Written by Lauren Tucci, (Student Correspondent) Georgetown University CET Brazil, Fall 2015
If I had to sum up our recent week-long traveling seminar to Salvador, Bahía in a single word, it would be “colorful”. The word not only describes the pastel colonial-style houses that line old-town Pelourinho, the multi-hued tropical fish spotted while snorkeling, and the bright orange and pink acarajé street food, but it also hints at the region’s difficult past: the striking racial diversity attributed to centuries of slavery and Portuguese rule, and the vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture since preserved in religion, music, dress, and food. In contrast to the bustling urban sprawl that is São Paulo, Salvador is a different world; one in which time moves more slowly and modern life pays tribute to ancient traditions.
Our travelling seminar began with an evening trip to the Museum of Modern Art for a jazz concert. This was also our first chance to taste traditional Bahian food at one of the many food stands outside the concert. One pastry, called bolinho de estudante (Student Cake, named for its low price), was my favorite. The cakes look like large brown twinkies and are made out of tapioca flour and coconut, fried, and rolled in cinnamon sugar. They’re deliciously chewy, and I made it a point to buy one at every street stall I spotted. The next morning we headed out for a day trip to Praia do Forte, a touristy beach town north of the city home to the Salvador branch of Projecto TAMAR, an organization dedicated to preserving sea turtle species along the Brazilian coast.
We spent the day there learning about sea turtle conservation efforts, sightseeing, and hanging out at the beach. The following day, Monday, we began our seminar activities with a guided tour of the city detailing the city’s rich history. My favorite part of the tour was the monastery of São Francisco in Salvador’s Pelourinho neighborhood. In addition to housing an elaborate church and crypt built between 1708 and 1723 by slaves for use by the city’s European elite, the monastery had a main courtyard lined with a number of very interesting traditional Portuguese azulejo tile mosaics, each one depicting a different Catholic tenet expertly decoded by our guide, João. The tour ended in Pelourinho’s central square, where Michael Jackson filmed his famous music video “They Don’t Care About Us”. Here we stopped for a bit to down some coconut, lime juice and admire the view from the hill overlooking the rest of the city.
What sets Bahia apart from other places in Brazil, especially São Paulo, is its strong Afro-Brazilian culture. When the Portuguese first colonized Brazil, Salvador de Bahia was set as the capital of the new territory. It was the largest seaport and main drop-off point for African slaves brought over by the Portuguese to farm the sugar cane plantations that dotted the northeastern coast. This heritage is still evident in everyday Bahian life. Capoeira, a martial art form, was invented by slaves in the region for self-defense. We visited a capoeira school during our trip to learn a bit more about its history and practice, and also got to learn a few moves ourselves. Capoeira is set to a twangy music played live on traditional Brazilian instruments, and combines elements from dance, acrobatics, and martial arts into its fold. True capoeiristas, like the ones we met at the Mestre Cobra Mansa school, make it look much easier than it is!
We were also fortunate enough to watch some capoeira two more times before leaving, first at a NGO, and later on the last night at the traditional Ballet Folclórico we visited. The NGO, Arte Consciente, we visited as a part of our Poverty and Inequality seminar is located within one of Salvador’s favelas. The organization was started about 20 years ago by some members of the community looking for ways to reduce violent crime in the region. Their solution was to limit the number of local children involved in gang activity by setting up a series of wrestling, capoeira, aerial arts, and dance programs to keep local kids occupied after-school. The organization has been successful in its goal of keeping kids off the streets, and was incredibly impressive to visit. It was also encouraging to see a homegrown organization spur such positive change in its own community.
Another aspect of Bahian life that we spent considerable time learning about was the religious syncretism that developed in the area from the mixing of Portuguese, African, and indigenous cultures. We spent one evening attending a mass hosted in a Catholic church in historic Pelourinho. Despite its obvious Catholic structure, the mass was different from traditional Catholic mass in a number of ways, primarily in its degree of audience participation, loud drum music and chants, and references to certain saints that were adapted by slaves within the colonial era to represent traditional African deities. We also toured Terreiro Ilê Axé Opó Afonjá, an afro-Brazilian ashram of sorts with various temples dedicated to the many gods in candomblé, a religion derived from various African traditions. One of the priests was kind enough to show us around and explain the significance of each god. Funnily enough, many of the gods have an exact Greek or Roman counterpart that can be used to describe them. Candomblé is often demonized in mainstream Brazilian culture for its “pagan” traditions and for being a religion of the poor and uneducated. In direct contradiction to this, however, was the noticeably high emphasis on education within the community. Our guide had two graduate degrees, as do many other priests and priestesses in the compound. The community also contained a large public elementary school with a special focus on afro-Brazilian history.
Fabio, our wonderful guide around the compound, generously invited us to his house the next day to make traditional Bahian food for lunch. We made vatapá, shrimp paste, caruru, okra stew, chicken cooked in dendé (palm) oil, and a number of other traditional dishes. Add this to the traditional moqueca (seafood stew), acarajé (fried bean cakes filled with vatapá, shrimp, vegetables, and spice), and queijo coalho (skewers of cubed white cheese grilled over charcoal by street vendors and then covered in oregano, pepper, and molasses – it’s surprisingly delicious) that we got to try around the area, and I think the group got a great feel for the region´s food. That said, I probably won’t be making any of them at home in the future.
Aside from all of the educational activities, the trip had plenty of time for fun excursions and free time. I spent a whole afternoon snorkeling (and incidentally, sunburning) and got to see some wonderfully colored tropical fish and reefs before almost impaling myself on a sea urchin when the waves pushed me into shallow water. We spent a day on a boat cruise around the bay visiting different islands and eating some pretty fantastic tropical food (passionfruit capirinha, anyone??). The dance presentation on the last night, with all its historic and colonial significance, contrasted well with the first night’s Westernized jazz concert. Having these two events bookend our trip really summarized modern Bahia in a powerful way. The dance was likely the most athletically impressive show I’ve ever seen. The dancers were top notch and did an excellent job bringing to life the various candomblé gods in their performances.
All in all, the trip was incredibly fun, interesting, and educational. Without experiencing Bahia and studying its history, my time in Brazil would feel incomplete, and my understanding of the country stunted. What a treat!