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Taking the Pulse of Salvador de Bahia, a Culture Shock

“Feng, come here! See that?” I say pointing down. “This is what true love looks like.”

The family in the big house down below—on whom I spy every time I have a smoke on the balcony—is fascinating. From the fourth floor of our building, I can see their yard and their open living room. The large dining table is always set, and by “set” I don’t mean there are leftover takeout containers and Disney placemats on it but what looks like China and cutlery for a five-course meal—this is how I imagine the queen of England eats dinner.

They have a maid, in uniform.

They must be rich, right?

They also have a backyard shower. Oh, these are proper people, they “shower” with their swimsuits on—otherwise, I wouldn’t look, right?

I probably would, actually. But I wouldn’t brag about it.

Right now, the woman is shaving the guy’s back with a disposable razor (or a gold-plated razor for all I know, I have no idea, I’m too far to see if it’s your usual Bic).


Feng winces.

She moves on to his nipples.

Feng makes a face.

“Would you let me…”


“Tsk tsk,” I joke. “It’s a great relationship trust.”

Feng rushes back in, probably afraid she’s going to move to… ahem, down there.

She doesn’t. I keep on watching.

This is what I’ve been doing since we arrived in Salvador—not spying on the rich family but observing people. It takes a while to figure out a place. How far apart are neighbourhoods? Where do people shops? Is the city safe?

Salvador isn’t as exotic as I thought it would be. It’s not as dangerous as I read it was. Brazilians in Salvador are neither truly black nor truly white, much like in the rest of the country, but there are definitely fewer blond Germans and more afros around. It’s cloudy but very hot and humid. There are fewer tourists than I thought.

We start from scratch every time we move to a new Brazilian city. The little differences add up. For instance, in Pelotas, you shop at supermercados Nacional, an undercover Walmart chain of supermarkets that was the only option. In Porto Alegre, Zaffari ruled the city. In Salvador, you shop at Walmart—calling itself Walmart but with a blue colour scheme, unlike in Canada—or at the many local “delis,” i.e. mini markets just a big cheaper and bigger than convenience stores.

Pão de queijo isn’t a favourite anymore, locals eat pãozinho delícia, a light bread made with cream cheese that tastes a bit like uncooked dough. Baianas de acarajé in traditional dress sell deep-fried cooked and mashed black-eyed peas seasoned with salt and chopped onions at every street corner. The smell of dendê (palm oil) floats in the air. Hair is being braided in the street. Laundry services charge per piece (?!) and not per kilo or per load. I haven’t seen anyone playing football but capoeira dancers perform on the sidewalk.

And on February 2, we walked to Praia do Rio Vermelho to celebrate Dia de Iemanjá, a major water deity. We actually know about the celebration, we heard about it last year because it was a holiday in Pelotas.

“Wait, let me get that straight… you’re buying me roses for the first time in twelve years and I have to offer them to a mermaid by tossing them into the sea?”

And we Mark and I climbed on the rocks and threw the three roses (bought for 5 reais minutes earlier, I couldn’t believe how cheap there were!) into the sea, because that’s how it’s done in Salvador.

Observe, learn and repeat.

We’ll figure out Salvador.

Salvador de Bahia license plate in Pelourinho
Salvador de Bahia, Barra (Mark told us to kiss)
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
Celebrating Dia de Iemanjá in praia do Rio Vermelho
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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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