In January of 1983 I traveled from Rio to Salvador, Bahia in the northeast of Brazil - one of the oldest cities in the New World. This is where the African slaves disembarked, bringing their Candoblé religion, their African rhythms and dances to the Portuguese colony. I had been studying Afro-Brazilian dance in New York for 5 years with Loremil, a ‘Baiano’ – a man from Bahia. Besides being an accomplished practitioner of caporeira - the marshal arts dance invented by slaves in Bahia after they were prohibited from fighting - Loremil was a teacher of samba and the dances of the Candoblé religion, honoring various African gods and goddesses who had to be disguised as Catholic saints by the ‘converted’ slaves. Loremil wanted me to deliver a cassette recorder to his mother, Joselina, in Massaranduba, a poor neighborhood of Salvador.
January is the month when the magic begins in Salvador (OK, December, actually) and culminates in the biggest Carnaval celebration in all of Brazil. I was immediately immersed in the mystical crackling in the air, the ubiquitous batucada of the samba on buses, street corners, and passing open trucks with entire bands on top. The city streets and beaches were filled with celebrants. Caporeira circles spontaneously sprang up on the beach. I witnessed the ‘Washing of the Church’ and the combining of Jesus and the god Oxalá into ‘Senhor do Bonfim.’
I never wrote about this visit. I arrived at Joselina’s humble house where many relatives lived, and spent a sleepless night there. My fledgling Portuguese was no match for this strange northeastern accent I could not grasp at all. This was a slum, and these generous folks were poorly educated. Joselina took me to a Mãe de Santo – a fortune teller – and I had Senhor do Bonfim ribbons tied around my wrists (for blessings), guias – strings of tiny beads - around my neck and wrists (for luck), and a big bag of special leaves to carry back to New York for Loremil to rub on himself for health. On the second day, I caught a large ferry to Itaparica island for a picnic with all these relatives I could not understand. I was to meet their cousin, ‘the English teacher,’ who hung around me in the water saying a modified version of “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” etc. and nothing else in English. After swimming and eating, everyone was excited to go over to someone’s yard to ‘take a shower.’ This consisted of a bucket emptied once over each of our heads, which did nothing about the sand in my bikini. I was just exhausted and in total culture shock. But my flight back to Rio was that evening and they had a neighbor with a taxi who would drive me to the airport. Except he was nowhere to be found, so I missed the first flight. When I emerged from a later flight that night in Rio, my friends Maria Candida and Omar had persevered and were waiting for me. What they beheld is still a source of laughter to this day: a zombie - sunburned, tied-up and beaded, staggering the way one would expect with all that sand still in her bikini – carrying a big bag of leaves.
But for all the shock of Massaranduba with its dirt floors, chickens in the house, and non-flushing toilet, Salvador as a city fulfilled a complete romantic notion for me of the incomparable Afro-Brazilian culture. And the samba invented there - well, Brazil’s signature throughout the world - is a whole reason to be.
Now I’m arriving in 2009 with my husband, my best friend from my whole life and her husband - Lenna and Jon, and we’ve talked them into Salvador after their friend had described it as ‘just another big city.’ Jon had just gone to Kenya to help build a school, so the African influence in Salvador would surely resonate. Eighty percent of the city’s population are African descendants. Please, god, let this place be magical like before.
Let’s start with it was not January. And follow with the fact that tourists start to arrive in November-December. The city was empty of both tourists and Carnaval season celebrants. The various ‘entrepreneurs’ that prey on tourists zeroed in on little us. We started out in Pelourinho – the old colonial district that has been restored. There was a crew competing to show us where to park, then the onslaught of vicious vendors wanting to ‘bless us’ with three knots around the wrist of the Senhor do Bonfim ribbons for health, love and peace. One guy wanted more money than I was handing him for the ribbon, so I untied it and handed it back, receiving quite a non-blessing expletive in English. Large ‘Baianas’ in native dress practically forced us into photos with them. Jon generously handed them more than $10 in Brazilian reais, or in what he called “Monopoly money!”
The caporeira platform at the famous market had a couple of sluggish, overweight guys drooping around in street clothes to the wrong instruments for caporeira. Apparently, if some interested tourist pays, they throw themselves around a little more.
One rather nice guide who seemed to exist to shepherd tourists around to various bars and restaurants proved to be informative and FREE. He guided us to some bars surrounding a stage with musicians playing bad samba – or was it just the ridiculous volume through bad, static-y speakers? We found a corner as far away as possible and had caipirinhas, but it was early by Brazilian standards and no one was dancing to this scratchy samba, other than the guide and me. We later came upon a female percussion group only at the end of their street performance. We had a lovely dinner of native dishes (Moqueca of shrimp, with coconut oil and coconut milk) at a beautiful, mostly empty courtyard restaurant. We had resisted being signed up for a special tourist Candoblé ceremony. I can only imagine the fake trembling and fake voices as the participants became fake-possessed by African deities. What I’m saying is that 26 years later, the air was not crackling with folkloric mysticism in Salvador in October. But then Lenna and I were together, and Salvador, while not at its best, was definitely not Pittsburgh.
The infrastructure of this city has improved in the interim decades and seems more sophisticated than in ‘83. Whereas the mosaic sidewalks of Rio reflect the ocean waves, here the avenues running along the sea meander in wave-like curves, capturing a certain rhythm. Our hotel was a lovely restored colonial structure, beautifully appointed, and something one would
readily recommend…except for this ONE THING: on the hour the church across the street delivers a shocking version of the traditional bell tones and the number of knells for the hour by way of what sounded like a highly amplified, scratchy, static recording of bells. This is from 7:00am to 7:00pm only, thank heavens! But what the hell? We were violently ripped from our dreams at 7:00am, again at 8:00am, and made a goal out of leaving the hotel after our elaborate, leisurely breakfasts before 11 of those soul-rattling repetitions. What we discovered was that there were actual bells in the belfry, but with two speakers facing each of the four directions as well – the source of the static and volume. We brushed up on our Lon Chaney impersonations. What we didn’t know is that the church takes Monday off, so while Lenna, the early bird, girded her head with pillows and braced herself in anticipation of 7:00am, the assault did not materialize. Too bad she could not go back to sleep. Newton and I merely thought in our sleeping state that the morning was taking its time.
The next day we crept in weekend traffic to one of the beaches north of the city. Salvador juts out between a huge bay (“bahia”)
and the ocean, with 30 miles of beaches. We chose one known for young sophisticates rather than hordes of the populace to avoid robbers. The joy of watching people and venders, Lenna buying a black and white polka-dot bikini, drinking coconut water and beer, sampling this food and that …was tainted, after all, by the theft of Jon’s wallet. Actually his entire fanny pack was lifted, probably by a vendor out of Jon’s larger bag while Jon and Newton were dozing and Lenna and I were walking along the beach admiring some handsome, buff guys. Fortunately, Jon had left most of his ‘Monopoly money’ in the hotel and had only one credit card, but also lost his driver’s license and beautiful watch. We were all bummed even more than the unflappable Jon.
The other most famous church in Salvador is Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. We drove the 5-mile route that an annual procession follows on the date in January for the Washing of the Church. This tradition is so combined with Candoblé that the Catholic Church actually locks the doors of the church, wishing as they do to avoid any connection with something untoward! The people wash the steps of the church with perfumed water, dancing and chanting in Yoruba, then break into a wild party that lasts ten days. The strange room displaying the wood or wax body parts that supplicants offer for healing at the church was closed the day we visited.
Newton bought his beloved sugar cane juice outside the church:
We managed a cloudy but dramatic sunset off the Barra point, then strolled to the fort (the Portuguese had to fight off the Dutch in the 17th century) and lighthouse for more drama: the sudden darkness that descends around 5:45pm, when the city lights come on.
The particular restaurant crowds we enjoyed observing included a private party we crashed by accident which had educated, upper middle class black people – something one doesn’t see much of in other Brazilian cities; then at our final dinner at an elegant, delicious place, we noticed that the very engaged, animated wealthy of Salvador seemed so much more interesting and relaxed than their small-town Natal counterparts.
We worked in more beach time our last morning. The phenomenon of being on a beach in Bahia with my best friend since childhood was appropriately marked by a miraculous circular rainbow around the sun! I have a couple of shells beside me on the shelf that Lenna collected that morning. She was determined to try all the native Afro-Brazilian dishes made by the Baianas on the street, so ended her stay with Salvador ‘fast food:’ acarajé.
These are black-eyed pea cakes, seasoned with ground dried shrimp and onions, shaped into balls and fried in palm oil – ‘dendê,’ with spicy shrimp and onion filling when the patron is on foot, or on the side in Lenna’s case in the simple restaurant next to the Baiana. The aroma of acarajé spices and dendê is the smell of Salvador!
We took Lenna and Jon to the airport after lunch and waved good-by till the last second like the silly girls we’ve always loved being! Newton and I returned to a beach by the airport to await our later flight back to Natal, sipping caipirinhas and catching another sunset.