CORCOVADO, Christ the Redeemer, hold flirty Rio
in its outstretched arm-span, beneficent padre, 700 meters
up canopied mountain. I hike the forest incline
to awe at its monolithic pleated hem, marvel at Rio,
lushly subdued, panoramically shimmering beneath me.
I feel its blank stone eyes follow me in this sexing city
of beached homens with corrugated stomachs, g-string
bonitas with football-hard buttocks, hoovered cellulite.
With my camel-hump rucksack and grunge-green shorts
I feel like a poor relation in this glamorous metropolis,
yet the favela shacks, masses of tumbledown boxes,
are homes for the disempowered, make picturesque hills
from afar for the muitos cruzeiros who stroll the laundered
beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana at sundown.
Escaping Rio, the bus to Bahia spirals mountain precipices,
vertiginous facades lubricated by gushing springs with spurt
out of nowhere. Come dawn we speed past dehydrated
horizons spiked with cacti like three-pronged forks.
My swollen feel tingle as we decelerate into Salvador,
where I hope the past will close in on me.
SALVADORE grips its Yoruba mother like a shawl,
threadbare, tattered at the ends, yet refusing to yield
to wind, fly back over the Atlantico to home.
Bahianas in white sizzle acaraje from stools, as if no sea
no history separates the from the traders of Lagos.
Resting in a high-panelled room in Terreiro de Jesus,
I hear the wheels of barrow boys on its cobbles,
imagine carriages clobbering its enslaved streets.
Yoruba words sign buildings, pepper Portuguese,
its deities re-located in Candomble; when bloco bands
converge drumming on Praca da Se, I feel the blood
of war pass into my soul, thrilling me. Rastas and hippies
carve orixas in doorways, busk, sell artefacts on mats.
Entering the Afro-Brasileiro museum I secretly hope
for a clue, a photograph of a great-grandfather or mother,
whom I will somehow instantly, miraculously recognise.
‘Any da Costas still around?’ I ask the attendant.
‘Of course. Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.’
I leave the city of passion for the port of Belem,
not knowing what to look for anymore.
I CROSS the state line into Amazon country at 4 A.M.,
turfed out of my seat to show proof of a yellow fever jab.
Belem is a pasty-faced city that sells hammocks.
I buy one. Take the first boat out down the Amazon,
to reflect, to dream. I string my stripy bedfellow
on deck, intimately close to others, returnees, mostly.
I shower in brown river water, stuff banana sarnies,
avoid a blocked-up loo, and for the next fortnight
I watch the jungle fill me up as the boat slices
through melted chocolate, its engine, my heart, synchronised.
We move on into solitude. My thoughts become free
of the chaos of the city, uncensored, the river calms me.
I become my parents, my ancestors, my gods. We dock,
a remote settlement. I stretch my pins, earthed, follow
my singing ears, Catholic hymns hybridised by drums.
A hilltop church, Indian congregation, holding
palm fronds. It is Palm Sunday. I hum from the door,
witness to one culture being orchestrated by another.
The past is gone, the future means transformation.
The boat’s horn impatiently calls me. I panic away.
To the riverbank, the jungle, the contemplation.
A RAINSTORM hammers Manaus, rivering streets.
I emerge onto concrete, wobbly, the quayside spinning,
my heart replete with time and hope; I locate a Chinese
eaterie, replenish my banana self on noodles,
await the dazzling sun to rainbow the Amazon sky
magical again. When the downpour abates, I head
for the waterfall at Cachoera do Taruma, descend
its slippery slopes, strip off, revitalised by icy cascades.
I am baptised, resolved to paint slavery out of me,
the Daddy People onto canvas with colour-rich strokes.
Their songs will guide me in sweaty dreams at night.
I savour the living in the world, planet of growth, of decay,
think of my island, the ‘Great’ Tippexed out of it,
tiny amid massive floating continents, the African one
an embryo within me. I will wing back to Nigeria
again and again, excitedly swoop over a zigzag
of amber lights signalling the higgledy energy of Lagos.
It is time to leave.
Back to London, across international time zones.
I step out of Heathrow and into my future.
from Lara (“The family is like water”) (Bloodaxe, 2009), © Bernardine Evaristo, 1997, 2009, used by permission of the author and the publisher