On Tuesday I felt like I was at the end of my rope. My relationship with Brazil in general and Salvador in particular is what I would classify as a "like/hate" relationship. I used to say that I had a love/hate relationship with Salvador, but it has moved from love to like, and from hate to really hate at times. Tuesday was in the category of "get me on the next plane back to the US"!
Here´s what happened...
I was on the bus to go teach a class. When I go teach this student every Tuesday, I sometimes treat myself and take the air-conditioned bus. This bus costs twice the price of the normal bus, but is (obviously) a lot cooler and goes faster because less people ride it. I saw this bus go by and thought about flagging it down, but then decided to just ride the normal bus to save the R$2. I should have listened to my inner voice about taking the more expensive one, but of course hindsight is 20/20 now isn´t it?!
I get on the bus, give the ticket guy my money, and then move to take a seat up near the front. There are actually some busses in Salvador that have a wheelchair lift, and this was one of them. There was a man in a wheelchair sitting in the area where they strap the chairs down once they are on the bus. I glanced at him, saw that he had one leg missing and the other leg in real bad shape, and decided to try not to look at him and just go about my business.
I was sitting there staring out the window at the ocean and trying to think pleasant thoughts when I saw a movement on the floor out of the corner of my eye. I look down and there is the guy from the wheelchair who had climbed out of the chair and was dragging himself across the floor of the bus to get to the front.
A side note about busses in Salvador... Some bus drivers will allow people to come onto the bus and beg for money. This usually involves them standing (or sitting as it were) at the front of the bus, loudly telling their sad story about why they need money, and then walking along the aisle collecting money from any folks who will give it to them. I have to admit that this kind of makes me mad because I just want to space out and look out the window when I am riding the bus, and it is hard to focus on relaxing when you have someone telling their sad story and sometimes being aggressively insistent that you give them money afterwards. But I digress...
This guy starts talking about how he lost his leg, he is going to lose his other leg, his leg is "cheio de bichos" (there is not really a good English translation for this phrase, the closest I can get is "full of bugs"), he can´t work and has 3 kids to feed. Now I don´t give money to people on the streets, and I did not give this guy any money, but his story, appearance, and situation in general was such the epitemy of misery here that I started to cry.
Seeing so much povery and misery, day after day, can be really draining. Especially for someone who has not grown up here, it can be a bit much to emotionally deal with. Now of course I know there is misery in the USA (come on, I was a social worker for 10 years!), and there are also people in worse situations in other parts of the world, but this is the first time I have been face to face with some serious misery and poverty.
Since being in Salvador I have struggled between being open and sympathetic towards people´s plights or putting up a wall and blocking it all out, and I have to admit that in recent months I have been leaning towards the wall side of things. But on this bus, on this day, the wall fell down and I just felt so sad and overwhelmed that I couldn´t bear to see another sad, miserable, poor Brazilian.
That night I was talking with one of the Brazilian English teachers at the English school and described the situation to him. He told me that in his opinion, Salvador is like this because people live so close together, that we get to see the good, the bad, the ugly side of everything and everyone. And it´s true. Look at the city plan (or lack of it) and there are all these super tall buildings, crammed close together, or favela houses that are built up on top of each other. People here have a different sense of personal space, think nothing of touching each other and just cramming all in together where in the US we would be saying "excuse me, sorry" left and right. They just go with this flow of closeness and seem to be ok with it. Throw a North-Americana into this mix and it can get a little uncomfortable for her.
So what happens now? Well, Salvador is still Salvador, and I am still me. Maybe I will take the more expensive bus next Tuesday, maybe I will break down and actually give R$1 to a guy on the street, maybe the wall will stay up, maybe it will come down. I guess the only thing I know for sure, is that whatever happens someone will be sure to be close enough to me to see it.