February 29, 2008
After spending nearly a week in Rio de Janeiro, IgoUgo member (and editor) midtownmjd headed north to Bahia and found a very different Brazil. Here, she fits Salvador da Bahia’s eternal rhythms into eight words.
It’s difficult to find words to describe the Brazilian state of Bahia and its centerpiece city, Salvador. It would be easier to describe it on canvas, maybe, with brushstrokes mimicking the exploding colors of its perfectly preserved, colonial-era buildings. Or in song, with notes from South America, Europe, and Africa colliding; a samba beat; and the banging of drums crafted right on Salvador’s cobblestone streets.
There are a few select words of Bahia, though, that I’ll never forget, and here they are: eight simple words to serve as a guide to this sultry, spiritual city on the sea.
Candomblé: Salvador is, as actonsteve so aptly observes, Brazil with an African Drumbeat. Having served as the hub of Brazil’s massive, centuries-long slave trade, Salvador’s cultural roots stretch mostly to Africa. This heritage permeates the city, and nowhere is it more palpable than at a Candomblé service. The religious tradition is Brazil’s version of Voodoo or Santeria and features a syncretism with Catholicism, a concession made by early practitioners in order to gain their masters’ permission to worship. I attended a ceremony of one of Salvador’s 2,400 Candomblé communities—their first of the year in 2008. Everyone attending is expected to wear white as they watch the community honor the orixá (gods) with music, movement, costumes, and trances over the course of several hours. It’s a cultural experience so connected with the past and so unique to this city that it should be a priority for visitors.
Capoeira: Head to the Mercado Modelo in Salvador’s lower city to watch experts practice this Brazilian martial art in an outdoor courtyard before you brave the two-story market inside. The skillful fight-meets-dance moves are another enduring celebration of Bahia’s African heritage and are fascinating to watch—and they could come in handy as you push your way through the market and its touts.
Pelourinho: This neighborhood is the heart of Salvador, and if it feels a little touristy, it’s not without good reason: the area’s historic churches, rainbow houses, artists’ studios, and palm-lined squares are beautiful and fascinating to tour. Winding streets and wrought-iron finishes reminded me of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, but lovingly restored on a much larger scale.
Igreja: Portuguese for “church,” the igreja is perhaps the defining characteristic of Salvador. The city’s churches—365 of them, it’s said—frame nearly every block with spires and fill the sky with crosses. The churches’ styles range from baroque to bare, and a great many of them are wonderful places to while away the day. They’re all amazingly accessible, including their more private rooms, and hide tons of items of interest. The Igreja de São Francisco, for example, contains cloisters with walls covered in azulejos, blue and white Portuguese tiles which, in this case, illustrate various morality allegories.
Acarajé: Bahia is celebrated throughout Brazil for its rich food derived from African cuisine, particularly acarajé, a dried-shrimp and black-eyed-pea-bread dish which can be eaten in separate parts on a plate or ladled together into the fried bread (which tastes like cornbread). After dark, restaurants set up tented satellite locations in the city’s squares where cooks fry everything in dende, or palm oil, and serve it up to lines of diners for only a few real.
Moqueca: Another Bahian specialty, this paella-like seafood mixture is best enjoyed on a Coconut Coast beach just north of the city, where you order it about an hour before you’d like to eat so it can be properly prepared while you splash in the ocean or sip a caipirinha under your umbrella. It’s full of fresh seafood stewed with coconut, tomato, and spices, and it’s incredible. After our Coconut Coast initiation, my friends and I shared a second excellent, albeit more upscale, version of moqueca at the Yemanjá restaurant—later that same day. It’s that good.
Cocada: My third and last edible entry can be bought on the street, usually at an acarajé stand, and is a coconut patty that’s among the sweetest—and therefore best—things I’ve ever tasted. It comes in two versions, light and dark; the light is a white, crystallized-sugar-coconut concoction, and the dark is syrupy and molasses-flavored. Both are addictive and would’ve been stuffed in my suitcase if they weren’t best fresh out of the pan.
Fita do Bonfim: My friend and fellow traveler from São Paulo made sure we piled into a cab and made the trip to the Igreja do Senhor do Bonfim, away from the center city, to partake in the tradition of tying a fita do Bonfim around our wrists. The colorful ribbons, imprinted with the Bonfim name, are tied with three knots as three wishes are made; it’s said that when the bracelet breaks off, the wishes come true, and my friend was full of stories attesting to this. The church itself is worth a trip; though it’s Catholic, there’s a mystical feel to it that stems from a fusion with Candomblé beliefs. For example, one room houses a display of wax and wooden body parts, left by those who believe they were healed with a fita do Bonfim. I don’t know about the ribbons’ medicinal powers, but I will say that I’ve had two knots fall out of my ribbon bracelet and two wishes pan out. (It seems to help if the wishes are inevitabilities, or at least within the realm of probability.)
Now I only wish that my third wish had been for a return to Bahia; I have more words to learn from this city, and I know it has a lot more to say.