I have a theory about travel. Like all of my theories, this one has been thoroughly researched and is backed up by peer-reviewed watertight statistical analysis. Or else I just made it up.
My theory says that you will be comfortable in a place within 24 hours of arriving or not at all. So, if you’re not happy in a place at the end of that 24 hour period (and I’m talking about you, Punta del Este and you, Sao Paulo) then it’s time to get a wriggle on.
24 hours is a good length of time, because no matter what time you arrive, day or night, you have enough time to see some of your surroundings and get your bearings. Of course, it falls a little short if you’re travelling in one of those terribly dark countries in Scandinavia. And it probably wouldn’t apply to an Arctic expedition. But for everything else it definitely works.
Some places though, it only takes twenty-four minutes and you feel you’ve known them forever.
I was not looking for Olinda, Olinda found me…
So it was for me with Olinda. I arrived in the main square, Praça do Carmo, via the usual three buses and a donkey, late in the afternoon. I hauled my backpack up the hill – Olinda is steep – I feel they should have municipal stannah lifts installed. My airbnb hosts weren’t in, so I sat outside their house on a step and said hello to their neighbours, one of whom insisted on beating on their closed shutters with her walking stick, just in case they hadn’t heard me knock.
Olinda is a colonial town, full of winding, cobbled streets and colourful houses. It hosts what is said to be the best carnaval in Brazil, although my hosts said it has become a bit overrun with tourists in the past few years.
The house I stayed in was perched midway up the hill, on the way to the tourist hub around the Alto da Sé. I was staying with a family, but my room was separate from the main house, up a wrought-iron staircase in the courtyard. If you looked down from the main viewing platform by the church, you could see straight into my room. That made me feel special. Hanging out in my hammock enjoying the breeze, whilst the tourists bumbled about taking photos of my house. It also meant I had to be careful when coming out of the shower…
During the day, I struggled to find another living soul. If you do your English duty and mad-dog it in the midday sun around the town, you will have the place to yourself. You will also dehydrate yourself to body-building competition standard and leave a torrent of sweat in your wake. Fortunately this is a town full to bursting with churches (20+, I think), so sanctuary, spiritual or physical, is never too far away.
But come around 5pm, as the heat tampers down and dusk descends, the town starts to stir. You don’t notice it at first, it’s just a background murmur. But gradually, you realise that all around you there is a constant percussive beat. Coming from different directions, sometimes with vocals, sometimes without. But always the same rhythmic cadence, the sort that hooks onto your heartbeat, quickening it just a little, making it catch.
You don’t realise it, but the beat guides you to dinner. A little restaurant in a shadier-looking part of town, where the houses are still candy-coloured, but the paint has peeled and laundry hangs ragged in the windows. And there are young guys lounging in doorways, in a way that at first seems a little gangsta, until you realise they too are there for the music. Your first encounter with the music makers in the town. A 5-piece samba band, an advert for old age happiness that SAGA would kill to have in its travel brochures. Jamming on the restaurant steps. Purely for the pleasure of it.
I got talking to some guys sat behind me. They were both musicians, one from Spain, the other Portuguese, both of whom came to Olinda some months ago, for the music, and who have stayed, for the music. They tell me tonight’s my lucky night if I’m feeling adventurous. Music to my ears.
As standard in Brazil, nothing really gets going till after 11. So we drink and chat (between us we speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese) and they tell me that what I’m about to experience will rock my world. And that I’m to stick close by them. And not be afraid…
On the way, I’m encouraged to try Axé, a white spirit infused with herbs and spices sold in little bottles from specialist bars. You add honey to make it drinkable and crushed guarana berries to make you invincible. If only homeopathy had this effect.
I feel the music long before we reach it. It’s like a quant has worked out the perfect formula of beats and sounds to evoke the primordial dance spirits (an algo-rhythm?!). We edge our way past the bodies and I see a small soundsystem set up, a few drums and some unlikely-looking instruments, a couple of mics. And people. Lots and lots of people. Crammed into a dead-end alley, with beer and axé sellers lining the sides.
This is a Coco night. And it’s absolutely fucking awesome.
Coco is a style of music, African influenced, hugely percussive but with quite haunting, staccato vocals. Through the crowd I can just make out that some of the singers are really elderly women. And that various people step up from the throng to take their turn to sing, like it’s an open mic night.
Coco is also the style of dance. It moves through the body from the feet, through the waist to the shoulders and head. The movements are entirely alien to a western body. You have to be able to feel the music rise from the earth to dance coco and we westerners just don’t have that soil/soul connection.
Combined, the two elements are intoxicating (nothing to do with the caiprinha/beer/axé combination I’ve imbued). The dancers whirl furiously and the music gets deep inside your head. It is a mix of African strength and gypsy fever. If I hadn’t been so tired from my travelling, I’d have stayed the distance till 7am. As it was, I crawled into my new bed at 3am, exhausted, exhilarated and fell asleep to the beat of the drums in the distance.
where your beats at, Bahia?
Everyone that I met elsewhere in Brazil told me the same thing. Be careful in Salvador de Bahia. It’s a very dangerous place. Don’t go out by yourself. Don’t carry any valuables.
So in my head, I decided it must be like Peckham. I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to go to Peckham. Except to Frank’s bar in the summer. So as long as I stuck to multi-storey car park roof-tops in Salvador, I’d be A-ok.
I only stayed in Salvador a couple of nights. I’d been debating whether to bus down from Olinda to some beautiful beach resorts around Alagoas, but the prices in Praia do Toque were more than I could justify. So I booked a next day flight from Recife to Salvador. How spontaneous! Only when I got to the check-in desk, having queued for ages and with half an hour before my flight left, they didn’t have my reservation. A problem with payment processing. Sorry madam, you don’t have a ticket.
I took this news in my stride. After all, I’ve dealt with far worse (one word: India). I ran with the check-in guy to the sales desk to buy a replacement ticket, ran back to check-in my bags, ran through security (thank you small, domestic airports for your lack of vigilance) and onto the plane minutes before they shut the doors for take-off. Standard stuff.
I stayed with a family again, but this time in a room in their house. I’d forgotten how much I hate staying at other people’s houses, even close friends. I can’t relax. This family was so laid back about having guests that they basically left me to it, which made it even worse. Was I supposed to stay in my room? Mingle? They told me to help myself to water and cooking stuff, but then I used up the last of the water without realising and, oh lord, the stress was just too much. Fortunately, I made friends with their 8 year old son. We made paper airplanes and I helped him with his homework. Before I left, he insisted on taking out-of-focus photographs on my phone of every room in their house, so that I could show my friends where I’d stayed. Cute.
I think Salvador is one of those places where you need to live to really get the hang of it. I did the tourist thing, walked around Pelourinho. It was pretty enough, but a bit sanitised for me. It reminded me a bit of being in Camden after the refurb. And conversely, having the armed police on every corner didn’t make me feel safer, just segregated. I took a bus down to the beach at Barra. Nice enough, but a bit anywheresville for my taste – I couldn’t get any sense of character.
I much preferred where I was living. Dois de Julio. A real neighbourhood. The same cheek-by-jowl mix of workers, the work-shy, families, artists, hustlers and crazies that you find in any melting-pot city Where old men blast out the same song on a loop all evening from a stereo rigged up to an amp in the little square and no-one minds. I’ve been searching for that song ever since.
I ate in a neighbourhood restaurant, Caxixi, where the young waiters wore old-fashioned aprons and took pains to look after the strange gringo girl. Wrapping up the other half of my food when I couldn’t manage it all and insisting I take it home with me (cue anxiety as asking my hosts if I could use their fridge to store it…!).
I’d like to come back to Salvador. I want to find the music and dance it’s so famous for. I want to stay longer and live it a little. But as I said to The Mack, I’d need to take him along. It’s not a city for a solo traveller. You can’t just go get lost in it and take your chances. Not because it’s so dangerous (I didn’t feel that at all), but because I think it needs two pairs of eyes to uncover its secrets.