Hanging loose in the electric city

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The Independent Culture
It's A May evening in the old Portuguese quarter of Salvador; midwinter, and the temperature has sunk to the mid-eighties. I've only just arrived, but the place seems quite familiar. For it was on these cobbled streets, amid these graceful pastel-coloured churches, that Michael Jackson - supported by an army of local drummers - shot his notorious street-kid video. Notorious, because the Brazilian government didn't like its portrayal of an underclass; notable, because that portrayal was true.

The air is full of drumbeats, some contending in the distance, others invasively close. You drink a lot in this climate, and I'm slaking my thirst in a dark courtyard thronged with couples whose movements give Come Dancing an urgent new meaning; not so much a gyration of the hips, more a fluttering of the crutch, like hummingbirds on heat. Little girls weave among the tables, dispensing handfuls of peanuts from plastic buckets. I've no sooner finished one pile than another is dumped before me. I try to wave it away, but the vendor stands firm. Beware, says someone at my elbow: touch one of those peanuts, and the girl will call the police if you don't pay up. So I ignore them. A hand is extended for money: sorry, no deal. Then, with a suddenness that takes my breath away, the vendor kisses my neck. A kiss full of knowing sensuality - and she can't be more than 10 years old. Grow up on these mean streets, and you kiss goodbye to childhood.

But in Salvador thousands do this. Born in the favelas - shantytowns - which occupy every unclaimed bit of urban land, they are shunted out to earn their living as soon as they can walk. They don't carry guns as their colleagues do in Rio, but they form a similar outlaw army, some drugged and desperate, some high on the kicks they get from riding the roofs of buses. They'll stick an arm into your bag with brazen impertinence, but they exert a curious fascination for well-heeled visitors. I met a Canadian academic who devotes half of every year to the self-help craft industry she has set up in a favela. And I encountered two successful Italian designers who arrived as tourists three years ago, became enthused, and stayed. They're now social workers, supervising a business in which reformed street kids live off the profits from clothes they have designed, made, and sold.

What is it about Salvador? Beauty it has in abundance, thanks to its position overlooking a broad spit of land surrounded by palm-fringed beaches. But those who fall in love with it talk of the electricity, the sheer excitement in the air, and this has to do with history. Salvador da Bahia was Brazil's first capital, and the centre of the Portuguese slave trade; most of its inhabitants are of African descent. It's a city of poor black people, in contrast to the richer, whiter south, but it has transformed the burden of its history into a cultural weapon. Its main annual event is the carnival - Latin America's biggest - and the bands which have emerged from that are now national heroes. Groups called Timbalada and Olodum are the focus for the weekly mini-carnivals which take place every Tuesday in Salvador's Pelourinho district; Olodum's club-house is a mecca for wannabe drummers and visitors from all over the world (though white people need a local chaperon).

Two annual events which take place shortly before the carnival illustrate another strength of that African heritage. The first is the washing of Bonfim church - yes, literally - by members of the candomble religious cult. The second is the feast of the African sea goddess Yemanja, in which perfume, soap, flowers and dolls are ritually cast on the waves. The city stands on what maps call the Bay of the Saints, but those saints are less Christian than Yoruba. The official religion is Roman Catholicism, but despite the Church's attempts to stamp it out - most Salvadoreans cleave to their ancestral religion, with its trances, stylised dances, and wonderfully exotic rituals.

Candomble meetings are secret - apart from those designed to attract tourist cash - and you need both connections and luck to gatecrash them. I had the former, but not the latter: one meeting was rained off (tropical storms bring everything to a halt), one was called off (all meetings in Salvador are governed by whim), and one my candomble friends simply couldn't find (many houses have no formal address). Hang loose: there's nothing else you can do.

But I did make a daytime visit to the biggest terreiro - or candomble precinct - in town. This was a small town in itself, with each saint's domain painted a different primary colour, and the meeting house hung with white paper streamers, and dominated by a medley of antique European chairs. Most of the things I wanted to photograph turned out to be forbidden, including a clutch of skulls suspended by ribbons from a tree. And there was a school: the top class was preparing a concert to celebrate the mother superior's birthday, and singing, would you believe, not an African chant but a number from The Sound of Music. When I pointed my camera at them they gave me back, in a joyous communal gesture, the heavy-metal greeting. Thus does the cultural mix thicken.

You couldn't wish for a happier cultural mix than that embodied in the sacred souvenir shops outside Bonfim church. Here you buy candies and Christs alongside candomble beads and Yoruba saints: to the Salvadorean faithful, it's all one and the same thing. The church itself is the focus for pilgrimages from all over Brazil: in the side chapel where parents bring their babies to be blessed, and pilgrims leave their prayer-tokens, all the hopes, joys, and sorrows of this passionate land are laid out for inspection.

From the ceiling hangs a forest of waxen arms, legs, heads, and babies, and every inch of wall is covered with photographs and drawings. Baptisms, confirmations, and weddings, of course; but also soldiers going to war, and young men photographed in hospital with their grieving mothers at their sides. There are amputations galore, and terrible stomach wounds; there are shots of happy teenagers juxtaposed with the wrecks they later became. There is a crashed car, a plane diving into the jungle and, next to a snap of a laughing girl, a pastel drawing of that same girl receiving a huge shock from a power line, while a crucified Christ watches sadly.

They say Salvador has a church for every day of the year, and as you wander through Pelourinho you can well believe it. Many are gorgeous examples of Portuguese architecture at its 17th-century apogee; in the church of San Francisco, where undecorated sections by the door were originally designated for slaves, the gold leaf is applied like wallpaper. But many of these buildings are strikingly uncared for. In the Convento do Carmo I found an ancient piano in the gallery above the chapel. When I opened the lid, dust fell out - 50 years of dust: a Miss Havisham of a piano. In the deserted sacristy I opened a drawer at random and found, lying on its side, an 18th-century carved saint. Just one more forgotten relic, in a city which has more than it knows what to do with.

But it knows exactly what to do with its African heritage. Pelourinho has punctiliously curated museums reflecting the cultural exchange between Brazil and Nigeria. And it's all dressed up for the part: the streets are full of Bahian women in the traditional Bahian garb of an African head-dress with a hitched-up Portuguese robe: a symbolic conjunction of oppressors with oppres-sed. Capoeira dance, a martial art from Angola, is now an integral part of Salvadorean culture: consisting of spinning kicks delivered faster than the eye can see, it's practised in clubs all over the town.

Is Salvador dangerous? The guide books say it's the mugging capital of north Brazil, and there are indeed places where it's silly to go alone. Outside Bonfim church you're almost mugged if you don't buy a clutch of holy ribbons, but the real trick - assuming your money is safely stowed out of sight - is to relax and enjoy what the tumultuous streets have to offer. A lot of that is gastronomic, from freshly pressed sugar cane, to goat's cheese roasted over a tiny portable grill, and tapioca rissoles. A lot more is pure sociability, though if you can't speak Portuguese you can forget any idea of communication, as no one speaks any other language. The one consolation is that Brazilian Portuguese is clearer and more phonetic than the mangled lingo in Lisbon. Taxis are cheap, but what matters most to the drivers is not what you pay them, but how you close your door. Slam it and they fly into a rage: shut it delicately, and they will gratefully applaud. In Salvador, a car is for life.

Some tourists creep through Salvador as though they were in the jungle, with water bottles, medicaments, and every sort of survival kit. There is no malaria here, but there are other hazards, and the one medicine which everyone will need is a box of high-powered anti-diarrhoea pills. The palm oil on which Bahian cuisine is based plays havoc with European insides.

Brazil's economy is settling down, and Salvador is growing in popularity as a tourist destination. At present there are very few Brits, and if you ask your hotel to change sterling you may meet blank stares. ("A pound? What's that?") And if you fly home via Brussels (a common route) with one of the Brazilian airlines, try not to let them stow your luggage in the hold. I didn't heed my friends' warnings and, sure enough, when I got to Heath-row, my bag was elsewhere. But I'm now learning Portuguese, and I'm definitely going back. !

TRAVEL NOTES

The washing of Bomfin takes place on the second Thursday in January; the Festival of Yemanja on 2 February; and the carnival proper a few days later.

GETTING THERE: TransBrazil (0171 976 0966) flies direct from London to Salvador, return fares for the first half of February start at pounds 710. At other times of year fares start at pounds 639. Trailfinders (0171 938 3366) has flights with Varig Brazilian Airlines via Rio or Sao Paolo for pounds 693 return.

TOURS: Journey Latin America (0181 747 8315) organises escorted group trips to Brazil. The next trip to include Salvador is a 24-day tour leaving London on 14 February, which costs pounds 1,749 including transportation, a tour leader and some excursions. Accommodation, arranged in budget hotels, is extra. There is a maximum of 20 people per tour.

FURTHER INFORMATION: British passport holders do not require a visa to holiday in Brazil. Tourist information, 0171 499 0877.

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