Bahia, the spiritual center of Brazil, emerges from obscurity with a spruced-up colonial quarter and a powerful backbeat
IT SEEMS ONLY RIGHT THAT THE FIRST THING I DO UPON ARRIVING in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s City of All Saints, is take a leap of faith: I let a stranger tie a ribbon around my wrist. I’d seen these ribbons (fitas, in Portuguese) before, frayed and dangling from the arms of nearly every Brazilian I’d ever met in New York City, and for years I’d wondered what they were. A fashion statement?A good luck charm?Now the mystery unravels on the steps of Bahia’s Church of Our Lord of Bonfim (Our Lord of Good Ends). Dozens of eager fita vendors line the entrance to the Baroque church that sits like a wedding-cake ornament on a hill overlooking the city. As I pass, they thrust fistfuls of ribbons at me like cheerleaders shaking pom-poms. I wave the aggressive sellers aside and decide to buy from an elderly man named Waldemir, who sits serenely on the steps.
Salvador da Bahia (commonly known as Bahia), a city of 2 million on the northeast coast (in the state of Bahia), is revered by Brazilians as their spiritual center. Catholics from all over the country make pilgrimages to Bonfim to ask for miracles. Bahia is also the birthplace of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé, a Yoruba faith similar to Haiti’s voodoo and Cuba’s Santeria. Like other cities where African spirits have migrated—Havana, Port-au-Prince, New Orleans—Bahia overflows with wonderful food, great music (Brazilian superstars Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso are native sons of the region), and a vibrant arts scene.
The city’s biggest attraction, though, is Carnival. Beginning in January, Bahia launches into a season of feasts and festivals that, over the course of six weeks, escalates into a rocking, high-decibel street party. Those who know claim that it’s better than Rio’s—that it’s the best in the world.
I’m reaching for money when he asks me the name of my saint, my protector. This stumps me; I tell him I don’t know. Waldemir puzzles over this a minute, then pulls a pale-blue strand from his tangled heap of yellows, greens, pinks, reds, and whites. “This color is for Iemanj´,” he says, “queen of the sea.” I hold out my arm while he solemnly knots the ribbon three times and instructs me to make three requests of Iemanj´, a Yoruba deity brought to Bahia by African slaves in the 1500’s. I’m to wear the ribbon until it falls apart, by which time, Waldemir assures me, my wishes will be granted.
The surge in recognition couldn’t be coming at a more propitious time: Bahia is in the midst of a civic renaissance. Just last year, the major part of the multimillion-dollar renovation of the colonial quarter, the Pelourinho, was completed. The project, funded by the state government, with the support of unesco, restored the oldest and perhaps most magnificent concentration of colonial architecture in the New World: grand plazas, iron-balconied houses, and Baroque churches dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The word renovated sets off my traveler’s alarm. Too often, it’s a tourist-board euphemism for sanitized. Had the Pelourinho been turned into an Afro-Brazilian Disneyland?From my seaside hotel, the Bahia Othon, I set out in a taxi with more than a little trepidation to explore the new, improved neighborhood.
As we’re enacting this little ritual, a shower of cool water hits me in the forehead. I look past Waldemir, squinting into the tropical midday sun, and see a Catholic priest in a long, white cassock shaking what looks like a wet dishmop at the throng of worshipers who’ve come to Bonfim for a blessing: it is the first Friday of the year, a holy day, and also the opening of Bahia’s Carnival season. It occurs to me that tying an African goddess’s ribbon around my wrist while receiving a holy-water benediction might represent a serious conflict of interest—or at the very least, spiritual overkill. But then I notice that fitas adorn nearly all the arms upraised to catch the priest’s spray. Later, I’ll see them hanging from rearview mirrors, license plates, even cash registers. Here in the City of All Saints, Catholicism and African religion intertwine like the ribbons heaped on Bonfim’s steps.
For decades Bahia has been almost a secret city, beloved by Brazilians and pored over by cultural anthropologists, but little-known to outsiders. In the last few years, however, the city has emerged from obscurity because of international exposure from projects like Paul Simon’s best-selling album Rhythm of the Saints (recorded with Bahia’s Carnival drum group Olodum) and David Byrne’s PBS documentary about candomblé, Ilê Aiyê. African-American tourists interested in exploring their cultural heritage have also started to venture to Bahia.
GEOGRAPHICALLY, BAHIA IS A LOT LIKE SAN FRANCISCO: roads wind and meander, following the ripples of the terrain. By the time my taxi driver gets downtown, I’m completely disoriented—and even more so when he stops in front of a nondescript concrete office building. “Pelourinho?” I ask, confused. He points down an alley, indicating that he can’t drive past this point. Dubious, I get out and start walking. I turn a corner and suddenly the alley opens up, like the door of a time machine, onto a 17th-century panorama of multicolor pastels.
Behind any of the lovely colonial façades may be an art gallery, or a rehearsal yard for one of the several afro blocos (Carnival drum bands), or a surprise like the one I encounter when I follow the sound of thundering drums up a concrete staircase and into the studio of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia, preparing for its world tour.
Transfixed, I watch gorgeous, supple young men and women leap and spin around the room, enacting the dances of the gods in the candomblé pantheon. Oxum, goddess of love, sways her hips and preens in front of an imaginary mirror. Ogun, god of war, explodes in a frenzy of jumping and sword slashing. He’s followed by Iemanjá, who pantomimes the rolling of the ocean.
After the rehearsal, I return to the street, dazzled. And lost. Even with my tourist board map in hand, the Pelo’s maze of streets and alleys is disconcerting. I wander a bit, looking for a landmark, and run into a group of young men wearing T-shirts that say, in Portuguese, “I’m proud to be a student of Mestre Bimba.” Mestre Bimba is one of the grand masters of the martial art capoeira, so I figure they must be going to a practice, or roda. “Capoeira?” I ask with my best Portuguese accent. They laugh, and the largest guy says, “You’re American too?”
They’re from San Francisco, where they’ve been studying the Brazilian fighting style, and they’ve come to take classes at the source. Bahia, where capoeira was born, has dozens of masters and dozens of schools. It turns out they are on their way to a roda, and they invite me along.
Inside the Academia Mestre Bimba, other capoeiristas have gathered in a circle to start the jôgo, the “play.” Spurred by the percussive twang of the lute-like berimbau, they joust one by one with their teacher, a man who looks as if he’s in his sixties but has the elasticity of a teenager. Capoeira is a springy, close-to-the-ground style of kick boxing, with touches of karate and ballet, that originated in Bahia’s black community. The idea is not only to outfight your opponent but to humiliate him with subterfuge, style, and attitude; during the fighting, players sing taunts to each other à la Muhammad Ali.
During the era of the sugar plantations, Bahia was the prosperous capital of Portuguese Brazil, and the Pelourinho was the city’s slave market (pelourinho means “pillory” in Portuguese). When Brazil’s slaves were emancipated in the 19th century, freed blacks moved into the neighborhood and built the beautiful sea-blue Catholic Church of Rosário dos Pretos, which anchors the main plaza, the Largo do Pelourinho. After World War II, the neighborhood declined, and in recent years it had become a notorious gambling and prostitution den. At the same time, thanks to the colorful novels of longtime Bahia resident Jorge Amado, the Pelourinho—and Bahia in general—gained fame throughout Brazil as the cradle of Afro-Brazilian cultural expression, a center of music, religion, and dance, and the home of Bahia’s graceful, distinctive form of martial art, the capoeira.
The restoration appears to have swept away the Pelo’s seamier side—city authorities moved out the red-light district and the criminals and installed 24-hour police brigades, transforming the quarter into what’s probably the safest urban neighborhood in Latin America. Many Bahians opposed the restoration, because the cleanup forced several longtime residents out of their homes. But civic leaders took pains to preserve the neighborhood’s flavor, ensuring the continuation of cultural and religious activities and encouraging artists and teachers to migrate to the area. Their efforts paid off: the Pelo retains a funky, authentic atmosphere, despite all the fresh pastel paint and bright new galleries and restaurants.
The master today is an expert trickster. Crouching and curling, he makes it seem as if his young opponent has won—but at the last minute, he whips out his foot and kicks it up hard, inches away from his foe’s face (in class the “beatings” are pantomimed). The move, sardonically called the Angolan Blessing, elicits enthusiastic whoops from the students.
As if its cultural abundance isn’t enough, the Pelo is also endowed with some of the city’s best restaurants. Experience Bahian cuisine’s blending of African and Portuguese flavors by lunching at the Restaurante do SENAC, the State Cooking School, in a lemon yellow mansion that overlooks the Largo do Pelourinho. For Bahians, lunch is the big meal of the day, and the restaurant school lays on a splendid prix fixe buffet with more than 30 classic dishes—from the thick, rich fish and coconut milk moqueca stews laced with bright red dendê (palm-fruit oil) to the milder but equally complex seafood stews called ensopados. But it’s the dessert buffet that’s transcendent here, a delirium of sugary concoctions like custard tarts, meringue puffs, and little balls of toasted coconut and sugar.
The sweets, and all of Bahia’s regional dishes, according to Professor Vivaldo Costa Lima, head of the anthropology department at the state university, are imbued with spiritual meaning. “Every god in the candomblé has his preferred food,” the professor explains as he graciously takes my arm and leads me to his favorite Pelo bar for a tasting of the local alcoholic specialty: licores (liqueurs) in tropical flavors like mango, passion fruit, and clove. The one food that all the African gods like, according to Costa Lima, is also the most beloved street food in Bahia: a deep-fried bean-flour dumpling called an acarajé.
The village itself has only a handful of Polynesian-style posadas. The one large hotel, the 200-room Praia do Forte resort, is set on eight miles of deserted beach. On a hot, blindingly bright day I stagger into its airy, open lobby, and soon I’m settled into one of the hotel’s “ecological” rooms—open to the beachfront, with no air conditioning to spoil the cooling breeze. Within seconds, I’ve plopped into the white hammock on the balcony, where I can look up into the rafters and watch micos de tufo branco—monkeys with a white, punk-style tuft of forehead hair—swinging and playing above me.
In the early morning I walk mile after mile of empty Atlantic beach, watching for the sea turtles that come here to spawn from a protected hatchery nearby. Later, I hop into a jeep with other guests (the hotel’s clientele seems to consist mainly of executives from São Paulo) and head for a hike in the Sapiranga Ecological Reserve. Sapiranga is a tropical forest that grows out of the sand; the trees and plants feed on the dead vegetation underfoot. It’s the only rain forest I’ve ever seen where cactus sprouts alongside coconut palms. Because of its extraordinarily delicate ecosystem, Sapiranga is open only to small groups of visitors, accompanied by the park’s well-trained naturalists and a brigade of children from a neighboring village, who are being trained as nature guides under a state program.
Vacationing in Praia do Forte is a bit like camping—albeit in the high style of 19th-century gentleman adventurers. You’re surrounded by ocean, rain forest, monkeys, and turtles, yet coddled by a staff and fed three outrageous buffets a day. Three days of this is the perfect antidote to Pelo’s urban bustle. Four days of it, and I’m ready to jump back in.
In the Pelo, on downtown street corners, and even in the parking lot outside Bahia’s shopping mall, you can buy acarajé from the Bahianas: turbaned women dressed like candomblé priestesses, mães-de-santo, in elaborate white costumes and strands of colorful beads. Pungent, oily, a meal in itself, an acarajé is usually served split in two and filled with vatapá, a creamy, peppery paste of dried shrimp and coconut. The aroma of the gods’ favorite food, sizzling in hot red dendê oil, penetrates every corner of the city.
After a few days in the Pelo, I begin to feel a bit city-bound. Though it’s surrounded by water, Bahia has no good places to swim right in town. The local beach scene begins about a 15-minute drive northeast of the city, in Itapoã. On Saturdays, the strip from Ondina to Itapoã is wall-to-wall thong bikinis and suitcase radios, a hot spot for teenagers working on their tans or their moves—capoeira and otherwise. For well-heeled adults, weekends mean a longer drive, an hour and a half up the coast on a highway known as the Green Line to the beachside town of Praia do Forte.
FOR YEARS A HIDEAWAY KNOWN MOSTLY TO LOCALS, who kept small beach cottages on the outskirts, Praia do Forte has only recently been developed for tourism—but not without resistance from Bahian eco-warriors. Environmentalist groups battled over the construction of the Green Line, which originally was planned to hug the fragile coastline. They won the fight, and the highway was rerouted inland. The activist groups also imposed stringent restrictions on the development of the Praia do Forte area, which includes a rare type of coastal rain forest.
OVER A DELICIOUS LUNCH OF CHICKEN, RICE, AND BEANS at her Bahia house, sculptor Eneida Sanches is trying to explain to me the immense importance that candomblé has for all Bahians, even those who do not practice the religion. Her own work, like that of Bahia’s most renowned artist, Carybe, is inspired by candomblé symbols. Sanches’s beautiful pounded and filigreed metal pieces, some of which will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution this year, are actual implements used in candomblé ceremonies by priestesses possessed by the spirit of the orixás, or gods—the silvery mirror of Oxum, the tin staff with jangly bells used by Oxala (who’s associated with goodness), the fierce sword of Ogun.
As Sanches speaks, I realize that I cannot leave Bahia without experiencing a candomblé ceremony. But how?While candomblé is no longer a secret society in Bahia—the important temples, or terreiros, are even listed on tourist maps—one can’t simply show up unannounced. The Bahian tourist board can sometimes arrange a visit, but it has been unable to find a ceremony open to me on my last weekend in town. I explain my problem to Sanches, who makes a few phone calls in my behalf and comes up with some leads.
So it happens that at midnight I’m driving around Bahia with a musician named Tony Mola. He pulls off the main road onto a steep, twisting one that descends abruptly to the terreiro, Casa Oxumaré. From an unimpressive concrete building comes the sound of drumming and singing. Mola introduces me to a middle-aged man all in white, one of the priests of the house. He checks to see if I have a camera (they’re forbidden), then motions me to sit on the left side of the room, the side reserved for women.
Twenty or so women, dressed in white head wraps and abundant white lace hoopskirts, swirl gracefully in a counterclockwise circle. Their eyes are closed; their hands form subtle, beautiful gestures associated with the different orixás. Devotees of candomblé believe that the gods actually inhabit the women’s bodies at this moment. “If they come up to you,” whispers Mola, “that’s good—reach out to receive the axé, the blessing.”
The drummers beat a slow rhythm, then pound faster, urging the dancers to spin even more rapidly, their silver and copper implements sparkling in the harsh overhead fluorescent lights. Occasionally a woman collapses, shaking, overcome by the gods’ power; another woman reaches out in an embrace, blowing first in one ear, then in the other. At last the circle breaks and the women parade past the spectators, who rise to salute the orixás as they make their way toward the courtyard.
Watching the solemn procession, I remember something Eneida Sanches said over lunch: “What candomblé teaches our society is that spirituality is everywhere . . . it extends beyond the boundaries of the terreiro and into everyday life.” I leave the ceremony at 3 a.m. and fly from Bahia a few hours later, feeling lucky that I caught some of the city’s fabled spirits—and wondering if perhaps I’ve taken them home. Months later, my blue ribbon still hasn’t fallen off.
Worth a Detour
The Recôncavo, the fertile coastal plain that surrounds the Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay), is laced with towns that evoke the last century. The most intriguing is Cachoeira, about a two-hour drive from Salvador da Bahia. Formerly a booming river port for the sugar and tobacco trades, now it’s almost a ghost town; its crumbling colonial houses, gracious plazas, and blue-tiled Church of Our Lady of the Rosary hint at bygone prosperity.
Cachoeira is also the site of an extraordinary candomblé religious society called the Sisters of the Good Death. Descendants of persecuted black women who made a dramatic escape from Bahia 225 years ago, the Sisters have dedicated themselves to caring for a statue of the Virgin Mary. Thanks to patrons like writer Jorge Amado, the Sisters have been able to build their own museum, which is open to visitors.
Don’t Stop the Music
If you’re not quite ready to plunge full-tilt into Bahia’s Carnival, you can still catch the flavor of it year-round in the Pelourinho, when some of the bloco bands, which play for Carnival, hold weekly rehearsals. The Bahia Tourism Authority (Bahiatursa, Palácio Rio Branco, 2 Rua Chile; 55-71/241-4333) will guide you to the practice yards of Ilê Aiyê, the rootsiest, most African of the blocos, and Olodum, the solid wall of drums that played on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints. For the sweetest taste of Bahia’s rhythms, go to the headquarters of the Carnival society, called Filhos de Ghandi, on a Sunday afternoon. The all-male association has been parading their theme of peace in Bahia’s carnival for more than 40 years. At their rehearsals, spry white-suited gentlemen in their seventies challenge macho twenty-somethings—and sometimes tourists—in displays of dance prowess that resemble the Cuban rhumba.
The Ultimate Party
If Rio’s Carnival is about spectacle, its Bahian cousin is about music: the more rhythmic, the better. For four or five days preceding Ash Wednesday (this year, February 25), bands playing axé—Afro-Brazilian music with a slow but powerful second-line beat—whip the crowds into a frenzy from atop rolling flatbed trucks.
The parade may seem like a 2-million-person free-for-all, but there’s a method to the madness, which is helpful for visitors who might be inclined to participate. Revelers are organized into units called blocos, with thousands of members in each. All the blocos maintain kiosks in Bahia’s Barra shopping mall, where anyone who wants to take part in the parade can sign up by paying between $150 and $400 for the festival period. This buys you a dancing spot inside a roped-off, guarded area in the street behind the band truck—a good option for those wary of rowdy crowds.
Visitors start making reservations six months before Carnival, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for this year’s festivities. The Brazilian Tourist Information Office can help with information and reservations (800/544-5503, fax 805/688-1021).
The most exciting time to be in Bahia is during the summer festival season (January to mid-February). If you’d rather avoid the crowds, go between September and November for the frequent (but much less raucous) candomblé saints’ festivals.
Bahia is not particularly dangerous, but petty theft can be a problem. It’s best not to wear jewelry or even a watch; and if you want to bring a camera, consider one that’s disposable.
Bar Banzo 61 Largo do Pelourinho; no phone. The Pelo’s bohemian hot spot, a dark bar/café crowded with African sculpture and textiles. The second-floor terrace overlooking the main plaza is a great place for caipirinhas on a Tuesday night while you watch the band Olodum rehearsing below.
Encontro dos Artistas 15 Rua das Laranjeiras; 55-71/321-1721; dinner for two $12. Locals love this modest café for its Portuguese/Brazilian home-style cooking. The best dish is garlicky shrimp sautéed with potatoes in oodles of olive oil.
SENAC Largo do Pelourinho; 55-71/371-8700; lunch for two $30. The Bahian state cooking school’s all-you-can-eat lunch, served by serious, white-jacketed waiters, is a great introduction to the wonders of the region’s cuisine.
Tempero da Dada 5 Rua Frei Vicente, Pelourinho; no phone; dinner for two $50. The lines stretch out the door at this hole-in-the-wall, which serves enormous portions of local specialties like shrimp stewed in coconut milk (moqueca de camarão).
Instituto Mauá 2 Praça Azevedo Fernandes; 71/331-5440. Crafts from all over northeastern Brazil: crocheted rugs; lace dresses, napkins and tablecloths; simple, almost primitive, earth-tone pottery.
Shopping Barra 2992 Av. Centenário Chame-Chame; 55-71/339-8222. Vendors at the Mercado Modelo, the crafts market in downtown Bahia, sell recordings of Bahian music, but the selection is better in the handful of record stores at Bahia’s mall. Look for CD’s and tapes from local bands E.O. Tchan and Ata Ketu. —D.M.
Bahia Othon Palace 2456 Av. Presidente Vargas, Ondina, Salvador da Bahia; 55-71/247-1044, fax 55-71/245-4877; doubles $165. An upscale high-rise with 268 pleasant, airy rooms, some with ocean views, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Pelourinho.
Best Value Hotel Catarina Paraguaçu 128 Rua João Gomes, Rio Vermelho, Salvador da Bahia; phone and fax 55-71/247-1488; doubles $70. A lovely 29-room inn, converted from a private house, with elegant tiled walkways and cozy breakfast nooks.
Praia do Forte Resort Praia do Forte; 55-71/876-1111, fax 55-71/876-1112; doubles $225. A true eco-resort, built on eight miles of pristine Atlantic beach. All the usual amenities, plus rain forest tours.
Brazil Up Close by Pamela Bloom (Hunter Publishing)—A comprehensive, opinionated guide, with detailed descriptions of hotels, restaurants, and shops.
The Brazilians by Joseph A. Page (Addison-Wesley)—A lively and penetrating assessment of the contrasting elements that form the Brazilian character.
Travelers’ Tales: Brazil (O’Reilly and Associates)—A sampler of the best and most interesting writings on the country.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands—This ribald fable of a Bahian woman coping with two spouses—one living, one dead—is faithfully based on Jorge Amado’s acclaimed novel. —Martin Rapp
On the Web
Bahia On-line —Listings of bars, clubs, and major hotels, as well as information on cultural attractions.
Embratur —Brazil’s official tourism site provides basic travel facts, maps, and contact information. —Nicole Whitsett
The ex-voto room of the Church of our Lord of Bonfim, hung with petitions for miracles: letters, bridal gowns, wax limbs—even a résumé or two.