December 2006 - September 2015
Salvador, Bahia | Brazil
“This all took place; let him who will believe. It took place in Bahia, where these and other acts of magic occur without startling anybody."
Jorge Amado, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos)
I’m certain there is magic everywhere. In Bahia though, it bubbles and dances and skates at the surface like nowhere else. It’s difficult to help but feel the magic in Bahia, overwhelming at moments like drowning and at others you happily surf the waves. It is everywhere in the concentration of energy and movement and music and emotion, always combining and recombining in new alchemies that are as strongly Bahian as the dendê oil igniting your system after eating aracajé. Bahia has a full range of magic from dark and sinister to light and transformative, and among all of this the Bahians know how to play.
To me, magic is an alchemy of connection and possibility, an improv on the fly as a way to see the world. Humour is magic and laughter is the proof that it is real. As is often the case, it was not until I found myself in situations where I could not joke with language, I discovered just how important humour is to my way of being and relating in the world. In looking back over several trips to Bahia, I can see just how important it is for me to be be able to reach out and connect with a joke.
My relationship with Bahia began in the Spring of 2006 in Toronto when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to come with her to a capoeira class. “Sure!” I said, “... and, what’s capoeira?” I was introduced to the Brazilian martial art by Professora Lang, a Canadian who at the time was writing her PhD on capoeira, and who over the years has become one of my closest friends. Lang was studying the roots of capoeira and the traditional forms that were born and are still practiced today in Salvador, Bahia. After only nine months of practicing the martial art that is played to the rhythms of the berimbau (a bow-like percussive instrument) and call-and-response songs sung in Portuguese, I decided to join Lang on a two week trip to Bahia with her and a small group of my fellow students. When I made that decision, I had no idea how much capoeira and Bahia would truly change my life, and at the same time set me even more clearly on the course it seems I have always been meant to take. As Professor Muniz Sodré says in the film Mestre Bimba: A Capoeira Illuminada, “Capoeira teaches this lesson. To transform oneself to change. To transform oneself to remain as one is.”
The Bahians we met that December were warm and welcoming as they opened their schools and homes to us. We played capoeria, the only common language I had with the Bahians at that point, and enjoyed each other’s company over food and drinks and stumbling through conversations with some words in English, some palavras in Portuguese, and lots of confusion in between. There were often times in conversation I was talking to a Brazilian with what Portuguese I had and they were responding in their native Portuguese, but we were not actually talking about the same things. That didn’t really matter to any of us though, we were just happy to be having the conversation.
When I returned to Toronto, I was eager to learn as much as I could about capoeira, samba, the Portuguese language and Bahian culture. I continued to play capoeira, listen to all the Brazilian music I could find, I studied Portuguese with a teacher, and started reading Brazilian literature. Jorge Amado is one of my favourites. In the beginning, I found his storytelling difficult because it is so different from what I knew. I soon grew to love his novels though, especially those that are set in Bahia, set in streets and neighbourhoods I have traveled. My first favourite Jorge Amado story was that of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. The novel begins with the death of her young playboy husband Vadinho, during Carnival while dressed in drag after a night of drinking and gambling. Dona Flor goes on to marry a doctor, Vadinho’s opposite: respected, stable, devoted. It does not take long in the story for Vadinho’s ghost to appear, and then begins Dona Flor’s life with her two husbands. To practice my Portuguese, after I read Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands in an English translation I tried to read it in its original Portuguese, Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos. That was slow going friends, muito devagar.
Two years after my first adventure, Lang organized another two week trip to Bahia in March 2008 and without question I was in! During this trip we reconnected with the Angola and Regional Mestres I met in 2006, and who were continuing to generously help guide and deepen our knowledge of the jogo (game) de capoeira and Bahian culture. There were many memorable moments during these two weeks - including a wedding! - but on one afternoon in particular, on the beach of Ilha de Maré, I started to tap into my own magic in Bahia.
After sailing on a tall ship to get to the island, blasting samba music and dancing the whole way, we settled in for a lunch of fresh seafood moqueca and cerveja on the beach. We Canadians were being hosted by Mestre Augusto and Mestre Santa Rosa: capoeira Angola mestres, musicians, poets and native sons of Bahia. I convinced Lang to translate a joke for me so I could share it with the Mestres:
Meredith: “So, there was a doctor who lived in a small town…”
Lang: “Era um doctor bem respeitado em uma pequena cidade …”
When I started to tell this joke, I knew it was not a short one. It’s the kind of joke you embellish, add details, and generally build up for the groaner of a punchline that has questionable payoff. It was the only joke I could think of at the time though, so I went for it.
Meredith: “... The doctor started to question the romantic feelings he was developing for one of his patients …”
Lang: “...Ele comonçeu a questionar os sentimentos românticos que estava desenvolvendo para um de seus pacientes …”
Beyond the gestures and translations we used to tell this epic joke, simply the act of the two of us telling a joke back and forth in two languages was ridiculous and funny to everyone sitting around the table. There were reactions and pauses throughout depending on which language was being spoken. And then the payoff:
Meredith: “... Yeah, but you’re a vet.”
Lang: “... Sim, mas você é um veterinário.”
I told you, questionable. It was not the most elegant joke, not the most nimble use of language, but damn I was excited! For the first time, I had shared a joke with my Brazilian friends. In that moment, even though I needed to enlist Lang’s help in translation, I felt a little more truly myself in this foreign language and culture I was just getting to know.
After this trip in 2008, I decided I needed to spend more than two weeks there. I had a giant crush on Bahia, and I needed to see if it was really love. When Lang returned from this trip, she made the decision to formally become a teacher of Mestre Nenel’s school, Filhos de Bimba. This was the school where I felt I belonged too, and I was eager to focus on practicing the capoeira Regional methodology and philosophy that Mestre Nenel’s father created. In Toronto, I worked and saved while I continued to play capoeira and generally be a part of the Brazilian community of events and music. My understanding of Portuguese was growing with what I was reading and listening to, but I did not often speak Portuguese outside of my class or brief conversations at events. Spending more time in Bahia would definitely help me become more fluent. After two years and the end of my contract at the time, I set off in May of 2010 for four and a half months in Bahia.
I lived in an old house overlooking the Bay of All Saints (Baia de Todos os Santos), a fifteen minute walk from my capoeira school where Mestre Nenel welcomed me not only for official classes, but to hang out. I learned about building instruments, helped around the space, and got to know the Bahians and other foreigners who frequently dropped in too. I could speak in simple sentences and could generally keep up with conversations if I concentrated really hard, but when directly asked a question it would take me a few seconds to fully compute what was being asked, then form an answer. This does not allow for quick wit and joking around, I was just trying to keep up!
Often between classes, Mestre Nenel’s son played a video game that had a vivid soundtrack, including several catchphrases that were all in English. Mestre Nenel is not fluent, but he does speak some English and would ask me about words and how to pronounce them. He started saying the catchphrases from his son’s video game, and confirmed the words with me. These catchphrases became our joke with one another, our favourite being, “Getting serious.” Still now, getting serious is how we sign emails to each other. Whether in the school or out in the city, when we saw each other we would say these catch phrases, playfully building them up trying to beat each other to:
Mestre Nenel: “Getting serious.”
Meredith: “Stepping it up.”
Mestre Nenel: “Don’t blink.”
Mestre Nenel and Meredith: “You’re finished!!!”
Two months into that trip in 2010, I met Lang at the airport. She was there to prepare for her Formatura, the ceremony in our school where teachers are officially graduated, and was staying in the same house I was overlooking the bay. After two months on my own in Bahia, speaking for the most part only in Portuguese, I was so happy to talk with Lang when she arrived. I could not stop the jokes or the puns from flying! It seemed that holding the jokes in for two months was like holding in a sneeze. When given the opportunity to speak in my native language, the jokes spewed unbound into the night.
By the end of this trip, though I was far from fluent, a cool thing started to happen when I realized I was no longer translating so much in my mind. I was thinking in Portuguese. My first few weeks back in Toronto, it surprised me that my instinct was to speak in Portuguese and that everyone around me was speaking English. The months I spent in the language and the culture also answered my original question: it was not a crush, a part of my heart will always live in Bahia. Once and awhile when I am walking in Toronto, for a brief moment I feel like I am there. I didn't know when, but I was sure I would find a way back.
My most recent trip to Bahia was a two week visit in September 2015. I stayed in an old house turned hostel in the same neighbourhood that is a fifteen minute walk to Mestre Nenel’s school. I arrived late on a Friday night and was very hungry for dinner. I dropped off my bag and wandered into the neighbourhood to a little restaurant I remembered. Within ten minutes I ran into a Bahian friend who lives in the neighbourhood and we sat at an outdoor table catching up. Ah, how I had missed the energy of Bahia!
The next morning I arrived early for the weekly roda (capoeira circle), and when I entered the school for the first time in five years, I was greeted by Mestre Nenel, “Getting serious!” Over these two weeks, I reconnected with old friends - including two of Mestre Nenel’s father’s original students, Mestres Boinha and Cafuné - and met new people who were now training at the school. Flor, a young woman who lived nearby, was in classes often too and we had the opportunity to train and play together many times.
Capoeira is very social and often when a class ends, we usually stick around and hang out for a while. After a class, Mestre Boinha and Mestre Cafuné were sitting on a bench. Flor went over at sat down between the two. They were all smiles and I had my camera out, so I started to line up a shot of the three of them.
Mestre Boinha joked: “Oh, Dona Flor! rsrsrs (hahaha)”
And Mestre Cafuné: “E seus dois maridos! KKKKKK! (And her two husbands! HAHAHA!)”
I lowered my camera, looked to Mestre Boinha then Mestre Cafuné, and asked: “Quem é Vadinho?!! (Who is Vadinho?!!)”
All: “KKKKKK! (HAHAHA!)”
Mestres Boinha and Cafuné: “Ele é Vadinho! Não, é ele! (He’s Vadinho! No, it’s him!)”
I had done it and I didn’t even see it coming! After many visits and time spent with these people and culture I love, a joke. An alchemy of connection and possibility, an improv on the fly.