Back in Africa

    Closing my eyes I let the sounds and smells drift over me. The
    colorful people, the pungent food and the mahogany colored children who smiled coyly at me
    took me back, back to fragrant markets, tropical nights and the whiff of adventure that I
    crave.
    By Philip Blazdell

    A long time ago an article about Bahia landed on my desk in Japan. It sat there for a
    long time ignored under a pile of travel brochures and forgotten paperwork. When I finally
    found time to read it, it concluded that ‘Americans had to build Disney World to have
    fun—Bahia was created like that’. That alone was enough to wet my appetite; I made a
    promise to myself to go there at the earliest opportunity. A few years later, and with the
    shops thick with Christmas shoppers and Christmas carols being sung on every street corner
    I bought myself a return ticket for the 20-hour coach trip from Fortaleza to Salvador. The
    opportunity to spend the final Christmas of the millennium in the most spiritual place in
    Brazil appealed to me greatly. A perfect antidote to the end of millennium angst I was
    experiencing.

    I had some uncertainty about long distance coach travel. I used to commute from London
    to Amsterdam regularly and it was generally a trying experience, continual delays, cramped
    coaches, stroppy drivers and frequent stops in deserted, dirty and expensive coach stops
    in the middle of nowhere where it was easier to get mugged than buy a coke. I often
    arrived haggard and wondering why I bothered.

    I expected much worse from Brazil—my imagination was running wild and I imagined
    that by the time I arrived in Salvador I would be recalling the luxury of the Amsterdam to
    London night bus with fondness. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when I arrived 20
    hours later in Salvador, refreshed and ready for some serious sightseeing.

    The coach was much more luxurious than I could have ever imagined. A few minutes after
    we pulled out of Fortaleza everyone had wrapped themselves in blankets and were snoring
    contentedly—try getting this comfortable on the London-Amsterdam bus. Not having
    realized that over zealous use of the air conditioning would result in my extremities
    turning blue I soon was turning out my rucksack in search of T-shirts. By the time we
    arrived I was wearing my entire wardrobe—and some of my girlfriends too. I now
    understood why the passengers had all boarded the bus dragging thick woolen blankets
    behind them.

    We motored steadily through the night, stopping every three hours for a fresh driver at
    towns so small they barely featured on my map—a bar, a snack stand and a tired
    looking woman ready to sell me ice cold beer. The hallmarks of an advanced civilization so
    often missing in my Trans-Europe expeditions. The road was also pleasantly unforeseen, but
    in a country where the government proclaims that ‘roads are progress’ I shouldn’t have
    been so astounded.

    Each stop was a chance to stretch my legs, buy another icy cold beer or just marvel at
    the vastness of Brazil. For a European it’s sometimes difficult to fully comprehend the
    size of the country, for example Bahia is roughly the size of France—and I always
    used to think that when I lived in London the 100 yard walk to my local supermarket was a
    long way.

    Years of traveling had honed my skills and each stop I managed, with my poor Portuguese
    and a sharp index finger, to buy any number of cookies and pastries. The American writer
    Thomas Cobb once wrote that ‘road food is always neutral in color and taste’. After
    tasting many of the savory pastries, chilled fruit juices and other things which fell into
    the category of objects unknown—but extremely delicious—available at each stop,
    I had to conclude that was Cobb wrong.

    I awoke just as the sun rose—coloring the vast sky with purple and reds, we were
    traveling through a low sun baked land of bauxite colored earth broken now and again by
    the rich green of palm tree. The vastness of the sunrise and the gentle snores of my
    fellow passengers filled me with hope for the coming day; by definition a traveler must be
    optimistic. Only the driver and I were awake—but he didn’t seem too impressed, for
    him it was all in a day’s work.

    Salvador, or to give its full name—Cidade de Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos
    (City of Salvador in Bahia of all Saints) is today a sprawling city of about 2 million
    people. Portuguese sailors, commanded by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered the
    bay sometime between 1501 and 1502, gave the city its name.

    Although the land, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, which has been signed in
    1494, as a modified form of the Papal directive of the previous year signed by Pope
    Alexander VI, clearly belonged to the Lusitanian crown, it was not till 1549 that a
    serious colonization program began in Bahia—mainly as a response to attempts by the
    Dutch to exploit the areas rich resources.

    In 1549 Tomé de Sousa, the first governor general of Brazil, arrived in Bahia. The
    chronicles of that time tell how he arrived with a retinue of 1000. Amongst them, as well
    as a small army, were the Jesuits who had been sent to ‘colonize souls’ and to turn the
    natives into good Christians who worked for the glorification of the Holy Mother Church,
    convicts, prostitutes, and as one chronicler says ‘all the scum of Portugal’.

    The colonization began in earnest with the unrestricted use of slave labor. First the
    local Indians were used, quickly followed by slaves captured from the coasts of Guinea,
    the Congo and Angola who were stronger and cheaper. Within a few years the first capital
    of Brazil had arisen from the fertile coastal plains. It was to remain the most important
    city for the next three centuries.

    The great influx of slaves into the area has left a lasting effect. Closing my eyes I
    let the sounds and smells drift over me, I could have so easily have been back in Africa.
    The colorful people, the pungent food and the mahogany colored children who smiled coyly
    at me from every doorway took me back, back to fragrant markets, tropical nights and the
    whiff of adventure that I crave. The African soul, forcibly exiled until the late
    nineteenth century has taken its revenge here in Salvador. This was the Brazil I have come
    to know and to love.

    Salvador’s most famous son, the author Jorge Amado, obviously had the same thoughts as
    me when he wondered ‘Is there a white man, even the whitest of whites, who does not have
    some black blood in his blue veins. Doesn’t the blackest black man also have a drop of
    white blood in his African veins’? In a later dissertation on Bahian culture he describes
    the population as ‘creatures out of a dream of love’. A dream that is still as vivid today
    and for me will always represent the great versatility and adaptability of man.

    The slaves preserved their culture and heritage to an extent not seen anywhere else in
    the new world. Their religion fused with Catholicism, the churches ran amok with African
    deities and Catholic saints, mouth-watering African food became the standard fare and
    African tunes can still be heard today as you stroll the quaint cobbled streets. The music
    seemed somewhat familiar, hardly surprising when it has inspired the likes of Paul Simon,
    Michael Jackson and Branford Marsalis who, for example, used many of the traditional
    rhythms in his award winning opera Blood on the Fields.

    One local resident summed up the city for me describing it as ‘a Greek salad of
    cultures, a place of great spirituality’ and if I listened carefully I might just be able
    to hear the passage of the numerous African deities that still prowl the streets.
    Standing, as I was, outside one of the many churches that made Salvador once second only
    to Lisbon, (‘Salvador has more churches than we have sins’) and home to South America’s
    first synagogue, I could easily believe this.

    I recalled another Jorge Amado novel and a dusty class room in London, and expected to
    catch a glimpse from the corner of my eye of a man ‘very old, black as coal, dried up and
    incredibly thin, enveloped in a gown that fluttered like a flag in the ocean breeze’
    floating past as he toured the city, seeing deep into people’s souls, reading the good and
    evil there. But, like my literary counterpart, and despite the dire warnings from the
    Brazilian Tourist Board, I saw only good in the city and its people.

    I checked into the Pousada Azul. A small and relatively inexpensive hotel two blocks
    from the busy beach. I am not sure if the Pousada has yet gained legendary status amongst
    budget travelers, but I am sure that it will very soon. After years of traveling, and
    staying in all types of hotels only two others come close to this (the Yak hotel in Tibet
    and the Zenko-ji temple in Nagano). And I am sure I would have seen a lot more of Salvador
    if Beatriz and her smiling staff hadn’t kept asking me each morning, in their delightfully
    lilting English if I wanted more cake, or coffee or fruit…

    The other residents were all Europeans who had come weeks ago to learn Portuguese and
    had fallen under the spell of the Pousada. The idea that they might have to move on one
    day seemed to fill them with dread. I seriously considered staying. But then again it’s
    not surprising that I fell in love with Salvador. A recipe for the city might be, one part
    Macao, one part Mozambique (places inherently linked in my mind with happy times), two
    parts modern Brazil all simmered gently with a whole range of religions, cuisines and
    possibilities. And amazingly this heady mixture seems to work.

    I started my spiritual tour in the heart of the newly restored old town known locally
    as the Pelourinho. This UNESCO protected area is currently undergoing substantial
    redevelopment, and the many colonial houses are being painted and restored to their
    original condition, which are simply divine. In fact the area is considered to be the
    finest example of colonial architecture in the Americas and is largely attributed to the
    dedication of former governor of Bahia Antônio Carlos Magalhães.

    It reminded me of the pretty colored houses I had seen in Macao. However, the
    beautifully painted houses in the quaint cobbled streets belie a more sinister history.
    One that we should never forget. The area, where today tourists stroll with cameras poised
    and a nonchalant step was once the scene of brutal ritual punishments that were handed out
    indiscriminately to slaves. Pelourinho actually means whipping post, and today the post
    has been partially restored lest we forget. Next to it I found a poignant poem:

    The waters will bring nations together
    Africa and the Americas, as a temple,
    Will mingle in space
    The Gold used to buy slaves
    Goes back to its origins
    And resumes its role as primordial energy
    The power of nature.
    Waters rush out and wave away all evil
    The moment is just perfect
    Pilori can be redeemed.

    Of the 166 churches in Salvador the most famous, and possibly the most impressive is
    the Igreja São Francisco, which dominates the eastern side of the Praça da Sé. From the
    outside it looks a modest, almost humble church, simple yet pleasing architecture and an
    almost nondescript façade. This simple façade, which was made from local sandstone
    blocks glued together using whale oil, belies the glorious interior. It is without a doubt
    the most stunning church in the Americas—if not the world.

    Before entering the church I passed into a sanctuary that contains splendid ceiling
    paintings by the local artist José Joaquim da Rocha. The artwork is often compared to the
    Sistine chapel due to its use of perspective such that the figures seem to follow you
    through 360 degrees. It was at the time an original and stunningly conceived piece of art.
    Today, it looses none of its power, and unlike the Sistine chapel is not obscured with
    hoards of tourists. In fact, wandering around on Christmas Eve, I was almost alone. I
    could not think of a better way to spend the day.

    Entering the church is like entering the clichéd fairy tale grotto, a parable of
    baroque decadence worked in gold and silver with an over exuberance of precious stones and
    imported Portuguese tiles. By itself the sheer affluence of the church made me gasp. On
    each subsequent visit to the church more of its intricate details, leering cherubs and
    enigmatic saints became apparent. Each visit revealed more layers of complexity and
    meaning.

    The church was built for the most part by slaves who were largely prohibited from
    practicing their own religion. This is reflected in the architecture. In a twilight-zone
    of ecclesial styles nothing is quite what it seems—saints are over endowed with
    amusingly large manhoods, some of the cherubs are heavily pregnant and one even appears to
    be both male and female. Each pillar and gold-coated post presents another surprise: naked
    angels vie with revered saints whilst Saint Ana (the mother of the Virgin) rubs shoulders
    with a pouting cherub. The church is revered to both Catholics and the indigenous African
    cults and joint services are often held. I couldn’t help but feel that only in Brazil
    would two such radically different systems of belief fit so well together.

    It was whilst marveling at the statue of St Benedict—the first black saint in
    Brazil, that the Father came rushing over to me. After I had received a blessing and a
    prayer wishing me good fortunes for the New Year and for my travels, he asked me what I
    thought of the church. "It’s the second most beautiful church in the Americas,"
    he explained to me barely able to contain his enthusiasm, "second only to the
    Catedral Metropolitana on the Zocalo in Mexico City". I thought he was going to hug
    me when I told him that the Catedral Metropolitana was currently ongoing heavy restoration
    work and had lost much of its charm. Instead he wistfully shook my hand and wished me luck
    on my trip.

    But, Igreja São Francisco is more than just a wonderful diversion for tourists and
    historians of art. It is still a working church. Every Tuesday, come rain or shine, is o
    dia da bênção (the day of benediction). The service is held at 6 PM and after the
    final blessing has been said and Santo Antônio has been venerated, bread is given out to
    the many poor (Salvador has the highest birth rate in Brazil, and more tragically the
    highest infant mortality rate). The Pelourinho is closed to traffic and the population
    throngs the streets. ‘Of course’, someone later told me, ‘it’s just an excuse to celebrate
    living in one of the world’s most diverse and spiritual cities’. Who was I to disagree?

    On Christmas night I strolled with the crowds in the Pelourinho. Bands had begun
    playing on every street corner and the air was rich with the smells of the traditional
    Bahian cooking. The women, who without exception looked stunningly attractive in their
    long white dresses and turbans, sat on every street corner behind bubbling drums of sweet
    smelling dendê palm oil. This wonderful aroma draws you towards their trays laden
    with acarajé. This superb dish is made from beans, which have been mashed in salt
    and onions then fried. The fried balls are then split and filled with a mixture of coconut
    paste, seafood, red peppers and shrimp. It can be sublimely hot.

    However, when I think of Salvador I will probably not remember the stunning
    architecture, the curious mix of cultures or the warmth of the blessing I received in the
    church, I will not even recall the fantastic food and the charming turban clad women who
    sold it. I will, however, remember my final bus journey back to the Pousada Azul.

    A few blocks from the town center a ragtag bunch of teenagers got on. They sat quietly
    at the back of the bus for a few minutes. Then in a casually nonchalant manner, whilst he
    chatted with the pretty girl next to him, one of the older boys began to drum a simple
    rhythm out on the seat. A few minutes later another boy joined in the rhythm and was
    quickly followed by a crystal voiced girl who began to sing a haunting refrain. Another
    boy joined in to answer the refrain, his voice less strong, but still carrying powerfully
    down the bus.

    Within a few more stops the whole group had spontaneously burst into song. The drummers
    drummed on the seats and the girls’ refrain was matched with passion from the boys, even
    the conductor was clanging his change in time with the drummers. The singing became louder
    and louder, more passionate with each new verse, the drummers drummed intensely on the
    seats. I stayed on the bus many stops past my own to listen, and during the long walk back
    to the hotel I found myself still humming their tune. It is still with me today.

    The author grew up in West London and left initially for a position in
    Japan. He is a regular contributor to several travel magazines. His travels have taken him
    across Asia, through Africa and into South America. He fell in love with Brazil two years
    ago and has been traveling throughout the country ever since. He currently lives in
    Fortaleza where he is attempting to learn the ‘language of angels’. The author may be
    contacted via philip@dem.ufc.br  and will
    personally reply to every message.

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