Life at № 42
The first part of the flight, Oklahoma (where my father had a position at a University since two years earlier) to Florida was Pan Am. The second was in a Varig aeroplane. The flight attendants, which in those days we called stewardesses, wore navy blue suits with unusually large silky bows around their necks. My parents had warned me that when we felt the plane do a 180 degree turn, that meant we were arriving. I was also supposed to look down because at the precise moment of the turn I’d be able to see the lighthouse and the (my grandparents’) beach house.
Coming out of the passenger area was a shock in every possible way. The air was different, the smells were different, the temperature was different. I’d never seen so many dark people, all in one place. My grandmother and aunt were waiting right outside the gate. People looked at them and at us. Especially at them. Blond women women weren’t a common occurrence in the area. As we walked to the car we were surrounded by a swarm of children. All screaming auntie, uncle um trocado por favor (change please), and putting out their hands. I was overwhelmed. Scared to death, to be precise. In the narrative of my mind it was the moment immediately before the natives eat you. I screamed. My aunt lifted me into her arms laughing and explained that I was using the wrong word. I’d screamed me ajude which means assist me, when I should have screamed socorro, which is the correct word when people are in urgent distress. One of the children pointed at my grandmother and said “look, she has blue eyes.” Another asked if she was from the television. The first thing you see when you leave the airport is a bamboo lined avenue. Absolutely stunning.
But the beauty is short lived. On the other side of the bamboo is a shantytown called Itinga and the road into Salvador. The first thing I noticed was the people walking the streets all seemed to be wearing t-shirts with vote for this or that candidate written on them- and flip-flops, no closed shoes in sight. Free campaign t-shirts played a major role in dressing people back in the days of the military government. I stared out the window in great apprehension, desperately hoping wherever we were going had nothing to do with what I was seeing.
Once I could see the ocean the landscape was more bearable, but the streets looked no less strange and crowded, dangerous even. Every time we stopped at a light the car was mobbed by little black children, just like the ones at the airport. The older ones would squirt (dirty) water on the windshield and then clean it off hoping for a few coins in return. Not long after seeing the ocean it seemed there were less and less buildings. And suddenly we arrived at huge gates set into a tall wall. My grandmother’s chauffeur honked and almost immediately the gates were opened by a man from the inside. A driveway led to a house in the distance. There was hibiscus everywhere, and coconut trees. A Flamboyant (delonix regia) by the tennis court looked like it was literally on fire. When we got out of the car I pulled my small travel bag out with me but my grandmother shook her head and said no, no, Claudio does that. I found this moderately confusing and wondered which things of mine he was going to carry and at which times. As soon as we entered the house my grandmother told us to go say hello to the people in the kitchen. From the living room I could hear (much) laughter and talking. As I walked in large black women all exclaimed the many things people tell children. Look how big he is, look how handsome, I held you when you were just a baby, do you remember me, I used to take care of you. There was hugging and kissing and dishevelling of my hair. Apart from the occasional flash I didn’t really remember any of them, but pretended to out of politeness.
There were platters of food everywhere you looked in that kitchen and huge pots smoking on the stove. A giant contraption with six burners connected to an orange gas bottle (health and safety regulations weren’t really a thing in the third world.) The windows were high up on the wall and opened with pull-chains. So high up on the wall you couldn’t see out of them. My grandmother would later explain to me this was the custom because kitchen staff is very easily distracted, “you don’t want them wasting time looking out of windows.” That may sound bad, but was much better than my other grandmother who once told me that of course she believed everyone was equal as she even “let them sleep inside the house.”
In the dining room there were two tables, both covered in white lace tablecloths. One had piles of plates, cutlery and white linen napkins, the other was reserved for food. Drinks were served by a very friendly man who kept asking people what they wanted. I wanted Coca-Cola. Unlike in the United States where it came in cans, it came in glass bottles. Glass bottles in crates of 24. To buy Coca-Cola you had to take your crate (engradado) of empty bottles to exchange for a crate of full bottles. This was the time before free trade. A time of much self-reliance. Juice in a box? Didn’t exist. If you wanted juice, fruit was going to have to be involved. Everything was made locally, and much of it was awful.
More and more people arrived. All acting as if they knew me. I was still an only child then, used to spending much time on my own so I found it all very odd. But I did like the feeling it gave me. It seemed like I was something special. Something important. Someone. They say our personalities are formed by the time we’re seven. I suppose that year explains a lot in mine.
In one of those odd twists of fate, I’ve come across someone from that world, something that hasn’t happened since I first moved to Spain- and it all came flooding back.