"Where are you from?" the black man wearing little round spectacles asked. He and his friend had walked past and then returned to the place where I sat on a narrow ledge, leaning against one of the historic buildings overlooking the Plaza da Se. I'd chosen the spot because it offered a great view of the anti-discrimination festival going on that day. Here's a little video to give you a sense of the place:
"The United States", I responded.
"I knew it!" he said excitedly. "I could tell you were an American from 100 meters away!"
Apparently, dying my hair dark so I wouldn't stand out in Brazil hadn't worked. Earlier, as I boarded the flight from Miami to Salvador da Bahia and saw no blonde people on the plane, I was glad I had dark hair. But, once I arrived in Salvador, Brazil's former colonial capital and the entry point for millions of African slaves, I realized there was no hiding the fact that I'm white.
Eighty percent of Salvador's current residents are descendants of the African slaves, and they amazingly still preserve much of the African culture--music, dance, dress, food, religion--they inherited from their ancestors, which is one of the big reasons I wanted to visit there. To give you a small sense of it, here's a video of some Bahianas dancing in their traditional white lace dresses with big hoops:
For those who can't see video, here's a photo of me with one of them:
The man with the spectacles introduced himself as Sergio, and his friend as Joshua. Sergio had lived in the U.S. and in Germany, which was why his English was so good. As he pulled out his government-issued tour guide badge, he explained that the two of them were tour guides and asked if I'd like a tour.
When I explained that I already had a tour guide, they looked incredulous.
"If you have a guide, where is he?" they smiled.
That morning Roberto Merces had given me a tour of the historic center of Salvador, the Pelourinho (meaning "pillory"), and we were scheduled to attend a folkloric show in the same area that evening.
Rather than going back to my hotel for the afternoon, I asked Roberto to leave me in that beautiful and historic place so I could explore it a little on my own. We agreed upon a meeting time, which was rapidly approaching when Sergio and Joshua happened to walk by. Only after I gave them Roberto's name and described him in detail did they believe that I actually did have a guide.
Sergio asked where in the States I was from, and when I responded "Utah", he asked if I was a Mormon and said that he knew a little bit about Joseph Smith. We talked about that for a while, and then he said:
"I'm looking for a good woman....a woman who serves the one true and living God, not one who serves all the false African deities."
He was referring to the many gods in the Candomblé religion centered there in Salvador, which is a thin veneer of Catholicism over the African beliefs brought by the slaves. When the slaves were forced by their masters to convert to Catholicism, they just associated each Saint with one of their African gods of nature, and then continued worshiping as they wished. Some of the gods are represented by the statues in this pond in one of Salvador's parks:
"Yes, in this time of sexually transmitted diseases, it's very important to find a good woman," Sergio continued. "You take your life in your hands when you love someone. I'm looking for a good woman" he repeated.
"I hope you find one!" I smiled.
"I think I did find one, and I'm looking at her!" he smiled back.
"If you're looking for a good woman who serves the one true and living God, you should go to church....a lot of really good women hang out at church!" I suggested.
That didn't deter him.
"Would you like to have a baby? Do you want it to be white like you? Or, would you like a mixed baby?" Sergio queried.
"Wow...you're moving really fast" I replied.
"You won't be here very long, so I must move fast" he smiled again.
Not sure how to respond to that, I said "Well, I need to be going...it's time for me to meet Roberto."
"So that means we'll never see each other again?" Sergio asked with sad puppy dog eyes. "Can I at least give you a hug goodbye?"
I hugged Sergio, said goodbye to Joshua, and went to meet Roberto, who laughed when I told him this story, but then also gave me two safety tips, which other solo women travelers might also benefit from:
1. Never let anyone into your hotel room, or tell them where you are staying.
2. Never walk away from your drink, because that makes it easy to drug. If you must leave to go to the restroom, finish your drink first, and then order a new one when you return.
Roberto was an excellent guide. Not only is he an expert in Brazil's African religions and culture, but he is also a fun, reliable, and good man.
He pointed out the places where it was safe to sample the street food, like the acarajé--little snacks made of of mashed black eyed peas, deep fried in dende oil, and served with shrimp, hot sauce, and diced veggies.
He's a good driver, which I especially appreciated when the two of us saw a man and his motorcycle fly through the air and come down with a horrible crash when a van turned in front of the bike.
Like many Brazilians, Roberto is very animated and would often use his hands as he talked, sometimes touching my leg to emphasize a point as I sat next to him in the front seat of his car. Brazilians tend to need less personal space than Americans, and will often touch you as they speak with you, which is one of their charms. Roberto was very careful to not make me uncomfortable...one time after he touched my leg to emphasize his point, he said "Oh! Sorry to touch you! I must remember to control myself!"
But I wasn't concerned...I considered him a friend. I'll write more about our adventures together in upcoming posts.