catholic masters requested work to be done during the day time, but did not impose many limitations on slaves after work hours. Slaves could speak their native languages, sing songs of their motherland, and perform traditional rituals, if they did not contradict Spanish and Portuguese law.
In Northern America Protestants were deeply concerned about saving the souls of their black slaves. At no time they were allowed to speak their own languages, to modify prayers and religious rituals, to sing “strange” songs, to keep their traditions. A mission of “Westernising” of the slaves was as important as the labour they had to do.
Latin American (Brazilian in particular) slaves had a chance to compromise between their ancestors’ believes and their masters’ believes. They invented a hybrid religion which pacified various discrepancies between Christianity and paganism; it was named “condoble” and it is still alive and popular among Brazilians. They retained a big portion of their African folklore, some African habits, food and music. Most of it is not authentic any more. Habits and things transform with time, but they keep serving as a cultural cushion, giving black population a sense of identity and self-worth.
African population of the English-speaking Northern America did not keep links with their African past (apart from a few places such as Jamaica). People found themselves uprooted. It reduced their cultural and historical worth, made them feel uneasy with themselves, with the society and with white people who did it to them. They say it formed a sense of despair and a need for revenge. I am not an expert on this issue, but I guess if a school curriculum in Pennsylvania includes such subject as “History of African-American population of the USA” it indicates that a country is split very deep. May be all schools in America have the same type of subjects to study? It indicates that Americans do not perceive themselves as one nation. Actually, the fact that Americans of all races so often talk about being democratic and non-racists, and how much they value other ethnic groups and etc, etc, etc… is an indirect evidence that the topic is painful and burning.
Indian population in Latin America was present in church communities, Indian orphans were raised in monasteries and convents. Catholic missions in Latin America are well known. What about Protestant missions - I cannot recall anything about Indian orphans being educated or Protestant priests putting much effort into Indians. Maybe they never were interested?

The fact that there is a tension between black and white population of the USA cannot be doubted. Where does it come from – is a very difficult question. One thing is clear – it is not a normal situation.

Our guide Nilze told us that during the trip to the USA she discovered that “black people really hate white people”. She was talking about it with a genuine surprise and disapproval. I don’t know if observations like this one spill a lot of light on the African-Americans, but it definitely serves as evidence that ethnic/racial relationships can be different.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

African flavour of San Salvador da Bahia

I have never been to Africa, but San Salvador is as close to being purely African as it can be. The dominance of black faces is over helming. The presence of African culture is so strong that all other cultures fade away in a shade. Self indulgence in this culture is a total bliss.

First impressions are visual – and they instantly link Bahia to Africa. Even if a woman is not dressed as a “real Bahiana” the local “bahiana style” is still detectable: broad dresses, colourful bead necklaces and – of course – a broad sweet smile from ear to ear. If you see somewhere traditional (authentic) Bahianas – usually they are sellers of acaraju – they wear long and enormously full skirts and turban like head wear. It looks startlingly different and absolutely cute. In combination with the smiles and food they serve they are the most accommodating ingredient of a “Bahia life style”. It does not apply to “Bahianas” who sell their smiles to the tourists for a high price. They flock around the old city, block pedestrian part of the road while pestering foreigners from the cruise ships for money. I am not sure they represent a true Bahia spirit.

Another feature of San Salvador which is not to be missed is capoeira dancers. They practice on the streets and can be spotted from afar. Actually, if there is a group of capoeira boys somewhere around you would not be able to miss them. They definitely draw everybody’s attention. I am not sure if it is a dance, actually. There is music, of course: where in Brazil something happens without music? What about movements – they are so technical, so acrobatic and so fast that spectators sometimes cannot follow the speed of the dancers. Bodies just fly and twist and jump under the most unexpected angles, weapons clash, teeth grunt – and spectators are left breathless and flabbergasted. Only professional dancers and acrobats can imagine how much time and effort goes into the training. People like me – book mice – will never have a clue… Those boys train all day long – while performing – and getting paid for their efforts. Of course, there are capoeira shows in Salvador, quite a few of them. Such spectacular opportunity for a commercial enterprise was not overlooked. Shows can be managed by people unfamiliar with entertainment therefore shows can be very plain and basic, but capoeira itself will keep spectators deeply engaged and entertained.

They say that capoeira came from Africa. Back in the “Golden days” of cacao plantations black slaves practiced sport movements and fighting techniques in a hope that one day they will escape. Those who escaped practiced them because their survival depended on it. Being Africans, they could not do anything without music, and musical rhythms became embedded into an intricate framework of military exercises and eventually exercises transformed into a dance. The length and intensity of exercises are mindboggling and breathtaking. The skills cannot be faked. If one cannot perform up to a standard he will be killed during the show, probably, - or will drop off instantly.

Quite often exercising happens in public parks or on the beach. These capoeira boys become an attraction of the beaches and parks. Their muscular bodies (predominantly black or brown, but not necessarily) is a pleasure to an eye and many hours can be spent somewhere in a shade of a palm tree while watching those boys having fun.

Colourful ribbons is another visual feature of San Salvador. Those small silky ribbons of bright pretty colours are everywhere for sale, and in use by nearly every body: collections of ribbons can be seen tired up on rare view mirrors in the cars, on wrists of people, on handbags, on necklaces, colourful stripes are printed on dresses, sarongs and beach towels…The colourful ribbons stand for condoble, local religion.
This religion – just like capoeira - was invented by black slaves a few hundred of years ago. When they were brought from Africa and Christianity was imposed upon them by their Portuguese masters, the slaves hid their worship of pagan gods of the remote motherland behind the obedient worship of Christian idols: Jesus, Madonna and others. Jesus acquired a new name – a name of the African counterpart, as well as all other Christian deities… With African names those Christian images (or characters) acquired some peculiar non-Christian qualities, the stories from the Holy Bible got mixed up with the African legends and myths. A new religious mutant was born. It was named “condoble”.

Multiple gods of this religion have their unique names and functions. They are colour-coded. Any follower of condoble can select which gods are to worship more, which ones are of that person’s patrons, those colours will be chosen for a bunch of ribbons to decorate things. The ribbons indicate how popular this religion is in the area, how many devoted followers take sacred rituals seriously. A few brief conversations here and there proved our observations to be right. One of our guides told us that he came from a non-religious background but at the age of 14 he “had a call” and joined a capoeira group and a condoble church. I suspect that capoeira could play a leading role in this “call”, but it does not change the fact that a well educated and mature man is still a devotee of a pagan Parthenon… Read books by Amadu – and it is exactly what you will find in his heroes: condoble myths and gods are not separable from daily routine, they communicate with people frequently, condoble superstitions rule business and private life. It sounds similar to medieval Europe even if (I assume) modern Brazilians are educated (at least within a high school level) and should not be buying fairy tale as easily as our ancestors but it seems – they do.

The outcome is a colourful, unusual city with a unique culture of its own, with colours of its own and a very recognisable image… I loved these people, I loved this city.

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.