A Guy with a Knife

January 2, 2010 - 2:14 am No Comments

Lazaro, a huge and imposing black man, was holding a sign with my name at the airport in Salvador. As part of the package I booked, he was our airport transfer to our hotel in Pelourinho, the historical and touristy center of Salvador.

His English was excellent, his voice smooth like the host of a late night jazz radio show. He told us all about the Salvador, about how the rich and the poor coexist in close proximity, about the African slave history, about how the city now has a population of over three million. Salvador might be the biggest city I’d never heard of.

As we approached Pelourinho, we drove through the scariest area I have ever seen. Dimly lit cobblestone alleys were almost completely empty, except for a few who were obviously on drugs, should be on drugs, or selling drugs. Every window had bars, every door was locked, every driveway had its metal door closed and padlocked. This, according to Lazaro, was the unrestored part of Pelourinho, and it wasn’t safe for us. No shit.

The car stopped in what seemed to be a slightly more friendly and touristed square. Lazaro led us into our hotel, called Solar dos Deuses. Marco, a toothy and friendly (are toothy people ever not friendly?) Swedish guy, welcomed us at the front desk and led us to our room. Wooden floors, two fluffy and heavily pillowed beds, flat-screen TV, wifi Internet, beautiful antique furniture, air conditioning that really kicks, and fresh fruit juice and cookies waiting for us on the table. One of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in. And the location is perfect, right in the middle of Pelourinho, with live music just outside. When you open the windows, music fills the room.

We asked Marco about walking around and finding dinner, and he said that the immediate area is reasonably safe, as long as we don’t venture off into the nearby unrestored area. Sure enough, we found heavily armed police everywhere. Plopping down at a nearby restaurant called Odoyá, our dinner of coconut shrimp was delicious.

We wandered around a bit, paying close attention to our map. The restored area of Pelourinho is undeniably charming, with well-lit cobblestone alleys and old-looking, colorful buildings. Police officers with big guns are everywhere. Live music fills the air, spilling out of bars and restaurants on every other corner. Locals sell miniature paintings on canvas. One of the artisans came over to talk to us. I introduced myself, but he had trouble with Doug’s name. “Dog? Hahahah. Woof, woof.” Once again, Doug felt humiliated.

Pelourinho is not perfect. If you turn the wrong corner, you’ll run into portable toilets that smell like rancid ass. Gog estimates that they have not been cleaned in six months. Stray dogs and cats with large nipples scavenge for food, while beggars with normal-sized nipples ask for money. As much as I wanted to take my camera for some night shots of Pelourinho, I decided that it wasn’t a good idea and left it at the hotel.

A fidgety, nervous-looking beggar approached Gog and me as we walked. He asked us to stop, shook our hands, and tried to persuade us that he was NOT dangerous just because he was speaking to us in English. He said he had AIDS and that he was very hungry. He desperately wanted R$6 for a sandwich, pointing to a nearby food cart while pleading his case, but Gog and I wouldn’t budge. He was persistent, though. I finally offered him a R$1 coin hoping it would get him to stop pestering us, but it didn’t. He gave the coin back to me and said he needed the full R$6 for a sandwich.

Gog and I were not carrying much of value, so I wasn’t too worried that he would become a threat. But then he looked around, leaned in, lifted up his shirt, and mumbled something like “I have knife.” I turned to face him, angrily and loudly questioning what he had just said. Probably not the appropriate response, but he backed away.

I’m not sure what he was trying to do. Maybe he was trying to work the pity angle by telling us that he had been stabbed, or maybe he was telling me that he would use his knife to split his sandwich with me. In any case, we never saw a knife, and I don’t think he was truly threatening us. He turned his attention to other tourists who were walking by and disappeared into the night.

In terms of safety, when approached by a sketchy character in a sketchy area, is it safer to give them a little change in the hopes that it will prevent a potential mugging? Or is it safer to avoid showing evidence of any money at all and hope that you don’t get mugged for the money he knows you are hiding from him?

Gog and I found a live band playing at J&K Restaurant right by our hotel, so we sat down at a table right in front and chilled out with a cheap beer. Good stuff.

Tomorrow we have a Salvador city tour and walking tour around Pelourinho booked with a guy named Ronald. I’m a bit scared about dragging my photo gear around Salvador, but we’ll be with a guide, so I’m going to give it a shot.

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