I started this year off by trading Portugal’s cold winter weather for a week south of the equator, on the sandy beaches of Salvador. It was a week full of sun, caipirinhas, picanha and queijo coalho – a traditional cheese in north-eastern Brazil.
Whilst in Portugal one of the most traditional beach snacks is a Bola de Berlim, a cream-filled doughnut, in Brazil, one of the most popular snacks is queijo coalho. Vendors wander the beaches carrying in one hand a cooler box filled with blocks of cheese on sticks and a charcoal grill in the other hand. The cheese is then grilled in front of you and sprinkled with oregano. It gains a golden surface, whilst slightly melted inside and is eaten directly off the stick. However, Salvador isn’t just about beaches, drinks and food.
Salvador was originally the first capital of Brazil founded by the Portuguese in 1549. Many remnants of the city’s colonial past can be found in Pelourinho, the city’s historic centre. The small district boasts cobblestone streets, monuments and cathedrals inspired by Portuguese architecture and colourful buildings reminiscent of Lisbon’s historic centre.
Although the vibrant city centre is today filled with art, live music and performances, and great bars and restaurants, the word Pelourinho means pillory, a whipping post that used to stand in the central plaza where slaves were tied up and publicly beaten. By the time Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, around four million slaves had been imported from Africa to work on the sugarcane and tobacco plantations.
This is the root of the huge wealth gap in Brazil. Salvador is the country’s fourth largest city and around one third of the population lives in favelas, the slums that dominate the hills and landscape. Salvador is also one of the most crime-ridden cities in Brazil and, whilst riding around in an Uber, I learnt that in many places, after dark, you are not legally obligated to stop at red lights to prevent being jumped or ambushed. That being said, there are two sides to every coin.
Despite everything that goes on within the country, I have found that Brazilians can be some of the happiest and most positive people. Everyone I came across was always upbeat and ready to help. Despite the poverty throughout the favelas, people are proud of the homes and community they have built.
The first favela was constructed in the late 19th century in Rio de Janeiro by soldiers who had nowhere to live following one of the deadliest civil wars in Brazilian history. Then, following the abolition of slavery, former African slaves were left without anywhere to live and people migrating from rural areas to the city vastly increased the number of favelas.
Even before the first favela appeared, the poor were already being forced from the city and were made to live on the outskirts and far end of the suburbs.
Similarly, the same thing has happened with Pelourinho. Due to its history, the district remains a cultural hub for Afro-Brazilian culture, whose cuisine, religion and music are particularly celebrated. However, due to restoration efforts and promoted tourism, the area has seen a push towards gentrification and most of the Afro-descendant population has been forced from the neighbourhood.
One of the top monuments to visit in Pelourinho is the Church of the Third Order of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People – a blue church that took almost a hundred years to build. The church was for the black population, both freemen and slaves, who at the time were not allowed to worship in other churches. Since it was the very slaves themselves who erected the church, its construction took almost a century as they had to work at night after they were finished with their regular labour. There are several other churches and cathedrals scattered around Pelourinho, each with their own backstory and local traditions.
After wandering around the neighbourhood at the end of the day, I made my way over to the Lacerda Elevator that connects the lower city to the upper city where Pelourinho is located. Next to the elevator are several viewpoints of the bay and the city below and where you will also find the monument of the fallen cross, which was inaugurated to pay homage to the location of Salvador’s first cathedral that was demolished.
Coming back full circle to the beginning of the article, Salvador is home to some of the top beaches in the world, which is probably why it is the second most visited Brazilian city. The sea waters are super warm in contrast to Portugal’s which always seem to be freezing cold.
The Porto da Barra beach is maybe the most celebrated, however, my favourite was a beach located on an island which was just over an hour away by boat from Salvador’s coast. It was my favourite as the island was bathed by the warmest waters I have ever experienced.
The island is called Ilha dos Frades, which translates to Isle of the Friars, and it is said to be named after two friars who were killed on the island by the native tribe which they were trying to convert. But that is a story for another time …
By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.