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BAHIA

(Page 2 of 3)



By one restaurant, a very dark woman of great bulk sat on a low stool on the ground surrounded by the mounds of her wide white hoop skirt. Her face under a white turban was that of an astute, no-nonsense business woman. Around and in front of her, under a boldly patterned umbrella, was spread an exquisite, almost Orientally designed assemblage of beautiful bits of food. She, like many other women, was selling acaraje, a bean paste deep-fried in palm oil, folded over crushed shrimp with pepper sauce, and eaten sandwich-fashion. Acaraje is synonymous with celebration in Bahia - the aroma blending with that of crushed flowers to create its own version of Proust's madeleine.

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Abruptly, down the street, an excited knot of men and boys began to shout and to gesture dramatically. Almost at the same time could be heard the first notes from a berimbau, a colorfully round gourd set upon what looks like a long bow, part stringed instrument and part percussion. Capoeira! Capoeira happening just for the sheer joy of it, unplanned, unannounced, in the middle of this small street. Two black men dressed in shorts flying through the air defying gravity in a kind of magnificent and forceful ballet.

This sport was brought to Brazil with slaves from Angola, and developed in the colony because slaves were forbidden to use their fists or weapons of any kind. Capoeira thus depends on the feet and consists of a range of aerial moves and split-second recoveries. As I saw it, it was a joyful exercise with rapidly changing vignettes - the intense faces of the competitors, the lightning speed and agility, the volatility of the men, aggressive at one moment, arms around each other in camaraderie the next, anger flaring at a dispute, then laughter coming from deep inside, full, unqualified.

Young boys looked on in a circle of awe. The throbbing berimbaum was a constant. And then suddenly the action dissolved, as if it had never taken place , and the street was empty. The spirit had changed.

So much happening all at once, flowing, changing. It was life lived on all sides to the full.

There is in contrast a certain quiet to life along the sea. But the sea pervades the life of the city. The very name Bahia means bay; the Bahia de Todos os Santos is the largest bay in Brazil. Five massive 16th- and 17 th-century forts stand in mute testimony to the former importance of the coast.

Each is different in shape and presence. The round towers at Monte Serrat are like those at Cartagena in present-day Colombia, the masterpiece of Spanish military architecture in the Americas. They overlook a long, low white marble wall ornately carved with flowing openwork circles. The wall stretches out along the sea on a spit of land and seems almost a strand of 18th-century Portuguese culture, archaeological evidence, between sea and unpaved shore. Leaning casually against it when I visited Monte Serrat was a small boy with pure African features and a barely contained energy, his face mobile with curiosity, laughter, and contemplation.

To the north of the huge bay stretch long white beaches, some of the most famous and beautiful in Brazil: Itapoa, Arembepe, Itacimirim. Along them and many small harbors in the elaborately indented coastline of the bay, the boats of fishermen move in and out with a slow rhythm like that of the sea, bringing back to Bahia the ingredients for the famous moqueca, a local fish or seafood stew based on African flavors.

Saveirosm and houseboats reflect color and white in the small main harbor of Bahia, and the undulating streaks of color against the dark waves are echoed in the long, thin lines of the indigenous dugout. Slender, seemingly fragile craft, tapered at each end, wonderfully picturesque to the tourist eye, dugouts are part of the daily life in Bahia. I watched early one morning as two sinewy old men brought one into the main harbor and unloaded a small catch of fish. They moved with beautiful, slow, and deliberate grace in tune with the sea. Always, in Bahia, the sea.