Why our days in Salvador may be numbered

Note: not the real countdown

Note: not the real countdown

There’s been a lot of buzz about the horrendously unflattering article published in the New York Times about Salvador.

Is it really is as violent as the article makes it sound?

The answer is “yes” in the sense that everything in the article is true…

…and the answer is also “no.” Of course when you cram a number of the city’s worst crimes of the past decade into a single article, it’s going to give the impression that the entire place is absolute hell all the time.

I’m the first person to defend Brazil against people who say things like “Oh, I would never go there; isn’t it dangerous?”

Don’t believe the stereotypes. It’s not like bullets are constantly flying everywhere,” I say. “Come visit – it’s an amazing place! Yeah, there are bad neighborhoods just like any major urban area, but we don’t live in constant fear and danger. For the most part life is normal.”

Except that “normal” in Salvador is…

  •  Never carrying ALL your credit cards at the same time
  •  Taking money out of an ATM and stuffing 1/3 of it down your pants, 1/3 in your bra, and only 1/3 in your wallet, so if you’re robbed hopefully you won’t lose your entire withdrawal
  •  Avoiding using your smartphone or any expensive-looking jewelry in public
  •  Eyes always seeking the nearest police officer or reasonably safe area
  •  Trying not to be out after dark if at all possible
  •  Running red lights at night
  •  Having the floor mats stolen out of your car in a central, generally well-policed neighborhood
  •  Knowing that it’s only a matter of time before you’re a victim of a crime, and hoping the only thing you lose is your possessions.
  •  If you are a store or restaurant owner, accepting the fact that your establishment pretty much WILL be robbed at least once or twice a year.

Residents of Salvador don’t live in fear. Seriously, we don’t. Nobody is scared to go about the normal tasks of life. But it’s the subtle weight of that constant alertness, perpetual and necessary wariness, and just plain inevitability… it runs in the background of one’s subconscious, and you don’t realize how much of a burden it is until you’re temporarily free of it.

The trips we/I took to Europe and the U.S. brought this into sharp relief. In Luneburg, Germany, we took a peaceful, solitary stroll through the park at 10 PM. In Salvador’s city park, you shouldn’t stop on the bike path if you see someone with a “broken” bike, even during the day. In New York, everyone’s using their smartphones/tablets on the subway – earbuds in and blissfully oblivious. Absolutely inconceivable here.

And that’s just the crime aspect. Traffic has increased to a level where it’s a major quality of life issue; you can lose hours of your day in traffic jams –  and somehow there are enough funds available for the city government to tear down and rebuild the soccer stadium in 3 years, but not to finish the (pathetically short) subway, which has been under construction since the year 2000 or so.

Health infrastructure? Don’t get me started.

I still wholeheartedly recommend coming to Salvador! The city has a lot to offer – amazing cuisine, strong Afro-Brazilian culture (capoeira, samba de roda, candomble, percussion, dance), lots of fascinating history and art, beaches, year-round warm weather, tons of parties and celebrations, and warm and hospitable people.

It’s a great place to spend your vacation. Really, it is.

But living here? It wears on you. Wariness, delays, inconveniences, power/water outages, terrible sidewalks and roads that open up potholes big enough for a truck to fall into when it rains (no joke), ever-present crime – you learn to accept them as part of life here, and they become your new normal. And you start to forget that in other places it can be – and IS – safer, easier, and better in a lot of ways.

I’ve been lucky – in about four years in Salvador, I’ve only experienced three incidents – was robbed once, was on a bus that was assaulted by three armed teenagers once, and seen someone pull out a gun in a traffic dispute once. Never been hurt, thank God. Yesterday the market next door to my house was robbed 15 minutes before I walked in there.

Couple years ago, my nieces, who are not yet 10 years old, were in their father’s car parked in front of my house when a guy with a gun demanded that he hand over the keys. It’s normal. It’s part of life. You don’t have to be fearful, but you can resign yourself to the fact that something like this will inevitably happen to you sooner or later. According to the police officer who registered my report, there are 80 reported robberies per day in the city center alone.

And it’s ridiculous that the city of Salvador spends millions on rebuilding the stadium and remodeling the entire waterfront “pra ingles ver” (for the tourists to see) while neglecting BASIC quality of life issues for its residents: safety. sanitation. driveable roads. schools and hospitals.

The capoeira and culture are fantastic and unique, the weather is wonderful, Carnaval and the other parties are crazy, but is it worth it? I’m starting to edge towards “no.”

Not everyone has the means or the opportunity to leave the city, but we do – and we’ll probably use it. If I had to spend the rest of my life in Salvador, I wouldn’t be unhappy – far from it. But this is the best analogy I can make – it’s like when you travel on a shoestring budget and stay in a ratty but fun youth hostel – you have a blast and don’t mind the inconveniences too much. But then when you have kids, and disposable income, and the means to stay somewhere a bit nicer – you have a choice, and you tend to want to choose the more comfortable option.

If you LOVE mega street parties full of music and beer, or can’t live without access to a beach, or absolutely want to live, breathe, and immerse yourself in Afro-Brazilian dance and music – then your priorities might be different and Salvador might be the perfect place for you.

But that’s not me. If we could live somewhere with good infrastructure, reasonable safety, some interesting community/cultural activities, and a capoeira group – and spend a few weeks per year in Bahia to see family and get our “fix” of acaraje, tropical sunshine, and tons of capoeira – that would be ideal.

  • Terence

    Hi Shayna. What a great post. I live in Nairobi and Mombasa and know exactly what you mean. The common denominator seems to be government uncaring and incompetence.

    As in Brazil, Kenya is filled with incredible people but basic security sucks…so I am always balancing the dangers of bombs and assaults against that.

    To this point, the good is outbalancing the bad but I understand the cumulative effect of insecurity. Here’s to you guys in making your best decision.

    I just listened to your John McIntyre podcast – great stuff.

    terence