Sunday, September 28, 2008

Top Five Things To Do In Salvador, Bahia

Salvador, Bahia grabs the heart of any visitor and never releases it. Even when I was in Rio, American tourists urged me to visit Salvador if I wanted to see the real Brazil. It's true, Salvador boasts charm and visual treats that you can't find in any other place in the world. I think it's all that history crammed into one place. Salvador was Brazil's first capitol and it boasts so many historical monuments, places and people that you can literally visit one every five minutes. Great destinations always seem to attract a fair share of tourist traps, however. I thought the famed Mercado Modelo was filled with vendors hustling a load of mostly overpriced junk. The picturesque Pelourinho Square brims with addicts and pick pockets. So my favorite Salvador memories focus on slightly less touristy activities:

1. Eating Mocqueca at Iemanja Restaurant.

Acraraje might be Salavador's quintessential snack food but Mocqueca is the ultimate of Bahian cuisine. A smooth, creamy stew of fish, coconut milk, tomatoes and spices, I slurped this dish down almost every day. The sea goddess Iemanja is Salvador's favorite orixa and Iemanja Restaurant pays elegant homage with an interior filled with turquoise blue walls and sea shells. The waitresses wear long white gowns with blue accents and serene smiles. It was a soothing and magical experience.

2. Viewing the Eight Orixa Sculptures on Lake Torroro.

Rising out of the middle of a small lake, eight life-sized, fiber glass statues demonstrate Salvador's spiritual heritage. The Candomble religion plays an important part in everyday Brazilian life and this stunning park sculpture shows just one of the ways. The main Candomble deities or orixas are portrayed with their symbolic effects, like Xango with his ax and Oxun with her mirror. They loom in brilliant color, almost blending in with the splashing waves, trees and fishing boats.

3. Strolling through Salvador Museums.

I'm an art freak. I can't fully enjoy a trip unless I visit at least one gallery or museum. Salvador actually has scads of them clustered in Pelourino and beyond. I loved the City Museum, which displays contemporary Brazilian art and Case de Benin, which showcases artifacts from Benin, West Africa. The culture of Benin has influenced a lot of Bahian culture through art and spiritual customs.

4. Visiting the Prentice Art Gallery.

Nestled in a dilapidated old house, this gallery highlights the ceramic work of the Bahian artist Prentice. The walls are lined with hand painted tiles that depict Baianas, bloco drummers other aspects of Salvador life. I thought Prentice's art reflected a lot of Bahian charm, with whimsical brush strokes and sunny colors.

5. Viewing the Zumbi des Palmares Statue.

Zumbi was a famous freedom fighter who represents Black resistance to many Brazilians. An imposing bronze monument was erected to honor his historical significance in Pelourinho Square in May 2008. He led rebellions at the end of the 17th century and 300 years after his death, Brazilians pay tribute with a national day of remembrance on November 20.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


As I writer, I 've developed an ear for language. I love to soak in speech cadences and the rhythms of different dialects. Although I've heard lots of Portuguese crooned from my tons of Brazilian, Cape Verdean and a few Portuguese Cd's, I wasn't ready for what I heard in Brazil. I felt like I was pushed into this world that lured me in with familiar Latin words and then shut me down with crazy interpretations. I pride myself on grasping enough of a culture so that I can blend in fairly quickly. Brazilians embraced me first as a Rio Carioca and then as a Salvador Baiana but I felt like a fake as soon as I opened my mouth. My brain couldn't process the sounds of the words and my mouth couldn't spit them out. Nothing made sense to me and I felt mentally crippled more than a few times. It might be a cliche but one thing about Brazilians is that they are genuinely warm and free-spirited. Even though my speech sounded like a clunky blend of grammar school Spanish topped with bad Eastern European inflections, I never felt patronized or ridiculed. The locals communicated though smiles, through gestures and through gifts.

And so, the one word that I mastered in Portuguese was obrigada, which means thank you. It was the one word that I found myself having to use the most often because Brazilians are generous, open-hearted people. I kept having to say obrigada for another decadent dish a waiter would bring without my asking. Obrigada to Aparacida, the Yansa priestess who pressed her precious candomble beads into my hands as a gift after she invited me to a private St. Joan candomble ceremony. After repeating it so many times, I even got fancy with it, tossing out brigada like the locals. Brazil itself offers much to say brigada for, like the graffiti that tells more stories than any guide, the surreal Salvador coastline or the lush splash of parrot flowers (what we call poinsettias only more fabulous) that line the south coast. Brazil showed me that there are many ways to communicate and many ways to be thankful.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Tiny Piece of Carnaval

I journeyed to Rio during the Brazilian winter. This means that I didn't witness any actual nude sunbathing or glimpse the notorious Copacabana dental-flossed behinds. It also means that I didn't get to see Carnaval. Instead, I saw the half-mile expanse of the Sambadrome, empty of all the Carnaval crowds and clutter. Without the samba schools dancing and the floats rolling by, the space still seemed to vibrate with the energy left behind. There's nothing really spectacular about the Sambadrome itself, it's just a road flanked by spectator stands. But when I walked a few feet down the road, it was easy to imagine the seats filled with 65,000 screaming cariocas. You can see Rio's sweeping mountains dotted with favelas straight ahead. Off to the side, there's a small store bursting with the sequins and feathers of Carnaval costumes. You can buy or rent the costumes and I tried on a sparkly pink and orange confection. Marching down the Sambadrome with my feathers ruffled by the wind, I felt like I had experienced a tiny piece of Carnaval.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Washing The Steps With Miracles

Filled with cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and historic landmarks on about every block, Salvador reflects the true heart of Brazilian culture. When I stepped upon the sunny streets of Salvador for the first time, the difference between urbane Southern cities like Rio was palpable. The air is filled with the fragrance of guavas, mangoes and acaraje sold on the streets. Baianas navigate the winding avenues and squares with a more languorous pace. The cobalt blue water of the Bay of All Saints wraps around the city and blows a feeling of tranquility over everything.
Salvador is sometimes called the Black Rome and it's easy to figure out why. The city boasts 72 Catholic churches, there appears to be one on every block. But candomble, the practice of Catholicism mixed with African deities and rituals is the true focus. Figures of Imemanja, the popular goddess of the sea, pop up on restaurants and in a house dedicated to her along the Bay. T-shirts and figures in the markets display all the other orixas or deities with the regularity of U.S. Pepsi or Coke ads.

St. Bonfim Church, perched on a hill in the lower part of Salvador, seems to represent the essence of Brazilian faith. Built in 1745, it's the most important church in Brazil in terms of religious devotion. On the second January of every year, Lavagem do Bonfim is broadcast over the country. The dramatic ritual features candomble priestesses of Oxala, the deity associated with St. Bonfim, who dress all in white and wash the steps of the church. Inside the church, the sala dos milagres or miracle room, is equally famous. A surreal display of wax and wooden arms, legs, feet, hearts and hands hang from the ceiling. The walls are plastered with photos and testimonies of people who have been cured. The figurines represent all of the people who have had corresponding body parts healed after praying to St. Bonfim. Faithful pilgrims trek from all over Brazil to St. Bonfim in hopes of being granted a miracle. Judging from the thousands of testimonies, many miracles happen in Brazil.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Blog Love

Farsighted Fly Girl got tagged for being a favorite blog of the wise and wonderful Saleemah at Mahogany Chic, which features a great mix of beauty, fashion and politics. I feel extremely grateful for the recognition since this blog has only been around for a very short time. I'm a blogging newbie but I still know a great blog when I see one! Here are some for my favorites:

Almost Fearless, which follows the enthralling account of Christine, who ditched her job to travel the world.

Bohemian Bahamian, which focuses on the experiences of a sociology grad student of Bahamian heritage.

Cool Travel Guide, a beyond cool account of exotic adventures from an Aussie travel writer based in Dubai.

Lalla Lydia offers the intriguing perspective of an American living in Morocco.

Out and About in Africa, serves up a hodgepodge of tidbits about Sudan, Kenya, African fashion designers and African history from an American international development worker.

She's So Flyy, a really popular blog that explores musing on pop culture, fashion and being fly.

Two Jet Set Divas provides all the travel tips you need from a diva's viewpoint.

Here are the rules:
1. The nominated is allowed to put this picture on their blogs.
2. Link to the person that hearted you.
3. Nominate at least 7 people and link to them.
4. Leave a message on those people's blogs to make them aware that they've been nominated.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Aromatic String

As I bustled past street vendors selling coconut candy bars and the sleek, shiny-haired, hotties that fill Rio streets, I realized that I missed something. I couldn't put my finger on what exactly. When I neared the the orgy of beauty called Copacabana Beach, observing the languid motions of skimpily-clad cariocas strolling in the sand, it hit me. There was supposed to be a samba soundtrack to all of these scenes! How can you have a true Brazilian experience without samba as the backdrop? I needed to hear some live Brazilian rhythms!

It happened to be a Sunday when I made my proclamation and my guide Da'vid didn't look too confident about it. It seems that most musicians take Sundays off in Rio. There I was, in the party capitol of the universe and it stops on Sunday? It didn't make much sense to me so we headed to the famous bohemian district of Lapa. Overflowing with street hustlers and artists of all stripes, Lapa does not close down. Built in the 18th century and marked by two towering arches, Lapa is part of old Rio. Punctuated by crumbling, deserted mansions and dimly lit, dodgy looking streets, Lapa feels like something out of the Brazilian drug war movie, "City Of God," which it probably is. It is the only place that I visited in Brazil that prompted me to remember the high crime rate.

I got over it, though. Lapa looks iffy but I never witnessed anything other than beaming friendliness while I was there. We found a tiny, closet-sized bar called Acaso Bar, which literally translates to random bar. Bursting with laughing, dancing people, all the patrons sing and play instruments along with the musicians. Red, gold and orange walls frame scuffed cherry wood tables filled with Skol beer bottles. Dav`id and I order bacalau or salt fish balls and the zesty, local Skol beer, while we absorb the festivities.

Three or four men gather in a circle and play samba classics with guitars and percussion. I can't tell exactly who was in the band and who's not because every single person in the bar shakes a tambourine, bangs on a pot or jingles bells. The crowd belts along with tunes that were created to encourage hip and derriere shimmying. Four women dance enthusiastically. Because they are Brazilian, they are gorgeous; with long, lustrous hair and sinewy bodies. I can't tell if they are in the band either.

After two sweaty sets, a band member comes over and introduces the group. It's called Coisas Nossas or literally translated, aromatic string. He hands me a wisp of sweetly perfumed string with a tiny safety pin to remember them. In street carnivals, the line of people dancing samba is called a string. Curly-haired and charming, he is the grandson of one of Brazil's most significant Samba composers, Cartola. As we are surrounded by everyday Brazilians singing and dancing, I'm sure it's just the way Cartola would have wanted samba to be experienced.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tasty Cultural Connections

Brazilian culture overflows with rich African cultural connections and in Bahia, you can taste as well as see it. I explored classic Brazilian dishes spiced with African influences in a post for Galavanting Magazine's travel blog here but I didn't explain the depth of the Nigerian influence on acaraje. Eating acaraje is practically a legal requirement when you visit Salvador. In London, you must nibble fish and chips, dripping with grease and wrapped in paper. In Jamaica, you must savor ackee and saltfish cooled with sea breezes. And in Salvador, you must buy acaraje from a Baiana de acaraje, on the cobble-stoned streets with samba rhythms blasting through the air.

Acaraje is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in palm oil. Typically, it's cut in half and topped with caruru, an okra stew, vatapa a mixture blended with dried shrimp, cashews, peanuts and coconut milk and a salad made of chopped tomatoes and onions. Peppery and laden with fat, it is the quintessential Brazilian fast food. In Nigeria, it is also a popular snack and breakfast staple called akara. The je on the Brazilian term simply means to eat so the dish is a direct transport from West African culture, where it is prepared similarly. Baiana de acaraje's, serving up these delicacies wearing white laced dresses and buoyant head wraps called torsos, underscore the Nigerian element even more. If you've ever seen a Yoruba woman parading in her finery, you've seen the essence of Baianas de acraje's legendary grace. A considerable portion of Brazil's population trace their heritage to Nigeria and other Western African countries. Acaraje highlights those roots with tasty flavor. A special shout out to Floyd for reminding me about these points!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fly Obama Mamas

Blending fierce African flavor with sophisticated French flair, Les Nubians personify global style. Crooning their signature mix of soaring harmonies, jazz melodies and African beats, the sister duo appeared at Chicago's African Festival of the Arts over Labor Day weekend. I covered the sizzling show and was struck by just how well they reflect the connections between Africa and the Western world. Slinking out in curve-skimming halter dresses inlaid with African print fabric at the top and embellished with beads and cowrie shells, Celia rocked a curly 'fro and Helene an afro puff. They sang in French and shimmied their hips in traditional African dance. They rapped in English and announced the African concept for audience participation: "You can't shake it with your brain. You shake it with your yaunch. That means your ass. The original Africanology is very simple. If you don't dance, we don't dance!" Les Nubians connected it all together when they explained their hit "Demain" from their debut album. "Demain means tomorrow in French," said Helene. "There are so many things we are foreseeing for tomorrow, like, the new president of the United Sates! The whole world is watching you! They used to mark time with before Christ, after Christ. Now it will be before Obama, after Obama! " Giving a nod to the ultimate symbol joining Africa and the West, Les Nubians repped Obama in true fly girl style.