IT SEEMS ONLY RIGHT THAT THE FIRST THING I DO UPON ARRIVING in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil's City of All Saints, is take a leap of faith: I let a stranger tie a ribbon around my wrist. I'd seen these ribbons (fitas, in Portuguese) before, frayed and dangling from the arms of nearly every Brazilian I'd ever met in New York City, and for years I'd wondered what they were. A fashion statement?A good luck charm?Now the mystery unravels on the steps of Bahia's Church of Our Lord of Bonfim (Our Lord of Good Ends). Dozens of eager fita vendors line the entrance to the Baroque church that sits like a wedding-cake ornament on a hill overlooking the city. As I pass, they thrust fistfuls of ribbons at me like cheerleaders shaking pom-poms. I wave the aggressive sellers aside and decide to buy from an elderly man named Waldemir, who sits serenely on the steps.
I'm reaching for money when he asks me the name of my saint, my protector. This stumps me; I tell him I don't know. Waldemir puzzles over this a minute, then pulls a pale-blue strand from his tangled heap of yellows, greens, pinks, reds, and whites. "This color is for Iemanj´," he says, "queen of the sea." I hold out my arm while he solemnly knots the ribbon three times and instructs me to make three requests of Iemanj´, a Yoruba deity brought to Bahia by African slaves in the 1500's. I'm to wear the ribbon until it falls apart, by which time, Waldemir assures me, my wishes will be granted.
As we're enacting this little ritual, a shower of cool water hits me in the forehead. I look past Waldemir, squinting into the tropical midday sun, and see a Catholic priest in a long, white cassock shaking what looks like a wet dishmop at the throng of worshipers who've come to Bonfim for a blessing: it is the first Friday of the year, a holy day, and also the opening of Bahia's Carnival season. It occurs to me that tying an African goddess's ribbon around my wrist while receiving a holy-water benediction might represent a serious conflict of interest—or at the very least, spiritual overkill. But then I notice that fitas adorn nearly all the arms upraised to catch the priest's spray. Later, I'll see them hanging from rearview mirrors, license plates, even cash registers. Here in the City of All Saints, Catholicism and African religion intertwine like the ribbons heaped on Bonfim's steps.
Salvador da Bahia (commonly known as Bahia), a city of 2 million on the northeast coast (in the state of Bahia), is revered by Brazilians as their spiritual center. Catholics from all over the country make pilgrimages to Bonfim to ask for miracles. Bahia is also the birthplace of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé, a Yoruba faith similar to Haiti's voodoo and Cuba's Santeria. Like other cities where African spirits have migrated—Havana, Port-au-Prince, New Orleans—Bahia overflows with wonderful food, great music (Brazilian superstars Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso are native sons of the region), and a vibrant arts scene.
The city's biggest attraction, though, is Carnival. Beginning in January, Bahia launches into a season of feasts and festivals that, over the course of six weeks, escalates into a rocking, high-decibel street party. Those who know claim that it's better than Rio's—that it's the best in the world.
For decades Bahia has been almost a secret city, beloved by Brazilians and pored over by cultural anthropologists, but little-known to outsiders. In the last few years, however, the city has emerged from obscurity because of international exposure from projects like Paul Simon's best-selling album Rhythm of the Saints (recorded with Bahia's Carnival drum group Olodum) and David Byrne's PBS documentary about candomblé, Ilê Aiyê. African-American tourists interested in exploring their cultural heritage have also started to venture to Bahia. The surge in recognition couldn't be coming at a more propitious time: Bahia is in the midst of a civic renaissance. Just last year, the major part of the multimillion-dollar renovation of the colonial quarter, the Pelourinho, was completed. The project, funded by the state government, with the support of unesco, restored the oldest and perhaps most magnificent concentration of colonial architecture in the New World: grand plazas, iron-balconied houses, and Baroque churches dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The word renovated sets off my traveler's alarm. Too often, it's a tourist-board euphemism for sanitized. Had the Pelourinho been turned into an Afro-Brazilian Disneyland?From my seaside hotel, the Bahia Othon, I set out in a taxi with more than a little trepidation to explore the new, improved neighborhood.
GEOGRAPHICALLY, BAHIA IS A LOT LIKE SAN FRANCISCO: roads wind and meander, following the ripples of the terrain. By the time my taxi driver gets downtown, I'm completely disoriented—and even more so when he stops in front of a nondescript concrete office building. "Pelourinho?" I ask, confused. He points down an alley, indicating that he can't drive past this point. Dubious, I get out and start walking. I turn a corner and suddenly the alley opens up, like the door of a time machine, onto a 17th-century panorama of multicolor pastels.
During the era of the sugar plantations, Bahia was the prosperous capital of Portuguese Brazil, and the Pelourinho was the city's slave market (pelourinho means "pillory" in Portuguese). When Brazil's slaves were emancipated in the 19th century, freed blacks moved into the neighborhood and built the beautiful sea-blue Catholic Church of Rosário dos Pretos, which anchors the main plaza, the Largo do Pelourinho. After World War II, the neighborhood declined, and in recent years it had become a notorious gambling and prostitution den. At the same time, thanks to the colorful novels of longtime Bahia resident Jorge Amado, the Pelourinho—and Bahia in general—gained fame throughout Brazil as the cradle of Afro-Brazilian cultural expression, a center of music, religion, and dance, and the home of Bahia's graceful, distinctive form of martial art, the capoeira.
The restoration appears to have swept away the Pelo's seamier side—city authorities moved out the red-light district and the criminals and installed 24-hour police brigades, transforming the quarter into what's probably the safest urban neighborhood in Latin America. Many Bahians opposed the restoration, because the cleanup forced several longtime residents out of their homes. But civic leaders took pains to preserve the neighborhood's flavor, ensuring the continuation of cultural and religious activities and encouraging artists and teachers to migrate to the area. Their efforts paid off: the Pelo retains a funky, authentic atmosphere, despite all the fresh pastel paint and bright new galleries and restaurants.
Behind any of the lovely colonial façades may be an art gallery, or a rehearsal yard for one of the several afro blocos (Carnival drum bands), or a surprise like the one I encounter when I follow the sound of thundering drums up a concrete staircase and into the studio of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia, preparing for its world tour.
Transfixed, I watch gorgeous, supple young men and women leap and spin around the room, enacting the dances of the gods in the candomblé pantheon. Oxum, goddess of love, sways her hips and preens in front of an imaginary mirror. Ogun, god of war, explodes in a frenzy of jumping and sword slashing. He's followed by Iemanjá, who pantomimes the rolling of the ocean.
After the rehearsal, I return to the street, dazzled. And lost. Even with my tourist board map in hand, the Pelo's maze of streets and alleys is disconcerting. I wander a bit, looking for a landmark, and run into a group of young men wearing T-shirts that say, in Portuguese, "I'm proud to be a student of Mestre Bimba." Mestre Bimba is one of the grand masters of the martial art capoeira, so I figure they must be going to a practice, or roda. "Capoeira?" I ask with my best Portuguese accent. They laugh, and the largest guy says, "You're American too?"