They're from San Francisco, where they've been studying the Brazilian fighting style, and they've come to take classes at the source. Bahia, where capoeira was born, has dozens of masters and dozens of schools. It turns out they are on their way to a roda, and they invite me along.
Inside the Academia Mestre Bimba, other capoeiristas have gathered in a circle to start the jôgo, the "play." Spurred by the percussive twang of the lute-like berimbau, they joust one by one with their teacher, a man who looks as if he's in his sixties but has the elasticity of a teenager. Capoeira is a springy, close-to-the-ground style of kick boxing, with touches of karate and ballet, that originated in Bahia's black community. The idea is not only to outfight your opponent but to humiliate him with subterfuge, style, and attitude; during the fighting, players sing taunts to each other à la Muhammad Ali.
The master today is an expert trickster. Crouching and curling, he makes it seem as if his young opponent has won—but at the last minute, he whips out his foot and kicks it up hard, inches away from his foe's face (in class the "beatings" are pantomimed). The move, sardonically called the Angolan Blessing, elicits enthusiastic whoops from the students.
As if its cultural abundance isn't enough, the Pelo is also endowed with some of the city's best restaurants. Experience Bahian cuisine's blending of African and Portuguese flavors by lunching at the Restaurante do SENAC, the State Cooking School, in a lemon yellow mansion that overlooks the Largo do Pelourinho. For Bahians, lunch is the big meal of the day, and the restaurant school lays on a splendid prix fixe buffet with more than 30 classic dishes—from the thick, rich fish and coconut milk moqueca stews laced with bright red dendê (palm-fruit oil) to the milder but equally complex seafood stews called ensopados. But it's the dessert buffet that's transcendent here, a delirium of sugary concoctions like custard tarts, meringue puffs, and little balls of toasted coconut and sugar.
The sweets, and all of Bahia's regional dishes, according to Professor Vivaldo Costa Lima, head of the anthropology department at the state university, are imbued with spiritual meaning. "Every god in the candomblé has his preferred food," the professor explains as he graciously takes my arm and leads me to his favorite Pelo bar for a tasting of the local alcoholic specialty: licores (liqueurs) in tropical flavors like mango, passion fruit, and clove. The one food that all the African gods like, according to Costa Lima, is also the most beloved street food in Bahia: a deep-fried bean-flour dumpling called an acarajé.
In the Pelo, on downtown street corners, and even in the parking lot outside Bahia's shopping mall, you can buy acarajé from the Bahianas: turbaned women dressed like candomblé priestesses, mães-de-santo, in elaborate white costumes and strands of colorful beads. Pungent, oily, a meal in itself, an acarajé is usually served split in two and filled with vatapá, a creamy, peppery paste of dried shrimp and coconut. The aroma of the gods' favorite food, sizzling in hot red dendê oil, penetrates every corner of the city.
After a few days in the Pelo, I begin to feel a bit city-bound. Though it's surrounded by water, Bahia has no good places to swim right in town. The local beach scene begins about a 15-minute drive northeast of the city, in Itapoã. On Saturdays, the strip from Ondina to Itapoã is wall-to-wall thong bikinis and suitcase radios, a hot spot for teenagers working on their tans or their moves—capoeira and otherwise. For well-heeled adults, weekends mean a longer drive, an hour and a half up the coast on a highway known as the Green Line to the beachside town of Praia do Forte.
FOR YEARS A HIDEAWAY KNOWN MOSTLY TO LOCALS, who kept small beach cottages on the outskirts, Praia do Forte has only recently been developed for tourism—but not without resistance from Bahian eco-warriors. Environmentalist groups battled over the construction of the Green Line, which originally was planned to hug the fragile coastline. They won the fight, and the highway was rerouted inland. The activist groups also imposed stringent restrictions on the development of the Praia do Forte area, which includes a rare type of coastal rain forest.
The village itself has only a handful of Polynesian-style posadas. The one large hotel, the 200-room Praia do Forte resort, is set on eight miles of deserted beach. On a hot, blindingly bright day I stagger into its airy, open lobby, and soon I'm settled into one of the hotel's "ecological" rooms—open to the beachfront, with no air conditioning to spoil the cooling breeze. Within seconds, I've plopped into the white hammock on the balcony, where I can look up into the rafters and watch micos de tufo branco—monkeys with a white, punk-style tuft of forehead hair—swinging and playing above me.
In the early morning I walk mile after mile of empty Atlantic beach, watching for the sea turtles that come here to spawn from a protected hatchery nearby. Later, I hop into a jeep with other guests (the hotel's clientele seems to consist mainly of executives from São Paulo) and head for a hike in the Sapiranga Ecological Reserve. Sapiranga is a tropical forest that grows out of the sand; the trees and plants feed on the dead vegetation underfoot. It's the only rain forest I've ever seen where cactus sprouts alongside coconut palms. Because of its extraordinarily delicate ecosystem, Sapiranga is open only to small groups of visitors, accompanied by the park's well-trained naturalists and a brigade of children from a neighboring village, who are being trained as nature guides under a state program.
Vacationing in Praia do Forte is a bit like camping—albeit in the high style of 19th-century gentleman adventurers. You're surrounded by ocean, rain forest, monkeys, and turtles, yet coddled by a staff and fed three outrageous buffets a day. Three days of this is the perfect antidote to Pelo's urban bustle. Four days of it, and I'm ready to jump back in.
OVER A DELICIOUS LUNCH OF CHICKEN, RICE, AND BEANS at her Bahia house, sculptor Eneida Sanches is trying to explain to me the immense importance that candomblé has for all Bahians, even those who do not practice the religion. Her own work, like that of Bahia's most renowned artist, Carybe, is inspired by candomblé symbols. Sanches's beautiful pounded and filigreed metal pieces, some of which will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution this year, are actual implements used in candomblé ceremonies by priestesses possessed by the spirit of the orixás, or gods—the silvery mirror of Oxum, the tin staff with jangly bells used by Oxala (who's associated with goodness), the fierce sword of Ogun.
As Sanches speaks, I realize that I cannot leave Bahia without experiencing a candomblé ceremony. But how?While candomblé is no longer a secret society in Bahia—the important temples, or terreiros, are even listed on tourist maps—one can't simply show up unannounced. The Bahian tourist board can sometimes arrange a visit, but it has been unable to find a ceremony open to me on my last weekend in town. I explain my problem to Sanches, who makes a few phone calls in my behalf and comes up with some leads.
So it happens that at midnight I'm driving around Bahia with a musician named Tony Mola. He pulls off the main road onto a steep, twisting one that descends abruptly to the terreiro, Casa Oxumaré. From an unimpressive concrete building comes the sound of drumming and singing. Mola introduces me to a middle-aged man all in white, one of the priests of the house. He checks to see if I have a camera (they're forbidden), then motions me to sit on the left side of the room, the side reserved for women.