My first glimpse of Salvador was the empty streets of Barra, the night we arrived, as I was looking for a bottle of water. I found it, by the way—there’s a guy selling cigarettes and drinks by the suco 24 horas on R. Miguel Burnier. Two days later, several thousands of people filled Avenida Ocêanica and Barra for the pré-Carnival party we didn’t expect.
We’ve been in Salvador for a week now. The city no longer feels dangerous or confusing, although many aspects of life in Bahia remain a mystery—but that’s fairly normal, Brazil is often puzzling to me.
Here are a few random thoughts about Salvador de Bahia, as well as snapshots of salvadorenses.
The Brazilian Metropolitan Area with the largest percentage of people reported as Black is Salvador, but I had to reconsider my naïve definition of “Black.” In Brazil, people with noticeable African features and skin colour are generally referred to (and they identify) as negro or preto. However, to my foreign eye, many Brazilian look “pardo,” i.e. multiracial with a range of degree of African ancestry. To put it plainly, I haven’t seen many Brazilians with very dark skin. The Afro-Brazilian culture is very much alive though, and this is a really cool part of Salvador de Bahia—it also shows that skin colour is completely irrelevant, culture and identity matter most.
I was expecting Salvador to be very touristic—it’s a pretty famous city, isn’t it? But in fact, even with the upcoming Carnival, most tourists seem to be Brazilians. I’m guessing the city also sees a few Argentinians and Chileans because by default, that’s what people assumed we were.
People in Salvador don’t seem to give a damn where you are from. This is funny to me because I’m always curious and slightly excited when I meet foreigners in France or in Canada. Locals also have very little patience with non-fluent Portuguese speakers. Also, don’t expect anyone to speak or understand English or more surprisingly, Spanish or even Portunhol. Seriously, if you speak zero Portuguese, you’re fucked.
Women in Salvador have a unique fashion sense and they mix different kinds of fabrics and patterns. They often wear flowery backless dresses or high-waist shorts with a leotard or a strapless top. There are many ateliers de costura willing to alter clothes so it seems to be common to buy fabric or a basic piece and have it tailored to be fitted.
Salvador is one of the cheapest large Brazilian cities I’ve been to. Clothing, food, drinks, etc., was very affordable.
I saw several police arrests in Barra and I was surprised to see how casual and nonviolent officers were. In one instance, they searched meninos de rua (street kids) and they were treating them with dignity—no threats, no rough handling. I hope the same is true at the police station…
I didn’t feel particularly unsafe in Salvador, despite the city’s bad reputation. We stayed in Barra and I explored the entire neighbourhood, including at night (although after dark, I avoided empty streets). I walked from Barra to Pelourinho five of six times, crossing Vitória, Barris and many other small neighbourhoods around the Estação da Lapa. These are not touristic areas but there are many shops and the streets are jam-packed with vendors selling anything from Acarajé (the local street food) to bananas, from underwear to pineapples. I found the area interesting and while I kept my wits about, I won’t claim it was a dodgy place—unless by “dodgy” place you mean working-class area with many black Brazilians (if this is the case, reconsider your standards…). The only place I avoided was Cidade Baixa. I took a quick look and rode the elevator back, it just felt seedy. It does help a lot that we blend in fairly easily—a tall blond Dutch may have a very different experience.
Note that this set of pictures was tricky to take—I didn’t want to attract attention in non-touristic neighbourhoods so I used the “stealth method” (shoot and walk away) to capture the people of Salvador.