Friday, May 4, 2012

Travel Review: Salvador, Bahia

I've talked about all of the other places that I have been along the way, and now its time to address the big attraction, my base for my fantastic vacation, Salvador. It was an incredibly interesting city, and one of the things that I loved about it is that it positively stinks of promise.

Salvador and indeed the entire North East of Brazil tends to be looked down upon by the rest of the country. As Italians like to put it, Salvador is the "Naples of Brazil". Undoubtedly the southern cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo have a much stronger economy, more infrastructure and a generally more "advanced" quality of life. Also, 85% of the people living in Salvador are of African descent, which definitely sculpted the Bahian culture into a fusion of the two continents. I'm not going to lie, the city streets are pretty dirty, and being a tropical country get ready for a few cockroaches here and there, but if you are the kind of person that does not get too hung up on that sort of thing there are other things that Salvador and all of Bahia have to offer that the South just doesn't get. 

Everyone in Bahia is so incredibly laid back that sometimes it seems that stress to them is some common yet fictitious meme on tv shows, like alien abduction or never-ending soap opera comas. The tranquility and optimism is contagious and an amazing break from what Europe has become: a never ending bitter sob-story about our inevitable impending doom. Everyone in Salvador smiles, they know how to have a good time and they just don't sweat the small stuff no matter what, making it impossible for you not to follow their example, and nothing can be better for a person on vacation. This way of doing things even translates over to the restaurants, where the waiters will take their sweet-ass time bringing you your food. Don't bother getting pissy with them, nothing you can do will phase them into anxiously hurrying out your order. Some people can get very annoyed by this and stress over how long they have to wait, but I submit to you this: you're on a beach, drinking a beer in the sun with a wonderful view, what the fuck are you in such a rush for? Just relax and enjoy yourself. 

That is not to say that the people in Salvador don't know how to work, despite the disparaging stereotypes they carry with them a la "lazy Mexican". One thing that I noticed is that they never seem to freaking sleep. At 6 AM I woke up every morning to the sight of people already going to work or jogging along the beach. The gyms open at 5.30AM and by 6 they are packed. Fast forward to the night and everyone is in town having a beer and chatting away. Every excuse is good for a party and trust me, they know how to party. I have no idea when they sleep, but maybe when you're used to doing things at your own pace and never rush you don't need to sleep as much.

I could write an entirely separate post about the food, but although I will be making one about the fruit, I will try to contain myself. It is no secret that I love food, and I did manage to put on a significant amount of weight when I was there, and I can tell you I tasted everything I could get my hands on from the street food to the fancy Japanese restaurant Take', and I loved it all. If I were to pick the one most typical dish of the region it would have to be the moqueca de peixe, a delicious fish stew made with onions, peppers, coriander, tomatoes and coconut oil and served with rice and cassava polenta-esque puree. Thanks to my jet lag I was also able to adopt the typical Bahian rhythm: big breakfast, fairly big lunch, almost no dinner. In fact in Bahia there is no such thing as a dinner party or a dinner invitation because no one really eats dinner, they have lunch invitations that go on for hours and where the beer flows freely. The classic saying says it all (roughly translated): "Eat breakfast yourself, share your lunch with a friend, give your dinner to your enemy". It's actually a very healthy way to live, but all the coconut milk and palm oil still did a number on my crappy metabolism and delicate Italian liver.

All in all there is very little I could say that I didn't like about the place. Despite the problems that it has, such as the dirty streets, the crack problem that is unfortunately starting to take hold in some communities, the half-abandoned buildings in others, Salvador feels like a place I could stick around because of the fact that it is improving, and this sense of potential and optimism is not something that I have ever felt in a community before. Regardless of the fact that where it is now it is of course "behind" in many respects to European cities, there is still the fact that it is on an upward trend, there are great investments pouring into the city both from private and government sources, and you really feel like there's nowhere to go but up, and fast. It puts an older generation in mind of countries like Italy in the 70s, and this communal sense of positive things to come is one that they miss and I have never had the pleasure of growing up in the middle of. It is only after going to a place like that that I honestly realized how depressing Europe and especially Italy (Ireland you're a close second) has become where everyone seems to love an excuse to cry on each others' shoulders and play whose-got-the-worst-politicians. It was allowing myself to ease into the Bahian state of mind that I really had the most relaxing vacation I possibly could have, despite running around the area and visiting a load of things because I wasn't there to rest my body, but my mind. That anxiety that was forever lurking in the back of my brain, under control enough to not be a regular nuisance but never going away, actually left me while I was there. I had a wonderful time, and I most certainly will be back.

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