The sun was low. It was high tide exactly. I was wedged in a crush of exuberant celebrants, standing midway on a long flight of narrow stone steps above a large crescent of white beach. Huge round baskets overflowing with flowers were being hurried past more and more frequently through the mass of bodies around me, borne overhead by strong brown male arms, to a surging ebullient roar. The beach below had become invisible, replaced by a solid mosaic of people spreading out into the water, obscuring the shoreline.Skip to next paragraph
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The boats of local fishermen, saveiros, with their sails obliquely furled, jostled each other in the tiny harbor, their crews gesturing excitedly, their bright accent colors a jumbled pattern of horizontal stripes. Children splashed and played around the boats, diving from the rocks that dotted out into the shallow water from the stairs where I stood. Young women, singly and in small groups, were wading out in long organdy dresses, clearly their best, plainly conscious of the honor of representing the fleet, of sitting among the flowers in the heavily laden boats.
And occasionally, a large black woman in voluminous white lace would sway purposefully down the steps, a stately and solemn figure for whom a way was quickly cleared, to take her place regally, almost as a figurehead, in a saveiro. What had begun with great quiet at 6 a.m. had reached a crescendo.
I was witnessing a festival inspired by the strong influence of African culture in Brazil. I was in the city of Bahia, known outside of Brazil as Salvador, (officially Sao Salvador da Bahia de Todes os Santos.) It was founded by the Portuguese in 1549, the first city in Brazil and capital of the colony for over two centuries. A city that has always turned her face to the sea in trade and communication with her seafaring motherland.
Bahia's wealth was built on vast sugar plantations in the state of Bahia and in the adjacent northeast coastal area - plantations worked exclusively by slaves. The city became as well an entrepot of the slave trade. In 1960 three-quarters of the population of the state of Bahia was African or of African origin. The city of Bahia is the most culturally African of all the cities in South America.
Perhaps because of Portugal's long history of subjugation to dark-skinned and sophisticated Arabs, it exhibited less prejudice against racially mixed marriages and a greater flexibility in permitting cultural differences than other nations colonizing the continent. The integrity of the slave family was formally respected by the Portuguese; individual emancipation was possible. Slavery was not the totally closed system it was in other New World colonies.
In Brazil, the African spirit survived slavery. It survived - and it gave to the colony and the country of Brazil a vibrancy seldom paralleled. The mix of that vitality with the austerity and drive of Western European civilization, with all the daring and imagination of 15th- and 16th-century Portugal produced a culture palpably different from any other in the world.
There exists in Brazil a powerful, pervasive optimism. Today is everything and tomorrow will be good. There is the sense, as on the 19th-century American frontier, that everything is possible - but with a simultaneous embracing of life that is wholly Brazilian. Jorge Amado, a Brazilian novelist of major international stature, told me in a recent interview that he thinks ''some religions are based on thought and intellectual theory; in Brazil, religion is life itself.''
There is in the life of Bahia a wonderful naivete, a changing of mood that is spontaneous, of the moment, as wide-ranging as the changing light on the city.
I was walking at noon between a row of improvised restaurant stalls. The sun was blinding white. A middle-aged woman moved slowly on the periphery of the tables, a large aluminum pot of crabs balanced on her head. Small stands sold pressed sugar cane or skewers of meat. Young boys held high long sticks, dangling a rainbow of ribbons, souvenirs to be knotted around the wrists. People milled in the street. And everywhere there was a reaching out, a touching , laughter that included everyone in the vicinity.