6 Week Update

Salvador da Bahia Travel Blog

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I have been in Salvador, Bahia • Brazil for a little over a month now. It has taken a while to overcome the shock I felt when I first arrived. Salvador is a very large city on the coast of the northeast state of Bahia. It is the third largest city in Brazil, with a population of near 3 million. Bahia is home to Samba, Capoeira, and Candomblé due to its definite African influence. Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, a major port used for the import of slaves and export of sugar along with the many riches this tropical country has to offer. Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888, and today there is a very strong African presence in this Bahian city. I have been quite lucky to participate in some of the many cultural activities this city has to offer.

            Last weekend, I went with a group of Brazilian friends to the small town of Cachoeira, one of the first free slave cities. Refuge slaves fled inland to this town and were welcomed by a sisterhood of nuns famous for giving slaves proper burials. It is the birth home of Samba and CondomblĂ©, an African based religion synchronized with Catholicism. We went for a cultural festival called Caruru e Sete PoĂ©tas, it is based on the typical food, cararu, ate by seven children, followed by art and a banquet. The festival included poetry, music, and the folkloric dance of Orixás (CandomblĂ© deities). Children dressed as Orixás danced the traditional dance of CandomblĂ©, quick foot movements, as they all moved in the form of a circle. This dance is what led to the birth of Samba.  At the end of the poetry readings and banquet, we attended an actual CandomblĂ© ceremony.

            CandomblĂ© deities have individual personalities, skills, and ritual preferences, and are connected to specific natural phenomena. Each Orixá can also be connected to a Catholic Saint, a technique used to help cover up the fact that they were practicing a religion outside of the law. Every person is chosen at birth by one or more "patron" spirits, or Orixás, identified by a priest. These Orixás are evoked during the public ceremony, and the people fall into a trance-like state. After having fallen into trance, the Orixás perform dances symbolic of their attributes. The ceremony begins at night and could last up to six o’clock in the morning, depending on the amount of Orixás present. The ceremony was unlike anything I have ever seen, though after attending it, many of the day-to-day things I have seen around Salvador and Bahia began to make more sense. This religion and the people who follow it have had a strong impact on the Bahian culture.

            I even had a chance to spend a week in the Amazon rainforest with a Native guide. It was, by far, one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The jungle is a captivating place; I was in constant awe by the vastness of its beauty. I saw many animals I never expected to see in the jungle, such as fresh water dolphins, both pink and grey.  It was amazing to see a Boto, a pink dolphin, which looked almost prehistoric. I had a very knowledgeable guide that taught us the surviving tactics of the jungle. We hiked and canoed during the days, caught our own food, and slept in hammocks under the canopy of the many lush trees of the rainforest. It was an incredible trip that I feel so fortunate to have experienced. 

            I have been keeping busy in Salvador with Afro-Brazilian dance classes, cooking lessons, and volunteer work. I am working with the Social Volunteers of Bahia in CAB, Center of Administration of Bahia. I am teaching English to adults and adolescents that are in the program UNEGRO, designed for decedents of Africa who have not had the opportunity of proper education. One of the groups I work with, the adults, are learning a trade to properly enter in the working world. Their level of English is very basic, since most of them have not had the proper education even in Portuguese, but they are a wonderful group to work with. They are very motivated and enthusiastic and they have been the highlight of my experience here.

            My Portuguese has been advancing quickly and I am now having private lessons in an advanced level. I have begun reading a novel in Portuguese that my host mom has lent me. I live with a wonderfully hospitable family directly across the street from the language school I attend. Nádia, the mother, is a joy to be around. She is so positive and open and loves to chat with me about everything from spirituality to literature. She has a twelve year old daughter, Amanda, who is a sweet girl that I have been giving English lessons to as well. The father works in the interior of Brazil and only comes home on the weekends, and her other two daughters are studying at university in Rio de Janeiro. They have been more than helpful in my adjustment to Brazilian culture. Unfortunately, I was unable to get in touch with Rotary for over a month since my counselor was in New York. With help from Natalia at Evanston Rotary International, I was finally able to get in touch with the local club and have been attending their meetings for dinner on Wednesday nights. My counselor has invited me to dinner with his family next week.

            Bahia is a very hot and humid place, and the people are warm and hospitable. They are in no hurry for anything and live a passive life, taking pleasure in simple things. There is a strong presence of poverty, yet the people seem genuinely content. Ninety percent of the population makes less than minimum wage, a distressing $300 Reis a month, which equals to about $150 US dollars. A large portion of the population is excluded from this statistic because they make their money by digging through rubbish to find recyclables, begging for money, or selling trinkets on the beach, the street, and in the busses. Many of the street children and people living in favelas are not included in any of these statistics because a lot of them have no identification. It does break my heart to see so many children on the street begging for money with the depressing knowledge that many of them are already addicted to drugs by the age of nine. Just the other day I saw children sniffing glue in the middle of a park in broad daylight. I know that I cannot give them money for that reason, and do buy them food

when they take it (some refuse food), and have to convince myself that volunteering my time is actually worth something.

Salvador, like most of Brazil, consists of very defined and unequal social

classes. It is so defined that there are neighborhoods and even shopping centers for Social Class A, Class B and Class C. Most of the time one is easily defined by their skin color, the darker being on the lower end of the social pyramid and the small percentage of light skinned people on top. They have over a hundred words for different skin color in Portuguese.  Unfortunately, there still exists a level of racism, even though the city is over 80% Negro. Many of the buildings have two elevators, one for the people who live there, and another for the maids, which are all dark skinned. The city is an odd mixture of poor and not-so poor. The sidewalks vary from hand placed stones that look like mosaics, and dirt. All along the beach, people sell coconut water right out of the coconut, acarejĂ© (a traditional Bahian food), sticks of cheese heated from a tin of coals they carry around, shrimp, fish, and anything that will get them even the smallest amount of money from tourists.  All along the streets are fresh fruit vendors. Right between two high buildings with ocean view are small favelas with houses made of mud, no solid doors or windows and dirt roads. Most favelas consist of many small apartments the size of a bedroom stacked upon eachother with a dangerous amount of electical cord strung from everywhere to fuel the whole community. Men dressed in classy business suits walk between shoeless children. It certainly is a city of contrasts.

However, the general feeling is good and people seem to take joy in the simple fact that they are alive, the sun is shinning, and the beautiful tropical scenery. There is always music playing and people are always smiling. Despite the many depressing sights I see on a day-to-day basis, I see a genuine happiness. They are filled with a beautiful energy. They play music on top of trash cans, use anything as percussion, sing, and dance everywhere. After all, Samba is the dance of the favelas, and it is the poor that inspired Carnaval.  Brazilians seem to make the best of every situation. Just the other day I was on a boat coming from the islands and it was raining with cold water splashing from the ocean. I could easily have felt miserable, shivering on that boat, until a group of Bahians began to play percussion and dance. Their spirit warmed everyone on that boat from the inside out.  I’ve never seen so many smiling faces as I do here in Brazil. The beach is always crowded with people playing football at the edge of the water, playing music and just enjoying life. Although it is still dangerous here, I feel a lot of positive energy everywhere, especially by their positive attitude, acceptance and hospitality. I am thoroughly enjoying my experience.


worldcitizen says:
Great entry! It sounds like you're having a wonderful time!
Posted on: Oct 02, 2007
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