From Dervishes to Samba - Fall 2011 travel blog

Bonfim church

wish ribbons

limbs needing cures

San Francisco Church vestment area

side altar

photo ladies

hilly Pelourinho




local market

hollow buildings

Back in the day when it was OK to come to a new continent, force the locals to become Catholics, build large sugar plantations with slave labor and make money exploiting everyone with darker skin than yours, Salvador Bahia was a city with riches that rivaled the capitals of Europe. In 1776 it was the largest city in the Americas. You did have to run the risk of being eaten by the local cannibals, but there was big money to be made. Once this approach to life was no longer acceptable, there were few left with sufficient funds to maintain the huge, ornately decorated buildings found in the old town area. Between the car pollution, 80% humidity and salty sea air, most of the grandiose monstrosities have fallen into disrepair. Admittedly it is expensive to maintain them. Every time we travel to Europe half the things we want to see are shrouded in scaffolding; the Europeans work hard to preserve their heritage. With the relaxed Brazilian approach to life things are often about to be done. We were here six years ago and not much has changed. When we went to a scenic harbor overlook, what interested us most about the view was the look down into all of the empty shells of buildings that must have been amazing long ago. It was like looking at a Hollywood set.

When we think back to the time we spent in Turkey, it seems safe to say that Turkey is eons ahead of Brazil when it comes to infrastructure and providing a reasonable standard of life for all its citizens. We saw nice neighborhoods here where we would be happy to live, but we saw many more of the ad hoc developments called favelas that people have established for themselves out of desperation. These home made structures cling to the hillsides and look like they will tumble into the sea after the first rain. Because these slum dwellers are not official residents they do not pay taxes; they also receive no services. The unemployment rate is officially over 20%, but these same resourceful locals also make money under the table. I wanted to buy an eyeliner pencil. I went to two pharmacies, which had a modicum of such items and found nothing. But a lady who was selling Avon products out of the trunk of her car had what I needed. Next to her a parked car was covered with layers of shoes and the owner was doing a good business as well. Next to him a woman was selling bras that were hung on a portable railing. You can rest assured no taxes were being paid here.

Salvador is uniquely situated with a lower level that is along the sea shore. This flat area has been supplemented by landfill. The rest of the city is on steep bluffs high above. Going between levels in a vehicle leads to massive traffic jams, but there are two spots where a massive elevator and a funicular railway each move pedestrians between the two parts of the city. A section of the old upper city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the brightly colored buildings are a bit better maintained. It’s a touristy area with many nice shops and restaurants. Women of African heritage prowl the allies dressed in lovely white lace dresses over massive hoop skirts and troll for tourists to take their pictures - for a few dollars, of course. In the central square you can take note of the pillar where slaves were chained when they were whipped.

Salvador is known as a city of churches and supposedly has one for every day of the year. The slaves were forced to build these churches and forced to be Catholics, but were not allowed to go inside to attend mass. Some of these talented artisans incorporated many symbols from their various Africans faiths into the decor of the churches they constructed. It is ironic to think of these aristocratic planters worshipping in churches covered with pantheistic symbols. St. Bonfim is a prime example and its fence and gates are festooned with colored ribbons, each color having a symbolic meaning from African tradition. Peddlers sell the ribbons as well. the custom is that you make a wish as you tie one around your wrist and the wish will come true when the ribbon disintegrates. A room in the back of St. Bonfim was festooned with models of bodies and various limbs hanging from the ceiling. People who needed healing would purchase these models to hang there to generate healing in the affected body part. Very weird! You gotta have faith.

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