Monday, November 12, 2007

Brazil: Samba in Salvador, Bahia

Next stop, Bahia...Brazil`s Mecca for Afro-Brazilian street parties, festivals, religious festivals and nonstop nightlife. We packed our bags and took flight for Salvador, the region`s thriving capital city. Much of Bahia`s color and flavor stems from a strong African influence, a holdover from the sugar and tobacco plantation days when African slaves were brought over in droves. Now happily the diversity is celebrated, and African traditions are treasured rather than hidden.

After conquering the phone system by devising a foolproof plan whereby Eric dials, Kristina speaks in Portuguese, and Kathleen holds the guidebook (or camera), we installed ourselves in a hotel in the heart of the cobblestoned Pelourinho, a UNESCO World Heritage sight that is no stranger to the tourist. Big sunny plazas encircled with brightly painted colonial buildings and dotted with fountains play host to capoeira rodas (where hard-bodied Brazilians dazzle tourists and locals alike with an athletic combination of martial arts, dance, and play first originated by African slaves as a means of self-defense) and an endless parade of axe and samba bands, vendors, and tourists.

We spent our days wandering the streets sampling local fare, visiting museums, and in an endless quest to see a capoeira class in action. The latter pursuit ending hilariously after our second attempt AGAIN landed us in a room with a group of 6- and 7-year olds that smelled like applesauce. They weren`t exactly the capoeira experts that we`d hoped to admire. For fear of getting a creepy kid-follower reputation, we finally dropped our mission and settled on a more touristy, but incredibly amazing, folkcloric show. This student obsession went hand in hand with the battle-of-the-bands that we stumbled upon as local music students hosted a rock competition in the Pelourinho.

Another Afro-Brazilian staple of life in Bahia is Candomble, a ritualistic religion practiced throughout Brazil where different deities are honored. Intrigued, we took a taxi to the outskirts of town to a Candomble house to witness a ceremony. While undoubtedly we didn`t understand all that transpired, it was incredible to witness the ceremony. Dressed in white as requested, we sat on opposite sides of the room per our gender. Men drummed out a rhythmic beat while the mostly female dancers encircled the room in traditional dances. Costumes, priestesses, and different dances all held importance that we could not begin to explain here. At various moments throughout the evening (which lasted over 4 hours, ending after midnight), dancers, and sometimes audience members, would go into a writhing trance state and needed to be supported by other members. It was a powerful event that left us wanting to learn more about its history and symbolism.

Much of Brazil`s preferred cuisine comes from Bahia, with the strong African influence bringing more spice and flavor to the region, and we did our best to sample the city`s finest. It was here that we were able to gain much valuable information for our Street Food research. Manioc flour is used heavily, which wasn`t always our favorite ingredient, but the moqueca de peixe (a seafood stew with tomatoes and coconut milk) more than made up for it. While not technically street food, we loved this upstairs restaurant that lowered meals down to diners who preferred to eat outside on the sidewalk.

We stayed in Salvador long enough to find a preferred neighborhood cafe (perfect for lunch, capirinhas and sunsets), to explore several of the city`s over 300 churches (our favorite being Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo, where a slave devoted over 8 years of his life to create an image of Christ in 1630 that includes blood fashioned from over 2000 tiny rubies), to make our way to Barra, the seaside district with soft sands and dreamy sunsets, and to dine alfresco to live bossa nova. All in all, not a bad four days!

By the end of our stay, Eric had gone positively native, stripping down to a bare chest to fit in with Brazilian fashion sense. Or perhaps it was because a bird pooped on his shirt and he had to wait while Kathleen cleaned it in the plaza`s fountain. Hmmm...

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