The north of Brazil is more exotic and less developed than the south. Salvador de Bahia is known as the African Heart of Brazil. Indeed, it is a world away from the plastic surgery and perfect bodies of Rio, the hustle and push of Sao Paulo, and the tranquillity of all the seaside resorts in between. This place has its own distinct spirit, its own rhythm evoking strong reactions and vivid memories. The locals, called Bahianos, are very proud of their state, and with good reason.
Religious festivals like Christmas, Easter and New Year’s are the best times to visit. The northern Brazilians have customised their own religion, martial arts, food and style. There is an interesting fort to visit, and you can easily travel from Salvador to such beautiful beaches as Morro de Sao Paulo or Fortaleza.
At all times be careful, especially at night. There is much poverty and theft. English is not widely spoken, so don’t forget your Portuguese phrase book! Hotels are expensive. Food is surprisingly heavy, given the hot climate, and a bit spicy.
Taxis are cheap and the best way to get around, especially at night when it is more dangerous. Otherwise, renting a car from the airport is recommended. The area is quite hilly for bike riding, and walking at night can be hazardous.
Groups of big, black, turbaned-head, chatting women dressed in billowing white skirts caught my eye as I climbed the steep cobblestone hill to reach the old city. They sold spicy fried balls of meat, cheese and vegetables, and offered a hot red liquid (I named it “devil’s sweat”) as an accompaniment.
The sound of drums floated in the air. Everywhere there seemed to be an old colonial church whose spectacular interior competed with its neighbour. So much gold adorned these holy sites. I wondered if the Portuguese had not secretly found El Dorado and hidden its contents from the Spanish in their churches. In the streets, small doors beckoning from colourful facades opened up like the flaps of an advent calendar to reveal shops and restaurants inside.
One door was particularly large, and opening it turned up the volume of the music playing inside – a strange stew of drums, chanting, clapping and some long, bamboo-and-string kind of instrument that twanged. Could this be a Candomble ritual? Was I witnessing the religion created by Brazil’s African slaves who attempted to obscure their native beliefs by disguising them in Catholicism? I saw topless men in white, bent over, pretending to kick one another. Then, bending over backwards and walking like crabs, they leaped up to start all over again. This was capoeira, a martial-art inspired dance that also began with the African slaves. As they were usually bound at the wrists, slaves learned to fight with their feet only.
Walking out of the old town, back down the hill towards the beach, a sherbert sunset descended behind the walls of the old fort that once guarded the city. The lights from patios outside the hotels lining the waterfront illuminated tourists dining on fish caught near their tables. Sipping a potent caipirinha and munching small balls of tasty cheese bread, I was rather startled when two children approached my table begging for bread. Bahia has much in common with the cultures and charm of Africa, even its poverty. In just a few hours, I felt like I had been in northern Brazil, western Africa, and the fifteenth century. Ah, the magic of Bahia.