It’s rare that I find my blackness as an asset in my travels. Often, it requires that I combat stereotypes, filter genuine attraction from exotic fantasies, and represent another “kind” of black woman than what’s presented in pop culture. When I chose Salvador (Bahia), Brazil as my next living destination, I considered the fact that the African Diaspora was alive and present in the city. In fact, brown people are the majority and norm in Salvador, as it used to be one of the largest slave ports in the Americas. Needless to say, with a plethora of African descendants, it’s quite easy for me to blend in.
Just don’t speak, dress down, no jewelry, no bags. That’s what I told myself. I chose to live in a residential area, away from most tourists and steps from abject poverty. While my street consists of mostly middle class Brazilians, I can look out my window and see favela communities, along with dozens of homeless people in the street. On my ride from the airport, two tour guides reinforced that I would likely have an authentic, safe experience compared to other Americans visiting from abroad.
“You look Brazilian, so no one will bother you so long as you’re dressed like a local.”
I wanted to test this theory as safely as possible, because if true, it would make my experience in Salvador all the more enjoyable. I had already been assured that public roads were safe during the daylight, so I set out early afternoon to walk from my neighborhood, Dois de Julho, to a popular beach area, Barra. It was approximately five miles from one point to another, and provided insight into a side of Brazil that most American tourists never see.
My attire consisted of a white dress, worn-out sandals, and thin earrings in my two cartilage piercings. I tucked my money in my bra, put my keys in my pocket, and left everything else home. I wanted to see Salvador outside the “latão” (can), as the tour guides would say. And so I did. I walked by a family of homeless black men living underneath old boats on a small beach. I passed a group of homeless drag queens that still possessed a level of beauty and energy that’s unexplainable for their circumstances. I watched a woman squat and shit right in front of me, in addition to passing countless piles of bowels, used condoms, and garbage along the same path. But most shockingly, I managed to arrive to my destination untouched after a group of women apart from another man likely considered mugging me, as I was walking alone. My saving grace was my blackness, probably some luck, other people on the road, and the fact that it was broad daylight. While it was clear that I wasn’t homeless or living on the street, it’s not uncommon for a local resident to walk down a public sidewalk. And that normality likely gave me a “pass.”
I know countless Black American women that share my chameleon experience living in the Caribbean and other parts of South America. When local residents share your skin complexion and you manage to adopt the local style, it’s easy to look like another neighbor passing by. That along with a real desire to live and see Brazil like a local resident could provide an authentic travel experience unparalleled to anything offered by an all-inclusive resort.
Have you ever traveled and blended in with a local culture? Or do you prefer to visit places in which your skin complexion is not the norm? Share your story.