"Religious city, colonial city, black city of Bahia," writes Jorge
Amado in Jubiabá; and he's just warming up: "Sumptuous
churches embroidered in gold, houses with blue-tiled fronts, ancient two-story
buildings inhabited by misery, streets and halls paved with cobblestones
Past Is Prologue
From the ramparts of São
Felipe, an old fort near Humaitá Point in the Monte Serrat district,
the historical center of Salvador da Bahia is a couple of miles and a curving
coastline away. Amado's colorful city sparkles less from this distance.
Built between 1583 and
1587, São Felipe with its thick, whitewashed walls sits on a grassy
knoll (a few heavy black cannons on the lawn seem to be grazing rather than
guarding), still waiting for enemy ships to enter the channel. Today, the
fort and its weapons are as quaint as they are ineffective, and yet are a
reminder that possession of this land came at a price.
Brazil was discovered
in 1500, and Salvador, in the northeast part of the country, was its first
capital, from 1549 to 1762. The French would try to gain a foothold near Rio
de Janeiro, but in this part of the vast territory it was the Dutch who were
trying to carve a slice of the pie for themselves. They tried to take Salvador
in 1624 and were repelled. They tried again, and with better luck, in 1638.
However, the Portuguese retook it in 1724, and there matters have stood.
I'd come to Salvador a
few days earlier after an all-night flight on Varig from Los Angeles to São
Paulo. After customs, there was another flight, also on Varig, a two-hour
jaunt up to Salvador. As we approached, I noticed the blue water, the white
sand, and two guys sitting under a parasol at Praias do Flamengo.
As we landed, palm trees
appeared on the edges of the runway. Although able to accommodate international
flights, the Aeroporto Luís Eduardo Magalhães is neither large
nor complicated, and there's something of a bamboo tunnel one drives through
upon entering or leaving it that adds a folksy, signature touch, and a tropical
I was greeted by an old
friend, Thomas Smith Neto, who'd spent his childhood in Salvador, and then
the next quarter of a century in the United States. Ten years ago he returned
to the land of his birth, and in that time has married a Bahiana named
Gilda and fathered a daughter. Nicole just turned 3, but she's going to have
a lot of boyfriends in a few yearsso Tom might want to start saving
up for a shotgun to keep her suitors at bay.
The airport is about 45
minutes by car from the Pelourinho, the historical center's center and must-see
tourist destination. There are, of course, several outlying neighborhoods
and districts, and Tom and his family live in one called Pituba. From his
apartment I could look down on the Avenida Otávio Mangabeira and the
beaches of Armação and the Jardim de Alá. This, the Atlantic
Ocean side of Salvador, is dotted with small coastal towns all the way to
Bahia's neighboring state of Sergipe.
In his younger days, Tom
was an outstanding soccer player and a serious drinker. Injuries and family
life have redrawn the boundaries a little, but his convivial attitude was
just the ticket for a visitor less outgoing who nonetheless wanted to taste,
literally, the bestand the most authenticthat Salvador has to
There are many kinds of
regional dishes in Bahia, from vatapá to xinxim (pronounce
it "shing-shing") and moqueca, and most of them go well with
an alcoholic beverage. The Largo de Santana, behind the Santana church in
the Rio Vermelho district, is as good a place as any to go and hang out under
the open sky.
It's about a 15-minute
drive from the oldest parts of town, accessible by driving along the coast
or cutting across the hillsthe latter affording a view of the favelas,
or shanty towns, that may be missed if one sticks only to the beaches.
There are some fine hotels
in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, and many tourists stay here (as well as
at Ondina two miles west). One of the hotels, the Double Blue, is on a seaside
hilltop, and at sunset from the lounge there's a nice view all the way to
the Barra lighthouse.
The Largo da Mariquitawith
its informal seafood restaurants and barsis just below, and the Largo
de Santana is not much further. This is where we sampled Dinha's acarajé,
which Tom says is the best acarajé in town. Maybe it is. But
everywhere one goes in Brazil (and subsequent to Salvador I would spend a
few days in São Paulo), there's always someone boasting that their
restaurant has the best feijoada or churrasco in the entire
is the real deal. Throughout Bahia, black women in traditional white blouses
and skirts, often with white headscarves, sit behind a cart or booth and serve
acarajébeanpaste dumplings crisply cooked in palm oil,
dressed in peppers and onions, and topped with shrimp sauce.
When the late French writer
Albert Camus was in Bahia he noted that, "We eat dishes that are spicy
enough to make cripples walk again." Well, some of these same pots must
still be simmering after half a century.
To accompany our acarajé
we ordered a bottle of beer, and until recently the choice was pretty much
between Brahma and Antarctica. These are the only two brands I remember from
when I was in Rio nearly 20 years ago. Now there's more competition.
Beer drinkers tend to
be quite faithful to their chosen brand, but those who aren't connoisseurs
may find the difference to be about the same as between Pepsi and Coke. I've
tried others as well, from Primus and Bohemia to Kaiser and Skol, but what
I've come away with is not a preference for type but a fascination with how
much effort goes into keeping them cold.
Beer companies not only
supply bars and restaurants with banners and signs, they provide tables and
chairs and now high-tech fridge-freezers. Brazilians, it appears, are adamant
about having their beer served just this side of freezing, which means that
a waiter who is careless, who touches the bottle below the beer line, will
be taken to task.
So how does one keep a
beer cold in a hot place like Brazil? By serving the 600 ml. bottles (slightly
less than two 12 oz. cans) in Styrofoam beer huggers. Since the glass into
which the beer is poured holds only about five ounces, the chances of it getting
warm are slim. All of the fridge-freezers I saw displayed the inner temperature
in glowing red digital numbers.
In the United States,
baseball, football and a basketball vie with one another as the national pastime,
but in Brazil the only sport that really galvanizes people is soccer. Tio
Medrado, in Pituba, is a typical open-air, casual establishment where people
can go to have their cold beer and watch a soccer game (Tio means uncle, and
so the name of the place implies that it's friendly and inviting).
Tio Medrado may or may
not, as advertised, have "the best crabs in Bahia," but the various
shellfish dishes, aided by limes and peppers, will certainly hit the spot.
When there's a game on televisionand it's hard to imagine when there
isn'teveryone is glued to the screen, so it's kind of like being in
a low-key, kicked-back sports bar. The place erupts into cheers each time
the Bahian team scores a goal.
Pituba is an upper middle
class residential district that used to be a vacation spot on the outskirts
of old Salvador, but now it's part of the larger metropolis. The nice location
doesn't mean it's entirely safe, however, and I'll assume it's still more
or less true that three-quarters of the city's population (of over two-and-a-half
million) are unemployed or underemployed.
The very poor eke out
a living as street vendors, and at times there are so many of themmixed
in among the people who are simply asking for a few coinsthat it's impossible
to sit at an open plaza and have an in-depth conversation without being interrupted.
What's amazing is the
variety of things offered for sale: in the span of half an hour in the Largo
de Santana we were shown jewelry, pirated CDs, cheese balls, candles, sparklers,
peanuts and cigarettes.
I'll say this about Tom,
he never sends anyone packing without first taking some interest in what they're
selling. In other words, he doesn't pretend not to see them or to deny their
humanity. Occasionally there were pleasantries exchanged, a joke, or some
insightful observation. One young boy, a street urchin by the looks of him,
politely pointed out that I shouldn't leave my camera in the openeven
though it was right in front of mebecause someone might snatch it. No,
he wasn't referring to himself.
Put simply, most people
do what they can to make an honest living, but a few will seize an opportunity
to make off with something if it looks easy. The best way to avoid trouble
is not to raise a red flag, i.e., stumbling out of a bar and fumbling for
one's car keys. But isn't this the same advice you'd give to anyone in almost
every town who emerges from a bar after a few drinks?
My first exposure to the
older part of Salvador involved going from the high city to the low city by
way of the Lacerda Elevator, which is among the most distinguishable landmarks
in the city. There's quite a view from the square that overlooks the Comércio
district and the port down below, and the ride up or down is only about two
Across the street is a
plaza (the Praça Cairu) with artisans' stalls and then a large yellow
structure with a red-tiled roof. This is the Mercado Modelo, constructed in
1861 as a customs building. Today it contains a warren of shops that sell
regional arts and crafts.
Walk upstairs, and you'll
find the Restaurante Maria de São Pedro. There's an indoor dining area
that looks more like a ballroom, but outside there's a balcony that girdles
the back half of the building and faces towards the channel that separates
Salvador from the island of Itaparica. Crossing over isn't hard; by ferry
it's about three or four miles. The novelist João Ubaldo Ribeiro used
to live on Itaparica, and his novel The Lizard's Smile takes place
Naturally, we had a meal
in the Mercado Modelo's upstairs restaurantspecifically shrimp moqueca,
which is stewed in palm oil, herbs and coconut milkbut it was a bit
pricey. We returned the same way. To the left of the elevator as we headed
back up are some of the many old and dilapidated buildings that apparently
are not among the 600 or so in the Pelourinho that are on the Unesco World
Heritage list and have been restored.
In his book, Why Is
This Country Dancing?, John Krich says of the Pelourinho that "this
is certainly the most photogenic set of square blocks on the planet, an architectural
storehouse splashed in extravagant Latin shades." That's because most
of what you find there in the 21st century was there in the 16th and 17th,
and has been preserved and restored much like Bruges or Toledo.
Not surprisingly, parts
of Salvador may remind travelers of Lisbon, and although Krich is correct
to give old Salvador such high marks, for its pastel colors in particular,
I'd say that hilly Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais is just as splendid.
Because it has so many
bars and restaurants and shops, the Pelourinho can scarcely be absorbed in
only one or two visits. The area with its winding cobblestone alleys is safe
enough if tourists don't wander afar, and my advice is to go there by taxi
or else head for one of the parking garages.
The first place of interest
that Tom and I came to is the Cravinho do Carlinhos, a small bar on Rua Gregório
Matos. The street is named after an exceptional 17th century lyric
poet. Erico Verissimo (father of the current best-selling novelist Luis Fernando
Verissimo), has described Matos as "a true representative of the Brazilian
soul, his mind being a territory where saudade and irreverence, wild
joy and melancholy, dwelt together in a continuous shifting of planes."
The proprietor, Carlinhos,
has a reputation as one of the more creative cravinho makers in the
Pelourinho. This drink is made with cachaça (usually described
as firewater or white rum) that has been aged in oak barrels along with various
herbs and seasonings.
Of the several varieties
on tap, I fondly recall the siren's song of the cravinho cravo, or
little clove drink. We were later to have another cravinho at the shop
of Preto Velho, literally the Old Black, a white-haired Afro-Brazilian who
must be over 80 and is regarded as an irmão de santo, or brother
saint of the Candomblé. The latter is an annual religious celebration,
and somewhat unique as many of the Yoruba deities have been syncretized with
Preto Velho is also one
of those people well versed in folk remedies. Do these things really work?
Years ago in Belo Horizonte, an elderly woman gave me a leafy and bitter green
potion for indigestion (ailmentary, my dear Watson!) that was at least soothing.
Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, but older Brazilians seem to know their
medicinal herbs, and these formulas are passed down through the generations.
basic ingredients of which are cachaça and lime, is another
alcoholic drink that some people would place at the top of their list. A close
relative might be caipiroska, made with vodka, sugar, mashed lime,
and crushed ice. `Roskas can also be made with other fruitwhatever's
in seasonin which case one may end up with a cajuroska or umburoska
or others as tasty as they are exotic sounding.
A Romantic Vision
While in the Pelourinho,
it is all but mandatory to visit the Fundação Casa de Jorge
Amado, a sort of memorial and museum devoted to Bahia'sand Brazil'smost
famous author. As Moritz Thomsen observed in his book, The Saddest Pleasure,
"The town belongs to Jorge Amado, that romantic who has made truth out
of a lying vision, who has superimposed over the squalor of an incredible
poverty the soul of a new race."
Most of Amado's flamboyant
novels have been translated into English, and these include Dona Flor and
Her Two Husbands, Tent of Miracles, and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
Around the corner from
Amado's place, as we ambled up Rua Alfredo do Brito, an alluring aroma led
us to the Restaurante Pomerô, and after stepping inside we were led
clear through the establishment to a large communal patio in backthe
Largo Quincas Berro d'Águawhich is shared by several other bars
and restaurants (Habeas Copos, for example, adjoins Pomerô).
After dinner and drinks,
and a conversation about the dying art of the elevator man, Tom and I left
the plaza, or rather paused at the threshold in order to decide whether to
turn left or right. It would be neither. Our decision was being made for us
by a trio of young women with whom we were soon having drinks.
Amado writes about the
mixture of the races in Bahia and the wondrous tones that result, and I didn't
fail to remember his words in the pleasant company of three women who were
all dark-skinned but each in possession of her own distinctive coloring, from
dusky to midnight blue.
Of course, someone reading
this may infer that these women had monetary motives (oh boy, a rich American),
but I don't think so. Like us, they were just out to have fun, sip a cravinho
or two, observe people and listen to percussion bands like Olodum, which can
often he heard rehearsing for more formal show elsewhere.
I'm not sure how this
happened, considering my low tolerance for alcohol, but every morning in Salvador
I'd wake up sober. Not one hangover. And on top of that, I'd be up earlythe
darkness began to dispel a little after 4:30 a.m.and would either read
for awhile or reflect on what I'd seen or done the previous day.
During the Bahian spring
(our seasons and Brazil's are reversed), the mornings are sometimes overcast
and sometimes dotted with great big white clouds. Always, though, there's
a pervading warmth and a perpetual if faint trace of moisture in the air.
When it was raining, the
air was still a bit stuffy and sultry. In other words, the temperature doesn't
change much. It's the kind of weather I think of every time I listen to Ravel's
In Brazil, the currency
exchange is about three reals to the dollar, which means that a lunch that
costs $R 5 is fairly inexpensive. In Rio and São Paulo one won't make
out quite so well, but Tom and I ended up in a kind of hole in the wall called
K-trupia ("K" is "cá" or "come on over,"
and "trupia" is like a gang of friends). K-trupia is in the
Nazaré neighborhood, scarcely half a mile from the Pelourinho, on Rua
Engenheiro Silva Lima.
Our lunch here was simplebaked
beef, rice, beans, spaghetti, salsa, farofa (ground manioc fried in
butter) and green pepper sauce, plus beerand yet wholly gratifying.
We chatted with the owner, André Luis, who told us that during Carnaval
time he and his "gang of friends" all go out en masse to celebrate.
Anyone can join their group, and those who do will receive a matching shirt.
He made it sound like fun, but I'm sure there are countless variations of
this throughout the country. One big festive party.
I've already mentioned
the old fort near Humaitá Point in the Monte Serrat district. There's
a small red-and-white automated lighthouse on the point itself and close by
at the Itapagipe Yacht Club an old, dilapidated restaurant. Tom and I were
there on a gray and gloomy afternoon with scudding clouds, restless swells
and a periodic drizzle, and yet it was such invigorating weather. We sat under
a parasol for a couple of hours, drank Nova Schin, and discussed the sorry
state of the world: "When the cat's away
the water will boil."
Then we hopped into Tom's
car and drove two or three miles to the Basílica do Senhor do Bonfim,
which is arguably one of the most famous churches in Salvador, and for that
matter throughout Brazil. A number of religious events are associated with
it. Inside you'll see the elaborate wedding cake altar typical of the country's
Inevitably someone will
try to sell you a strand of colorful ribbons that say "Lembrança
do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia." Typically, you tie one to your left wrist
and make three wishes. In time the ribbon will fray and fall off, but by thenor
so the believers claimyour wishes will have come true.
(Mine did; I just moved
into a 26-room mansion in Palos Verdes and married Miss September.) And if
your wishes do come true, Tom says, you're supposed to return to the church
and offer your heartfelt thanks in person (Hmm, guess I better renew my passport).
Now, This Is the
Between the basilica and
the yacht club, although closer to the latter, is an area called Pedra Furada,
named after the perforated rock at the shoreline. Above it there are a few
quiet streets and maybe four or five not very well publicized restaurants.
One of them, on Rua Rio
Negro, is called O Recanto de Lua Cheia, which implies that it's a cozy nook
for enjoying the full moon, and several tables positioned on the edge of a
balcony-patio overlook the Bay of All Saintswhere Yemanjá, the
goddess of the waters, likes to appear.
We drank beer and roskas
and ordered appetizers, but the star of the show was a mariscada in
a big clay pot. Marisco is shellfish, and so mariscada is an
assortment of shellfish cooked with dendê, or palm oil, coconut
milk, herbs and seasonings and pepper sauce.
The meal itself contained
shrimp, clams, miniature oysters, river crabs, mussels, octopus, squid and
red snapper. Because I'd never tried it, the cook also threw in some stingray.
The ray was tender and easy to eat, but not memorable (sure, it tastes just
like chicken). For each of us, the bill came to about $16.
If Salvador is pictured
as a large peninsula, then on the other side of Monte Serrat, as one among
a long string of coastal towns facing the Atlantic, is a placed called Praias
do Flamengo. On a map, it's close to the airport and must have provided me
with my first glimpse of the region. By car, this sparsely populated area
may be about an hour from the old part of the city (or half that from Tom's
in Pituba), and for most of the leisurely drive there's not much traffic.
About half a mile off
the main two-lane highway we parked and walked over to a beachfront cabana
called Baionês, which serves Bahian and Japanese cuisine. If you're
thinking fish stew and tempura, you're right. Tom and I were ushered past
a couple of open-air terraces and onto the white sand and almost down to the
We sat at a table with
a large parasol to keep off the sun. The sand was as fine as silk, the sea
was relatively warm, and the day itself was pleasant rather than scorching.
We started out with a frutaroska, made with graviola.
Moritz Thomsen says of
the people of Bahia that they move "at a pace that is decent and without
that panic that makes Rio seem hysterical," a pace that Gilberto Freye
in Order and Progress refers to as a "healthy inertia."
And that's indeed how
this late spring afternoon seemed, with its relaxing sunbathers on both sides
of us infused with a healthy inertia. The only energy we expended was to move
the table and chairs back as the tide crept forward.
I've been to all kinds
of operas and musicals and various other stage shows over the past few years,
but it's hard to remember when I've had a better seat in the house and enjoyed
"the show" quite as much. You have to treasure it while you can,
and I treasured it.
A couple of days later,
as my plane headed back to São Paulo, I was able to look down and see
the same endless stretch of white sand. There's a part of me that's still
sitting there with Tom, enjoying a couple of `roskas, skewers of roasted cheese,
and a heaping platter of shrimp that we will eagerly devour, perhaps again
So when you fly to Salvador,
and you pass over the Praias do Flamengo, be sure to look for my umbrellaor
for the umbrella on the sand that's waiting just for you.
My sincere thanks
and deepest appreciation to Tom, Gilda and Nicole, to Tom senior and Dona
Lita, to Eduardo Marx e Silva and Fatima Young at Varig Brazilian Airlines,
and to Maria Helena Dunne at the Brazilian Tourism Office in Washington, D.C.
If it wasn't for all of you, I might never have left my backyard.
Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the
Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern
California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.