Savor the Shore

May 2007

It is 6:30 in the morning on January 1. I am standing on a tide-tightened white-sand beach in Vitoria, Brazil, in love with the last of a coral, tangerine, and sapphire sunrise. It is 90 degrees, and I am just starting to sweat. My T-shirt is off my back and in my hand. It will return to my shoulders only after the sun sets. A stray dog pauses to stare at my pale skin, pink from a shirtless week of 107-degree rays. And I am hungry, again.

Last night, dressed in solid white, I said good-bye to a friend's family that had taken me in as its own. We hugged and kissed and danced and cried, even. We had met only a few days before. "May this be a year of health and fortune," they wished me. "May your pockets be lined with money, may your belly be always full." My belly has been full.

Yesterday, on this same beach in the hammering heat of midday, I bought acarajé from a woman whose father was as black as midnight and whose mother was whiter than the sand under my toes. She smiled at me, missing teeth, as she squeezed a ball of cooked black-eyed peas around fresh raw shrimp with strong, callused hands. She let the fritter roll off her fingers into the sizzle of dendê oil and took a long sip from her green coconut, squinting away the sun. I ate the golden acarajé with a bowl of moqueca cabixaba, the local version of the famous fish stew filled with a colorful confetti of vegetables, then fell asleep in the shade of palm trees to the chanting music of capoeira dancers.

Capoeira is a martial art that was brought to Brazil by African slaves. Since they were not permitted to defend themselves, they practiced it to music and called it dance. To eat, they collected scraps of meat left to rot by their masters, stewing it for hours with black beans over wood-burning pits. The meal was called feijoada, and it is now the national dish.

Brazil itself may be the world's finest cultural stew. Africa, Asia, and all of Europe melt into the native traditions like the pigs' ears and beef tongue that blend into the black bean stew, or the tropical layers of Portuguese-inspired moqueca that meld into one another to become a wholly unique dish, one found only here. But ask a Brazilian where he comes from. He will not tell you Europe or Africa. He will say Bahia or Curitiba. He will say Brazil. The people here flow into one another like the colors of the sunrise on my white-sand beach. They live together and eat together and make love together and dance together. And they sweat together like I do as I seek shade on this early morning at the dawn of the New Year.

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