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Brazil’s Untamed Heart

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Photo: Ben Watts

The lay of the land is startling. The Upper City, where most of the colonial treasures are scattered, perches high atop a 236-foot-high bluff overlooking the bay and the sunburned commercial buildings of the Lower City (the Lacerda Elevator, in all its Art Deco glory, connects the two). But Salvador stretches in all directions to encompass the human condition, high and low. Here are favelas, or shantytowns, that are as poor as any place on earth, clinging impossibly to eroding hills, oddly attractive from a distance, spirit-shattering when seen up close. There is the wealthy neighborhood of Barra, bristling with sleek, heavily guarded skyscrapers that evoke Miami on a shoestring. And in all directions out of the city and across the bay are sparkling white-sand beaches that, taken with a chilled beer or a well-macheted coconut, evoke a kind of fundamentalist paradise, minus—and I can’t stress this enough—the virgins.

Most visits to Salvador start in the Upper City neighborhood called the Pelourinho, which means "the Pillory." In the prominent squares of Pelourinho, African slaves were whipped and humiliated—their reward for carrying up the cobblestones that line the Upper City, not to mention erecting the churches and municipal buildings that sparkle to this day. The local Jesuits, in fact, once asked that the whipping post be moved to another part of town—the cries of the victims were interfering with their meditation and prayer.

On this journey I am fortunate enough to have a Portuguese-speaking companion, my friend Albertina. We arrive at the popular Redfish pousada, and check into a tall, airy, brightly colored room with lots of toy turtles and fish, Brazilian Indian "nightmare catchers," hanging from the rafters.

Once out on the Pelourinho streets we stumble for Iberian comparisons: Seville with black faces?Salamanca with a rhythm?Baroque and Rococo façades look down at us, saints and angels point their fingers, slender Art Deco town houses flake paint onto the crowded sidewalks, everywhere samba and reggae accost the visitor out of man-size speakers, and the heartless noonday sun presides. If you dim your eyes a little the colors you see floating before you are blue, yellow, green, and black. The streets slope down without warning, then ramp up into the sky. One minute the bulbous spires of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos are at your feet; the next thing you know, you’re staring up at the sky-blue façade of the church, built for slaves, by slaves (they were not allowed to worship with their masters), and still bursting with the sounds of the Yoruban- language mass.

The Museu Afro-Brasileiro on the main square of terreiro de Jesus gives you a good overview of Bahia’s unique Afrocentric culture, touching upon the three C’s: candomblé, capoeira, and the Carnaval, which is said to rival Rio’s, although some locals bemoan a slide into commercialization. But our most moving visit is to Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo. In this outwardly imposing structure, the African slaves were held downstairs in inhuman conditions, next to an even darker hole where they would hide to escape punishment. The former slave quarters are now home to a solitary squatter, a 95-year-old woman with one tooth, whose laundry hangs in the breeze. "I’m ninety-five years and ninety days old," she tells us, speaking out of a withered face that appears to hang off the peg of her skull. Her eyes are surprisingly agile and blue; her smile is genuine. She points out where the slaves slept and ate, nondescript parts of the room that only take on meaning once you realize that this woman is a descendant of the very men and women whose quarters she occupies. She speaks lovingly of Princess Isabel, who freed the slaves in 1888, as if that milestone had happened yesterday, as if perhaps we hadn’t heard the news. She was, after all, born only two decades after emancipation.

Next door, in the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, is an 18th-century life-size statue of Christ at the whipping post by the half-Indian slave Francisco das Chagas. Christ’s blood is made up of hundreds of rubies inlaid into the wood—but it is his expression of deep suffering and otherworldly resignation that catches the eye—the clenched, upturned hand, the masterful rendering of the calloused feet, the elasticity, and shock of physical pain. This is Christ as could be conceived only by a slave. The statue endures, unchanged—unlike the neighboring Carmelite convent, which has been converted into a high-priced boutique-style pousada, complete with butler service and spa.

Ten years ago, none of this was possible. Pelourinho was a dangerous, forsaken area. Then gringos started helping themselves to the most scrumptious Baroque tidbits and opening up quaint Redfish-like inns. Now the area is policed to within an inch of its life, but much of the authenticity is gone, too, replaced by Internet cafés and Jamaican-style hair-braiding places that have monopolized many a pastel-colored street corner. One is reminded of Salvador’s realities—I am told that 60 percent of the population lives in favelas—mostly by the parade of street kids begging us for every little thing we own. One tiny boy even begged for the last drops of water in Albertina’s plastic cup, a pathetic gift she gladly handed over.

After a few days in Pelourinho’s stunning but contrived colonial wonderland, we look forward to seeing the rest of the city. Salvador is not a small metropolis, so we decide to use our stomachs as a compass. First, I should mention the most notorious staple of Bahian cuisine: dendê. Daily ingestion of dendê, or palm oil, as saturated as a slick of heavy crude winding its way down Lake Erie, is a delicious way to die slowly and with major complications. The best place to start the process is Yemanjá, located on a highway spiriting past Salvador’s northern beaches and named, appropriately, after the Yoruban goddess of the sea. The décor is decent enough, but you’ll mostly be looking at the waitresses, with their smooth brown skin (pity your own sunburned hide) and cheekbones from here to ya-ya. A friend later tells us that Yemanjá hires the most beautiful mulatas, as the locals unabashedly call mixed-race women. Albertina and I split a moqueca, the Bahian seafood stew loaded with onion, garlic, parsley, and pimenta (hot-pepper sauce), and cooked in coconut milk. Yemanjá produces a version with crunchy soft-shell crab and fatty lobster, to be spilled over rice and chased with long drafts of beer. You can send your fragrant moqueca into overdrive with a little extra pepper sauce and a dusting of smoky farofa, the toasted manioc meal Brazilians dump on just about everything.

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