Twenty or so women, dressed in white head wraps and abundant white lace hoopskirts, swirl gracefully in a counterclockwise circle. Their eyes are closed; their hands form subtle, beautiful gestures associated with the different orixás. Devotees of candomblé believe that the gods actually inhabit the women's bodies at this moment. "If they come up to you," whispers Mola, "that's good—reach out to receive the axé, the blessing."
The drummers beat a slow rhythm, then pound faster, urging the dancers to spin even more rapidly, their silver and copper implements sparkling in the harsh overhead fluorescent lights. Occasionally a woman collapses, shaking, overcome by the gods' power; another woman reaches out in an embrace, blowing first in one ear, then in the other. At last the circle breaks and the women parade past the spectators, who rise to salute the orixás as they make their way toward the courtyard.
Watching the solemn procession, I remember something Eneida Sanches said over lunch: "What candomblé teaches our society is that spirituality is everywhere . . . it extends beyond the boundaries of the terreiro and into everyday life." I leave the ceremony at 3 a.m. and fly from Bahia a few hours later, feeling lucky that I caught some of the city's fabled spirits—and wondering if perhaps I've taken them home. Months later, my blue ribbon still hasn't fallen off.
The Ultimate Party
If Rio's Carnival is about spectacle, its Bahian cousin is about music: the more rhythmic, the better. For four or five days preceding Ash Wednesday (this year, February 25), bands playing axé—Afro-Brazilian music with a slow but powerful second-line beat—whip the crowds into a frenzy from atop rolling flatbed trucks.
The parade may seem like a 2-million-person free-for-all, but there's a method to the madness, which is helpful for visitors who might be inclined to participate. Revelers are organized into units called blocos, with thousands of members in each. All the blocos maintain kiosks in Bahia's Barra shopping mall, where anyone who wants to take part in the parade can sign up by paying between $150 and $400 for the festival period. This buys you a dancing spot inside a roped-off, guarded area in the street behind the band truck—a good option for those wary of rowdy crowds.
Visitors start making reservations six months before Carnival, but that doesn't mean it's too late for this year's festivities. The Brazilian Tourist Information Office can help with information and reservations (800/544-5503, fax 805/688-1021).
The Recôncavo, the fertile coastal plain that surrounds the Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay), is laced with towns that evoke the last century. The most intriguing is Cachoeira, about a two-hour drive from Salvador da Bahia. Formerly a booming river port for the sugar and tobacco trades, now it's almost a ghost town; its crumbling colonial houses, gracious plazas, and blue-tiled Church of Our Lady of the Rosary hint at bygone prosperity.
Cachoeira is also the site of an extraordinary candomblé religious society called the Sisters of the Good Death. Descendants of persecuted black women who made a dramatic escape from Bahia 225 years ago, the Sisters have dedicated themselves to caring for a statue of the Virgin Mary. Thanks to patrons like writer Jorge Amado, the Sisters have been able to build their own museum, which is open to visitors.
If you're not quite ready to plunge full-tilt into Bahia's Carnival, you can still catch the flavor of it year-round in the Pelourinho, when some of the bloco bands, which play for Carnival, hold weekly rehearsals. The Bahia Tourism Authority (Bahiatursa, Palácio Rio Branco, 2 Rua Chile; 55-71/241-4333) will guide you to the practice yards of Ilê Aiyê, the rootsiest, most African of the blocos, and Olodum, the solid wall of drums that played on Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints. For the sweetest taste of Bahia's rhythms, go to the headquarters of the Carnival society, called Filhos de Ghandi, on a Sunday afternoon. The all-male association has been parading their theme of peace in Bahia's carnival for more than 40 years. At their rehearsals, spry white-suited gentlemen in their seventies challenge macho twenty-somethings—and sometimes tourists—in displays of dance prowess that resemble the Cuban rhumba.