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Blown away
Photo essay: Brazil travelogue

Maziar Shirazi
August 25, 2004

This summer, as part of an international volunteering program, I spent five weeks in Salvador, Brazil, working the majority of the time with an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention group called GAPA. I have been abroad in the past and have had remarkable experiences, but the encounter I had there was unique and fulfilling on many levels I have never felt before >>> See photos

I was amazed at how comfortable I felt with the people of Bahia (the name of the province) and their culture. It is very similar to Iranian culture: the familiarity, the approachability of people, the warmth, human contact, incredible hospitality and ridiculous gossip... the only thing is that they have a lot more sex than we do and are a lot more open about it as well, so if any conservative Iranians are planning on visiting Brazil, be prepared to look like that pair of Muslim girls that was recently on the cover of the website a lot, and keep as open a mind as possible.

One thing I was pleased to find out was that many Bahians, especially ones that have had the social and financial means to attain a good education, have great respect and admiration for Iranians and our culture.

I had the opportunity and privilege to work and hang out with people from all walks of life in Bahia, from poor, uneducated teens and adults to psychologists and nurses with degrees from the best universities in Brazil, HIV-positive social workers and patients, HIV-negative social workers and people, abandoned and orphaned children (also HIV-positive and/or orphaned by AIDS), people my age volunteering from within and outside of Brazil, straight, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transvestites, atheists, spiritualists, evangelists, Catholics, and Candomblé believers (a polytheistic religion with roots in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria). What was even more conducive to my experience is the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city itself; it is, simply put, an amazing microcosm of the world, from many aspects.

I kept a travelogue of sorts that I shared with my close friends and I wanted to include some of the excerpts from it in this article. I hope you enjoy, especially you college students, and if you speak Spanish, take Portuguese for Speakers of Spanish and one class after that and get with a home stay/study abroad/volunteer abroad program to Salvador or Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, depending on what you want. If you speak the language and are independent and willing to take some risks, you will have the time of your life. Just put yourself into interesting situations that challenge you... anyways, I'm babbling.

Here is the travelogue.

What up. I just got into Salvador about 6 or 7 hours ago and I'm already blown away by how awesomely awesome this place is. It has some of the most beautiful vegetation that I have ever seen, in and around the city, the beaches are beautiful, and so are the people. anyway, don't know what's gonna happen over the next couple days, but my Portuguese already made a jump from talkable to decent, so I'm feeling good. I'll keep you all posted in the coming weeks.

It's 6:15 a.m., two hours before my first day at GAPA, the HIV-AIDS prevention clinic where I'm going to be volunteering for the next month. I am nervous and excited, because I know that this is an incredible opportunity for me but I know that if I am to make any sort of contribution, I have to throw myself into it and get a lot of mileage out of my Portuguese. I am thinking to make things easier that I might pick up a Portuguese medical dictionary so I won't be asking so many questions during my first week >>> See photos

Salvador is the chocolate city of the southern hemisphere, 80 percent black and sugar-free (thanks Redman). It has the second largest Negro population in the world, second only to Lagos, Nigeria... I think the number is like 2,550,000 people. The white population here is often called „the invisible rich‰, and I hear that they don't even take cars to their destinations; there are heliports on top of certain skyscrapers they live in. The city is situated on this peninsula, the periphery of which the majority is pretty developed and the interior, basically miles and miles of shacks (they call ghettos "favelas" here).

It doesn't take long to realize that this town and the province of Bahia is the heart of Brazilian culture; not only the colonial history but culturally and socially, I realized that all the things that I like about Brazilian people and culture comes from Bahia. It's always hot and humid here, and the whole pace of life seems like it is moving in slow motion, except for the cars, which peel out of anywhere and will hit you if you don't move out of the way. To be totally honest, people here are some of the friendliest and warmest that I have ever met in my life, and I really feel like I can talk to anybody here. For a city of two and a half million people, it feels mad neighborhoody.

As I was told it would be, the income gap here is staggering; unemployment is at 17 percent and underemployment/informal employment covers about 50 percent of the population. Everybody is trying to sell something, and I have said "No thank you" as many times in the past three days that I normally would probably in a year.

In the more touristy parts of town, beggars/addicts go to elaborate lengths to get cash from you, which include hanging out with you for an hour or two and running the same hustle: "I'm hungry, I just want food for me and my bro/sister, not money", then asking you for more money, then returning the food for the money if they can.

Its mad frustrating, I definitely got caught on that a few days ago but the past few times somebody rolls up on me like that I'm just like "already heard that story, get a new one" ... and we live in a pretty nice neighborhood, although across the street there is a straight ghetto and another favela about 4 blocks down from us, so poverty is pretty omnipresent in this town. After dark, you have to be careful pretty much wherever you are. Beaches are awesome though, berimbaus and drinks are cheap, and I'm gonna be taking mad capoeira classes.

Anyway... I'm off to breakfast, just wanted to share an idea of what this place is like... peace out.


So I had a bomb-ass birthday party at the rock in Rio cafe, dancing salsa and merengue and having about 9 or 10 drinks all night, and the past few days have been alcohol free for me... while it seemed like the first week went by in a month, this week I blinked and it's already Thursday. I'm getting to know the city better; I walk a lot to far places now and take the bus Everywhere (taxis are for the weekends only cuz you can haggle for a set price), and the Brazilians that I hang out with have been more than helpful, they've been like family to me.

Ana, the secretary at work, gets me deals at the mercados, takes me out to the best and cheapest lunch spots, tells me about socials MOs and do's and don'ts, and bombards me with gossip in the process. A different gay guy tries to pick me up at work at least once a week, but when they find out I'm straight they invite me to hang out (with girls) over the weekend, and this is my first weekend hanging out just with buddies that I've made here in Brazil. There are a lot of young kids at my job, intelligent, caring people my age and are totally chill and cool.

Lately I've been spending a lot of time at the HIV/AIDS hospital and I went to CAASAH, which is like a treatment center that infants, teens, and adults who are HIV-positive. The difference between the hospital meetings and my day at CAASAH was incredible. Maybe it was because I wasn't around seriously ill people at the hospital (at least these people could walk), but the center was a serious shock to me.

The pain, misery, and terrible living conditions of these people is almost unbearable. Some are doing better than others; some are so sick that they have barely any flesh left on their body and all they can do is lie in bed and cry out in pain/misery/madness, I don't even know. It's insane, and seeing the sick infants and children cry and shit and vomit on themselves in the conditions that they are in (a crib with a dirty mattress) is something that has already left a deep mark on me.

It's not that the people at CAASAH don't care; there are just simply not enough resources, training, staff, or aid from the government to make this place livable for these HIV/AIDS patients. But they still live there, and many die there as well when the last treatment has stopped working, or when they decide to stop taking the medication themselves.

I think that I have really begun to understand what it is going to take for me to become a good doctor, what I am going to need to know, what I'm going to have to be able to do, how I should be with sick people who are not only afraid for their lives but, because of the prejudice, ignorance, and fear of others, are questioning if it's even worth living. Two more weeks, and I hope to see you all sooner or later (preferably sooner).

This week was interesting and frustrating. Between being sick for a few days and having a mad random schedule, I missed a few days of work, which is a shame; there was a lot that I could have learned and done, especially with the patients in the inpatient clinic that I work at. I think that I am pretty much recovered now, and I hope that my medication is going to last me through the duration of the trip. I hope it does; the doctors here charge you R$100 just to take a look at you and I am not trying to spend more money than I have to.

I already kind of feel like I am running out of time here, because I leave on the August 14 and it is already July 30, which means I only have two weeks left. My main shit right now is to finish out my volunteering all-out and do a lot of capoeira, and speaking of which, I finally practiced at my academy on Monday night; the place was impossible to find, in the middle of a neighborhood that I completely did not know, at night, and I was really surprised that I was not mugged in the process. When in doubt, ask for directions from old men sitting outside drinking beer.

There have been a couple of shady types that have approached me lately because I am traveling alone to different places a lot more than I used to, and I always stick out whenever I am not wearing shorts and a cutoff shirt, so I gotta change my dress code. The other day I was sitting in Praça da Piedade and two guys about my age sat on either side of me and started trying to talk some intimidating shit about me giving them money. They were dumb; I stood up and sat in a spot like 10 feet away and they left. Our academy is awesome, on the third floor of this nondescript brick and cement building without doors, missing some serious walls, with a great view of Boca do Rio and the city of Salvador in general. This is such a random city.

The next couple of days this weekend are gonna be recreational; I am going to Morro de São Paulo, which is apparently a ridiculously beautiful island where I will get even more tan than I am now and do my damn thing. I am definitely going to return to Salvador one day. This whole trip, man, doing social work, community outreach, attending teach-ins, meetings, support groups, going to a human rights conference, learning about how a part of Brazil works has just been amazing.

I am going to put these emails together somehow and make a high school presentation or something someday, who knows. See most of you in mid-August.So that was my trip. Hope you all enjoyed reading it, and check out the photos I included as well >>> See photos

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