We’d booked a hostel, our first one since São Paulo, in the center of Salvador’s Farol de Barra neighborhood. This was the recommended place to stay since the center of Salvador is famously beautiful and infamously seedy.
We questioned the wisdom of crowd sourcing though the moment we got off the bus. The nearby beaches seemed nice enough, but the area was typically modern urban Brazil, with new buildings that had been liberated from anything as quaint as design principles and plenty of chipped white tile finishes. The hostel itself was a warm little old house that had successfully staved off the challenges of developers, but had been taken over by artists who had painted every inch of it in vivid hues and folkartsy murals of Salvadoran life. Multicolored streamers hung from the bars in the windows.
We were shown a room by one of the hostel owners and, perhaps because we were so hot and tired after our trip from the airport, plopped down into it despite its darkness and general murk. There was no glass in the windowpane, only bars. The thought crossed my mind that this might make it rather easy for mosquitoes to get in, but I was too happy to unload my backpack to pursue the thought further.
We explored the beaches which would have been lovely had they not been strewn with trash. The vendors who relied on visitors to the beach for business sat under umbrellas and chatted while plastic bags that had recently held their wares rolled in the surf. As the sun set, a lighthouse situated on top of an old Portuguese fort was wrapped in orange light. It was lovely except for the two dozen multicolored straws washing back and forth across the sand.
At night as predicted, the bars on our windows failed as to stop an invading swarm of mosquitoes. I pictured a Brazil that would someday discover the pleasures of window-screens while tossing, turning and slapping at invisible attackers, all while watching night turn back into day.
When Brazilians talk about Salvador their eyes wander skyward and they smile. Ah Salvador, they sigh. We were excited to see what elicited this reaction so we hopped on a bus that would deliver us into the old town on our first full day there. As usual getting onto a Brazilian bus is akin to crawling inside of a tumbledryer and we clung on tightly to stay upright.
One enters Salvador via a huge elevator that takes visitors from the port directly up a hill into the center of the old town. The port sits just below the city and is filled with massive antique 18th and 19th warehouses that have been hollowed out by time and neglect. I lowered my expectations for the rest of the city. The elevator is famous in Brazil and is sort of an attraction unto itself. It costs 32¢ or some ridiculously low amount, but only two of the four large cars worked. Once the crowded car reached the top of the hill, we spilled out into a colonial plaza surrounded by stately buildings representing architectural eras of the last several centuries.
Salvador’s old town was beautiful. Plazas like the first one we stepped onto, lined with breeze-whipped palms, overlooked the Bay of All Saints. Dozens of narrow streets lined with stout mansions and arched doorways curved around hilly terrain and disappeared from sight. Wrought iron second story balconies protected wood slatted doors, closed against the heat of the day. Paint chipped and peeled revealing older generations of coats that had done the same.
This city, like Ouro Preto, was hardly the withered corpse of a once brave colonial outpost, it was alive with music and drums and vendors selling regional delicacies. The population was overwhelmingly of African ancestry which was apparent not just by the people but by the colorful clothes, elaborately wrapped turbans and giant hoop skirts that many of the female vendors wore. We’d seen almost the exact outfits worn in Namibia.
Troops of drummers roamed the stone alleys, pounding out complex rhythms and shaking the old roof tiles.
We found a few hostels in the center of town that looked really comfortable, had air-conditioning and windows filled with actual panes of glass. One even had a pool. We kicked ourselves. Staying in the center of Ouro Preto had been one of the nicest stays of our time in Brazil, and here we were scared out into the suburbs by rumors of the old town’s shadiness. We considered marching back and retrieving our bags, but the thought of the effort of pulling everything onto the bus stopped us short. Instead we grumbled while climbing up an down cobblestone streets, occasionally catching a glimpse of the sea through the wide open windows of a crumbling, charming townhouse. The tattoo of drums thumped from some unseen plaza.
Feeling down about our hostel, we decided to turn our day around and make the most of its location. We suited up for the beach, determined to overlooked the waterborne rubbish. Of the three main beaches at the base of the old sea wall, one was oddly empty. The sand was comparatively clean and spindly, picturesque palms leaned out over the water. The towers of an old section of fortress were silhouetted against the evening sky. The sea was thick and salty and we floated effortlessly on its surface. Suddenly, from the low of regret we were enjoying Salvador immensely. Then someone on the beach let the breeze catch a white plastic bag and it sailed away, skipping across the waves. My mood darkened again.
In the evening we returned to the old town, attending a hyper-touristic ‘spectacular’ where the highlights of the region’s Afro-Brazilian culture were sampled out. Capoeira, Candomblé, and a guy juggling bowls of fire were the thrilling highlights. The fire juggler had me glancing around for the emergency exits, of which there were none. There were plenty of flammable materials though hanging from the ceiling.
It was prepackaged and extremely entertaining. We walked out of the theater into the orange light of wall mounted lamps and glanced around. Except for the tourists leaving the theater, the streets were empty. Except for the crooked road leading back to the main square, the streets were dark. Policemen with thick vests and automatic rifles blocked the smaller alleys that during the day led to charming squares and hidden churches. Now they led only into darkness. Salvador at night was in lockdown and we started to realize why few people recommended staying in the center. Even if the streets were safer than they appeared, the presence of guards wearing little black berets and no-go blocks just next door might be disconcerting.
On our final night in Salvador our hostel arranged a trip to an actual candomblé ceremony. These are a popular attraction in town as there are dozens of ceremonies per night but it would be very difficult for a tourist to find one by themselves. Unlike churches, Candomblé rituals are performed in homes, in outbuildings and in the favelas that ring the old city. In brief, candomblé is a mixture of African and Indian religions with a dusting of Catholicism for good measure. The Yamja ceremony we saw in Uruguay was a kind of candomblé, where the faithful gather to pray and hopefully slip into a trance. The lucky ones become possessed by spirits, who for an evening return to earth and enjoy pleasures of the flesh. That sounds sexier than it is, as far as I can tell these earthly pleasures mainly involve smoking cigarettes.
We went with two Americans from Tacoma and a self described Candomblé scholar (Our driver called him “professor”) He described what we’d be seeing as we were driven around in big loops, perhaps to make it seem like we weren’t just going over the hill. He talked about adults reverting to childhood, and one delightful incident where a ‘child’ threw jelly at some tourists.
The woman from Tacoma, who seemed a bit nervous about the whole evening in the first place perked up.
“Yes Jelly!” Laughed the professor. “And things like this, it can be very funny.”
“But what does jelly have to do with it?” She pressed.
“Nothing!” The professor snapped. “Forget about the jelly!”
When we arrived, rolling down the narrow favela alley, we approached a lopsided door punched into the side of a low whitewashed wall. Our guide knocked and a woman wearing white answered, ushering us in. We were led past little rooms where candles burned, shadows dancing against plaster walls. At a doorway through which we could see more white-clad figures laying on the floor, the woman indicated we should take our shoes off and enter. Magda and I were separated as the men took a seat on a bench against one wall, the women took a seat across the room.
The majority of the faithful were black people with two very metrosexual looking men with big silver watches being the exception. They beat drums along with the rest of the group. Other than their race they seemed not at all out of place. An old gentleman, dressed as impeccably in white as the rest of the room, led the prayers. Call and response. Call and response. The faithful circled the room, shuffling. A young man who looked to be a bit mentally challenged spoke out of turn at one point, and the old man threw him to the ground, shouting and cuffing his ear. The drums continued. The shuffling continued. Two young women lay on the floor side by side, their eyes wide, their mannerisms theatrically childish. I waited for them to start throwing jelly.
The professor leaned over and whispered, “They are like children.”
I leaned back, “I got that.”
The professor checked his watch.
The evening continued like this. The air was as stifling as the inside of a locker room. Candles guttered in the corners near makeshift alters to Indian and African gods. Strips of flammable white paper hung from the low ceiling. Once again I scouted the exits. There were two. A number of Jesus statuettes crowded a shelf, arms outstretched, fighting each other for a better view.
Then the possessions began. Like the first kernels of popcorn to pop, one then another member started grunting and stumbling. A young man adopted a swagger, and someone lit him a cigarette. He strutted about, approximating the gait of an older, wiser man.
The professor leaned over again, “He’s possessed.”
“Thanks.” I said. This professor certainly knew his stuff.
Soon some very old women who had been sitting with Magda, popped up off of the bench, rejuvenated. A lit cigar was given to one of them. They twirled and danced, bare feet making a pleasing rasping sound against the concrete floor. They circled the room, hugging the spectators. The woman from Tacoma, who’d been looking intently at her feet for most of the night, looked uncomfortable and confused when it was her turn to embrace.
The drumming continued. The metrosexuals seemed to avoid possession but some of the other drummers were carried away by either the rhythm or a rhythm loving spirit. I might have asked the professor but he was texting someone.
At some point, maybe when the professor decided it was too hot, he stood up and motioned for us all to leave. The five of us filed out of the front door and shut it behind us, the drums still reverberating within.
On the way home, four of us discussed interesting aspects of the ritual and some strikingly similarities to black churches in the States. The woman from Tacoma commented aloud that her feet were atypically swollen. I really wished someone had thrown some jelly at her after all.