Surviving in Salvador

April 22, 2012 | 5 minute read | By Kevin Read

I arrived in Salvador in a terrible state. Past Me, the me that booked flights and made travel arrangements several months ago, decided that a 2am flight out of Manaus (arriving in Salvador at 8:40) was an impressively efficient use of time and a clever avoidance of a night of hostel fees. Past Me thought I would sleep on the plane, or develop superhuman capabilities to last a night without any sleep and just keep going. Past Me is an idiot.

Travelling alone in a country where you don’t speak the language is exhausting. I’ve been very lucky to meet great people so far, good dorm mates in the hostels and friendly and interesting people on my tour of the Amazon. I have talked to people on boats, restaurants and just walking around the streets, but fundamentally I am on my own here, and each new place means starting anew.  When I eventually found my hostel in Salvador, it was all I could do to grunt at the people in my room and collapse into sleep for most of the day.

I haven’t yet met a traveller who has visited Salvador and not warned me that all of the interesting areas, the Pelourinho, the old city, are bustling with thieves and pickpockets. When I woke up at 4pm in an empty room, I decided to leave everything locked away and explore without having to worry about valuables.

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Situated on the coast 1000 miles North of Rio De Janeiro,  Salvador is another of Brazil’s sprawling cities of high rise buildings and industry. It was the original capital of Brazil, and is another of the country’s cities built on the wealth from exports of sugar cane, tobacco, gold and diamonds. But Salvador has a more sinister edge than most: it was the centre of Black slavery in Brazil, and the social issues developed in that time persist.

Today, the city has severe economic and social problems, and the skyline of high-rise apartment buildings overlooking the ocean hides a sprawl of run-down buildings and poverty. I got the feeling that Salvador might hold a lot of information about the complicated situation of racism in Brazil, based around its mixture of white European settlers, descendants of African slaves and native South Americans (particularly in the Amazon) who have not completely integrated with modern Brazil. The country is so huge and geographically varied, so divided economically and racially, that Brazilians have almost as much that separates them as holds them together. It would take far longer than I have here to understand it, and the longer I spend in Brazil the less I know it.

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Salvador’s sights are carefully curated and you can do all of  the main tourist attractions without seeing much of the city at all. On Tuesdays, the many hundreds of churches hold services all over the old city (the Pelourinho) and the evening progresses into a huge street party with live samba bands, bustling restaurants, and crowded bars which spill onto the pavements outside.salvador-6

The street music was all genuinely good, with large outdoor gatherings around the various stages. Vendors weave through the crowds selling beer and cheap jewellery and it’s clear that this evening is for both locals and tourists. The dangerous edge of Salvador was still evident, though, and even in a crowd it did not feel safe; I made friends with two Brazilians who offered at least some protection and moved our group to different areas several times because of the attention we were getting from suspicious characters who could easily spot me as a foreigner.

Since the churches were all open and welcoming well-dressed guests all over the old city, I could alternate between staring at the opulent insides of these buildings and then walking among the stumbling revellers on the dirty streets outside. The mood was happy and wild and there was no tension between the groups lining up outside the churches and the ones picking their way through them to reach the next bar; I couldn’t help wondering how many people spend their Tuesday evenings first at church, then drinking until the sun comes up.  The partying outlasts the worshipping, though, and by the early hours the church doors were all firmly locked as the samba bands played on.

salvador-4The next day I wondered around in the blazing heat to see the colonial buildings and numerous art galleries in the light, but the Tuesday night party is probably the best reason to visit Salvador. I felt strangely satisfied and incomplete with what I’d learned about the city, as if this place needs either a couple of days to see their deliberately contained summary of what Salvador represents  or several weeks to understand its complicated history and modern day social problems as a summary of Brazil as a whole. It left me confused and tired again, but feeling like I’d seen a glimpse of Brazil unlike the Amazon or the strange bubble of Rio De Janeiro.

 

 

 

 

 

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Practicalities

The bus from Salvador airport into town takes upwards of an hour, but is inexpensive and comfortable. Most likely you’ll need the last stop, Praca De Se if you’re staying in the old town, which is fairly easy to find – they kick you off since the route finishes there

I stayed at the Nega Maluca hostel which does indeed mean crazy black lady in Portuguese, but I didn’t see any. It was clean and pleasant and an easy short walk to the main points of interest in the old city.

Being in Salvador on a Tuesday is a huge bonus, and on the only other weekday I was there, the streets were seedy and dull in the evening. Many of the restaurants are terrible because of the supply of undiscerning tourists, and it’s worth getting recommendations from locals if you want to eat well in the Pelourinho. Find out where not to go at night and avoid dark streets and anywhere that looks too deserted.

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