Unbeautiful Abroad: Carioca Men and the Samba Blossom

There’s a social phenomenon here in Rio that occurs every Monday: Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal. Roda means ring, or circle. Pedra do Sal translates to Rock Salt.

The samba ring is located in the rock salt, a concentrated area of two or three blocks in what is known here in Rio as “Little Africa”. This meeting place is very near to a sea port and the square of Centro’s Saúde neighborhood.

Pedra do Sal used to be a slave market in Brazil’s early days.

“It’s a little embarrassing to admit,” said our Uber driver on the way there.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There were many, many slave markets in the United States—we’re embarrassed too.”

Pedra do Sal grew into a communal space for the oppressed African population, freed and escaped slaves alike. Certain Africans came together and infused their specific native African music with everyone else’s specific native African music. They did this in a new world and, thereby, created a new music, authentically Brazilian.

They created samba.

“It’s good that you’re going there, it is our history. You should see it. I have been there many times,” the driver said thoughtfully.

He looked at me through the rearview mirror as he spoke.

I’d like to say the size of the crowd was surprising when we arrived. It wasn’t. The south zone of Rio, where I’ve been living, is crowded, always. It’s like a packed outdoor concert everywhere you go.

When you imagine me here, imagine me in the context of a large crowd, weeding through people, laughing and sweating.

Some context: I speak Portuguese conversationally and logistically. What I mean by that is this: I can converse pretty profoundly with a Portuguese speaker. I can share my thoughts and dreams and beliefs. I can even make jokes. I can ask questions and understand, for the most part, someone else’s thoughts and dreams and beliefs. But this communication has to be one on one, face to face, without distraction or white noise. That’s conversational. I can ask for directions, opinions, for advice. Again, one on one, face to face. That’s logistic. Emergency Portuguese, as I like to call it.

But, in truth, much of the context of what people are saying is lost, and when people speak quickly or with slang, I smile and continue walking. When people talk amongst themselves, I’m lost. When people deny me items at the grocery store or the pharmacy, I don’t understand their explanations.

Still, between me and Moira, I speak the most Portuguese. This means that I order the food. I ask the questions. I make the phone-calls. I translate. I lead the way.

This is incredibly exhausting for a closet introvert like myself. I wonder how people like me do this sort of travel without a support system directly behind them. How do they remain calm without physical support?

Don’t misunderstand me. I could do all of this alone. I’m confident in that. But, how sweet to turn to a friend when something funny, or scary, or strange happens—to murmur something in English and be understood! How sweet to be able to rest on the comfort a friend from home inherently offers you.

I turned to Moira and smiled. We were there, experiencing samba in the same space in which it was created! The smell of fried food and beer was fierce. Laughter, shouts, and songs were floating above the mass of people.

Bom, boom, bom, bom, boom, bom. BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM. 

The drums seemed to be everywhere, but I couldn’t see a single instrument.

“Whaddya want?” I said to Moira.

She looked around, thought for a moment. “Heineken!”

We bought some beers and continued onward. There was a huge circus type tent with blue and white stripes over the area where the samba players gathered and played old African rhythms infused with the sounds of modern Brazilian life in 2017.

The area was set up like a makeshift arena. There were flat smooth rocks that created an inclination, and wide flat stone steps that ran alongside the large flat stones—up and away to darkness. Everything came down to the center of the space, a ring where the people were most concentrated, where the sound of samba blossomed.

People stood and stepped and sat on the stones. They were lined up against the wall the steps ran along, backs flat against its uneven surface.  I remember thinking that I needed to have my back against that wall to feel normal in this crowd.

I like to watch others, to observe others, to converse with myself. I saw an open space on the steps and I led Moira there. We settled and waited.

There was a woman selling magic brownies next to us. People filed past us up the steps.

“Don’t worry,” I told her before we left the hostel for Pedra do Sal. “We’ll meet loads of  people tonight.”

But there was no way we could have possibly acquainted ourselves with all of those people!

People selling beers, people selling salty barbecue, people dancing—pouring out onto the streets in uniform dance—the bass strong. Young brown men and women were carrying huge shallow wooden trays of chewing gum, a thick leather strap fastened around their necks. They were resting the back of the tray on their solar plexus. They draped their hands over the front edges of the tray. They were shouting out their products’ names mindlessly. They were walking up and down the stone steps, their heads somewhere else as they attempted to sell small white squares to freshen the breath of an enormous group of people, multicolored, here at Pedra do Sal.

Moira and I dressed for this occasion. We heard it was a sight to see. We both looked beautiful.

Early in the night, a middle aged black man found his way next to me. We talked, he soon realized I was a foreigner. We talked a bit about my country; we talked a bit about Brazil. He spoke to Moira for a few minutes. Soon he became flirtatious with me, and I became cold. In no time, a group of younger Brazilian boys began congregating next to Moira. I made social moves to freeze out the older man.

One of the young men began speaking to Moira. He had grayish blue eyes, the edges of his facial hair, closest to his under lip, along with his eyebrows, were stained blonde from the sun. He was handsome. I could tell he knew he was handsome.

Moira looked at me and laughed with surprise, discomfort, exhilaration.

“She doesn’t speak Portuguese,” I said in a friendly way.

“Oh,” he said. “What does she speak?”

“Ingles,” I said.

He looked very pleased. He smiled at her in a sentimental way, as if he knew her well.

“I speak English,” he said with a sly grin. He had his elbow on the wall next to her. He was leaning on it, and into her personal space.

I continued to look out at the crowd as my friend made a new friend. I was included in their conversation, in a polite mandatory way. None of the men in that particular group had any real interest in me as a potential date for the night, and so no real interest in me at all. They didn’t speak to me very much.

The boys talked amongst themselves off and on, laughing, speaking Portuguese closely together. They were eyeing Moira.

I made eye contact with one of them, and held the gaze. I was asking him what exactly they were talking about with my gaze.

“We are talking about your friend,” he said. “We are talking about how beautiful she is,” he explained. “—You are beautiful too,” he added politely.

This is normal in Rio, my being overlooked.

I’m not offended.

I’m not ugly here; I’m just unbeautiful.

This is also generally true in the United States. I’m not your signature “hot girl.” Men don’t lust after me/chase after me/become obsessed with me. If they do, they do it quietly and when we know each other well. For example, in both of the long term relationships I’ve had as an adult woman—I had no idea either of the men looked at me in a sexual way, or any way, until 6 months after knowing them.

Don’t get it twisted. I’m not downplaying my physical appearance. I’m not fishing for praise. I’m not throwing a pity party in Rio.

I’m telling the truth.

There was a time, briefly, in high school, when I weighed 35 pounds less than I do now. I’m not naturally thin or petite. My family used to call me Flat Stanley. They thought I had an exercise disorder. My friend Edward called me an emaciated Holocaust survivor.

I was running 6-7 miles a day, and, in addition, burning upwards of 1,000 calories at the gym 5/7 days of the week. I ate a ton because I burned a ton. My hair was deliciously long, and men chased after me. I was addicted to a type of attention that I had never had from the opposite sex before that point.

Now, I’m 35 pounds heavier, my hair is short, and I notice a distinct difference in the way men approach me, speak to me, love me—mainly because it’s uncommon for me to be approached, to be spoken to in a way that indicates attraction, to be loved.

I miss my obsessive exercise.

People sometimes see old photographs of me from that time.

“Look how skinny you were, Liv!”

“Look at how long your hair was. It looked so good!”

“How different you look now! That’s another person!”

I miss feeling so thin that I could turn sideways and flatten out into invisibility.

Oh, Stanley. Where did you go?

It’s strange. Everyone told me before I came to Brazil that I was going to fall in love here. That I was going to marry a Brazilian man. That Brazilian men were going to love me.

Up until that night at Pedra do Sal, young Brazilian men in Rio did speak to me directly, but out of curiosity and platonic friendliness. And of course, to speak to Moira through me.

Before I brushed off middle aged black guy, he told me that people no longer come to Pedra do Sal for samba—”Well, some people do,” and he pointed to the bottom of the arena, the samba blossom.

People were crowded around the blossom—they were the blossom, moving as a unit to the beat around some invisible samba center. It looked like they were partaking in some ancient ritual. That was what I wish I had done—where I wish I had been that night.

I wish I had been the blossom.

“But most,” middle aged black guy continued to say “come to Pedra do Sal to talk and to drink.”

I looked over to see Gabriel, the blue eyed Carioca Casanova, attacking Moira’s face with his mouth. When he came up for air, I tugged on Moira’s arm.

“Are you okay?” I said. “I can tell him to stop if you don’t like it.”

Gabriel was introducing Moira to his friends as the “love of my life.”

She shrugged. “I’m okay.”

Hey. If homegirl is cool with it, I’m cool with it.

Some people are comfortable with different things. Equality and understanding is about both men and women respecting a woman’s preferences.

Soon Gabriel and his friends disappeared, and three handsome younger black men replaced them. I spoke with one in Portuguese, Wallace, for a bit. Then he turned his attention to Moira.

“She doesn’t speak very much Portuguese, only English” I said.

“I speak some English,” Wallace said with a smile.

Soon they were communicating in broken English and shattered Portuguese and they had moved farther away from me.

I looked over at one of Wallace’s friends beside me. He was observing the people in the same way that I was. He had a beer in his hand, and I could tell he was studying the drums, the rhythm.

“You know, I always start my week off here,” he said without looking at me. “Start the week off right: with music.”

His name was Thiago, or James in the US. His skin was light and he identified as black. His father dipped out the same way mine had.

“That’s common here,” he said. “A fatherless Brazil is the real Brazil.”

He looked 25. He was 33. He was ten years old and had a father that seemed more like a stranger than a family member when I was born.

He had quit his office job to pursue music.

Our histories were the same. The two real differences: he was undoubtly black and undoubtably a Brazilian man.

I was an American woman and since I was little, my family had always reminded me, encouraged me, that I didn’t look black, that I looked nothing like my black father, and everything like my white mother.

“You know,” he said deep into the conversation about our heritages, “I can tell your mother is quite beautiful.”

He surprised me with his subtlety. He flirted intelligently.

“Subtlety,” I had said to him early on. “Subtlety indicates intelligence and self control, the best qualities in a human being.”

Self control.

I receive immense pleasure from self control. Controlling my breathing when I run, controlling my diet during that time as a teenager when a strong gust of wind could have blown me down, controlling who touches me—abstinence.

Some Brazilian men in the city of Rio de Janeiro—the majority that approach Moira for her beauty and me for my services as a translator—are not subtle.

They do not practice self control.

They are aggressive and pushy, and this is very hard for me to process and to accept without a hardened look and a standoffish demeanor, without feeling very annoyed.

Carioca sexism is blatant. It’s not like in the United States, where sexism is insidious and permeates the social soil, where our actions, love lives, education, and dreams are grown.

In the USA, a woman will question her sanity, if she is “crazy” or not, when a man practices indirect, passive aggressive sexism: the American norm.

Here in Rio, men will kiss and touch you outright. It’s easy to identify sexism here. Men will tell you exactly what they think of your body and your face right off the bat—that is, if it’s pleasing to them.

I wondered, then, why this wasn’t happening to me.

If kissing and touching here is normal behavior for beautiful women to experience, why was I not being kissed and touched—or even acknowledged—if not that I am unattractive or not attractive enough?

Because, deep down near my brainstem, I know I’m beautiful, sexy—unforgettable.

I consulted a Carioca female pen pal I had made online.

“What’s the deal?” I asked her. “Am I not attractive here or?”

“You probably don’t look/sound vulnerable enough to be kissed or fondled,” she explained.

I wonder if this hard exterior of mine comes from a place of fear.

I wonder if I fear men? I also wonder if I have come to believe in my heart that men, after a conversation, or a look, expect things from women that women have never offered.

There was this one tall white, Brazilian boy, leading his girlfriend by the hand up the stairs of Pedra do Sal, who looked at me with such unfettered sexual lust and entitlement, that I had to avert his gaze. It was too heavy a gaze to hold. I’ll never forget that look.

He disappeared, too.

The men here, they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. . .

Just before our Uber came, Thiago gave me his number and kissed me twice on each cheek—excessive in the states, conservative in Rio.

Wallace attacked Moira’s face.

And then an Uber whisked us away, and the night of samba ended just as it began.

☀☀☀

“My friend awaits a message from your friend,” Wallace said in a text to Moira a few days later.

I never messaged Thiago.

I won’t.

I’m going to São Paulo next week, and moving to Minas a week afterward. I’m not here to meet men or to fall in love with a Brazilian for the three weeks time I’ll be in Rio.

I do wonder why people expect this of me.

☀☀☀

I turned 23 that night at Pedra do Sal.

I couldn’t help but think of my father, and where he had been on his 23rd birthday—where one of our African relatives had been on their 23rd birthday hundreds of years ago.

I told the Uber driver that it was my birthday, and he held his hand out to me as he drove.

“WOW! Parabéns!”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said with a devious grin.

I could feel his eyes on our backs as we walked to the hostel door. He put the car in park, waited for the hostel doors to open.

I knew he was waiting to make sure we got into the building safely.

I knew that he would not have waited for us to enter the hostel had we been two young men.

I looked behind my shoulder back at the driver as Moira and I walked through the doorway.

He looked back at me with a gaze as if to say:

“Congratulations! Congratulations to you for being young and beautiful here in Brazil.”

When I fell asleep that night, I did not feel my beauty or my youth deserved verbal recognition, or some congratulatory remark. These things were not accomplishments. I didn’t work to achieve my birth date or my facial structure.

I fell head first into sleep knowing that the only thing I deserved recognition for was my resilience, my ability to be unbeautiful abroad with a devious grin.

☀☀☀

3 thoughts on “Unbeautiful Abroad: Carioca Men and the Samba Blossom

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