I had spent barely a day in Petrolina before Cara knocked on my door bright and early to whisk me away on a weekend trip to Pilar, Bahia, where we’d been invited to stay for the weekend. Pilar is the hometown of Ana Paula, the viticulture professor at the Instituto Federal – Zona Rural. As I said, I had quite literally just arrived in Petrolina. I barely knew Cara, let alone Ana Paula, let alone her entire family. Yet, as I was learning very quickly in Brazil, these things mattered very little.
We arrived in Pilar, a heat-baked small town laid out grid-fashion in the Bahian Sertão, just in time for lunch. Ana Paula’s mother gave me a couple kisses and hugs and handed me a plate, barely acknowledging that I still fumbled with fluency in Portuguese greetings. Bahian cooking is a miracle in transforming bland base ingredients into delicious and sustaining meals—beans, rice, and manioc flour (farofa) mutate into feijoada and pirão and vatapa.
Something in Pilar made that verbal expression of hospitality, “make yourself at home,” which Brazilians translate into fica a vontade (do as you please), a reality. After initial greetings, the formalities that often remain when visiting the home of a friend—especially an aquaintance—disappeared. Rather than a polite investigation of my career goals or current occupation, dinner conversation was a banter about this and that as if we were all old friends. Writing teachers often advise us to “show rather than tell,” and just the same way, in Pilar I felt that the family got to know me through experiencing my presence rather than asking me to explain it.
That first night, Cara and Ana Paula—the two people who were my closest links to the family—went to bed early. Our friend Rafaela and I were still awake, and Ana Paula’s brother asked us if we’d like to go out on the main street with him and two of the younger kids in the family. The lovely evening we spent chatting together amongst the other Pilar inhabitants showed me something that has been proven again and again during my time here so far: in the Northeast of Brazil, hospitality comes first, and details come later.
These kinds of encounters happen relatively frequently, and I think the reason why it still catches me off guard is because I am accustomed to such unreserved hospitality being something generally reserved for friends. Here, the order is almost reversed: hospitality is what invites the possibility for friendship.