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PHOTO: Music plays under my window at the Sheraton da Bahia in Salvador. (Photo by David Cogswell)
Wouldn't it be my luck? Today was the final day of my two days of structured activities in Salvador, of being escorted around town with my Portuguese-speaking guide from Avanti Destinations. Tonight begins the independent part of my trip, four more nights in Salvador on my own. I will not be bound to any schedule, but I also won't have the support of an expert Salvadorian at my side as I explore the city.
Avanti Destinations, my destination manager for this trip, let's you travel exactly as independently as you want. You can choose structured and guided activities throughout the trip. Or you can include as much free time as you wish, depending on your preferences and how much help you need to make the most of the destination. I chose to take a lot of free time.
I'm not one who wants to go go all the time and see all the must-see sights. I like to take it at my own pace and give myself time to process things. I would rather do less and truly savor what I do than keep running around all the time to try to squeeze in everything possible in the available time.
I chose more independence. But more independence means you have to take responsibility for yourself. And it's a little more challenging in some ways.
I haven't learned much Portuguese in my first two and a half days here, and I knew very little before. I didn't need to speak Portuguese up to now because my guide Alfredo did my speaking for me. And the Sheraton da Bahia has plenty of English-speaking people, so language is not a problem in the hotel.
But Brazilians mostly speak Brazilian Portuguese, and like the U.S.A., Brazil is a big country with a single language. There is not as big an incentive for Brazilians to speak second languages as there is in many other countries. Bottom line, Brazil is not a place where you can just breeze around speaking English and expect everyone to understand you. It's actually refreshing, but also challenging.
Now that I'm on my own, I may have to be a little more strategic, practice a few restaurant phrases before going into a restaurant for example. But for tonight, my first night, I figured I wouldn't be too adventurous. I would just get a bite to eat and a drink at the hotel, go up to my room, get some work done and then take it easy.
So I went up to my room and when I first walked in, I had the disorienting sensation that I had left the music playing. But it couldn't be that because when you take your key card out of the slot by the door, the power in the room goes off. It was Brazilian music, but it wasn't mine. It wasn't anything I recognized.
Then I realized it was coming in through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I went out onto the balcony and looked out and it turned out that the music was coming from Campo Grande, the park across the street from the Sheraton.
The market that I had seen during the blazing sun of the lunch hour was still set up, with many little tents in a circle around the monument in the middle of the park in which people were selling their crafts and wares. Only now it was cool, lit with flood lamps and playing music.
Well that was easy. Not a lot of city navigating involved in that. So I decided to take a walk over there to check out the market, the people, the social scene and the park itself. I saw many booths with beautiful dresses, handbags, jewelry, handcrafts of many kinds and some strikingly good painting and sculpture.
There were also many people engaged in some activity or other: a father and his tiny helmeted son riding their bikes through the park, a group of boys playing football, a little jogger about 6 years of age, a lady stretching her hamstrings on a handrail along the sidewalk, a long line of students streaming through the park doing different kinds of dramatic gestures and movements, attracting puzzled looks and smiles, all in fun.
Brazilians are in shape! They are active. In the park at all hours there are people actively engaged in one thing or another. I know that's a huge generalization, but the tendency I am observing is very pronounced.
And while we're on the subject of generalizations, I'd like to dispel one misconception right away for any considering a trip to Brazil. All Brazilian women do not look like supermodels.
I know that may come as a harsh disclosure for some, but I have to be candid about this.
I can say this, however, that the Brazilians I have interacted with so far are all beautiful in their own ways. And they do, in general, share certain national characteristics with some of the public figures from Brazil that the world has fallen in love with. There is a very pronounced national character here and it is really something to experience.
The people of Brazil are vital, vivacious, fun-loving, good hearted and pleasant tempered. And artistic. Brazilians have an appreciation for the creative arts that goes hand in hand with the joie de vivre of the national character.
I have not yet, fortunately, run into any nasty ones. And I am thankful for that.
Alfredo took me on the second of two four-hour orientation tours today, showing me other parts of the city I hadn't seen yesterday, preparing me for my own private explorations over the next four days.
Besides the orientation tours, there were two meetings and one performance arranged by Avanti that must be shared. But they are worth stories in themselves so that's for later.
Alfredo took me back to the hotel and set me free, giving me some instructions for how to get to some places I may want to visit. He also left me his home and cell phone numbers so I can call with any questions. (Oh thank you, Alfredo!)
Two full days in Salvador, four to go. Turns out my luck is pretty good so far.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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