Cheguei Chegando, Notes from the field #2

Cheguei Chegando.

I learned a new phrase this week.  Cheguei chegando.  Literally translated it means “I arrived, arriving.”  Doesn’t really mean anything by itself, right?  That’s why I barely noticed it when she said it.  She had to ask me if I knew what she meant when she said “Você chegou chegando, né?”  So she explained it to me.  When someone arrives in a setting, with fresh energy and brand new ideas, a vision, and plans to realize those visions and plans, they say “ela chegou chegando.”

 When she said it, she said it with a bit of a smile/smirk.  Not quite a compliment, not quite ridicule.  She seemed to be acknowledging good intentions while still making fun of the ingenuity of it all.  Then I realized why I have been so anxious to get started.  I was making plans based on a US American structure and system of getting things done.  In the states I always have several irons in the fire and I know how to get them done.  I always forget how things just move to a different rhythm here.  Yes, the hips sway in those samba, forró, and pagode rhythms frenetically, but life and business move at a much more relaxed pace.  No one is in any hurry to get things done or to help me get things done.  And why should they?

 I looked back at all my plans and goals for this period of 6 months and realized: “Oops.  Wow.  What was I thinking?”  She told me to relax, it’s summer vacation right now.  She suggested I wait til after carnaval to start my research.  I felt my jaw drop.  Wait until mid March?!?!?!  Then I went home and thought about it.  Took some time to write some reflective notes.  I sat there on my front veranda while two people I care about very much sat and painted with the cool evening breeze and some mellow electronica music giving us all inspiration to keep going.

 Then I made a list of all the things I had hoped to accomplish while I’m here.  Honestly, if I get only one thing on the list done it will be worthy of celebration.  But, of course, I am ever the over achiever.  I will always aim for more. 

 The next day I met a friend of a friend at one of the local watering holes.  She said he was a Canadian filmmaker.  So we sat and chatted.  I said “Marcela mentioned you are a filmmaker, what kind of films do you work on?”  He said “I don’t.  I’m retired.  I’m a recovering workaholic.  Work is a dirty word for me.”  Flash forward to me, 10 years from now.  Oh God, is that going to be me?  Here I am, chegando, chegando.  Will I ever just arrive?  He says when he comes here to spend three months he comes to do nothing … with a capital N.  I can’t think of a better place to do nothing.  He instructs his team of support people not to ever ever contact him by phone or by email unless the world is absolutely ending.  And even then, maybe not.

 So while I try diligently to get as many things on my fieldwork “to do list” done, I am also remembering something my dissertation co-chair has tried to teach us over and over again.  Be open to the situation, to what I can learn, and allow the work to emerge.  Don’t try to know in advance what you are going to learn before you even get there!   It’s difficult to try to let go of the idea of “getting things done” or “accomplishing” something.  I really just need to take things one day at a time.

 Can I even continue to have ambitious plans in this setting?  If so, what is the best way to act on those plans?  By what criteria should I judge the outcome?  And how do I best proceed in a way that doesn’t impose my beliefs and worldview onto a setting where those beliefs and worldviews might be irrelevant or even worse – damaging to the ecology of this social system?

 If I think back to Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind I remember that is the space BETWEEN things or the relationship between people and groups of people that holds the key to understanding how best to foster the healthiest ecology of a social system.  For now, I will just take things one day at a time and be grateful for each experience that offers me new insights about this particular setting.

Ever faithfully, em busca do axé.

Trans-Torno (Notes from the field #1)

Trans: Across

Torno: (Portuguese) I return, turn, go or come back; I give back, I send back or repay; I reply, answer, retort, translate, transform, render, change or convert.

Transtorno: (Portuguese) upset, disappointment, perturbation, confusion, trouble, derangement, adversity, misfortune.

Please don’t misunderstand the choice of words.  Things are fine.  But at the moment of the transitional journey from airport through Salvador to my final destination of Itacaré, there was certainly an upheaval, a confusion, and some perturbation all as part of the journey.

The drive from Salvador – it wasn’t until I described the drive to my partner in an email that I realized what a nightmare it was.  It started out pleasant enough.  We took the waiter’s advice and went along the coast to get from Piatã to the ferry station.  This, of course, meant we avoided the chaos of the city center and spent most of the drive admiring beautiful scenery in some of Salvador’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Then the chaos hit.  As soon as we hit Mercado Modelo, where I thought I knew the rest of the way, where I’ve walked many times, the chaos entered and the panic crept in.  The signage in Salvador is horrible.  I’m sure there are plenty of other major cities across the globe with similar problems, like Boston.  If you don’t already know the way you shouldn’t be driving.  In this case it meant that one wrong turn means you are suddenly on a wild goose chase trying to get back to somewhere that looks familiar.  OVER and OVER and OVER again.  It also involves being ballsy and rolling down the window at every stoplight or slow spot in the road to yell out at anyone – another driver, a sober-looking pedestrian, a delivery man – how to get to the ferry boat station.

I had made wrong turns several times already, repeated at least 2 stretches of the journey twice and was finally on the correct road.  I found the ferry station.  I was frazzled, stressed, and jumpy.  But the line was long.  If I had slipped in behind the last car my tail end would have been in traffic.

So my sister suggested I “play the dumb card” and pull into the second lane which was completely open.  Apparently the dumb card, which has worked for me in the past, led to the greatest transtorno of the day.  When I pulled up to the front where the guards were letting cars line  up to get on the ferry, I stopped and asked where I was supposed to go if I wanted to get on the ferry with my car (which was a rental I had already endangered about a half dozen times). He said I was supposed to get to the back of the line.  I asked “But where?  There is no space.”  He said “Você vai ter que dar uma volta.” “But how?”  He guided me through backing up to get into the exit lane.  So I drove down the exit lane thinking there would be a space to slide right back into the entrance lane at the end.  No such luck at all.  And cars behind me were already honking.  But the thought of getting back into Salvador’s traffic to try to go all the way around the block nearly left me shaking.  I asked the moto-taxi dispatch guy in his yellow traffic vest what I could do.  He said “Você vai ter que dar uma volta.”  “Uma volta inteira? Ali?”  I pointed to the main traffic and the city block I’d have to circumvent again.  He looked around, skeptical, but just crazy enough to suggest it.  (Meanwhile cars behind me trying to exit were honking even more fiercely).

He said “ou … você vai ter que dar ré!”  Oh shit.  He was really suggesting it.  “Eu vou acalmar o trânsito, e você dá ré.”

Oh shit.  Never in my life do I need to relive those few moments.  It was probably only 30 seconds but it felt like 5 minutes.  I pulled a teensy bit into traffic then put the car in reverse; the car behind me still following closely behind nearly hit me.  As he skirted around me he yelled “Onde você tirou sua carteira, sua maluca!  Porra!”

Then I slowly reversed, in heavy Salvador traffic, the few yards backwards it took to get myself in place at the end of the line of cars waiting to get onto the ferry.  I was terrified but I wasn’t about to drive all the way around the block again.  “Yes, that just happened,”  I thought. A pedestrian walked by (presumably witnessed the whole thing) and I swore I thought I heard him say “… vai ter que pagar depois.”  Did I just inflict bad karma on my dissertation fieldwork?  I can’t think that way!

I’m not sure but I think at that very moment I might have reached into my pocket to grasp my blessing charm given to me by my dissertation co-chair and a group of awesome women fellow PhD students.  I decided to believe it was a blessing I got through it without killing someone and I offered a silent prayer of gratitude.

This wasn’t the end of the travel trans-torno.  In fact, it was just the beginning, unless of course you consider all the airport hassles to be the true beginning.  Why, why, why in the world did I imagine for a second that any connection in a Brazilian airport would be smooth?  But I digress…

Apparently the reason the ferry line was so long was because the 10:00am ferry had problems.  So they cancelled it and all the 10:00am cars were waiting for the 11:00am ferry.  We were told we would have to wait for the 12:00 ferry.  It was about 9:45 I think.  I asked if there was a safe place to park our car, thinking we could go walk around, maybe do a little sightseeing.    All of our luggage was piled up in clear view of anyone who might have had designs on our belongings.  He said “right here is as good a place as any.”  I took a deep breath and said to my sister and her partner “Are you ready for the news?” Yes.  I broke it to her that we were going to have to wait 2 hours in the hot sun with our car and I explained why.  She asked “Was there any good news?”  No.

Meanwhile, it appeared that the feira de São Joaquim was open, and it was right next to the ferry station.  I decided to get out of the car, asked my sister and her partner if they wouldn’t mind staying with the car while I walked around the feira.  They didn’t mind.

So I took a stroll.  The ritual objects for sale. The beautiful, ornate ceremonial clothing and fabrics for sale. The herbs. The grains. The statues with giant phalluses. The clay pots.  Everything.  It all felt oddly comforting to me – that amid all the chaos there was this place where the attention to detail in ritual could be accommodated.  I remembered my dear friend Augusto and thought about how he introduced me to this feira.  He said I couldn’t leave Salvador without going to the feira.  I almost felt he was strolling with me for a moment.

I reached the outdoor area and the vibe shifted.  It was mostly food vendors I saw: vegetables for the festa feasts, okra, onions, lots of different kinds of peppers.  And then a man approached me.  His eyes were reddish, sort of bloodshot, or maybe soaked in alcohol.  “Eh, filha de Iansã!  Vem conversar com a minha mãe! Ela tem uma carta para você!”  He seemed friendly enough but I was leery.  I didn’t feel confident that the red eyes were trustworthy.  I wasn’t sure what he was about.  I was fairly certain that they would want money to do a card reading.  I was certain I looked out of place, the word Gringa practically tattooed across my forehead.  But I told him “well, you’re not the first person who has said I am probably filha de Iansã, but I don’t think I want a card reading today.”  He said “Oh are you de Umbanda?”  I said “Well, I’m not confirmed in anything.  Thank you anyway.”  As I left I thought “Is that the card reading that would have told me who I had to pay for the trans-torno incident?”  Then I second guessed myself and thought maybe I was supposed to see through the card reading offer to avoid a window to something dark.  I’m not sure I’ll ever know but for now I seem none the worse for wear.

I went back to the car and suggested that my sister and her partner take a stroll through the feira.  This is probably the one and only time in their lives they would be able to see this place or anything like it.  So they did.  Cheryl had a really hard time passing the meat section.  She said the smell made her nauseous.  She couldn’t understand how all those dead animal parts could be just sitting out in the open air.  I hadn’t remembered the smell bothering me.  I wondered why her sense of smell was more acute than mine.  She talked about how weird it was to go outside and see all the live goats, rabbits, and Guinea hens for sale.  I hadn’t made it that far apparently.  She asked what people would buy them for.  I told her it was my understanding that they were purchased to be prepared for the ritual meal.  I likened it to Thanksgiving, only they kill the animal themselves instead of buying it prepared at a supermarket.

I wasn’t sure how true that was or how fair the comparison was but I felt strongly that I needed to dispel any notions of ritual goat’s head images they might be conjuring in their imaginations.

I knew she had enjoyed costume design in college and I asked her if she saw all the elaborate clothing and fabrics.  She said “well, I passed by one section briefly but it was right next to the meat so I didn’t linger.”

I wasn’t sure if I was perpetuating the exoticization of Candomblé and Umbanda or if I was helping to dispel stigma.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever know.  In any case we made it onto the 11:30 ferry and got to Bom Despacho on the island of Itaparica at about 12:30.

There is more to the story of the journey of transition into place – the 4 hour drive that was really 6; the “brand new highway” that was some of the worst driving conditions I’ve ever been in (what the heck must it have been like before?!)  But I’ll stop for now.  Suffice it to say there have been ample opportunities already to reflect on things like social access to infrastructure, my own implications of privilege and all that I take for granted.

Peace to you all as I remain faithfully em busca do axé.