I’m quite wary about blogging on this beach visit in Salvador, Brazil. After all I have enough trouble persuading people that I am here working and researching, rather than on holiday. And although I do occasionally go, for a swim and run perhaps at the end of another sweltering day, it tends to be a bit of a project. Get the bus, or walk, where is safe to walk? Will the beach be too empty (not safe) or too full (not safe). Once I get there, there is the problem of what to do with my stuff while I swim. You don’t really need to take very much because cold isn’t an issue. It’s more about money really. You’ll probably want some on you, at least for a bus home, but also perhaps for a snack and a drink afterwards. The solution is to ask someone to look after your bag. I’m quite used to doing this and I’ve never had any problems with it, but it does mean scouting the beach for someone who looks friendly and trustworthy. Families are usually a good bet, but I’ve asked all sorts of people and it’s always been fine. The context here is that Salvador is fairly crime-ridden. People get mugged a lot and there are a fair amount of shootings and robberies. This leads to everyone being more or less paranoid about security.
Today my flatmate went to the beach and asked me to join him. I was still doing work but said I might come later – which I did. It turned out to be a little cultural adventure. I caught the bus to Barra, a very popular and touristy beach, where he – a local – said he would be. When I got there I was astounded by just how crowded it was! I have a personal antipathy to this because in my family, when I was a child, we always looked for an empty beach. We had to trek until there was no other family, no windbreaker, no camping chair, no crisp packet or coke can in sight. We had to find a pristine dune to make our base. So, a crowded beach has always been anathema. I assumed that my flatmate, who has good taste in interior design, clothes and food as far as I’m concerned, could not possibly be on this crowded beach. I walked along for a while, looking for him on the slightly emptier sections further up. Not seeing him though I decided to call his mobile and he directed me back to the MOST CROWDED section, right at the beginning of this popular spot. Puzzled, I went back there. On the way I saw five police dragging off a man in swimming shorts to a makeshift police post above the urban beach. We eventually found each other in the throng. My flatmate was sitting with a couple of friends.
It was quite squashed there. To be fair the tide (not very strong here) was in and had pushed people up towards the wall which lined the beach. Lots of bodies, all shapes and sizes, mostly dark-skinned, mostly local. Probably predominantly younger, although there was a good mix. Plenty of toned men showing off their hours in the gym. The fashion for women at the moment is bikini bottoms which leave the bottoms mostly, or entirely exposed. These would be squeezing past you at face height when you were sitting down.
I went for a swim – no need to ask anyone to look after my things this time! It occurred to me that on the relatively few occasions I have gone to the beach, I had almost always been alone. So it was interesting to me to go with locals, as it is clearly part of the culture. The water was cool compared to the heat in the air. The vast majority of people in the water were within five yards of the edge. Brazilians like the beach, but most don’t really swim as such. They just play and cool off. I swam out further. It was a way of getting away from the crowd, and getting some exercise without overheating. Some boats were moored further out and there were a few people in beach canoes and stand-up paddle surfers. There was a good view of the beach with all the umbrellas and people, and the buildings behind.
When I got back I was able to try and understand what was going on around me. Like most places in Salvador there was a great deal of noise. People talking and calling out. Some people drumming and singing sambas a little further along. A hawker with a mobile sound system on a wheelbarrow playing local Axe music. In fact there were many hawkers, selling all sorts stuff: mostly consumables. Whereas I would normally ignore these, regarding them as a nuisance, out to rip off the unsuspecting tourist, I soon realised that the Brazilians around me were buying from them all the time! Being on this beach was not so much about relaxing in a natural setting, it was full-on consuming and money-making. The hawkers moved amongst the tightly arranged throng, calling out like market traders. They were selling water, beer, grilled cheese, skewers of spicy prawns – to be consumed with their shells, crisps, other local traditional foods – and weed. Yes, it soon became clear that, mob-handed police squadrons notwithstanding, almost every knot of people around me had a spliff circulating. It was like a restaurant/bar/ coffee shop where you didn’t have to move from your beach chair. These latter incidentally are also supplied by beach workers, along with parasols. So, there is a whole service industry of poor itinerants servicing the beach – not that the people buyng from them are necessarily rich, but these things are relative. I had some inkling of this before, but seeing it in such a concentrated way really brought it home to me.
I feel I should have something profound to say about this. Something to justify doing a holiday-like thing while on fieldwork, even though it was towards the end of a Friday in a week when many people are on holiday anyway (two days after New Year’s Day). Of course the beach hawkers weren’t on holiday. Perhaps I am trying to assuage my protestant work ethic issues rather than anything, or anyone else. Ultimately though, ethnomusicology is music in culture and society. And anthropology is the study of human cultures. One could study a beach anthropologically – no problem: who comes, why do they come, what do they do, why do they do it, what do they think about it, what is its history etc. ? As it happens I am studying cultural interaction in a city; a coastal city with a beach culture.
That’ll do. If it won’t, you’re just jealous!