Have you, dear traveller, ever noticed how different places scattered across the face of the globe seem almost to exist in different universes? As if they were permeated throughout with something akin to 19th century luminiferous aether, unique, determined by that place's history? It's a trick of the mind's light (I suppose), but looking out across the Baía de Todos os Santos to the great Recôncavo, and mindful of the fact that more slaves entered this bay than did slaves enter any port anywhere else in the world...if nothing else one is easily brought to the conclusion that one is in fact in a place quite unlike any other.
Modern Salvador is many things, these depending to some degree upon who is doing the conceiving and considering. It's the third largest city in the world's sixth economy, with innumerous modern apartment buildings looking like gleaming upended harmonicas, these filled with occupants of the professional classes who shop in New York and take their kids to Disney World. Ships fill the bay, carrying away industrial plugs for blast furnaces, resins, chemicals...the stuff of large-scale manufacturing by multinational corporations.
Yet of Salvador's 2,500,000 inhabitants, the vast majority are descendents of those who worked for the owners of the "big houses" on the plantations on the other side of the bay, and the big houses located in old Salvador, in what is now a neighborhood rather than the entire city, the area called Pelourinho (for the pillory which stood in various of its principal squares).
It's possible to live an almost European existence in Salvador if one moves within carefully circumscribed limits. From tower to imported car, along expressways to modern office buildings and clinics...but even a glance from the balconies of those well-stocked towers belies first-world fantasies; red-clay barracos -- simple houses, a step up (maybe) from shacks, crawl up hillsides and dip into valleys. The destination signs fronting Salvador city buses are emblazoned with destinations like Mussurunga, Massaranduba, Periperi, Alto do Cabrito...by way of areas called Ogunjá and Bonocó. Private schools for the more fortunate economic classes offer capoeira, alongside football (soccer), volleyball and such. Baianas de acarajé (women dressed in flowing white, sitting before their tables selling the foodstuff called-- more properly in Yorubá -- akara, the addition of "jé" rendering "to eat akara"), may be found evenings selling to lawyers and businessmen on their way home, cans of beer washing down the African comestibles.
Salvador and the Recôncavo from on high
There are thousands of houses of candomblé in Salvador, these vastly outnumbering the numerous Catholic churches and even the evangelical churches which have sprung up in the suburbs like toadstools, these latter attracting customers...worshippers that is...drawn to the harangues telling them that God desires their economic success too...
And the radio. There is Globo, owned by the family of now-departed Roberto Marinho, who parleyed his insider's connections with Brazil's dictatorship into the country's largest media empire -- playing its depressing mix of mostly American hits of the '70s and '80s. But across the dial, on both AM and FM, the clave and rhythms are most definitely of African derivation (although for the most part cheapened and debased). Publicly-owned Rádio Educadora however continues to demonstrate that not all is (to repeat) cheapened and debased in government here, with the occasional program of top-flight Brazilian music, including choro on Sunday mornings.
And of course there are the people themselves, their melanin content ranging from darkest African through dusky indigenous Indian to lightest European, the preponderance weighted toward the darker end of the spectrum. Although there are exceptions, the prevailing wisdom is, as expressed by sambista Ederaldo Gentil, "Todo branco tem negro na família" (Every white person has a black person in the family). In contrast to the United States, where "one drop" defines who is considered "black", the distinction between persons of European-heritage ethnicity and those of African-heritage ethnicity is conceived differently here. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike in the United States, where the children of slave-owners and slave-women were themselves consigned to slavery, in Bahia this was often not the case, creating a class of mixed-race people ("black" in the United States) who were here called "moreno" and who had property, rights, and freedom. And with churning intermarriage and a mathematician's nightmare of racial combinations in people's backgrounds, particularly amongst the "common" people, and the consequent commonality of cultural background, the feeling of I'm the black or white dude and he or she is white or black is rare here except amongst the top-most, old landed economic class, or would-be snobs who ascribe to that benighted class's pretensions and prejudices (and there are more than a few of the latter around). Salvador is not home to a racism-free society as is often touted...but day-to-day personal relations between most people are thankfully free of the back-of-the-mind fencing so common between people of different continental heritage in the United States.
Salvador, Brazil's First Colonial Capital...
Salvador (the city was generally referred to as "Bahia" until well into the twentieth century*) sits on a spit of land sticking south south-west into the Atlantic Ocean. And although it sits well within the tropics at a southern latitude of thirteen degrees, it receives a refreshing sea-breeze which seldom falters until the wee hours of the morning when things have generally cooled off anyway. The city sits on a huge bay, a Baía de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints), and the topography is predominently hill and valley.
* See an interesting article from the New York Times dated July 14, 1874, in which "our own correspondent" (the Times', that is) refers to the "town" as "Bahia"...
It's for this reason that people speak of a cidade alta (upper city) and cidade baixa (lower city). Both are connected on the bay side by the famous Elevador Lacerda, a "marvel" hailed mightily in most guide books. Forget the marvel (you'll see what I mean when you're on it), but the elevator does beat walking up down the steeply inclining streets which serve the same function of connection. There is a fifteen centavo charge for the ride. That's less than nine cents as I write, so who's complaining. There's also the nearby Plano Inclinado, same price.
(There's more to be moved to this page...!)