By: Jon Haggins
Photos: Jon Haggins and David Fasano
While the world sits glued to television sets, intrigued by the athleticism of people from the world over as they compete in Brazil, the city of Rio de Janeiro is getting all of the attention.
But there is so much more to Brazil, one of the more peaceful and inviting countries in Latin America.
The city of Salvador is on a peninsula on the northeast coast of Brazil, which shields the All Saints Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The city is the third largest in Brazil, sprawling for dozens of miles inland from the coast.
The City of Salvador was built on two levels. Pelourinho is located on the upper level in the ‘old town’ of Salvador. Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. Salvador has the largest concentration of colorful colonial–era buildings in the New World.
I followed the sound of the hypnotic African drum as it pulses into the Brazilian culture. Brazil is one of the countries that imported Africans as slaves to work on sugar, cocoa and tobacco plantations in the State of Bahia. Brazil also has the largest African population outside of Africa with a population of 12.5 million of which 12 million are Africans or mixed. ‘Pelourinho,’ means ‘pillory’ or ‘whipping post,’ where slaves were brought for punishment — flogging in public adding humiliation to pain and served as a warning to other slaves.
Africans brought their culture and their sound. The African drum has influenced the rhythm of the world. The drum is the pulse and heart of Brazilian music. Much of the African Heritage has been maintained and savored, such as their religion, cuisine, music and dance. I call it a feijoada, a melting pot of many cultures and people.
Some of the world’s most beautiful churches are located in Pelourinho, such as the Golden Sao Francisco. This ornate church has a simple exterior. However, its interior is decorated with lots of gold and grotesque cherubs carved by slaves as revenge. Africans retained their culture and heritage by suppressing it and camouflaging it with Catholicism. They served a dual religion of Catholicism and African religion such as Orixas, which are the African/Brazilian Deities, Candomble, Umbanda and Maccumba.
Pelourinho, the old city center is filled with historical sites, colonial architecture, museums, art galleries, restaurants, bars, hostels, artisanal shops, and music/dance/capoeira academies along the winding cobblestone streets. Much of the artistry is inspired from Africa. Salvador is a party town where life is as good as it gets and the fun never stops. The first Portuguese word I learned was “obrigado” (thank you). The people of any country appreciate it when you try to thank them in their native tongue.
Pelourinho is the core of this metropolis, it is always filled with activities and it’s magical. I was fortunately to share the celebration of Black people and what a party it was. Everyone came out to celebrate, dance, listen to fantastic
bands, eat and drink lots of caipirinhas. Someone told me, “If you don’t sing, if you don’t compose, if you don’t dance, then you’re not a Brazilian.”
Bahia is also known as the Capoeira capitol. Capoeira is the marshal art form that is practiced throughout Bahia. Slave owners forbade slaves from fighting with their hands, because they needed them to harvest the cocoa crop. Slaves from Angola created Capoeira as a defense deviation of martial art to disguise combative skills against an opponent: it’s a syncopated dance with intricate acrobatic handstands, quick cartwheels, spins, twists, and twirling counterclockwise.
The dancers are lean and athletic; yet very strong to support their handstands and back bends. The drum dominates the rhythm along with a Berimbau, which is a single stringed instrument, constructed from a thin bent pole that is attached to a calabash. When the string is plucked, it creates a very unique lonely sound.
Bahianas are very proud of their musical heritage—musicians such as Caetano Velosa, Joao Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and the hot rhythms of Olodum Band have come from Bahia. Michael Jackson and Paul Simon have recorded with Olodum the number band in Bahia. Their offices are located in the heart Pelourinho. I interviewed Billy the director and he told me the Olodum drumming band was originally formed to give boys an activity to take them off the streets. Olodum has performed around the world and it is a Grammy Award winner. Olodum Banda (drummers) often parade up and down the cobblestone streets. Everyone is welcome to join in because Salvador is a people city.
The beautiful Bahiana women gather around the square in Pelourinho dressed in crisp starched cotton and lace dresses with voluminous hooped bouffant skirts underneath to give them a billowy look. Colorful sashes around their waists accent the dresses. Their heads are wrapped with a twist of cotton fabric. They also wear strings of colorful beads around their necks, similar to Carmen Miranda. The only difference is Carmen had more fruits, nuts and bananas.
Restaurants extend tables onto the narrow streets. My favorite restaurant is Casa da Gamboa where they serve moqueca (fish stew)
The iconic Elevador Lacerda (elevator) brings everyone to the lower level. The lower city has always been a commercial port and it is surrounded by a beautiful harbor filled with marine life and sailing. The Mercado Modelo market is located across the street from the elevator. Mercado is a perfect destination for shopping for local products such as: fresh fruits, meat, fish, clothing and berimbau instruments. A large colorful mural covers the wall along the coast of the lower city. A little further along the coast stands a cultural center and a dock where boys jump into the sea.
Outside of this area, there are many beach districts that stretch from the tip of the peninsula northeast along the Atlantic coast. The Barra neighborhood at the tip of the peninsula is the main alternative jumping-off point to Pelourinho. A little further to the northeast are the hip neighborhoods of Rio Vermelho and Amaralina, which feature a vibrant night life.
Vila Gale Salvador Hotel has a lovely restaurant that serves traditional dishes and a small outdoor pool overlooking the sea. Vila Gale is also a short cab ride from Pelourinho. The hotel offers feijoada every Saturday. Feijoada is the national dish (the Brazilian soul food) made of sautéed collard greens, white rice, tapioca flour, black beans, pork sausages and peppers.
Brazilians are also known for The Churrascaria, which is a barbecue skewer of fresh beef. Don’t forget to top off your dinner with a caipirinha drink, which is concocted with cachaca (a Brazilian rum) mixed with sugar and lime-juice poured over ice. After several drinks, it’s difficult to stand on your feet.
The best part of this national drink is that it is inexpensive. The food is authentic Brazilian. Don’t forget Brahma Chopps light beer; it’s the most refreshing chaser for any meal.
Farol da Barra Lighthouse is the most famous icon for Salvador. It protected for the city. It was built in 1580’s on the peninsula of all Saints Bay. The Atlantic Ocean is to the south and the entrance to the All Saints Bay is to the west.
The Bonfim Church (Lord of Good Will) was constructed on the highest point of the city. A wealthy boat owner from Portugal was lost at sea during a storm. He prayed that if he were rescued he would build the most beautiful church at the highest point of the city, so that people could come and worship.
Fitas or Bonfim Ribbons were originally made of silk and the writings on them done by hand with ink or silver. They are worn on the neck upon which they were hung medallions and holy images.
Today, the ribbons are worn on wrists and hung on church gates as a symbol of good luck. They are also hung on church gate where people can donate and wearing them as a symbol of good luck. People all over the world celebrate the Bahia Band tradition. Ribbons are mostly worn around the wrist or ankle; Fitas come in a variety of colors, each color representing a particular Orixá. Yellow, for example, is Oxum, daughter of Yemanjá, and is the Orixá of wealth and of freshwater, as delicate as the bubbling streams and as forceful as the raging waterfalls.
The Barra Dique do Tororo Park is in the heart of the city where eight Orixas, (Afro-Brazilian Deities) sculptures stand in the center of a lake. They represent the great gods and goddesses of protection. Tati Moreno (the artist) designed the Orixas.
Vila Gale Guarajuba is an all-inclusive resort featuring chalets on the beach. The resort also has the largest outdoor pool, meeting facilities and two restaurants. It’s a play land where Brazilians come to get away. The swim-up bar is a popular meeting spot.
Costa do Sauipe is located north on the coast of Bahia. It features a fantastic beach front of five hotels named, La Mar, El Sol, Terra, Premium and Vila Nova do Praia, which is a replica of a Pelourinho village including shops and restaurants.
The sand swept beach is lined with sweeping palm trees. These all-in-conclusive properties offer all the food and drinks you can muster. What I loved most was the fact that I could visit the other resorts and share my experiences with other guests. The pool bar was most popular spot where drinks flowed continuously. There are exercise classes in the pool or on mats. If you chose, you can simply stretch out on the beach under a large white umbrella.
Praia do Forte is a small village filled with restaurants that offer the freshly caught seafood. Several restaurants extend on to the white sand beach where colorful fishing boats bob in the clear waters. Sao Francisco do Litoral is a small white-washed colonial style church with turquoise colored doors. The church sits next to the sea.
Costello da Torre de Garcia D’Ávila Castle is a ruin from the tower and the castle. They are ruins of national importance, since they mark a very important step the early time of Portuguese colonization of Brazil. Later the Castle da Torre de Garcia D’Ávila became the headquarters of the largest private property which ever was established in the world: it covers a surface that is equal the size of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and Holland.
TAMAR stands for Tartarugas Marinhas (Sea Turtles). The Project is a non-profit organization with its main objective being to protect sea turtles from extinction on the Brazilian coastline. Praia do Forte is one of 22 bases for the project along the Brazilian coast. It’s where you will find pools with turtles and different types of sea animals, and can even touch them in the visitor’s area. At certain times of the day, you can also watch the young turtles being released to the sea. They have released close to 10 million turtles into the Atlantic.
There are the ubiquitous souvenir shops in Praia do Forte that offer unique items from the region. It’s definitely a stop to make when visiting the coast.
Bahia is the heartbeat of African culture in South America and an unforgettable experience.