Porto Seguro: The Intersection of Three Worlds

Bahia is an important state in modern Brazil as it sports two major firsts – the first capital and the first settlement. The first capital was the city of Salvador, a place I visited a month ago as my first stop in Bahia. The first settlement was in Porto Seguro, my last stop in Bahia and now a small coastal city. And like most colonized countries, the Portuguese were not the first people in Brazil.

On my first day I went to a nearby town called Coroa Vermelho, which played a historic role in Brazilian history. A large cross marks where the first mass was celebrated in this now devoutly Catholic country. There is a famous painting depicting this event and the stark contrast between the Portuguese explorers and the locals who attended. A long market of touristy stores now culminates in this symbolic cross; behind the cross is a crowded beach full of cabanas. It was like a forgotten monument.

I walked along the road to visit an indigenous village called Pataxó Nova Coroa or Pataxó Coroa Vermelho. When I arrived, I saw nothing. The village seemed empty – like a remote country town. There were a few buildings with decorative black, brown, yellow, and red paint, but no sign of life. I spotted a Welcome Desk, but it was closed. I felt uncomfortable as I had essentially shown up to a neighborhood expecting information or a tour. I walked further and finally noticed a pavilion with craft displays and people dressed in ceremonial gear. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was the real thing or a ploy for tourists – even though I had seen no other tourists. I approached someone and asked him about the village and if there was a way to learn more. He asked me where I was from and became visibly excited when I told him I was American; I am sure that this native village – let alone this town – rarely receives American visitors. He was the perfect person to ask as he started to give me a tour. He told me about the reserve, the tribe, and the buildings. We also chatted about my travels and he asked if I was married – I said no.

Only the important communal buildings are decorated, such as the pavilion, whereas the homes are left plain. The crafts pavilion is used for performances, especially dance. We entered one of the decorated buildings, which is a small, single-room octagonal building with pictures and designs painted around the door. We watched another member of his tribe apply face paint. There were three bricks of colors (red, yellow, and tan), which they wet with water and then applied with a toothpick. The tour was in Portuguese, so I only understood that yellow signifies happiness. He asked if I wanted to dress up in ceremonial clothing and get my face painted. He helped me get into the clothing, which consisted of a burgundy bead skirt and a red, white, and tan feathered headdress. Then the face painting began. As I watched two of his tribe members paint their own faces and I felt the cold paint on my own, I started to wonder about the significance of the different paintings. Is there a set number of designs each with its own meaning or is there a library of symbols that are combined to represent the individual? Does mine mean anything? I asked my adopted guide about this and he informed me that yes, my face paint does have a meaning. It means that I am single.

Wonderful. What’s the point of dating sites when you can just paint your face to show that you’re single? I was somewhere in between amused and wanting to roll my eyes. Out of all of the things to be known for, my painting tells people that I am single. On a serious note, I understand why that would be a helpful design for the tribe and that there are few things as important. After my advertisement was finished, my guide conducted a full photo shoot. I was in full garb and paint and given weapons. First I was a fierce warrior. Then I was looking wistfully out the window. Then I was posing with the other tribe members. A full photo shoot! I suppose this is what most people want when they visit?

I, on the other hand, wanted more information. I returned the garb and weapons and started to ask questions about their way of life. With about 1,300 people in this village, they mostly earn a living through agriculture. The tribe owns a lot of land outside of the village where they farm; they used to hunt but no longer do. They speak another language in addition to Portuguese – he demonstrated it and it was significantly different. They were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese and religion is important to them. Their diet and lifestyle is similar to other Brazilians – they live in a Brazilian town so there is a lot of interaction. He showed me where they go to school and explained that most do not go to college because it is too expensive. According to him, this tribe has been around since before the Europeans arrived. It is neat to think that I may have been speaking with the descendants of those who attended the first mass.

He gave me permission to walk around the village, so I rinsed off the face paint and continued along the dirt road. It was just like a rural town. All the homes looked similar; the only other decorated building was the church. It felt strange walking along a rural road staring at normal houses, so I returned to Porto Seguro.

Porto Seguro has a small-town city feel. Although there are some touristy streets, I believe that most tourists here are Brazilian. Porto Seguro is probably used instead as a jumping-off point to the surrounding beach towns. I wandered past the many local shops and along the water to the touristic center. The sidewalk was cluttered with a never-ending sea of souvenir stands – all selling the exact same things such as Bahian chocolate, hot pepper sauce, cachaça, cocada (a coconut sweet), and Bahian trinkets. I walked past the modern church that faces the ocean; its location marks its significance. Then I arrived at Passarela do Alcool, which is the opposite of church but still has an important location. Exactly what the name suggests, this is a street bursting with alcohol stands. Think of a food truck festival but just for drinks – and there are free samples! I walked around trying different cocktails before buying one. I sipped my cocktail while admiring the vibrant colonial architecture.

The buildings along the water may be historical, but they are not the oldest buildings in Porto Seguro. Porto Seguro started as a small town on the top of a hill before spreading out to the seaside; the old town remains an outdoor museum. I walked up the hill to the old town and was greeted by a ghost town; the buildings were in great shape, but no one lives there. Like the Acropolis in Greece, it was separated from the modern town. The central square marks where Brazil was founded and leads to the first church in Brazil, Nossa Senhora da Misericordia. Around this square are more religious buildings and former homes that now function as souvenir shops. The religious buildings are a few stories tall whereas the homes are an attached stretch of single-story, brightly colored clones. On one side is the road back into the modern town and on the other side is the sea. I stopped at the São Benedito Monastery, which had been turned into the office of a Latin professor before becoming a heritage site. The Marco da Posse, a stone marker with a cross on one side and the Portugal coat of arms on the other, in the Praça Pero do Campo Tourinho marks where the Portuguese explorers founded the town and the country. I saw the original Lighthouse, which guarded the tiny, vulnerable colony from invaders. Nossa Senhora da Pena, another church, holds the oldest statue in Brazil. It was fascinating seeing the starting point of the country. This was the first settlement – this was the beginning.

I entered the Porto Seguro Museum and learned more about the different indigenous tribes in the area. There are different ceremonies for each important event – becoming an adult, birth, marriage, and death. Women have a fixed role in the house and in society; for their becoming a woman ceremony they must spend time in isolation. A photographer had come to Brazil during the beginning of Portuguese occupation and captured the daily life of the natives. The photos were tragically beautiful because you know how the story ends.

Walking along, I passed a capoeira show, which is a Brazilian martial art, and sat down to watch. It is a stylized mix of dancing and fighting. There are even traditional instruments and songs played in the background. Two people face off at a time and perform a series of spinning kicks, rolling ducks, and twirling punches at each other.

Porto Seguro is also known for its 17.5sq km wide reef called Recife de Fora. At only 20 minutes by boat, it is easily accessible and perfect for snorkeling. The boat ride is beautiful as you pass sand dunes and red cliffs while watching the old town on the hill fade away.

Off the boat and wading through the shallow water to the reef, I could tell that the coral in this area was dead. The tides here are so dramatic that at times the coral is above water therefore dies. And if that didn’t kill it, then the people walking over it did. Thankfully only 3% of the reef is open to tourism and the rest is preserved.

There are three natural swimming pools in the reef and we were standing in one of them. These are deep areas without any corals at the bottom – safe to stand and swim in. We were restricted in where we could snorkel and were only allowed in this one pool to protect the others. We put on our snorkeling gear and away we went! One of the volunteers led me to the best part of the reef. Many people stayed near where we had our introduction, but the best areas were on the periphery. The corals were all different colors – purple, pink, white, tan, and green. I saw fish the size of tiny anchovies to big screen TVs. I could hear the fish eating and watch them munch away on the tasty coral. I watched as a scared crab scuttered into its hole. Schools of fish swam past me paying no attention to this fish out of water. There was such variety in texture and color. I found myself alternating between staring at a specific area and following a specific fish. Most of the time no one else was snorkeling around me – I felt like I had this secret world to myself. I started to sing Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid. I was a kid on Christmas Day. I was Ariel.

I spent my last night in Porto Seguro thrilled with what I had discovered – the indigenous way of life, the beginning of Brazil, and the world under the sea.

Thoughts and Observations

Porto Seguro was the perfect place to end the Bahian chapter of my trip. It was more of a small city and less of a tourist destination than the other places I had visited. In fact, I didn’t hear anyone speak English in Porto Seguro until I was at the airport. Everyone was surprised when I said that I was American! People usually guess that I’m from São Paulo or Argentina. Or a flood of other Latin American countries, but never the United States. Considering that I’m speaking with them in Portuguese, it’s flattering to know that my American accent does not show. Also, it’s nice to fit in.

This was my first time interacting with indigenous people. I learned about Native Americans in school – the good, bad, and the ugly. But Native Americans were the focus only in my early years of education and I learned nothing about Native Americans in University. So not only do I remember few details, but also I have learned little about their current way of life. I know that many were killed by Europeans and by European diseases. That the colonial government and then the United States government forcibly moved them from their land to infertile land. That nowadays alcohol abuse is a big problem. But they are rarely mentioned in the newspaper or discussed in the present tense. Essentially, Native Americans have become out of sight and out of mind. But then I met the indigenous people of Brazil living down the street from a small city; easily accessible by public transit. In the United States, we think of Native Americans living on reservations far away from everyone else because years ago our government forced them to live there. But in Brazil they are there. They are everywhere. All over the country, mixing their ancient customs with modern ones having adapted either forcibly or over time. And I realized that this is something else that I need to pay attention to in the United States. I need to reject the easiness that comes with out of sight and out of mind and instead make an effort. As a country, we need to make an effort.

Something that I have not mentioned much in my blog posts is zika. The mosquito borne illness of zika exploded in Brazil and other places in Latin America at the beginning of 2016. It is a strange disease – most people barely notice that they have it whereas it is devastating to those who are pregnant. The epicenter was in northern Brazil, although it certainly impacted the entire country. It was more prevalent in low income, high density areas with poor sewage systems that enabled still water pools, which are breeding grounds for mosquitos. However, it played no role in my daily life. People almost never talked about it. I never spent time in the high risk neighborhoods. I wore insect repellent and covered up at dawn and dusk. There were signs posted in public places giving advice on how to fight zika – wear insect repellent, be mindful of still water, etc. Besides that, it was more of an afterthought; there are other mosquito borne illnesses – from the same mosquito – so this was just another one to add to the pile. At the same time as zika was an afterthought in Brazil, it was the number one topic in the Western world. There was a new article on it every day in American newspapers. These articles weren’t false, but they didn’t put it into perspective. They focused on the bad examples instead of the majority of people with no effects or only mild, flu-like symptoms. Or, alternatively, on the hundreds of people impacted without mentioning that it is hundreds out of millions. Or that it was concentrated in certain areas of major cities. It was an epidemic, but not a guaranteed disease. It implied that stepping foot in Latin America infected you with zika instead of outlining that although it was a risk, it was a low probability risk. (Please note that I agree it is different if someone was pregnant or trying to become pregnant. I am speaking about people like myself.) March was a difficult month for me because of this. I received a lot of pressure from people I care about regarding my decision to stay in Brazil. It was a hard decision to make and I wavered a few times, but I did the research and decided I felt comfortable staying given that I was taking precautions and not going to the high risk areas. Part of what made it a tough decision was looking around at the people who couldn’t leave. It felt overprivileged to think that if I felt the risk was too high I could leave whereas the locals have no choice. It is a difficult subject to discuss since one can easily say that one shouldn’t put oneself in a risky situation if it can be avoided. And I agree, however, any situation can be risky – life can be risky. And living in fear is not life. So I stayed in Brazil.

Observations:

  1. I don’t understand how to use the temperature controls on Brazilian showers. The options are winter or summer – I never figured out if I was supposed to put it on the current season or the season that matches the desired temperature; for example, on winter when it is hot to have colder water. Either way I could never get it the temperature I wanted, so I gave up.
  2. A few years ago, American credit card companies introduced the chip technology. By world standards, that was late. Nowadays, in the United States, swipe and signature is still commonly used with chip and signature use increasing. This is completely unsafe and everyone in Brazil kept pointing this out to me. The Latin American countries I visited, including Brazil, use chip and PIN technology. You insert the credit card into the chip reader machine and then enter a PIN to approve the transaction. Without the correct PIN, the transaction will not go through. So you can image Brazilian merchants’ surprise when they watched me enter my credit card into the chip reader machine and the transaction was instantly approved. Anyone could use my credit cards! It is unfortunate that American credit cards are so behind in security.
  3. My favorite peanut butter exists in Brazil!
  4. One can become a local anywhere in a short period of time. I found this chic café near where I was staying and went every day. By day 2 they knew me – I was a regular!
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