Extreme Brazil


I learned a saying when I was in Brazil–Bahia é o Brasil ao extremo (Bahia is Brazil to the extreme). I think it is true. Bahia is brasher, more colorful and more joyous than elsewhere. What you find in Bahia can be found elsewhere in Brazil, but it is more intense in Bahia. Bahia is in the Northeast. Salvador, its largest city, was the port of entry for many African slaves brought to Brazil during the slave trade. Today Bahians are fiercely proud of their Afro-Brazilian culture. When I first arrived I sat a sidewalk café trying to write down what I was saw, all I could get were strings of adjectives: joyous, black, yellow, boisterous, humid, sweltering, and pungent. I was straining to see tiny details through an explosion of culture that was as overwhelming to me as the heat. It was trying like drinking water from a fire hose without getting wet. But I knew I had to get wet if I was going to experience Bahia. I had come to Salvador see how this most African of Brazilian cities expressed itself in its music, food and religion.

Drums and Samba

Samba band

I stayed in the old town, the Pelourihno. The houses in this colonial neighborhood are painted dramatic colors and the streets are cobblestone. Until a few years ago it was seedy and unsafe, but it is being restored as a Unesco World Heritage site. It still has the feel of Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion It is the center of music and nightlife in the city of Salvador.

I was there for a week and there was a party almost every night: Dia do Samba, Festa do Samba, Festa da Santa Barbara, Sacred Tuesday. I shied away from the big parties, but my favorite musical moments were serendipitous. On my second day I was crossing Praca Tome de Souza rushing to catch the sunset and ran into a Samba band practicing. I heard them from to other side of the square and went to investigate. About ten players marching down the street with a small entourage dancing behind them. The 2/4 rhythm was infectious and the cuica, which sounds like a tortured baboon, was unsettling. It made you want to dance even if you don’t know how. The excitement was irrepressible. I followed them until they got to the Terreiro de Jesus and disbanded to drink beer.

On another night I was sitting quietly in the hotel room trying to decide if I wanted to go wander around looking for entertainment when I heard noise coming from outside the hotel. On the stairs opposite the hotel I found a drum and dance band, mostly women, playing on the stairs. The drummers were dressed in traditional Bahian dresses and dancers wore African masks and colorful outfits. One woman in vibrant red dress had captivating eyes and mesmerized me. She was inviting other women to participate. A crowd gathered to watch and then the band started walking, continuing the performance up the crowded street as easily as they had appeared.

Xím Xím and Moqueca

Xím xím de peixe

Bahian food is as fun to pronounce as it is to eat. There are stews like: Bobó, xím xím, moqueca and vatapá. These words come from the Yoruba language of West Africa. The dishes are a unique blend of Portuguese, African and native Brazilian cooking. Everything is fried in dendê (palm nut) oil which makes it unctuous and rich as well as turning it an orange color. The flavor profile is complex and earthy: dendê, dried shrimp, onion, chili, coconut, and ginger.

I tried everything. What I kept going back for more of was xím xím, a coconut and gingery stew made with meat or fish. I would go to a restaurant above the market down by the port to get it. I sat and watched the scene in the harbor. Boys would grab on to boats leaving the harbor then jump off and swim back to the dock. On my last day there the server, a sassy woman dressed in traditional colorful skirt started teasing me: voce é muito bonito (you are very beautiful) she would say and then laugh. Throughout my meal she would bring other servers over to tell them how beautiful I was. I laughed with them and blushed.

Catholicism and Candomblé

Preparing flowers for Sunday service

I read that there are 365 Catholic churches in Salvador, one for every day of the year. I’m not sure that is true, but I did visit a lot of the more important churches in the Pelourinho. On Sunday they were all packed for services.  I visited Bomfim church, the most important Afro-Brazilian church in Salvador. People go there to be cured. A room in the back is filled with pictures of the infirm who’s relatives had come to the church to pray for them.

Brazilians are a majority Catholic, according to the 2000 census, and about 2% of them population practice some sort of “spiritist” religion.  At my hotel there was a sign advertising a visit to a Cadomblé ceremony. Candomble is a syncretic religion which mixes elements of Catholocism with worship of African orixas (spirits). It is called Voodoo in the Caribbean and New Orleans. I was a bit skeptical as towhether it would be a very traditional ceremony they would take me to. But I was an anthropology major I couldn’t pass up anything that hinted at a spirit possession ceremony. My guide met me at the hotel and he took me to a working class neighborhood on the other side of town. The ceremony room was held in a non-descript apartment that had been converted into a sanctuary. It was painted white with statues of orixas (spirits) hanging on the walls. The congregation looked as ordinary as the congregation of my mother’s Unitarian church in Chicago. They were a cross-section of Brazilian society: black and white, working class and wealthy. As the ceremony started six men, all dressed in white and red, danced very slowly in a circle in the front in from of the congregation. The congregation chanted and clapped to the soft drumming. Six women then joined them. After about 30 minutes one of the practitioners came into the congregation and comforted a woman next to me who appeared to be upset and crying. He put a white towel on her head and hugged her. I then realized that she had probably been touched by the spirit. This happened over and over again with others in the congregation. It didn’t feel awkward or faked. After about an hour heat got to be too much for me. It must have been over 100 degrees in the room. Sweat was pouring down my face and I must have looked like I had a fever. I made my exit the door and the blessedly cool air outside. I didn’t want to pass out in the heat and have people think that I too had been touched by the spirit. The ceremony would continue for several more hours.

Bahia is Brazil in extreme, a wonderful extreme. It is dramatically different than the cold and introverted streets of Seattle. My last night in town there were no parties. I walked the quiet streets and was sad. It was as if the soundtrack had been turned off too early. There is a word in Portuguese, saudade, which translates roughly as a longing for a place or a person. I don’t see how people could be sad in Bahia, so I thought the word must not be used much. But before I had even left I could feel saudade for Bahia. I comforted myself slightly knowing that the party would start back up again tomorrow night, I just wouldn’t be there.

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