At three o’clock this morning, I came home from a night of dinner with friends and listening to samba. I went down into Centro with Cat Head Josh and the two of us sat and talked about music and Brasil and what makes this country so incredible.
I know I’ve talked about Cat Head before and about his love for Brasil–how infectious it is. But last night I saw how powerful it must feel for a person to love a place. Cat Head’s eyes teared, again and again, when he looked at all the bodies dancing on the floor, pushed tightly together, dancing amidst the tables, tossing back dark bottles of beer. Everyone dancing, everyone laughing, everyone kissing.
I’ve been to this bar before. During my first week here, my then-new friends and I went to Centro to have drinks and get to know each other. Some of us went to this bar afterwards to dance. It was the same last night as it was then: dark, crowded, sweaty upon opening the doors. The beer tastes better in a place like that–so cold, so light upon the tongue. I cannot drink beer fast enough to satisfy my thirst, to satisfy the craving that I don’t know I have for the flavor of the beer until I feel it at the back of my throat. The bodies tight together, moving, looking at each other, looking for the possibility of dancing with another body. My Portuguese is better in a place like that–it is joyfully full of mistakes but the mistakes are tempered by the cold beer my listeners have had plenty of, that I’ll have plenty more of.
The music is about hard life and hard living but the message of it is that it’s life and life is beautiful and there is so much love. Love all around, love everywhere. Cat Head tells me about the lyrics and, sipping foamy beer out of a small clear glass, his eyes water for the third time. He looks at all these slippery bodies–high-heeled women, button-downed men. All dark features–brown skin, brown hair, wide white smiles. Fast feet, strong wide legs.
A woman in yellow–all yellow–a wide, wide woman in yellow–dances to our side. She is curvaceous and jiggly and the man who is her partner loves her every curve. His own hands look small against the width of her arms; he nearly drowns in the bright sun waves of her stomach, but both lean against each other and move to the African rhythm like they are the only two there, like how they move and what they hear is actually what they’re saying to each other.
The truth is, it’s too loud to really speak and listen. If you’re not dancing, you’re drinking, and if you’re not drinking, you’re dancing and good luck saying anything meaningful if you’re not saying it with your body because the only people listening are the ones who are watching–or touching–other bodies.
I feel like I’ve gone back in time at this bar. I feel, when I’m here, like I’m in South America. I feel like I’m in another place. No one speaks English, it’s loud and I don’t bother trying to make myself make sense. The beer and laughter and dark skin and rhythm is ubiquitous and I feel like this is what I left home for. Cat Head tells me this is Brasil and now I see what he means.
I dance with a woman named Carina. She is tall and skinny, skinny, skinny. Nighttime skin, long black hair pulled back with a white band. I tell her I don’t know how to dance but she makes me stand anyway and move to the music. At first I move my feet because that’s what I see the other women doing. But Carina tells me the way to do the samba is to make the movements with your hips. Lead with the hips and the feet will follow. “Que bonita!” she tells me after I feel the drumming in my hips enough to make them move the right way. (Being Italian, I am blessed with visible hips–hips I might want to cover in the States, but hips that are coveted in Brasil.) A few slow spins and I’m too shy to do much more. The truth is I want a real dancing partner–a man who will grab me around my waist and, with gentle pressure on my lower back, lead me in the direction I need to go. When I first danced at this bar my partner held me close and together we made tight circles around the tiny dance floor. It was then I understood why, when people say “the samba,” they say it like “the samba.” Carina is a beautiful dancer in her very high heels but, in that she wears high heels, she’s not my ideal dancing partner. I return to the table for a series of deep gulps of cool beer that Cat Head keeps nice and full in my glass.
I’ve spent so much time in places that feel just a little bit like home–New Zealand, school, even some parts of Cambui. But here, at this bar, I know I’m not home. And I feel comfortable, even though bodies are on top of each other and it’s loud, everyone’s moving together in a dance that is structured and makes sense. I don’t know what makes me feel so comfortable in a place that reminds me of nowhere else I’ve ever been. Everyone’s there to watch bodies move together. They’re there just for that. To watch bodies move together and maybe if they’re lucky to have a body move against their own. The samba is what draws people there, and, once there, to each other. The light music, the dark features, the heat of all the bodies, the cool of the beer. The closeness of the dancers. How far from home I am. The energy pushes higher from the floor, lifting everyone there up into the rafters, out across the cobble stone streets, into the city, home. To sleep. At three o’clock in the morning.