February 24th: Salvador
Salvador was a delightful surprise. I may have mentioned that I had no idea what to expect when we arrived here, but it turns out that Salvador is an enormous and important city, (mind you, everything in Brazil is enormous by NZ standards).
We arrived in the middle of carnival so the town was in holiday mode. There were giant inflatable dolls in the middle of the streets, side stalls were busy providing costumes and hair-do’s for festival goers, the populace was happy, relaxed, and the town was feeling festive – particularly in the tourist areas we explored. The criminals had also gravitated to town in spite of the large military police presence. A couple of our ship board companions had their pockets picked, and two more had chains ripped from their necks. Mind you, warnings to be vigilant and not wear bright shiny jewellery are constant. We are chaperoned and protected with more diligence than any Victorian maiden. For the first time in South America we encountered beggars – another species despised by those who want us tourists to have a perfect experience in their town. One such young man harassed me on the streets. I sent him packing, and then turned to see a young woman, sitting on her door step watching this youth in disgust. We locked eyes, and she rolled her eyes at him. Clearly she was not a fan of the begging community.
Our tour focussed on Pelourinho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is the historic centre of the old town. It’s a lovely area, full of colourfully painted, wrought-iron balconied houses of Portuguese origin. The streets are cobbled. The stores are filled with brightly coloured local arts and crafts and the squares set up with large stages for carnival performances in the evening, as well as plenty of food outlets selling local delicacies. The locals were in fine good humour, and there was plenty of music, ferociously rhythmic drumming and other percussion instruments to be heard on every street corner. If one player started up, it was automatic permission for every other would-be musician in the vicinity to join in. It was a very happy sound.
The name Pelourinho is variously translated as ‘Pillory” or “Whipping Post”, a reference to the original purpose of this place. For 300 years, African slaves were bought and sold in these squares, and the whipping post was used for brutal, condign, punishment. It’s hard, in the heady atmosphere of Carnival, to imagine how ghastly those days were for so many people. Brazil imported some 4 million slaves from Africa, and although they were emancipated in the 1880’s, their heritage and influence is everywhere.
Rather unfortunately, although Brazil freed it’s slaves, it did nothing to incorporate them into society, or assist with their transition from slavery to independent life, and those of African descent remain at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.
Carnival dress here is a far cry from the Las Vegas glitz of Rio. Forget G-strings and feathers; Salvador’s festive clothing has a slave vibe. Women dress in white, full skirted dresses with elaborate petticoats and padding to puff out over their hips. Their hair is tied up in turbans, so the effect is rather Mama, from “Gone with the Wind”. Men wear curious, Indian inspired turbans with the third eye depicted on them. We saw numerous wayside stalls stitching men into these headdresses. Apparently, in the early days of carnival, the authorities were reluctant to encourage undue African influence, so men of colour were forced to wear a quasi-Indian costume, which was apparently acceptable. Go figure! Also, and startling to our New Zealand cultural sensibilities, Gollywogs are for sale everywhere. No problem here depicting black people in a humorous manner.
Later we visited the Church of our Lord of Bonfim, (or “good endings”). Catholicism, as the state religion, was de rigeur. Slaves and indigenous tribes were forced to convert or else suffer appalling brutality. Obviously most did convert – or at least made an outward show of conversion, while maintaining their native beliefs. This has resulted in a curious mix of the shaman and Christian faiths which seems to work here. As a result, women of African animist faith wash the steps of the church of Bonfim each year, with water blessed in African tribal temples. It’s an important ceremony ensuring the exotic mix of beliefs and religious has a recognised place in local culture.