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Day 31: Salvador

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Walking the cobbled streets of the Pelourinho, named after the pillory that stood here and where slaves were traded. Newly restored, the colonial buildings glow with fresh paint, and African drums beckon the tourists.
Michael Palin - BrazilAs our flight from Recife descends through scudding clouds I can see the spread of All Saints' Bay below me, an enormous body of water contained by the island of Itaparica on the west and the peninsula of Salvador to the east, with its bristling crest of skyscrapers clustered between the bay and the Atlantic, dazzling in the sun. It's a given that there are weird and wonderful things to see in Brazil, and Salvador is no exception. It's partly a lightness of touch, but also a lightness of taste. So the road snakes out of the airport through a long bamboo tunnel, which at night is lit up in blue and green, like a grotto. Halfway into the city, on the central reservation of a six-lane highway, there rises a huge cross made from the compressed bodies of crashed cars. A divine warning to drivers. Even higher than the cross is the long, elegantly curving shape of a newly built Metro line. It runs above us for a few kilometres, offering tantalizing but unfulfilled hope for all those stuck in jams below. Finished five years ago, it has yet to run a single public train. A disaster, I'm told, cheerfully. Trains ordered proved wider than the tunnels and it doesn't connect anywhere that people want to go to. The magic and the madness continue, as we drive through underpasses whose walls are decorated with hundreds of white-tiled seagulls, and rumble up the steep cobbled streets to a hotel called the Redfish, painted green of course, in a half-smart, half-run-down neighbourhood of colonial-style houses. A tall baroque church stands opposite my balcony, uncomfortably big for the narrow streets it overlooks. From my third-floor terrace I can see the waters of the bay over which a new-ish moon hangs decoratively, on its back, like a man in a hammock.

Intoxicated by the unfamiliar feel of the city, I walk the twenty minutes or so from the Pousada Redfish down towards the Pelourinho, the centre of the Old Town. Having seen a pelourinho in Alcāntara, I know that the word means a whipping-post and marked the place where slaves were bought and sold and beaten, so I'm surprised the name should still be used in such a black city. Not only used, but used with some pride, for much money has been spent in restoring the steeply angled square and the buildings around it, and the Pelourinho is now a magnet for visitors.

This brings its disappointments. Tourist attractions are somehow predictable wherever they are in the world, and even in Brazil they can't defy the trend. So there are a lot of big smiling ladies about, made even bigger by their wide Bahian skirts. They wear brightly coloured bandanas and stand around in front of shops managing to look both maternal and seductive at the same time. The tourist cam- eras obligingly record them. But up the side streets there is still plenty of un- staged life to catch the eye. Men playing draughts with beer caps, a barber's shop with football posters from the 1950s and grass growing out of one wall, a group of very black men all dressed in white, sitting on chairs beside a grubby old wall, phone booths in the shape of two enormous ears, a white poodle with red shoes on. And there is music everywhere, one band overlapping another, sounds from the street mixing with a thudding beat from somewhere inside.

All of a sudden the street opens out into a long rectangle of cobbles with houses and grand municipal buildings on either side, and at each end mighty double- towered churches, one Franciscan, the other Jesuit, face each other. The little breath I have left to be taken away is shed inside the Church of St Francis, an overwhelmingly powerful interior with gold-encrusted walls rising all around, profusely decorated and carved in copious detail. Flowers, foliage, fruit, cherubic faces all lead the eye towards the dominant image of Christ, with St Francis clinging to him, that soars above the altar. I walk up to the Jesuit church, on a square called the Terreiro de Jesus, and am just standing there, marvelling at this amazing city, when a big black four-wheel drive draws up nearby. Four or five people get out and open the tailgate, revealing a white polystyrene icebox of beers and a honeycomb of speakers. At the flick of a switch the music crashes out, and they start to dance. Intuitively I look in their direction, registering toxic disapproval. Their reaction is to smile, wave and invite me over for a beer. My anger withers and I join them. I'm slowly learning not to worry that Brazilians don't worry about the things we worry about.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 31: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 133

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