Published: January 8th 2013January 8th 2013
Tempting as it is to spend more days than I should lounging around the palm-fringed beaches of Alagoas, an ice-cold green coconut in one hand and an even colder Antartica
in the other, there's too much of Brazil yet to see...
On my way south from Maragogi along Brazil's seemingly endless coastline, I pass through more beautifully-preserved Portuguese colonial towns. Penedo, in Alagoas state, is a sweltering, sleepy place on the shores of the São Francisco river, where there is little to do except soak up the atmosphere and marvel at the slow pace of life with a chilled cajá
two more of the Nordeste
's extraordinary fruity offerings - by the riverbank as the sun sets. Laranjeiras, in the tiny neighbouring state of Sergipe, is another delightfully somnolent place where life seems to have barely changed in centuries. Take away the cars and you might as well be in the late nineteenth century.
Just to the South of Sergipe is one of Brazil's best known - and, being roughly as big as France, largest - states. Bahia is one of those places which makes many Brazilians go all dewy-eyed - and nowhere more than its
capital city, Salvador. Salvador certainly has a lot
of grandiose things written about it: "the beating heart of Afro-Brazilian culture", "the largest black city in the world outside Africa", "cradle of Brazilian music". Not everything is complimentary, either: "the most dangerous city in Brazil" is one I've heard many times in the past few weeks. It's impossible to arrive in Salvador without a sense of excitement mixed with foreboding.
Salvador, perched on a hook-shaped peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Bahia de Todos os Santos (which gave Bahia state its name), was colonial Brazil's first capital before Rio replaced it in 1763. To this day the city's historic centre, the Pelô
, is one of South America's most impressive, filled with baroque churches and imposing colonial-era buildings. Just the name Pelourinho
gives interesting clues to the city's past and present. Just about recognisable from the English word "pillory", pelourinho
means "whipping post". Indeed, one of the historic centre's many squares was once home to a large upright wooden post, where misbehaving slaves were publicly punished. Most of modern-day Salvador's 3.5 million inhabitants are descended from these slaves, who were abducted from their homes in Western Africa and
shipped across the Atlantic to work on sugar plantations. One of the most intoxicating things about Bahia is the way its modern culture, music, cuisine and local religious practices have unmistakeably West African roots.
Salvador's Afro-Brazilian cooking is, for me, one of the city's great delights. The names of most typical Bahian dishes have an unmistakeably exotic, African ring to them: acarajé
Heavy use of coconut milk, ginger and chili peppers sets Bahian food apart from the rest of Brazil - but it is its reliance on dendê
, a dark red palm oil widely used in West African cooking, which really defines it. Dendê
also makes Bahian cuisine incredibly rich and famously difficult to digest by those not used to it. This presents greedy people like me with a very tricky dilemma: do I indulge in the delicious range of dishes on offer and prepare myself to spend many, er, uncomfortable hours in the banheiro
? Or spare my digestive system and miss out on Salvador's tasty treats? Having watched a fellow guest at my hostel run to the loo every fifteen minutes for two whole days following careless dendê
overindulgence, I err on the side of caution.
Fortunately one of Bahia's most famous and moreish offerings doesn't contain any dendê
at all: acarajé
are delicious savoury black-eyed bean fritters, split in half and stuffed with prawns, raw vegetables and - unusually for most of South America - mouth-searingly hot pepper sauce. Stalls run by elaborately-dressed baianas
, with their unmistakeably African-influenced dresses, are to be found everywhere. At five reais
makes a cheap and delicious lunch. Apparently, a similar snack going by the name of akara
is still widely eaten in West Africa...
Music and dance are never far away in Salvador. Groups of musicians roam the narrow, car-free streets of the Pelô, filling the air with singing and hypnotising percussion. On the main squares groups of men perform capoeira,
the elegant and fluid dance-like martial art brought to Brazil by African slaves, in which two participants perform fast and beautiful sequences of kicks, rolls and cartwheels without once coming into contact. Salvador's contribution to Brazil's incredibly vibrant music scene is undeniable: many of the country's best-loved musical giants - Giberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, Ivete Sangalo, names known and loved by almost every Brazilian - are from Bahia. The city is also the focal
point of Candomblé
, a uniquely Afro-Brazilian religion blending elements of Catholicism and African animism. Candomblé
ceremonies - conducted to this very day exclusively in Yoruba, a language spoken by some 25 million people in Nigeria - involve worship of deities called orixás
directly imported from western Africa, with participants dressed head-to-toe in white. The so-called Dark Continent's influence is everywhere in Salvador. Many of the hundreds of African words currently used in Brazilian Portuguese found their way into the language here. Indeed, many words usually considered typically Brazilian - samba
important word in Brazil...) - have been directly imported from across the Atlantic.
Salvador is also an extremely large, sweltering tropical metropolis located in one of Brazil's poorest regions (Bahia's per capita GDP is a shocking one third of São Paulo's) and, as such, has more than its share of violence and crime. Even the Pelourinho which you might expect, from the number of visitors it receives, to be safe, isn't. Policemen positioned at strategic intervals prevent unwary gringos from straying off the beaten path: there seems to be a very fine line, usually a single street will do it, between the relatively safe
and the downright dangerous. There are neighbourhoods just outside the Pelô where even residents wouldn't dare to set foot. It's very easy to get paranoid about these things, but Salvador was perhaps the one place in Brazil where I did have a quick glance over my shoulder every once in a while. It seems strange that such a showcase as the Pelourinho should find itself surrounded by no-go areas...Bizarrely, seropolitanos
(residents of Salvador, as they happen to be called) seem to take a kind of perverse pleasure in telling gringos
how dangerous their city is, gleefully recounting the last time they suffered an assalto
. While Salvador does have one of the worst reputations in Brazil I managed to get through nearly a week there without any trouble.
Having visited a large number of beautifully-preserved colonial cities all around the continent - Colombia's Cartagena and Sucre in Bolivia being standouts - Salvador was, perhaps, a tiny bit underwhelming after all I'd heard and read about it. Still, with its bewitching African heritage, fabulously unique food and undeniably beautiful Pelourinho
, and friendly locals famous for their beautiful sing-song Portuguese, Salvador is definitely a place apart.
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