Leaving Rio de Janeiro was tough, it’s a city that has so much to offer and the longer you stay in it, the more it sucks you in. Some people even declare that there’s no city in the world like it. 2 hours later we were flying over the coast of Salvador, Brazil’s Colonial Capital and fourth largest city. Salvador is rich in history and culture due to its colonial past and its old town has achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status, but in truth the main reason that brought us there was the fact that it offers the cheapest one way flights to Europe in all of South America. Salvador was our last stop in our around the world adventure, and we were going to spend three days getting to know it.
Salvador is surrounded by beaches all around, and the farther you get away from the center the more beautiful the beaches are. Due to its strategic defensive geographical position in the Baía de Todos os Santos, Salvador was chosen by the Portuguese as the seat of their government. Innumerable amounts of slaves were brought from Africa to work for them, hence the big African population and cultural influence. It’s definitely not as cosmopolitan and chic as Rio, but its colorful old town is as pretty as you can get anywhere. Old traditions and customs are still very alive in Salvador. It is here where you can take part in traditional Brazilian – African influenced activities such as Capoeira and Terreiro. The historical centre is known as Pelourinho, which literally translates as pillory or punishment post, a name that binds this beautiful Portuguese legacy with its ugly and brutal colonial past. The Pelourinho is divided into the Upper and Lower City which are easily connected by two Art Deco elevators. Here you will find the largest concentration of Baroque style architecture outside of Europe.
A walk through the old town is a delight in its own, like stepping into the past or into Africa. The vendors of street food are all women, dressed in big white costumes. The rhythm of beating drums flood your ears as the sound comes out of buildings everywhere. In the middle of one of the streets we found an outdoors beauty salon where black women uniformed in African animalesque outfits sit their customers in plastic chairs in the sidewalk to work on their hair. Street massage was also another trade we encountered. You never know what you will find around the corner when walking the streets of Salvador. The sights, the sounds and smells are unique each day. This area is carefully guarded by police as it has the reputation of being the place in Brazil where you will most likely get mugged or robbed; but even with all the police, the darker it got the sooner we wanted to get out of there. Better safe than sorry at our last destination.
We were invited to watch a group lesson of capoeira in one of the most famous schools. Capoeira is recognized as a Brazilian sport, which is a combination of martial arts and dancing to the rhythm of drums. More than a sport, it’s an old ritual that originated in Angola. The slave populations practised Capoeira as their masters believed it was merely a dance rather than a disciplined martial art. 5 minutes into the session and the participants had broken into a heavy constant sweat. It’s definitely a great form of exercise and no surprise why almost all Brazilian men are very much in shape.
Another ritual which we were lucky to be invited to was a Terreiro. Terreiro has many meanings; it’s the set of customs and beliefs of the descendants of the African slaves, it’s a place where the ancient religious rituals take place, and it’s also the name of the ritual itself. Earlier in the day, we had visited the Terreiro (the place) in a small house at the end of an alley and we had seen a full grown chicken smashed into the doorstep of a house – not a typical welcome mat. Many Brazilians, as Cubans, still believe in their Orishas, or gods in black magic, and voodoo as they do in Africa. These religions were prohibited as Catholicism was declared the official religion in colonial Brazil, but in modern-day Salvador there is no hiding it. We inquired if we could attend and at what cost, and we were granted permission as long as Tony wore light colored long pants, and the cost would be whatever offering we wanted to make to the Orishas. Our hotel was too far so Tony showed up wearing capoeira white pants, which was the cheapest pants we found. At the Terreiro session there was a strange altar to the gods with even stranger offerings such as popcorn. The high priest, a man dressed in white women’s clothing and shoes, moves around in circles through the crowd dancing and chanting repetitively, as in a trance, to the rhythm of drums. Every once in a while he throws yellow flour to the people, who rub it into their bodies; he also throws it out into the street. After 30 minutes, the room seemed to be too small as more and more devotees of African origin came in to chant, dance and pray. We were all sweating and the ritual was repetitive so we left wondering if later it would get more intense. We don’t know what happened as it goes very late into the night, but as we exited we did see abundant creatures having a feast next to the smashed chicken and the flour the high priest threw out into the street. The creatures? Hundreds of cockroaches! Or embodiments of the gods perhaps? Terreiro is definitely an interesting experience to take part in.
The department of Bahia is reputed to have Brazil’s best food. We tried out their most famous dishes and they were really good. Acaraje is the staple street food. It’s a fried patty made of white beans which is filled with shrimps, spicy sauce and a nice yellow dough thick sauce. Traditionally most dishes in Salvador serve two, so if you are on your own or can’t agree on an item it’s an issue. The most famous dish is probably Moqueca, generally a prawn stew with coconut and served with rice and of course manioc (yellow flour). Breakfasts in Brazil are excellent as well. In all the hotels we stayed we had big tasty free breakfasts. There is a large variety of fresh fruits, a huge variation of sweets bread, egg variations and many meats; but we really liked their variation of omelette, a Beiju. It’s a sort of hard pancake with fillings inside, like an omelette, but no egg. They also grill big lumps of fresh cheese and serve it when the outside is crusty and the inside melted. Yummy!
Salvador is not just about sun, beaches and caipirinha, but a vibrant and authentic expression of Afro-Brazilian identity moving to a relentless beat in one of the most beautiful colonial settings in the world. It’s edgy, it’s beautiful, it’s rich, it’s poor, it’s Brazil! What a country to finish A Year In Motion! We are already thinking of coming back for the Football World Cup in 2014. And so, this is the end of 375 days of continuous travels, but definitely not the end of our travels, just a break which we approach with a whole bag of mixed emotions and what seems like a lifetime of memories. So Ireland here we come! And let the journey continue forever!