When I first went to, Salvador the capital of Bahia-whose official name is São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos-I was going to do some research on a book I was writing about Afro-Brazilians who, after obtaining their freedom from slavery, returned to West Africa in the 19th century. It was an impromptu decision, and my nephew and I chose the day of February 1 because it was the first date he could get away.

It turned out to be a good time because on the February 2, Salvador was celebrating the feast of Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea in Candomblé, and Rio Vermelho was where the celebrations took place. We got a hotel on the beach where we had a front view of the celebrations, which went on all night and all day. The experience gave me a taste of the zest for living that infuses Bahianos, the people from Bahia.

Candomblé is the religion that was brought to Brazil by the slaves who came from West Africa. It is a complex and all-encompassing religion that includes elaborate ceremonies dedicated to the gods and goddesses of its pantheon. Its cradle is in Bahia, but it is widespread in Brazil.

Iemanjá is perhaps the best known and most loved deity. On that day at the beach I went into the sea and spread white roses in her honor, for peace and success in my life. Other followers were spreading red roses to find love, and yet others were spreading yellow roses for money. Real devotees had filled whole boats with offerings of flowers and trinkets (Iemanjá is a very beautiful goddess who loves jewelry and trinkets) in order to receive her blessings. All in all, it was a great introduction to Bahia.

bahiaboatI would think that only the Carnival of Salvador would top this celebration. According to news reports, millions of people dance and sing for miles following the trio elétricos, huge trucks outfitted with high volume speakers, on top of which whole bands play accompanying the best of Bahia’s singers in their presentations. Carnival in general demands a lot of stamina and verve, but in Bahia it demands a little more, perhaps your soul.

My research went well, my book was published and I returned two years later to launch it at the Federal University of Bahia. This time I was able to meet Bahia’s intelligentsia who were as charming and as fascinating as the people I had met on the streets the time before.

My third trip to Bahia in 2009 was to accompany a couple of American friends who had come to visit me in Brazil. This was a completely different experience. My friends and I went on the usual tour of the Bomfim Church; Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, the historical lighthouse which used to guide the boats coming into the very busy Salvador pier and of course the fabulous museums. But they wanted a bit more. We ended up going up the coast to the very end of Salvador’s urban area to eat at a very fancy hotel.

One cautionary tale, my American friends were taken aback by the poverty they saw. Brazil is a developing economy and the Northeast region, where Salvador is located, is the poorest. If you can look beyond that to a people who have managed to retain its African culture and have an unequaled zest for living, you will definitely enjoy your trip. If not, do not bother to go.
Although the contrast was jarring-Salvador being a poor urban area-the fancy hotel experience taught me that if you want a beautiful beach you will not find it in Salvador. The best beaches are located in the Sauipe Coast as well as the best hotels.

I would recommend a trip to Salvador to anybody who wants to experience Afro-Brazilian culture at its best. Salvador is the most African of cities outside of Africa. About 80% of its population claims African descent. The Portuguese spoken on a daily basis by the Candomblé practitioners is laced with African words brought to Brazil by their slave ancestors. You are apt to find on street corners women dressed in white outfits reminiscent of African dress selling African foods such as acarajé, originally akara in Nigeria, a bean cake flavored with a shrimp sauce. You might also meet men performing what looks like a martial arts demonstration. That is capoeira, from Kimbundu cambulela, a language spoken in Angola. It is said that capoeira was used by the slaves to defend themselves. In order to deceive their masters the slaves presented it as a recreational dance accompanied by music. Today it is considered a sport and practiced everywhere in Brazil.



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