Today we took a bus to the southern end of the city where we caught a tiny boat to out-of-the-way island of Ilha Maré. After a meal and a relaxing afternoon, we returned to our neighborhood only to find a huge beach concert already underway. Spend a day and a night on Bahia’s beaches in today’s photo gallery…
Working the beach scene in Brazil
On Porto da Barra, Salvador’s main beach, a sea of people are dancing under the stars. There is a perfect beach party underway: a warm night, crowds of people of all ages, swimmers, and a floating stage just past the waves on which some of Brazil’s most famous and well respected singers are belting out hits. Waves lap at my ankles, music floods my ears.
The concert is free, goes all night, and is even staffed by life guards should a fan exit the carefully marked swimming zone in front of the enormous floating stage. At this very moment Gal Costa is on, next up is Tom Zé, and it is said that the Brazilian musician-gods Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso will take the stage eventually. This type of thing just never happens where I’m from.
Unfortunately, I am at the moment unable to partake in the event wholeheartedly. I have gotten hung up over the logistics of a transaction, waiting on the beer vendor to return with change for my five Brazilian “Reais” (pronounced “hay-IZE”) note. As she walked off in search of change, which can be an arduous task here in Brazil, I felt a pang of guilt, perhaps for causing her extra work on a night when everyone around seemed to be having fun, or, possibly, because she looked like she was about eight years old.
Despite her age, I must attest, she had a very professional candor: she showed me my options (16 ounce Brahma or 20 ounce Brahma) and gave me a run down of the prices (R$1.50 or R$2), which made me momentarily ignore the fact that I was about to purchase beer from a would-be third grader.
Then it hit, right before I handed her the five. I looked at Mike.
“This is weird,” was my brief assessment. I hesitated, but weird or not weird we had already verbally committed to the 20-ounce Brahma, and if we were to wait for another vendor, the chances were good that it would just be another kid.
I handed her the money, hoping to quickly and gracefully exit the situation (which of course wasn’t at all awkward for the little girl), when she said, “Hold this,” handing me a small stack of coins. Only as she traipsed off in search into the crowd did I realize that this wasn’t my change, but a gesture of good faith, and now I was obligated to wait with her change until she came back.
With a dumbfounded look on my face, I stand there waiting for several minutes. I look down at my hand full of coins. I look up at Gal Costa floating under the lights and at the people on the street, overlooking the beach. My mind returns to a previous thought: where I’m from, this type of thing just doesn’t happen.
The girl returns with my change, counts it out for me, and moves on, another routine sale for her burgeoning micro-business. Meanwhile, I am left pondering the entire episode as I sip my ice cold brew. On the one hand, a beach concert with thousands of revelers isn’t the safest (or most appropriate) place for an eight-year-old. On the other hand, she will probably make more money tonight than she will all next week.
In Brazil, and throughout our travels through Latin America, ethnicities, dialects, local customs and governments change, but poverty is almost inescapable, and kids are often the most visible and dramatic example. At first its difficult to accept, then it becomes normal, but here among so many smiling concert-goers, the contradiction of child workers seems more stark.
In Mexico City, it is not uncommon to see a crew of toddler siblings, almost always indigenous, sitting on the sidewalk playing an accordion or just asking passers by for change. In Guatemala, ten year olds working for private transportation outfits expertly hang out of sliding van doors soliciting passengers with practiced gusto. Even in affluent neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, tiny ragged boys and girls stand at subway ticket windows collecting the minuscule change from each transaction.
In comparison, Brazil’s child beer vendors have it made. They help bring in money for their families (albeit a small amount), and still are, as much as possible, children. Indeed, the girl who sold me my beer seemed content, not angry at the world that dealt her this occupation. In an ideal world, she would be studying violin and world history, but catching a Gal Costa show on the beach while earning your living is a decent second option.
Brazil does have its share of young and homeless, who have little choice but to ask for money from people who look like they could spare. There are also problems with gangs of children working the drug trade in favelas in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil’s other mega-cities. Kids working, from a certain perspective, is actually a step in the right direction.
As I finish my beer, a boy of no more than 12 years selling candy and cigarettes walks by, with a tired look in his eyes. Gal Costa’s set is over, and I decide that I’ve had enough for tonight. Brazil’s income disparity, so viscerally apparent here on the beach, has gotten the best of me. As I walk home, with thoughts of my pillow on my mind, I wonder what time work will end for the beer-slinging girl I met earlier, and whether she will be taking Sunday off.
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