Some claim that in Salvador and Bahia you can find the real Brazil. I have been all over the country and I know that there are many Brazils, each one different than the other, as you might expect from a country which is larger than Europe, larger than the continental US, larger than Australia. But one thing is certain: you have not known Brazil until you have spent some time in Salvador.
This is my third visit to Salvador, and the experience has been different every time. The first time I was wide-eyed and speechless. To quote from the 2003 edition of Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul.
Here, I was in the capital of Bahia, the most African of Brazilian states, cultural hub of the country, seat of the most famous Carnival outside Rio, first capital of Brazil, founded in 1549 – earlier than some European ones , say, Madrid or St Petersburg – breeding ground of half the musical talent of the country, and the source of serious crime warnings by every travel guide.
Not much has changed except that renovation of the Pelourinho, a vast Unesco monument containing 3,000 listed dwellings, is proceeding at a snail’s pace. But the church and convent of São Francisco (1708-1723), arguably the best example of Brazilian baroque, has been fully restored to its former glory.
I walked down the Praça Anchieta to the church and convent of São Francisco, which contains the greatest ballast of gold and silver in all of Brazil: one whole metric ton of gold has been used, and the silver chandelier alone weighs twelve and a half stone. The Franciscan brothers were not as contemptuous of wealth as their patron: the eighteenth-century interior is sumptuously gold-leafed and the ceiling, inlaid with jacaranda wood, is illusionary baroque at its best.
The second time I was invited, stayed with friends and got under the population’s skin. That’s when I relaxed, visited Barra beach, its surfing community and its clubs and took the photo that accompanies the Kindle edition of the book. I also developed a taste for acarajé, the fried bean curd ball with dried shrimps and chilli sauce.
Now, it is time for Carnival, I am living back in the Pelourinho and the vibe is very special. There are free concerts everywhere. Workers are setting up the decorations. The noise from the Afro-Brazilian drums is deafening. Don’t expect to sleep: every school has its own percussion band and walks around the streets of Pelourinho trying to outdo the previous one and set the example for the next. Frankly, after the first five or six your attention wanes, but surely no loud rhythm can keep you from standing up and shaking your booty.
Unless you’re very dead.
John Malathronas’s second edition of Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul is now available on Kindle.