The Voyage Part 18 – Salvador de Bahia – Brazil – A Unesco heritage site of contrasts and danger.

Travel and Photography

Posted on  by Opher


We sailed north for two more days as the temperature remains steady between 25 and 30 degrees. There are few things better than a cool beer on a hot day, particularly if you are lying back in a bubbling Jacuzzi with the sun beating down on you, or sitting on the deck, with your feet up on a rail, reading a good book and glancing out over a smooth sea to check out an interesting bird or sign of marine life. Your mind settles into a different rhythm.

We were heading for Salvador de Bahia. It was a city with a UNESCO seal of approval; this was the old colonial capital of Brazil. It was supposed to be particularly beautiful. I had high hopes.


We arrived in the early morning. It was just beginning to lighten as we slid into the port. I stood at the rail and looked up at the city. It was on two levels. Up on the high I saw the silhouettes of a number of cathedrals and other historically interesting buildings. It looked intriguing.

We docked and as the light improved I could see the architecture of the buildings around the dock from the deck of the boat. There were the characteristic blue tilework along with the bright colours. But even at this distance I could make out the shabbiness. However, it was the city at the top of the hill overlooking the port that had UNESCO status. I still had hope of something special.

We disembarked and were greeted in the foyer of the immigration hall by a large jolly lady with huge colourful skirts and turban. She was a candomblee priestess – a weird voodoo queen – a hark-back to African roots. She was exceedingly friendly and gave us a ribbon each which had some coded message on it. This was a candomblee blessing. We were a bit bemused but very polite.

Close up the old colonial buildings were majestic but in even greater disrepair than they had looked from afar. They were the epitome of shabbiness.


We walked along to Saint Anthony’s fort. It was prettily situated on the headland and one of many such forts. It reminded you that the city had been built at a time of war, pirates and privateers. It was very heavily defended.


The fact that it now looked picturesque was unimportant to the men who built it. It was there, as was the Sao Marcello fort in the middle of the bay, to repel warships. We walked past people swimming and fishing in the enticing sea. Standing at the fort we looked out over a packed sandy beach. But we did not have time for bathing. There was a lot to see here.


We boarded a bus to head off for the incredible Bonfin Church at the far extent of the city. We passed by a lake in which there were huge statues of Candomblee gods and goddesses arrayed with weapons and colourful garb. There were favelas on the hill, old people sitting around playing cards and talking, markets and lots of poor housing. The impression I was getting was of a lot of extreme poverty.


The Bonfin church was very impressive on its hill. In the square in front of the church there were lots of tourists and pilgrims. There were also a number of male and female Candomblee priests with bunches of herbs and ribbons of blessing willing to give you a blessing for a small fee. They seemed to live in harmony with the Catholic Church. Many of the denizens emerging from the church were hedging their bets by buying a voodoo blessing. Superstition was alive and well in Brazil. It demonstrated how the Catholic Church was willing to accommodate all the local religions and beliefs.


All around the church was a fence that was festooned with a colourful sea of brightly coloured ribbon blessings. It was a unique sight. We could not resist adding our ribbons to the mass.


Inside the church a priest was reciting scripture to a massed audience. Religion is still big in Brazil. They’re still a bit behind Europe. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve travelled around the world is that the greater the poverty the greater the piety. People living in hopelessness are willing to put their faith in anything. Superstition rules the poor and oppressed.


I noted the ornate gilded interior and went out to allow myself to be impressed with the ancient blue Portuguese tilework.


There was a room at the back, aptly named ‘The Miracle Room’, full of false arms, and various other prosthetic devices, dangling from the ceiling and walls. It was extraordinary. I presumed I was supposed to believe that god had cured all these people. I felt like marching in to the priest and demanding some verification of these miracles. I found it amusing on one level and disturbing on another.


Heading back to the dock we made our way to the café in the market building. It was full of various tourist tat, cadomblee instruments, coffee, CachaçaCaipirinha, cashew nuts and candomblee dolls. The café was nice. It overlooked the bay and the fort. We had a snack and a beer served by a delightful waitress with a big grin.


We took the lift up to the top of the hill and peered out over the bay.


All around us were the fading splendour of the town with its tiles, colours and a number of cathedrals. It was a beautiful colonial town and I could imagine it in all its splendour in those days when the old sailing boats would have been moored in the harbour loading and unloading their goods. It must have been majestic.


The dark side was there with the armed police. They stood in pairs on every corner with submachine guns at the ready. It turned out they were especially shipped in to protect the tourists. The Brazilian government was short of cash. They wanted to make sure we were safe. However, it indicated just how dangerous the place would be without them. A later lecture on board ship picked up on that. It was pointed out that if we had left something at one of the cafes and had to go back for it after all the police had withdrawn – how safe would we have felt? The answer was – not very! We wandered through the backstreets and soon reached a point where we were beginning to feel decidedly edgy. You could feel it.


We went back and walked around looking at the magnificent buildings, had a coconut juice in a café, a beer in another, looked at the churches and topped it off with a wonderful ice-cream. There were candomblee queens all over the place. It was a strange mixture of cultures and races in Brazil.


Back down in the lower town we walked around but it was getting dark and felt a bit threatening so we headed back.

In the harbour there were two dug-out canoes – that’s a sight you do not often see – and a raft with a tent on it – I think it was a houseboat!


Back on the ship we learned that a few people had been robbed – one at knife-point.

Salvador had lived up to expectations – a beautiful place full of danger.

I stood at the stern and watched it slide into history.

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