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Celebrating Salvador

A friend of mine used to say he´d only ever go on holiday to countries with at least 1000 years of history and a rich spiritual life. For him, Brazil was simply too recent and too, well, shallow – a country where the principal religion is the cult of the body, God is Pele, and where holy trinity refers to sea, sand and samba.

Basket of flowers for Iemanj

A few days in Brazil´s third largest city, Salvador da Bahia, in the northeast of this country of continental proportions, proves my friend spectacularly wrong. More than 300 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have bestowed on Salvador a unique blend of Afro-Brazilian culture. Brazil was the last country in the world formally to abolish slavery in 1888 and something in the region of 4 million African slaves passed through the port of Salvador en route to the colonial sugar plantations.

Today the city exudes the spirituality of its African ancestors. Candomblé, the practice in which African deities known as orixás are venerated, claims hundreds of thousands of devotees in Salvador and is the focus of a number of exuberant popular festivals. Every 2nd February is the day dedicated to Iemanjá, goddess of the ocean. And a remarkable character she is too.

A Brazilian orixá originally worshipped by the Egbó tribe in Nigeria, she has a Yoruban name (meaning “Mother whose children are fishes”), but is twinned with the Virgin Mary. Oh, and she´s usually depicted as a mermaid. This complicated identity reflects the lengths slaves had to go in order to preserve their African heritage.

Candomble Priestess

Banned by their Portuguese masters from practicing their own animist rituals, the African slaves hit upon the ruse of twinning their orixás with Christian saints in order to carry on their religious practices surreptitiously while paying lip service to the Christian faith they were obliged to follow. The result is a fascinating synthesis that sees many locals attending both services in the Catholic Church and at their local terreiro de candomblé, as the houses of worship are called.

Add to this the fact that enslaved Africans arriving in Salvador originated from different ethnic groups, from Banto to Yoruba, and different regions, from Angola to Nigeria, all with their own distinct beliefs and practices reaching back many hundreds of years, and you have a vast melting pot that has yielded a uniquely Brazilian cultural expression.

And it makes for a sumptuous feast for the senses.

Capoeira Players

Some 150,000 devotees, many bedecked in Iemanjá´s colours of blue and white, gather at the little cove of Rio Vermelho in Salvador to offer presents, give thanks and make wishes to this beautiful but vain orixá. Flowers, perfume, mirrors, make-up, bracelets – I even spotted a Barbie doll – are placed in baskets closely guarded by local fishermen. The baskets are then taken on board little fishing boats out to sea and dropped into the deep. Anything that washes up with the tide the next day is thought to have been rejected by Iemanjá.

The festival is accompanied by the bangs of rudimentary fireworks, dancing, a constant drumbeat, and the chants of the candomblé priestesses bedecked in voluminous white lace petticoats, turbans and long bead necklaces. Candles stuck into the sand dot the beach and the perfume of flowers is overpowering.

Dancing for Iemanj

But you don´t have to catch a festival like Iemanjá´s in order to see candomblé for yourself. In a city with more terreiros de candomblé than churches, there are ceremonies most nights of the week that are open to the public. In fact, in the local paper you´ll find them listed right after restaurants.

What´s more, Salvador´s Afro-Brazilian culture isn´t limited to religion. Regional cuisine offers exotic flavours like that of Acarajé, bean balls fried in dendê palm oil, served with dried shrimp and vatapá, a purée of cashew and peanuts, or Moqueca, a stew seasoned with garlic, onion, tomato, coconut milk, fresh coriander and dendê.

There´s also capoeira, a cross between a dance and a non-contact martial art usually performed in the street that requires enormous strength, agility and balance. Accompanied by a twanging stringed instrument called the berimbau, it´s an extraordinary spectacle that had me mezmerized.


On top of all this is one of the jewels of colonial architecture of the Americas, a warren of cobbled streets and squares, called Pelourinho, granted UNESCO status in 1967. Recent restoration has left the area a little twee for my liking, and very touristy, but its richly ornamented baroque churches are not to be missed. Here too Africa has left its mark – the name Pelourinho derives from the Portuguese word for a whipping post to which slaves were bound for punishment.

And then of course there´s the most famous Brazilian cultural expression of them all – Carnival, now only a matter of days away. Rio´s party tends to hog the limelight, but carnival in Salvador is widely considered the most authentic and least commercial in Brazil.

All of which goes to show there´s much more to Brazil than bodies and beaches, Rio and Ronaldo. Oh, and by the way, as for my friend´s rule – consigned to the dustbin. He´s now planning his third trip in two years to Brazil.

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