Thursday, June 22, 2017

Salvador de Bahia

The laundry service called the marina to report that, among our clothing, they had found a length of rope, several screws, and dark stains on everything. Yup, that's ours, we responded, tell them not to worry about it; that's just engine oil. The Frenchman running the marina, who even the guidebook characterizes as grumpy, translated the message with a look of disapproval.

We were tied stern-to at the Terminal Nautico ready to explore the forts and arches of Salvador de Bahia, the neglected and enticing city looming above us. After relaxing in Itaprica for several days, an island across Bahia Todos Los Santos, we were ready for a week of city life, to pick up Max's cousin Alexis, and continue north to our last stop in Brazil, Cabedelo. The Terminal Nautico Marina is basic, cheap, and at the foot of the Lacerda Elevator that joins the lower city to the upper, 85 meters higher. There are other marinas in Salvador, farther from the heart of the city which is rumored to be dangerous, but they are the types of marinas that charge high rates and offer few practical amenities.

Salvador was built in two stories by the Portuguese, who spared no expense or gold leafing in its construction. The lower city was once fortified by high stone walls built into a steep cliff. These walls are now a patchwork of stone facades under the heavy growth of new jungle. The upper city seems to have more churches than people and has evolved into a maze of narrow streets and public squares. The colonial buildings are stone and stucco painted Easter egg colors. Black mold covers the cornices and cupolas, while trees spring from the balustrades, an accidental rooftop gardening. Everything is falling down in Salvador, a city with more pomp and pageantry than I have ever seen. Here and there are attempts at scaffolding around architecture ornate as Barbie's wedding cake. Mostly the historic buildings are empty shells, windows punched out and interiors fleshed by greenery and swirling graffiti. I spent my time deciding which ones I would have immediately renovated were I in a position to demand such things. Of course, I wanted to take my fill of pictures first, while they were still so stunningly tragic.




One day, while waiting in traffic, our cab driver pointed to one such building and told us that it had killed three people in the last month. He may have said one person in the last three months, but either way, it killed people. I looked up at the blue, tiled facade, as delicate as a Robin's egg, and wanted it immediately torn down and replaced by something practical. I imagined myself as the city planner and replaced it with a home for stray dogs. Then I looked to the street to pick out dogs to send there. The ones who had obviously been mangled by a car got to go first. No, the mothers with exhausted looking dugs hanging down like inverted mountain ranges could go first.

The people of Salvador are not in much better shape than the buildings. Amidst the dynamic culture, its food, clothing, music, and art there is a population in dire need of mental health services, shelters, and sanitary infrastructure. As we saw in Colombia and Panama, the area left to the descendants of slaves seemed completely abandoned by government. In Salvador, the homeless population has incredible flare and I fear that they are almost a part of the tourist attraction. A heavily made up man twirls through the center of Pelourinho in a stained tutu. Another smiles from a wheel barrow with six inches of silver chains around his neck.




The historical center of Salvador, Pelourinho, has been more thoughtfully preserved. Men perform capoeira in the streets around kiosks that sell a tart jungle fruit called acerola crushed with ice and vodka. Already buxom women wear the exaggerated dress of the Camdomble priestess, flower patterned skirts held out by interior hoops layered with white eyelet aprons. Their headdresses are feet high and around their necks are piles of beaded strings. They are as big and magnetic as planets and we moved towards where they fried balls made of peeled, mashed beans in palm oil piled high with okra paste, manioc mash, and salted shrimp. This street food, Acajare, was my first experience with Bahian food. Max had lived there for three months some time ago, enough to have had a girlfriend, an apartment, and stories of monkeys at the breakfast table. He was giving me a tour of a city he loved that he knew I would love.




At night we drank with the locals at a bar called Cravhino, known for its infused Cahchaca rum. It was filled with young, hip Brazilians, the range of skin shades, eye colors, and hair textures arranged in infinite combinations telling something of the history of Salvador. The Portuguese turned Salvador de Bahia into a global hub for the slave trade, receiving 40% of slaves imported from West Africa. The wealth of the area came from impressive quantities of diamonds and gold mined by slaves. The Jesuits came and built the churches. Correction, the slaves built the churches, when they were done mining the gold. The people who have remained in Salvador, sweating in this flaking Catholicism, are the descendants of these slaves. It seems that everyone left and they stayed, the resulting culture a unique mixture of African heritage and Catholicism. Candomble is the Bahian religious practice, a combination of tribal beliefs with enough elements of Christianity to appease European masters. The Virgin Mary is depicted as an African women wearing the bright patterns never donned in a white church.  She wears a head wrap and hoop earrings while holding a cross, and is surrounded by bright tropical flowers. The Bahian women dressed in voodoo garb are supposed to make tourists think of chanting around fires and bloodied chickens I suppose, but I was more struck by the European influence in the fabrics they wore, that they embroidered and made their own and sell in the tourist shops. Bahia has come to have it's own music, artistic and craft tradition, incredible food, and particularity wild carnival. We have been to many countries and cities, but Salvador is unlike anything else.

We spent a week in Salvador walking the city over and over to absorb the colors and smells. We ate as much street food as we could. I delighted in the Moqueca stew, seafood simmering in palm oil, coconut milk, and Scotch Bonnet peppers. This stew, which is as bright as tumeric and served at a near boil in a lava bowl, combined with the heat of the evening, makes you sweat through the entire meal. I am so hot. This is so hot. I can't stop eating it sort of affair. Thankfully they also take their beer temperature very seriously, chilling it as close to ice as possible.

Max's cousin, Alexis, joined us in Salvador. Numerous planes, layovers, and the schlepping of boat supplies could not affect his indomitable enthusiasm and he arrived smiling, sweating, and ready to help with anything. He brought us many gifts, a new bilge pump, all sorts of German meats, a new library of books. We showed him the city and this time I was the tour guide introducing him to the exotic foods and chaotic scenes of Salvador. We began to prepare the boat for an easy, five day cruise up the coast to Cabedelo, our final stop before the Caribbean.

Here a short video created by Alexis about our passage from Salvador to Cabadelo.












































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