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Preface and Acknowledgments
ong before I thought much about anthropology, or about writing a
book such as this one, I would spend lazy afternoons on the Praça
Municipal (Municipal Plaza) in front of Salvador, Brazil’s Lacerda
Elevator. There, on the bluff that separates the neighborhoods known
respectively as the “Upper” and “Lower” Cities, I used to savor sunsets
set off by the Bay of All Saints and listen as the “Ave Maria” took over
the evening radio waves. Fresh out of college and excitedly abroad, I
would also watch with interest as an elderly man displayed his elec-
tric eel from the exotic Amazon. He would promise to make his fish
light an incandescent bulb if the gathering crowd would purchase the
bars of homemade soap whose sale allowed him to feed his family.
And I would dream of traveling up the Atlantic coast from Salvador so
as to follow the Amazon to its source in the Andes. And, later, when I
returned to Salvador after having fulfilled this fantasy, I would watch
the eel, still in its Styrofoam cooler in front of the elevator. This al-
most always led me to fight off an urge to reach out and touch the fish,
just to see what such an experience would be like.
The eel man’s main competitor for space and attention was a ma-
gician, known simply as “O Mago,” who would perform remarkable
escapes and risky tricks. The Mago was, even from my backpacker
perspective, relatively unconcerned with personal hygiene. Usually
grimy from wriggling out of chains, drinking gasoline, or dragging
himself around on the cobblestones as passersby cheered, he loved
to spit—on his hands, when he swished water in his mouth before
a difficult routine, on the ground so as to build suspense or indicate
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