Salvador, Bahia, the Afro-Brazilian capital

2022-11-01 @Travel

The delayed travel chronicle gains traction. Salvador, Bahía, which I recently revisited after my first encounter with Brazil six years prior, leaves as strong of an impression today as then.

Salvador opens to a singular experience: culturally, for being the Afro-Brazilian capital (seconded by São Luis, Maranhão) and architectonically, for the crazy spectacular layout comprising the different neighborhoods at drastically different altitudes.

Also the original Brazilian capital (prior to Rio de Janeiro and subsequently Brasilia), Salvador receives mega tourism, especially around the Pelourinho neighborhood - the antique, folkloric and absolutely mesmerising part of the city, even juxtaposed next to the similar folkloric elements (ie Ouro Preto, Paraty, Olinda, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Luang Prabang, New Orleans French Quarter, etc). And it’s the tourism that strongly compensates for much struggling economic conditions the city faces, typical of much northern Brazil, outside of which I see a lesser dichotomy.

I’m not a stranger to tourism infested towns. I happen to be in one as we speak and likely intend to linger for weeks to come.

But Pelourinho singularly impregnates me with a sense of nausea I can only ascribe to the overall pervasive opportunism perceived at all steps: the kind of energy that inhibits my capacity to relax.

A few days of Pelourinho this time around (spent a total of five) and I began to exhibit symptoms of illness (sore throat, slight chills). In common vernacular, I felt like shit.

Then once transitioned to the Barra neighborhood (further below), the symptoms literally disappeared within a snap.

Pelourinho, however extravagant, however abounding in cultural artifacts, I simply cannot digest but in tiny portions.

Brazil, especially among the new or unacquainted persons, sports a reputation associated with danger. Now all my years traversing the country and I can recall but two cases triggering traces of danger within my internal sensors: once in the Santa Ifigênia neighborhood of São Paulo … and Pelourinho.

Whatever the merits, I appeal to those internal sensors. Everywhere else in Brazil, including the two months at a particular favela of Rio de Janeiro, I felt at ease, generally at far greater ease than other mixed or sketchy neighborhoods of other Latin American countries.

That said, I’m still mighty affected by Salvador, including Pelourinho, provided the exercised care for ‘small bites’.

Pelourinho situates itself upon the high slopes of the city known as Cidade Alta. And even within that pocket, it is a labyrinth of further slopes and aggressively cobblestoned alleys. Gorgeous at day, even more drop-dead gorgeous by night, yet I cannot recommend my customary naive perambulations across dimly lit stretches of alleys, despite the pervasiveness of Pelourinho police all over (the rationale for which is not unfounded).

Michael Jackson once produced a music video partially shot at a famous triangular plaza of Pelourinho. His large poster-size photograph continues to loom from a balcony.

The same plaza also opens to the house/museum of the realist/satirist author Jorge Amado who I know principally through the novel Dona Flor e seus dois maridos. Therein find plenty of captivating photography of Amado’s socialist peregrinations over a number of decades.

If really into the Brazilian Carnival, Salvador is famous for one of the grandest. In Pelourinho you’ll find a museum dedicated entirely to the subject.

There I didn’t go, but chose instead to visit the postal card museum (Museu Tempostal), the ceramic tile museum (Museu Azulejaria) and Museu do Benin - dedicated to the African influences and artifacts inherent to the Bahian culture, wherein I the origins of the word ‘bacano’ (one of the variants of ‘cool’ in Brazilian Portuguese) made themselves apparent: tracing back to Baccus/Dionisius, the Greco-Roman deity of wine, poesy and lavish orgies.

Yes, perhaps weighed by my Pelourinho illness, I found greater solace in postal cards and ceramic tiles. FYI, all citywide museums that otherwise charge admission feature a free-entry day. I frequented others outside Pelourinho but won’t bore you with the details. Somewhere along I even encountered a German cultural center.

Years back I didn’t frequent a tenth of the museums as lately, especially in Brazil which genuinely inspires within me the greater cultural interest.

Salvador is also characteristic of heavy alternative religious (sometimes referred to as cult) practices: Spiritist, Umbanda, Candomblé, Macumba. Though initially intended a more intimate exploration of this long-time fascination, my declining energy ultimately prevailed and yielded to indifference.

Likewise you’ll find plenty of Capoeira circles. I generally avoid this scene due to my raw experience from Capoeira practice years back and the subsequent knee injuries inhibiting the prospect of returning.

Regretfully, at least insofar as Pelourinho, all the cultural cult/dance/sport exhibition carries a heavy commercial burden, so beware. I would have loved to acquire a more tranquil and independent outlet.

I mentioned the singular architectonic layout of the city: the Cidade Alta (the upper), and Cidade Baixa (the lower city). The difference in altitude between the two astonishes: Pelourinho, which forms but a small part of Cidade Alta, ultimately occupies a gigantic mountain slope which leads to Cidade Baixa either along the gradually descending streets (some through semi-slums), the way I ascended/descended, or among the famous elevator.

The upward view from Cidade Baixa (where you’ll find a municipal market, ports, museums, restaurants and ultimately further raw neighborhoods and commercial elements) also fascinates.

I’ll add that gastronomy and the all-around commerce comes far more economically accessible outside Pelourinho.

The Barra neighborhood is where I spent my remaining days in Salvador: way close to the bahia (bay) peak: the entirety of Salvador forms a kind of protruding isthmus separated from the remainder of the state.

Though typically more expensive and touristic such situated neighborhoods, the case of Salvador presents a different paradigm in view of Pelourinho. Thus I found Barra fairly calm and tangible.

Barra opens to an impressive coastal region: hikes, beaches, bicycling: less of a concentrated Afro-Brazilian enclave, and more all-around diffused, a reasonable surroundings if wishing to simply unwind.

Lastly mentioned, a 30-45 min walk from Barra you’ll find one of the more encompassing zoos I’ve visited yet: Parque Zoobotanico Getúlio Vargas. Such at least was the grand impression it imparted.

Gigantic, free-entry, the only challenge involved the arrival by means of scaling the backwoods steps along a reasonable height of a slum, or what at least appeared a bit raw: again, a remarkable contrast between two high and low city points.

The Zoo houses animals I wouldn’t normally attribute to the local ecosystem: a camel, zebras, a hippopotamus and otherwise many fascinating species I won’t bother to enumerate.

I was, however, flabbergasted to discover harpies, having hitherto imagined the harpy bird strictly mythological. Yet there they were, uncannily similar to what I recall in their painted depictions. Unreal.

Voilà. Overall, I can easily imagine Salvador as a base for a longer-term residence.

Questions, comments? Connect.