On a tropical day in March 2018, I was invited to a Welcome Tour.
It was organised for the attendees of the II Global Sustainable Tourism Forum, the international Community-Based Tourism event we have organised during the World Social Forum in Salvador, that year.
That was a treat for us, before the event -and the hard work that was expecting us- would have kicked off the next day.
The tour took us to two areas of the city of Salvador, in the northeast region of Brazil, which don’t appear on the touristic map.
I am thankful for having been granted the privilege to discover the invisible.
The first part of the trip took me to the community of Plataforma, established in 1638, homes of 85 thousand people and one of the twenty-two communities of the Railway Suburb of Salvador.
The story says that the name of the community (platform in English) probably refers to the platform to which the local ferryboat once was anchored to. The ferryboat service, at the time when no buses or trains were circulating, used to connect directly the community to the Ribeira borough, on the other side of the bay. This was certainly the quickest way to reach the city centre, with its trade and job opportunities.
After a thirty minutes trip from the Pelourinho -in the hearth of Salvador historic centre- we arrive at the bottom of the hill against which Plataforma leans. We found it there, between the green of the Rain Forest on one side, and the blue of the sea on the other.
Rosa, the leader of the self-organised group of women of Plata-Tour agency is ready to introduce us to her neighbourhood.
The street turned into a bridge under our feet, and we realise that we are standing exactly over the train station.
Up here we are a bit closer to the crown of the palm trees that rise from sea level. The hot breeze makes them swing gently while they are accompanying our steps towards the end of the bridge. From the edge of the balcony, we face the calm waters of the sea from a couple of metres height. The air is hot and our hair moves following the same rhythm of the palm trees’ branches.
In this silent and warm dance, we get ready to listen to our tour guide.
Rosa tells us proudly of the history of the place, of its material and immaterial cultural heritage still well alive in the activities of the traditional caiçara groups. She talks about the religious processions of the Lavagem and the celebration of the Ver de Trem. She tells about the monuments that have survived centuries of history, she described the many expressions of the local Afro-Brazilian culture that permeates the life of the entire community.
Rosa explains to the tour participants that the real propeller of their entrepreneurial tourism project in 2006, was frustration. The frustration that she and the other women were feeling from seeing their community be mentioned in the local news and media channels only for the crimes and the poverty rates, for the dysfunctions and the social problems.
“Plataforma has a lot more to offer to its visitors than just crime and poverty!”, she told us while pointing at the peaceful beauty of the All Saints Bay spreading behind her back. And the sea, with its gentle movement, seems to nod in approval to her words.
In contrast to the calm and silent waters, Rosa’s words sound to me as strong as a thunder which has been locked away for centuries and suddenly released. Even though the relative youth of the message makes her words trembling, they reached us with an inner power rooted in a raw pride built in the daily reality.
I have been taken on a journey on the other side of the bay, where the traffic of the busy roads of central Salvador has been replaced by the twitting of the birds on the trees, the smooth movement of the sea and the engine of the regional train, which draws a colourful line along the cost, every half an hour.
I was taken to a place where the words can be as strong as thunders, but they can also grow on walls, tender and kind.
We have discovered murals of poems which cover a whole house. These are the words of well-known Brazilian and Portuguese writers, philosophers and poets. The handwritten painted words are also the ones of the local artist Perinho Santana. His poems encounter his citizens from the outdoor walls of the community house, named Casa Livro (Book House) and from many other walls in the small alleys of his community. Words of peace, faith and hope. Many are the words of love that come from his smiling heart, and that are shared kindly with the world.
By the end of the tour, in one of the local restaurants, eating seafood and drinking fresh fruit juices, every one of the participants seems to have created new bonds with each other. And I am not completely sure if I should consider the food entirely responsible for that.
Sharing food has always been a great opportunity to transform strangers into less strange people, that’s true, but I have the suspicion that the experience of sharing the journey through Plataforma’s streets and its daily battles, might have helped us to get closer to each other, on a human level.
The collective experience of uncovering those invisible parts of the map has definitely given us a much deeper understanding of the city of Salvador and of its many untold stories.
For sure, the experience has impacted me, but I haven’t realised that until now.
For two years, since my first visit, I wanted to write about Plataforma community and I have repeatedly asked Rosa to send me more information, pictures, or leaflets, because “I really want to show and share more aspects of your community project” I told her.
I know -because Rosa told me in more than one occasion- how important is for her, for the other women of Plata-Tour and for their own community, to be visited by tourists, especially the international ones. I was then filled with a great sense of responsibility and I thought that in order to do that more effectively, I would have surely needed more information.
Only now though, in the quietness of my room, miles away from Salvador, I realise that I have always had everything I needed to write about it: I have my first-hand experience on that tropical day in March 2018.
On that day, my eyes and all my senses were on full receptive mode. They were taking in, just like an extremely dry sponge, all the fine details my senses were busy registering, in the whole of their depth and intensity.
As a result, today, I still hold strongly the feelings that that experience has originated in me, back then. The strength of Rosa’s words, the scent of the sea blending with the warm breeze sensation on my skin; the inviting smells of freshly cooked meals coming from the open windows, as well as the jolly melody, heard in the distance. All this is still here, with me.
I have never needed more than that.
If the Plata-tour women don’t have anything more to offer in terms of marketing, doesn’t really seem to matter now. In fact, they might not have any fancy website, or a glossy leaflet to hand over to the spoiled tourists. Nevertheless, Rosa has the most vivid living memory, filled with a strong sense of belonging. I believe that she holds, also, a great hope that those curious tourists that she takes around the streets of her home, will remember, one day, what really matters.
I know that she hopes that they will take with them back home the spirit of her community, its strength and conflicts, but also the kindness and the hope that strike the hearts.
Contact: Rosa Leite +55 (71) 8792-0511