13th Nov 2009 - 9th Dec 2009
Trancoso to Salvador, Brazil
Stepping off the bus in Bahia into an instant sauna felt like arriving in a completely different country and we half expected to pass through border control again. Whereas Rio state feels like the sultry soul of Brazil, Bahia reverberates like her pounding heart, beating in time with frenzied tamborims and drums. A fitting soundtrack to the unrelenting sunshine which was all too sporadic in Rio state.Depending on how you measure richness, the region is poorer in some senses, with less designer-clad Brazilians and more humble mud shack communities, but it feels richer in others, with African spices and music filling the airspace and colourful costumes. It feels mysterious and quirky, a huge sensory departure from the familiar South.
Our first stops were tiny clifftop villages perched over the bottle-green waters and low-swaying palms of the Dende and Discovery Coasts. Arriving in Trancoso, small children were beating acerola fruits down from the trees with old men in straw hats and threadbare shorts supervising from their doorways. The centre had a grassy ´quadrado´ or village square, with Sao Paulo boutiques and restaurants coloured brightly and contrasting against the blue sky. The beaches here were stunning, with stylish bars playing soulful music in front of white sands and swaying palm fronds. Arraial d´Ajuda and Itacare were similar, with endless stretches of beach in both directions and coconut vendors casually trawling them, always smiling the kind of smile that only a Bahian pace of life can breed. Every time we trekked to a new beach Dom would say it was his favourite so far, but understandably so - most were deserted and completely idyllic. In some of the smaller more remote areas like Barra Grande we were the only foreign faces to be seen, with just a couple of spartan rooms to rent from a local family who went about their business climbing palms to collect coconuts or fishing.
On one of Itacare´s beaches we were lucky enough to watch some authentic Capoeira practice. This martial art - the only one to come from the Americas - is like a bizarre fusion of ballet, ice dancing manouevres and kick boxing that somehow works, as opponents swing and lunge and high kick majestically, accompanied by berimbau, percussion and drums. We were lucky enough to catch some amazing photos of mid-flight combat on the beach with the Atlantic crashing to shore beyond, way more authentic than the displays that are often staged for tourists.
The island of Morro de Sao Paulo was one of our favourite stops. Once a base for swash-buckling pirates and contrabandists, the crumbling fort walls hinted to a chequered past of power struggles from European invaders, far away from magnificent beaches. And although Morro had these - some of the finest we had seen anywhere, no less - its history gave it more depth. It also had a series of rocky, palm-fringed bays to the north towards Gamboa village perfect for exploring (at low-tide to avoid a Harold Bishop style disaster!) and some amazing late afternoon sunset bars with live bossa nova, which is becoming more and more infectious every day.
Our final city and - we can barely believe it - the place where we end our mammoth 16 month adventure, Salvador da Bahia´s reputation certainly precedes itself. If you believed all you had read in the guidebooks you probably wouldn´t leave your dorm for fear of being assaulted. Once the centre of African slave trade and with a tangible Afro-Brazilian charm, is true that the city has a gritty realism to it. Kids will pat you on the shoulder and point to their mouths begging for food and you feel pensive walking through the old colonial centre where slaves were once flogged publically, but generally what we have found is a lively, fun-loving and vibrant city that proudly demonstrates its African heritage and we are sure will be an amazing base for Carnaval in February. We have enjoyed jazz jams in open-air theatres overlooking the bay, sunsets over the lighthouse of wealthy Barra and all-you-can-eat sashimi, which I never thought I would tire of until I felt my stomach lining stretching to the point of explosion! The local fare, acarajes, are kidney bean fritters filled with shrimps and the scents follow you throughout the city, along with the coconut milk, fish and banana stews. What Latin America wanted for in cuisine until Brazil is definitely present now and we actually look forward to eating for once!
In Salvador we also experienced one of our best nights on the trip... and anywhere in the world. Every Tuesday and Saturday the old centre or ´Pelourinho´ comes alive with live music being played on the steps of churches that, although crumbling and in need of restoration, still loom majestically with their faded glory. Dancers fill the streets, street vendors sell caipirinhas, acaraje and tapioca, drum corps throw giant steel drums into the air, catch them again and pound them into submission, moving slowly through the streets whose colourful houses clash against the vibrant costumes of the dancers. We drank our way through mango, passion fruit and lime caipirinhas and joined the procession to the end. An amazing evening!
Brazil is such a contended place. They don´t follow trends, they set them; they don´t try to emulate, they are already so rich in personality and diversity they don´t have to. As a result, they never watch other countries over their shoulders, they are too busy getting on with being part of the fascinating place they belong to. A worthwhile lesson for other countries to heed!