To say that this post is a tad belated would be a rather large understatement. I’ve made passing mention in previous blog entries on plans to travel to Brazil through Steinhardt’s Dean Research Travel Colloquium program with the pretense of examining differences between the United States and Brazil with regards to health care for low-income families. Shortly after returning from Hong Kong, I set forth on a week-long trip to Salavador, Brazil.
One of the immediate things that comes to mind when I tell people about my trip is “what is Salvador? Don’t you mean El Savador? And if so, that’s not in Brazil, you know…” And yes, I am well aware that El Salvador is not in Brazil, but no, that’s not where I was headed. Salvador is the country’s third most populous city, and is found in the state of Bahia. The city carries great cultural significance as it was the first colonial capital of Brazil and considered to be one of the oldest of the Americas.
Since the flight took an approximate fifteen hours, along with a three hour time change, the initial day was spent up in the air. With televisions not working, there was not a lot to do apart from sleep on the two legs of our trip (we transferred flights). Although I had spent a good portion of the flights asleep, I still found myself exhausted when we arrived at our hotel – Golden Tulip Rio Vermelho – at 2AM the following “morning.”
Golden Tulip Rio Vermelho
Rua Monte Conselho, 505, Rio Vermelho,
Salvador, 41940-370 Brazil
With several more hours of sleep under our belt, our group was most certainly more alert and readily entertained by our fantastic guide, Simone. Giving focus to our research, the morning was spent at Projeto Axé – a place where street children are offered real opportunities for education and training, along with involvement in creative and cultural activities. While some questions were left unanswered, a greater understanding of the situation of the poverty in the city was gained. Thereafter, we were given a tour by Simone, who provided us the necessary historical context, touching on colonization and religious beliefs, along with visits to the São Francisco Church and the Museu Afro.
Perhaps it was coincidence or careful planning, but our group arrived at a point of the year in which celebration was amidst. The subsequent morning, we found ourselves on the bus at 8AM and driving towards downtown for the Bonfim Festival. The story behind the festival, before I elaborate on the happenings, is as follows: a captain, whose ship was wrecked off the coast of Bahia in 1875, promised God that if his men survived, he would build a church in gratitude. Subsequently, the captain built the church known as “Our Lord of the Happy Ending,” and thus rooted is the ritual of women dressed in traditional white dresses of colonial Bahia and forming a procession to the church. Despite the fact that Brazil is nominally a Roman Catholic country, it is observed that many Brazilians find themselves adhering to various Afro-Brazilian beliefs.
Coming back to the actual festival, it was amazing to see that the path to the church was already crowded by 8AM. Both men and women were clad in all-white garb, dancing and celebrating in the streets. Despite it being rather early, people had already begun drinking, with young children selling beer (either Skol or Schin) and folks readily buying them at a modest 3 for 5R$ (the equivalent of $3 USD). But what I found to be most troubling wasn’t the selling of alcohol by minors, but rather, the fact that these children were actively consuming the beer themselves.
These observations that we had made were kept in mind during our visit to COPE, which deals with health initiatives for the state of Bahia, the following day. The information received was fairly positive with regards to the campaigns launched and success rates; however, one couldn’t help but wonder how effectively the goals were being met and what issues had yet to be addressed. Overall, the meeting seemed to carry an air of idealistic goals with some promising results.
But to build upon the programs developed for at-risk youths with creative goals, we were brought to CIPÓ – Interactive Communication, a nonprofit focused on training individuals on technological and creative mediums. To see the impressive work by these adolescents, as well as watch several of them at work, was a touching experience, especially when I come with an understanding of how difficult it is gain access to some of the programs and technologies that were available. To provide adolescents that wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity with these tools was simply remarkable.
The evening, perhaps, was the highlight for some since it was our first and only collective meal and the big opportunity to see capoeira in action. Our meal was considered to be comprised of traditional fare – moqueca (fish stew), cornmeal, rice – at the second-level restaurant Uauá. The dessert, which was a passion fruit pudding, had most of swooning and excited for the evening show at the Miguel Santana Theatre across the street.
R. Gregório de Matos 36, Pelourinho,
The show, titled Bahia by Night, was put on by the Bahia Folklore Company (Balé Folclórico de Bahia); through music and dance, the story of several African Gods (Orixá) were told, including those of Xangô (God of Fire and Thunder), Iemanjá (Goddess of the Sea), and Oxum (God of Rivers and Lakes), along with the story of colonization and freedom in Brazil. Though there were moments in which my eyes drooped heavily on account of the warm air in the theatre, I was captivated and entranced by the liveliness and passion of dance troupe.
Having spent so much time in the city, our program shuttled us away to the “farming hinterland on the western side of the All Saints’ Bay” (or so my itinerary reads). Our first stop was the country market town of Santo Amaro, whose open-air markets were unlike anything I had ever experienced or seen. Crabs, covered in mud, were bundled by string and sold by the corner of the street; meat was cured in salt and left to sit out in the open on a table; homemade laundry detergent in various hues were sold in recycled pop bottles; and cigarettes rolled on the spot and cigars sold for 1$R each. From there, we were taken to the town of Cachoeira, where one could find the Danemann Cultural Centre – the country’s oldest cigar factory in the country.
Now, when you think of beaches in Brazil, images of bliss are conjured. Turns out that numerous beaches, at least the ones along Salvador, have polluted waters; of the few decent ones, it becomes incredibly crowded over the weekend. Lasting out in the sun for more than ten minutes is quite commendable, especially with the heavy sweat that one will be breaking. Stepping into the ocean provides relief from the blistering heat, although quite a few tend to forget that the sun is just as strong in the water. That said, I didn’t last longer than an hour at the beach before decidedly heading back.
I mentioned earlier in this post about arriving at a particularly opportune time; in addition to the Bonfim Festival, the duration of our stay happened upon one of the Candomblé ceremonies at a local terreiro. Having the explanation of the ceremony and seeing the actual ceremony take place are two completely different things. Despite having fallen asleep for part of the “dances” and “trances,” it was quite the experience in having observed at least part of it.
Cultural activities aside, the last portion of our trip was spent at the hotel, listening to and meeting with representatives of various organizations, including the ministry of health, and Bolsa Familia, and intellectuals. The conversations were enlightening and rather elaborate upon a lot of our observations throughout our time in Salvador.
And that was it. Our trip to to Salvador, Brazil met its conclusion the day after as we loaded our bags on the tour bus, and made our way for the airport. The experience was most certainly an eye-opening one, what with it being my first trip to South America, as well as informative, while staying relaxing with the spread-out agenda. Though our tour guide wouldn’t admit to us being the best group she’s ever led, she certainly shed several tears at our departure, making us the only group to make Simone cry (but in a good way).
In case you hadn’t noticed, there was a lot of leisure time. So how exactly did we spend it? Much of our afternoons, between activities, were spent on the rooftop pool deck. Evenings were spent at the foot of the hill on which our hotel was located hanging out in the orange plastic chairs and chatting the night away over freshly made caipirinhas at a meagre 3$R a glass. For meals, the lunch favourite stemmed from our tour guide Simone’s recommendation of a vegetarian eatery (pay-by-weight system) named Manjericao, followed by a fresh coconut from a local stand or a scoop of ice cream at the nearby Sorveteria Primavera. Dinners were seldom elaborate; for the most part, it was grabbing an acarajé from the well-known Acarajé da Cira. As you’ve probably surmised, I spent a lot of time eating.
Rua Fonte do Boi, 3-B,
Salvador, Brazil 3335-5641
Acarajé da Cira
Largo da Mariquita, Rio Vermelho