When I lived in Rio de Janeiro 25 years ago, I didn’t think twice about roaming the city with three cameras swung over my neck and shoulders. This time I wasn’t in Brazil for more than ten minutes before people on the street began to warn me in hushed Portuguese, “put your camera away or you will be ripped off!”
Over a feijoada dinner of black beans and pork my friends Alex and Frederico filled me in on what was happening. In the past year both of them, and most of their friends, had been stopped in their cars and SUV’s and robbed by people with machine guns. One woman was left on the side of the road with only the clothes she had on, and grateful for that. No one stopped at red lights any more, they said, Rio was in the midst of a civil war.
The view from my hotel on Copacabana beach was astounding. I wanted to catch the eastern light, but I was told not to walk along the waterfront till 7 am, when the police began to patrol. One morning I snuck out anyway to take photographs earlier. A jogger ran by me and said he had just been threatened, turn around or else. I saw a pack of street kids waiting for me under the palm tree a half a block away. In their shorts and flip-flops these twelve-year-old boys looked harmless enough, but I couldn’t take any chances.
Despite this madness the music plays on all over Brazil, especially up the coast in the town of Salvador, Bahia. The beating of drums, African drums, has been going on for 500 years; the town is closer to Senegal than to Peru. At sundown the beach was packed with young men and women. Some of them were practicing the traditional martial art of caporeira, which was like a gymnastic dance. I shot and shot, checking the digital images to see if I was catching the flow of the movement. Later I headed for the main plaza, where I was jostled into frenetic reggae that was blaring through the night. Even when it’s not carnival season, the partying goes on all year long.
The air in Bahia is permeated with the spirit of Yemenja, the Goddess of the Ocean. She was transported from Africa on the Portuguese slave ships, survived that journey, and now she is the Mother of Brazil. I followed her devotees, in long white dresses, down to the beach where they threw her flowers, offered perfume, and prayed to this light-skinned mermaid as they bathed in her waters. On Sunday the Catholics went to church to worship her as the Virgin Mary.
The light is intense in Brazil, the smiles, the joy. As the tropical sun is bright though, the shadows are dark. So many resources, gold, coffee, even cars, so much youth, so much hope, even if only half of the kids get to the fifth grade in school. The newly elected president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself a child of the streets and a working class hero, has promised to bring jobs and social justice to this land of 190 million people so that no one needs to cut backpacks off tourists or hold up cars in dark tunnels. So they can sing and laugh and love not only to keep things bearable in the moment.