Superiority and Inferiority

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Bahia,
Sunday, December 12, 2010

I got to Salvador in the evening of December 5, having started my journey on a cold, smelly bus 25 hours earlier in Belo Horizonte.  For those that aren't familiar with this part of the world, Salvador is the capital of the state of Bahia, which apparently is one of the poorest (if not the poorest) state in all of Brazil - it looks like the city and state have not been able to pull themselves up from the poverty that has plagued them since the days of colonial slavery for the sugar plantations. 

I found myself a studio apartment to stay in during the week I was there (all to myself). It seemed to have been owned by a couple of artists/creative types and when I got to the Salvador bus station, I was picked up by one of the artists that ran/rented out the apartment. This was pretty cool because the artist (painter) was pretty well known in Salvador.

The apartment was pretty huge and it was located in one of the oldest quarters of town - just on the fringe of the main tourist center.   The apartment building seemed like it was super old and the apartment itself was sort of modernized but not really  - it barely had electricity and it had no phone/internet.  The apartment was on the top floor of a 3-story walk-up and it had two huge windows overlooking the narrow cobbled street below, which seemed to be bustling at all hours of the day and night.  But the apartment was not only on the top floor of the building, the building itself was also on a hill and I could see quite far into the distance as well - the skyline I saw had no modern buildings - it was mostly old houses and the occasional massive church. Looking out the windows was kind of like getting a view into another time and place. I spent most of the first two days just staring outside the window watching life happen below.  This was partly because I was still trying to shake of the off-ness i was feeling and partly because the hot, wet air was so oppressive that it made it difficult to motivate myself to do anything.

Heavy, stifling air aside, staying in Salvador was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had so far. This was the sort of cultural-in-quotes experience I'd been wanting to have on my travels - i.e., not the modern art gallery type of culture that Rio de Janeiro had to offer - this felt like real-life, living-breathing culture to me.  And not only that - it was a version of real life that was so different from my own that it made me feel exhilarated to be a part of it even for just a little while.  It was a dizzying mix of African, Brazilian, and Portuguese (and probably a bunch of other) stuff that stewed and circled around to a semislowsemifast, deep thump of a Capoeira beat.

But I have to admit that there were many times during the week I spent in Salvador that I felt kind of horrible because I realized that my fascination with the place was like the fascination you might have when reading a National Geographic magazine.  I can't think of the proper word/description for it, but do you know what I mean?  Several times I caught myself feeling superior, thinking that I am in some way better than the folks here.  After watching people from my window (yes, I do see the unfortunate situation where I was literally looking down on the people from my window while figuratively feeling superior to them) and actually meeting a few folks, I got to thinking that I am not superior and my life is not better.  While my standard of living is probably higher than most of the people there, I felt inferior - like I was the huge loser.   It was frightening and infuriating to realize that there are people like me in the world -- I am/was the person who had a nice apartment, nice things, and nice food to eat but nonetheless had to invent problems like feeling trapped in an otherwise respectable and well-paying job.  And even though I am trying very hard to change all that (except that I have no strong desire to make a triumphant return to corporate minionism), being in Salvador still made me feel like I was such a small, petty person because there i was with some money to travel and to buy/try all sorts of local food when so many people barely had enough to survive. 

I suppose I had to have known this on some level - I mean, I'm not completely oblivious to cultural issues/differences. But the problems of the people I saw - mostly those things that accompany poverty - were so in-your-face that it was initially so difficult to look past them and it was so easy to think that I was better.

It took me a good part of the week to recognize that although a lot of the people were indeed poor, they also seemed to show no worries at all.  There were always huge groups of able-bodied folks just milling about on the streets all day doing nothing (i.e., not working) but chatting with each other all day every day.  These folks (not entirely the most friendly bunches of people) just tried to leech a few bucks from tourists here and there by offering guided tours around the confusing maze of streets around the tourist center and getting them to eat at various restaurants in the neighborhood.  But you know what? When they were successful in getting a few bucks, they bought rounds of beers for each other and continued hanging out all day.  Nowhere did I find signs of common ailments like job title insecurity and status anxiety that plague my own world back home.  And I am willing to bet that if they do feel some anxiety over their maybe-unfortunate life circumstances, then they certainly don't self-medicate with Klonopin (although, they did seem to drink a lot of beer).

It's going to take a while to process what I saw in Salvador.  I think I just wasn't quite ready for it - I was expecting to see this kind of thing in Bolivia and maybe parts of Peru, and definitely in India, but it was a little overwhelming, especially since I was still trying to get myself out of a weird funky mood.

At the end of the week, I was again at a loss on where to go.  The obvious direction was to keep going up to Maceio (in Algoas state), Recife/Olinda (in Pernambuco state), and then to Natal (in Rio Grande do Norte state).  I'd also heard of a small surf town called Itacare in southern Bahia (which would have caused me to back-track down the coast).  In the end, I just what-the-hecked it and went way out of my way to go to a small town called Jericoacoara in the north-coast state of Ceara.

I probably should have seen Maceio, Recife, and Natal, but if any of them would have been anything like Salvador, I probably would have lost any progress I'd made in getting myself out of The Funk (yep, at this point The Funk is being made into a proper noun).  I had a good feeling about Jericoacoara.


Reading List: Friedrich Nietzsche - Man Alone with Himself. Sounds like it would be dirty and inappropriate (and not helpful for getting over The Funk), but it's been quite enjoyable and surprisingly helpful.

Playlist: Kings of Convenience (the happier-sounding stuff). Something about the wet, heavy air and scorching sun in Salvador made Kings of Convenience a just-what-you-needed: aural air conditioning. Click HERE and HERE.  On a side note: I wish that the backpacker kids who have their acoustic guitars perma-strapped to their backs would play more Kings of Convenience songs and fewer Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz songs.


Until next time.
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