Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seeing Salvador: Bahia Independence Day and the Beach at Barra

July 2 was an official holiday in Brazil – the celebration of the independence of Bahia State.  We were in Brazil for several different official holidays, because the government had declared that whenever Brazil was playing, that day would be a national holiday; we heard at one point that, at least in some cities (Rio, for example), whenever there was a World Cup game being played in that city, there would be an official holiday for the city.  This meant that some stores would never open; everything (except bars and restaurants) would close down by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.  This ended up playing havoc with our plans to see various tourist sites; we missed out on several places that we all wanted to visit.

We first noticed the parading from the window of the international calling office where we were canceling our credit cards following the pickpocket incident the night before (LINK); several floats passed by along with hundreds of marchers.   When we stepped out into Praça da Sé, we saw group after group parading past.  There were pre-printed signs and hand-made signs touting a variety of causes, including labor issues, political parties and other political issues, and religious slogans.   There were bands, celebrants in period costumes, drum corps, as well as many people just in the march without any discernible affiliation.

Many of the groupings were sporting distinctive Tshirts denoting their affiliation.  The most common short noted the date and proclaimed, “Viva a democracia.” 

I resolved that I was going to try to snag one of those Tshirts.  After I finished obtaining the official signed version of my police report on the loss of my wallet to a pick-pocket, we headed into the main square of the Pelhourinho, the Terreiro de Jesus, and randomly approached a man and woman who were both wearing Bahian Independence Day shirts and asked how I could get one.

We got to talking, partly in Portuguese and partly in English (he was very tolerant of my Portuguese, or maybe he was just pleased that I was trying so hard).  He explained that the shirts had been given out from cars the day before, but he and the woman to whom he was talking gradually began to make it their business to help me get one.  They got on their cell phones and, I gather, ordered one.  It was apparent that I had asked the right guy.  As we stood there and talked, person after person came up to him to hug or shake hands.  He told me that he was in the office of the governor, and it seemed to me that he was either an elected official or staffer with a high degree of contact with other offices and their staff, or with the public.

He explained to me that Brazil’s independence is celebrated on September 7 (thus explaining the many “7 de settembre” streets we had seen), but that when Brazil won its independence, Portugal  held onto Bahia.  Only once Bahia secured its independence the following July 2 was the consolidation of Brazil complete. 

We had agreed to meet Sam, Nafisa and Joe back at the hostel to go to lunch, and the scheduled meeting time was fast approaching, but he kept assuring me that the shirts were on the way.  I was on the point of excusing myself when someone arrived with not one shirt but two.  Thus, my most treasured souvenir from the trip!

For lunch, we ate at Restaurante do SENAC, a restaurant that serves as a showcase and training facility connected to a cooking school dedicated to Bahian cuisine.  Not only the cooks but the waiters are trainees, and the level of the cuisine was quite high, although served buffet style for a fixed price.  It was an excellent meal.  Among our fellow diners was Eli, a player on my former over 55 soccer team, who was in Brazil with some of his family to attend to World Cup. We had also run into each other at the Cradle of Humanity exhibit in South Africa during the 2010 Cup.

Because the restaurant was located on the Largo do Pelhourinho, we paused to watch the continuing parade of celebrants pouring into the Pelhourinho for Independence Day. 

We noted this house decorated with balloons in both Brazilian (yellow and green) and Bahian (red and blue) colors.

Joe and I agreed to participate in a government sponsored survey devoted to assessing how visitors were reacting to Brazil; I assumed it would be about five or ten minutes but I grew restless as the questions kept coming.  I enjoyed reading the questions from her form, translating ahead of her articulating them in English translation, and practicing my Portuguese in requesting clarification and answering her questions. 

In the course of the day, we also managed to get inside the Igreja São Franscisco – or so we thought at the time.  The church was supposed to be the most elaborately decorated Baroque structure in all of South American, but the  building, although highly decorated, hardly lived up to that billing

We learned that we had only managed to enter the Convent of São Francisco.  We got into the church itself on a later date.

We were all hoping to visit  Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (The Church Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks), a church devoted to the city’s slaves.  It was located on the Largo do Pelhourinho, but although a door was open, we were told by an attendant that it would be closed for another ten days.

That evening, by the time we came for dinner, the tables in the streets of the Pelhourinho were jammed.  We tried to hover and grab a table, without success until a sudden rainstorm came, scattering the diners.  I checked with some indoor restaurants and was told that without a reservation we could not be accommodated for 90 minutes or more.  We were patient, waiting under cover until the rain stopped; when many diners did not return, we thought we had our chance.  But the restauranteurs declared that they had closed their kitchens when the rains came, and so we were out of luck.

We walked over to the Cruzeiro do San Franscisco and were able to find a table at Odoya, where we had a reasonable meal, while listening to a musician who played an electric guitar and sang standards.

The following day, we decided to visit the beach in the Barra section of Salvador. 

Upon arrival, we saw an elaborate sand sculpture,

There were several legends written in Portguese, along with one in English as well as Portuguese that read, “The survival of this work depends on the collaboration of the people who value art.”

Before settling down for sun and water, we had a late lunch at the Caranguejo do Farol, across the road running along the beach;.  I ordered a glass of kiwi juice; it was so delicious that I got a pitcherful so all of us could have some.  Nafisa ordered one of the Bahian standards, a moqueca of fish.  This was my favorite dish in Salvador – a seafood stew cooked in palm oil and coconut milk with onions and other vegetables.  When cooked to order (as opposed to served in a buffet), it would arrive in a clay pot  still sizzling from the oven, accompanied by smaller bowls of rice, feijao (beans) and farofa (manioc powder).  A moqueca might be a firm white fish, or shrimp, or squid, or  polvo, octopus   – not the typical tough octopus but unbelievably tender octopus.

This is a recipe that I am determined to replicate when I get back to DC.

After lunch, we headed out to the beach to catch some sun, or go walking.  Joe and I went into the ocean – the waves were substantial enough that you could dive into them, or body surf back toward the beach, but not as strong as I was used to at Jones Beach when growing up.

As the shadows crept past where we were sitting on the beach and toward to surf, which itself as coming in, we headed toward the Farol do Barra, the lighthouse, to watch the sunset. 

There was a navy museum inside the fortifications surrounding the lighthouse, but with sunset approaching we decided not to pay the small admissions fee, but rather walked around the side to find an appropriate spot to sit and watch the sunset

We headed back to the Pelhourinho and dinner at Maria Mata Mouro, where I had made reservations that morning.  It was an exceptional meal in a nice setting, the lovely garden of a 17th century home, with orchids growing on the trees (not in bloom, sadly), hibiscus, and other plantings.  Among the excellent dishes we ordered were grouper with ginger, mushroom risotto, and a paella for two.   For dessert, shared five ways, was chocolate with pepper, an excellent combination.  With wine included, dinner came to  roughly $70 per person, a splurge dinner relative to our other meals on this trip, but worth every penny.

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