Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/01 – Bliss in the South of Bahia

Part24As the year ended, my situation had improved as compared to just a year earlier. I was a full member of the doidão gang, completely integrated in the Carioca lifestyle and I had acquired some respect through my guitar playing. The summer ahead was full of promise. I had passed with ease all my exams and as an award, my parents were sponsoring a new summer adventure. I was again going with Edu, but this time we would be away for longer and would go somewhere even more exciting than Recife. The plan was to spend a month and a half in the south of Bahia, the crème de la crème of the alternative destinations. In the early 1970s, the bucolic region around Porto Seguro became famous as one of the great hippy refuges, a place where Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Bahian native sons and daughters had eulogized in song. The area’s natural ecosystem was still largely intact – or, at least, it hadn’t yet been plundered as much as in more southern parts of Brazil. There were still native Amerindian tribes living in reservations which enhanced the tropical-paradisical aura of the region. In addition, Jorge Amado’s hometown – Ilhéus – was near to the place we were going to stay, promising, in my mind, an immersion into the Afro-Brazilian culture.

The bus trip took thirty hours and our companions were mainly Bahianos returning home for Christmas. As one would expect for the destination, the passengers also included a group of hippy-like girls from Ipanema. As I nervously chatted to one of them, she told me that Fernando Gabeira – “the King of the Nove” – was heading to the same place as us, Arraial d’Ajuda, a small and rather remote fishing village to the south of Porto Seguro. As we neared Ajuda, as everyone called the place, our conversations invariably led to Gabeira. We found out that his presence there was a topic as hot as the region’s sun, and had drawn the attention of the country at large. The Brazilian press had long developed a tradition of naming summers and that of 1980 would belong to Gabeira, the former urban guerilla. The girls were thrilled to be spending their holidays as his neighbors.

This lovely corner of the Earth was perched on a hilltop looking out across endless stretches of wild golden beaches. There was no electricity, no cars, no pavements nor any shop worth speaking of. While the village houses were old and minimal, the locals chose to paint the front of their homes in vibrant colours which made the place resemble a cubist painting. It was obvious that the locals struggled to make a living, but in contrast to the poverty found in the slums of the big cities, Ajuda’s people seemed healthy, harmonized with their surroundings and in peace with life. “Progress” was arriving, and the few bars on the village’s square were owned by outsiders, people from nearby towns who were beginning to sense the potential for tourism. At the time, however, the tourist infrastructure was still basic and food and lodging were ridiculously cheap.

The visitors stayed in a new area built around a field behind the original constructions. The newer huts, where the likes of Edu and I stayed, had been knocked together quickly, their owners, mostly outsiders, seeing them as an easy way to bring in a bit of money during the tourist season. Donkeys, skinny cows and stray dogs seemed to like the desolation of this part of the village, perhaps because the summer visitors left them unbothered. In contrast, Gabeira was renting one of the expensive lodgings alongside the beach and, although he didn’t mix with us mortals, he was often seen in his thong, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by devoted followers. We soon ignored his presence. Both the locals and the other visitors were welcoming and, in a couple of days, we were friends with everyone.

Our routine was heavenly. We woke up sometime in the mid-morning and wandered over to the natural food place for a breakfast of banana mashed with syrup and oats. Then we followed the sand-covered trail to the beach to spend the rest of the day lounging by the sea, playing football barefoot on the sand, going for walks on the deserted coast, meeting new people, and playing beach tennis. We were interrupted only by the occasional villager passing by and selling fried bananas, water and beer. It was hot and the sun was strong so the occasional cloud that approached from the ocean was always a welcome relief. Rain showers never lasted for more than fifteen minutes but when the clouds opened-up, everyone on the beach ran into the salty water to feel the sweetness of the raindrops on their faces while the rest of their bodies remained protected by the warm, calm and shallow sea water.

At the end of the afternoon, the beach gradually emptied and we all went back to the village to gather on the patio behind the old church overlooking the beautiful valley covered in dense foliage. As the sun slowly descended, it transformed into a giant orange ball, its colours merging with the ocean and the dark blue sky. After an entire day under the sun, in and out of the sea, the body welcomed the late afternoon breeze. Sometimes there would be a roda de capoeira, where guys would display their skills in this half-fight, half-dance while we in the audience sung and clapped in time with the berimbau, the African imported single-string, musical bow, that sets the pace.

The only place with running water was a cave with a natural spring where everyone had to queue while holding their towels and their shower gear. The villagers attributed its existence to a miracle and there was a statue of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda at the entrance of the cave. As for the toilet, it was the biggest one in the world: the bush.

After washing off the sticky sea salt and throwing on a shirt and flip-flops, we were ready for the improvised parties in the canteens. Inside them, kerosene lamps placed on the tables cast thick shadows giving them an ancient aura. I, like other people, had brought my guitar and our jamming would liven up those nights. One just needed to start strumming something for people to turn up with instruments of various sorts, and our sessions typically lead to dancing to songs that we created together on the spot.

The moon was so bright that we could wander back down to the beach as if we were having a daytime stroll. The clean, bright sand, the white foam from the ocean surf, the sound of the waves and the wind created a magical bond between us and nature. The clear skies, coupled with the lack of electric lights for kilometres around, made the constellations above stand out as I’d never seen before, with shooting stars darting about. We would sit on the beach for hours, talking and playing guitar. When we returned to the village, it was like being re-enveloped into the warmth emanating from soulmates.

The villagers were untouched by “New Brazil”, living instead from what they fished using their simple boats and by renting out rooms. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sometimes they invited us to sit with them and would tell us stories about their community, their legends, the sea and the surrounding nature, while exchanging views about life.

The visitors were a mix of university students, professors, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, professionals and political activists. Our conversations reflected the explosion of freedom of speech following the long period of repression. Everyone expressed opinions, with endless discussions taking place about everything from football to ecology, from politics to sex.

We all agreed that these were the closing days of a world in which nature was more powerful than man. In one of our conversations, someone argued that we were both the virus and the potential cure for the world. We were living an ecological turning point and for better or worse, our generation would be responsible for the outcome. Discussions apart, there was something special in the air; none of us had ever experienced this kind of collective connection before. It was as if we were living in a bubble distilled by centuries of utopian ideals and by the recent secrecy and the camaraderie of the resistance to the regime. This closeness permeated our parties, jam sessions, laughter, relationships and friendships, giving them a quality and sincerity very different from what was normally accepted as reality.

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