Anteaters Abroad: “Everything is Beautiful” in Salvador, Brazil

Since middle school, I had had my heart set on traveling to Italy, eating lots of pasta and taking hundreds of pictures of myself being romantic in a romantic country. I had once been consumed with the beauty of the “classics” through four years of high school Latin, four years that initiated my unfortunate decision to constantly learn languages I can only utilize in very specific countries. I went as far as to take two years of Italian here at UCI, a language I soon fell in love with due to the beauty of its pronunciation and the expertly exuberant teaching methods of Professor James Chiampi.

By my senior year of college, after an array of financial troubles and issues with timing, I was all set to go. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t. After an important holiday trip to Nigeria, the country my family and I are from, my plans started to shift.

Though Nigeria definitely has its troubles, political and otherwise, I couldn’t deny the joy it gave me to visit this independent nation of proud people. After taking several African American studies classes in addition to my trip to Nigeria, I was excited to meet progressive Black people around the world and gain an international perspective on the Black struggle.

After much thought and debate, combined with hearing the exciting stories of a family friend who had studied for a year in Rio de Janeiro, I decided to take the plunge and study in a country I had never even imagined visiting: Brazil. Like the United States and many other countries that were once colonized, Brazil has a long history of slavery, miscegenation and deep-seated racism.

It is home to the largest Black population outside of the continent of Africa. To put this into perspective, roughly 3.6 million slaves were brought into Brazil, compared to the 40,000 brought into the United States. The result was a nation of various shades of brown, all united by their shared history of slavery.

My idyllic brown rainbow of unity dissolved the second my friend and I arrived at our hostel. We had decided to come to Salvador, Bahia a few days earlier to get a good feel for the city before classes and field trips would consume our daylight hours.

The hostel looked like a perfect fit: my favorite shade of goldenrod yellow, a built-in bar and quirky photographs on every wall. The only thing destroying my rainbow was the image that hung above the antique, welcoming door. A carving of the face of a Black woman with large lips and hair made of twigs. Above this hung the words “The Nega Maluca.” My friend and I glanced at each other and then began the agonizing process of transporting three months of luggage up narrow steps. Later, over a couple of Skol beers (Brazil’s favorite “cerveja”), the hostel owner, a friendly Israeli traveler, cheerfully explained the meaning of the carving’s name to us. Translated as “The Crazy Black Woman,” The Nega Maluca is a national character played by both men and women, whose crazy antics are a form of modern day black face.

The hostel owner’s casual, almost fond, description of the character was my first introduction into an entirely different perception of race than what I was accustomed to in the States. On the more positive side, the city of Salvador, Bahia is as breathtaking as I could have hoped for. The beaches and streets are full of beautiful people working, selling food, playing music or performing the various perfunctory tasks that make up the day Đ all of which somehow look better in Brazil.

Because most of the slaves were brought here during colonial times, the state of Bahia has a large Afro-Brazilian population that has done an impressive job retaining its religious and cultural practices. This manifests in a variety of forms including Đ  but not limited to Đ Capoeira, a martial arts form of resistance that slaves disguised as a dance which is now practiced around the world; Candomble, which represents the merging of traditional African religions with the religious practices of those already in the country; and the many dishes and musical forms that pour into the streets every night.  Although it’s impossible to ignore the various forms of injustice against Afro-Brazilians that I see every day, whenever I walk home from class during sunset, I stop on the side of the road to watch the last golden rays disappear behind the hills of Brazil’s distant islands.

With such beautiful scenery set before me, I know I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else at this exact moment. I truly believe that I’m in a paradise, even when reality seems to take over.