Am I in somewhere in southern Europe, South America, or Africa? It’s easy to get confused, because I’m in a cultural melting pot I haven’t experienced before. The architecture is telling me southern Europe, the faces of the local people are telling me South America or Africa, and what I’m learning about the local religious belief is telling me something I could never have imagined.
Salvador da Bahai, on the North-East coast of Brazil, is a South American city created by the Portuguese in the 1500s. From 1549 to 1763, this was the capital of Brazil, which made it a base for trading in African slaves. The slaves, from Benin, Tongo and Nigeria converted to Catholicism, but some decided to keep their African religion, known as Candomble, and their African gods as well. Although there are different schools of Candomble some followers paired each African god with a particular catholic saint to produce a blurring of the religions and a strange belief system called which keeps a foot in both camps. One of my first sights in Salvador this afternoon was the Lake Dique do Tororo, in which statues of the Candomble Gods stand in mid-water, variously dressed in blue, gold and pink ankle-length dresses. Each colour combination identifies a particular God or saint. The statues are floodlit at night and there is a 20 metre fountain in the centre of the lake. My guide tells me that some Candomble believers turn up to certain Catholic churches each Sunday wearing white ribbons that identify them as Catholics, but Candomblé as well. The priests don’t like it, he tells me, but… he shrugs his shoulders.
Tonight I am walking through the Pelourinho district in the centre of town, where the flood-lit pastel-coloured Portuguese architecture lines a web of cobbled stoned streets. The city council has renovated the streets, and it’s now a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. The district hosts a multitude of souvenir, art and jewellery shops and bars. My guide has already warned me not to wear any flashy watches or jewelery. As look into the many cafes and smell the rich spicy aromas, I notice the cleaning jobs seem to be done by the darkest, most African-looking residents. The area also boasts a lot of policemen with sub machine guns. No matter where I walk in Pelourinho, there is always one in view.
Perhaps the most famous building in these cobbled streets is the old slave auction house. In the street outside its veranda was the whipping post, where the slave traders showed the newly arrived slaves what happened to anyone who tried to escape. My guide tells me the blood was so thick it flowed away from the building down the cobblestoned slope. The whipping post has been relocated to a museum, and the building has been converted to a museum to Brazil’s most famous novelist, George Armado. There are three churches that open off the Terreiro de Jesus: the cathedral, pale blue on the outside, gold and silver inside, and the churches of St Domingo and St Pedro. All are closed that night, but during the daytime the entrance fee is about one dollar, and well worth it for those who like religious art.
I am in Pelourinho tonight to see the a dance troup, who combine modern dance with traditional, and weave stories about the history of Brazil into the dace. The venue has a stage surrounded by dining tables, with a dimly lit intimate atmosphere. The show begins with two African dancers being caught in a net: the beginnings of slavery. The net is decorated with fish: it seems symbolic: the dancers are caught like fish in a net. It is followed by a capoeira display, as the natives learned to fight, and then a dance representing the emancipation of the slaves. The costumes are beautiful, the dancers are supple, graceful, and energetic and skilful, and I’d recommend it as a “must see experience” The show is held in the Miguel Santana Theatre. you can find it easily with Google.
Leaving the theatre, I step out to a vibrant night scene. There is a rock band nearby, with a large crowd gathered around it. I am standing near a decorative lamp post when an attractive woman thirty years younger than me approaches me. She asks me something in Brazilian, and when a don’t understand, she tries Spanish. I know two big cruise ships have arrived in the harbour today, so I guess she’s another lost tourist. I use my hands to indicate what languages I understand: lots of English, a reasonable amount of German, and a little Japanese. She replies with her hands: a lot of Portuguese, a fair amount of Spanish and Italian.
We giggle at our communications problem. ‘What is the problem?” I finally ask in English and German. She smiles. “No problem” then she begins to roll her weight from one foot to the other, swaying her hips, running her fingers through her hair, dropping her chin and looking up at me through Princess Di eyelashes. The penny drops. She is not another lost tourist looking for the cathedral, and since we can’t communicate, she can’t be attracted to my brain. She’s a professional, and she’s plying her trade in a street with cops with submachine guns on each end. I figure this is bad news.
So I wish her good night and wander up-hill to the cathedral by myself, where I know I can catch a taxi home. On the way I pass Terreiro de Jesus, a square where young, African-looking men are practicing Capoeira: the Brazilian martial art-cum-dance. A group of musicians with drums and berimbaus (a kind of one stringed instrument shaped like an archer’s bow) keep up a lively rhythm. I pose with the fighters for ten reals (about A$6), while they kick to a within few inches of my face and take some photos with my camera.
Leaving them, I make my way back up to the Cathedral and the taxis. Here I could be in any European city, but the ethnic mixture a couple of hundred meters away would be worth another few days to visit.