Travel beckons us to encounter the unknown. Sebastian Modak, a travel writer for both Lonely Planet and the New York Times, took a voyage to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, a place that was for the 6 most joyous months of my pre-30’s life, a pilgrimage. I was there for study abroad that my scholarship to Oberlin generously paid for. My path of study and my essay landed me as the first boy (albeit a genderqueer one) in a house formally reserved for women. My host mother was a priest of the orisha Oya, the Yoruba embodiment of the transformative winds of change. Her brother led a temple dedicated to the Oya. I can still remember the spread of food, Comida de Santo, that was served at a ceremony where my host mother was being initiated into a significant role in that spiritual house.
I’m too country to be a picky eater, but I am particular. I like one-pot-meals, stews, soups, brazes, and roasts. Pork, goat, chicken, lamb, deer, wild boar, rabbit, guinea hen, and duck are my favorite proteins. I don’t particularly care for the prime cuts of beef. Steak has always done a number on my stomach, and it’s somewhere between a sad wast or useless in a stew. I grew up eating collard greens 5 times a week, cornbread, grits, and field peas with a bit of ham. I miss the variety of field peas I had as a kid, and all their different flavors.
These meals were very African, at heart — and Bahia is “the African Rome”. That temple’s food transported me to my grandmother’s kitchen, a few generations back. Eating those dishes was like being home again, a few generations back. The rich, unctuous flavor of palm-oil quivering in a calabash of field peas and onions; cassava-flour and palm-oil over a perfectly seasoned thin goat steak.
This review was a bit strange to me, because far from an alien place, Salvador da Bahia was a place where I felt called home. Yet, I hear the authors’ sense of mystery, alienation and slight inadequacy. I felt it too often in my life. I’m not sure the author could have come out and said that his whiteness (and his inability to speak Portuguese) made this very deep, rich place feel quite elusive as a passerby. He tried in acknowledging that all he knew of the place was from a white lens.
I hope the Times revisits the place, but it is powerful to understand that there is a place where culture is deep, but in its profundity it is an offering in remembrance of the home. And despite the sting of the lash, impoverishment, and the auction block, that culture refuses to be sold.