One of the features of Salvador that adorns all the postcards are the Baiana women.
Often they are Afro-Brasileiro ladies of ample girth, wearing headscarves and dressed in billowing skirts. They are "local characters" for the tourists to have their photos taken with, and they represent the culture of the Brazilian northeast and its African heritage. They hang around Praca Muncipal, waiting to embrace tourists in a bear hug, sporting a wide grin and asking for ten reals for the privilege. But there was something faintly creepy about them, as Salvador is the centre for candomble, and often these women are priestesses in this strange and mysterious African religion.
The centre of Salvador, Pelhurinho, is rife with candomble and many other spectacles. It is the mainly 18th-century Portuguese colonial centre of Salvador. It stands on a rocky buff overlooking the Baiae dos Todos Santos and is divided into Cidade Alta (high city) and Cidade Baixa (low city). The two are connected by numerous ladeiras (winding streets), funiculars, and the Lacerda elevator. The area consists of five colonial squares connected to each other by numerous cobbled streets. Gentrification has taken place, and each building has been given a lick of pastel paint. But it is also a place to live and work - the place is thronged with people, hawkers bother you, old men peer from balconied windows, and the chatter of the Baianos goes on incessantly.
It is also one of the strongest cultural centres in South America. Tourists from all over the world come to view the baroque churches, colonial pracas, and exotic African heritage. This wasn't always the way. Until the early nineties, Pelhurinho had sunk into crippling poverty. I suspect Salvador has always had its share of hardship, but the old centre of the city was prey to crime and drug problems. The cities government turned this around with massive investment and the tourists keep on coming. Money has been spent on Pelhurinho and extra policing, and the rewards are amazing. The tourist dollar and the wildness of Bahia clash in Pelhurinho. Each tourist is watched over like a rare endangered animal but at night-time an older wilder Salvador appears. There is no doubt that this city, on the surface, is just as wild and gritty as Rio, but at the same time there is a will to do something about it. Tourists are well-looked-after in Salvador, and most come away stunned by the cultural riches the city has to offer.
Some tourists elect to stay in Pelhurinho. There are a wide range of hostels, hotels and pousadas dotting the streets often at bargain prices but Pelhurinho can be very noisy at night. I elected to stay in the beach suburb of Barra and take the bus in each day. The 101 bus can be caught all along the seafront at Barra and then climbs the hills, past Campo Grande, to deposit you just behind the Praca Municipal. The buses come in two types - the busy city buses cost only 1.50 reals, while the sleek A/C upholstered executivo cost 4 reals. You can follow the crowds to the Praca Municipal, and it might be an idea to orient yourself here, as this is the equivalent of the city centre. The white rococo Palacio de Rio Branco dominates the praca's western side, but it is the northern side that attracts you. It stands hundreds of feet over Baiae dos Todos Santos, and you can stand at the balustrade and view the myriad islands across the blue water. It also is the main high city embarkation point for the Lacerda elevator whose morning commuters pour out and are swallowed by the city. I wouldn't advise taking the winding lanes down from the high city. No one walks that way and you could be targeted for robbery.
Head east from here, and you are at the administrative heart of Bahia - the Praca de Se. The southern side is lined with 18th-century Portuguese colonial buildings. Each one is painted a pastel pink, yellow, or blue, and each one houses an e@cafe, music shop, or restaurant. Music plays a big part of the culture of Pelhurinho, and as you wander along, the notes of Jao Gilberto and his bossa nova are strong, as well as reggae and tropicalismo. Modern fountains dot the praca, and this is where the Baiana women hang out with arms outstretched to bring you into their ample embrace and charge you for the privilege.
The southeast corner of the praca is the entrance to Terreiro de Jesus, and once you turn the corner, you encounter one of those views of Salvador. The ones that make you go, "wow!" Here is an authentic Portuguese square smack in the middle of Salvador, and it is a stunner. In the centre is a green garden with palms and a baroque fountain. On the eastern side were 18th century municipal buildings and the western edge were pastel coloured gems converted into tourist options. The southern and northern sides of the praca, however, have a cathedral each. It was like stepping back into a different age. But where you get tourists you get hawkers and the ones in Terreiro de Jesus were some of the most persistent I have ever encountered. They mostly target the tour groups and luckily left this swarthy sunburnt "gringa" alone. One thing I noticed was that the hawkers in Pelhurinho were legally there. Many wore official 'prefeitura' identity badges saying they were licensed to bother tourists with sunglasses and postcards.
But the big attraction on the praca for me was the Candomble Museum. Entrance costs 5 reals and it is really one room broken down into many exhibits. Almost as soon as Brazil was discovered did they start importing slaves from Africa. The Portuguese already had colonies in Angola and the Bight of Benin and crossed the Atlantic to unload their cargo in the Baiae dos Todos Santos. The religion of Brazil was, of course, Roman Catholicism, and no others were tolerated, so the old African superstitions went underground. The Candomble gods were given Catholic names and identities to avoid detection. The saints are called Orixas, and god is called Olurum. He is, of course, too busy to attend earthly matters, so his Orixas do the work for him...
The museum showed evidence of this creepy religion that is still practised today. Costumes and pictures of candombleceremonies adorn the walls. There were some interesting sepia photos of 19th-century candomble goddesses. Most looked like your grandmother, but occasionally you could detect arrogance and sparks of power behind the eyes. The ceremonies still go on. My travel agency did tourist excursions to real-life candomble ceremonies up in the hills around Salvador. The ceremonies are laid on for the tourists and are priced at about 100 reals. After many hours chanting, an old woman goes into a trance and claims to be possessed. Her Orixas ask her all kinds of questions and she can supposedly predict the future..
All very creepy if you ask me - it's scary enough walking about Barra at night... I think I'll pass...