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Back in Africa

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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