Two Sides of Brazil

Amanda Thomas

After an exciting stint in Lisbon, the second part of my year abroad took me from one side of the Lusophone world to the other. With the idea of doing a linguistics research project in Brazil, I asked for advice from a tutor, and set about planning a trip to Salvador, which I knew very little about.

As I learnt before going, Salvador is the capital of the state of Bahia, in Brazil’s Northeast. It is known for being one of the most dangerous cities in the world, for having the best Carnaval in Brazil, and for being ‘the most African city outside Africa’ (seriously – try googling it).

My six-week stint began at the start of May. I’d originally intended to make the trip in September, but put it off first until January, and then for a few months more. Once my flight was booked and I’d got hold of a guidebook, I discovered a disappointing phrase along the lines of ‘You can visit Salvador at any time of year, but avoid May and June’. The author went on to complain at length about the unpleasantness of Salvador’s version of winter. I was undeterred, but the steam on the aeroplane’s windows, 30 degree heat and pouring rain came as a shock when I arrived. My thick jeans would only see the inside of my suitcase until I went home again – fortunately not succumbing to the mould that sprouted on lots of my paraphernalia.

Salvador continued to surprise me. Many of the things I’d tried to prepare for were as expected, but to a greater extent. I knew I wouldn’t want to go out late at night because it would be risky. But I hadn’t expected that even at 6pm many of the streets would be completely deserted because even the locals were scared. I didn’t expect to end up covered in red spots from the mosquito-borne Zika virus, despite my best efforts with repellent and vaguely protective clothing. I hadn’t guessed that the majority of bus-users I knew would had experienced assaltos, where armed robbers hold up the bus and steal everyone’s valuables – a kind of attack that happens on average four times every day in the city. I knew the traffic jams would be serious business, but I hadn’t imagined that a journey of 18 miles would take over two hours.

It wasn’t all bad, though, and some things were as good, or even better, than I’d guessed. Bahian people have a reputation for being laid-back, friendly and chatty, and they certainly were. The friendliness and chattiness in particular made my research far easier than anticipated, since the main challenge was to find people who were willing to talk to me at length for no obvious reward. I’d guess that anyone trying to do a similar project in Oxford, say, would have found it much harder to find willing volunteers – and I doubt that the volunteers would have gone so far out of their way to help. But in Bahia, everyone I asked to participate was enthusiastic and kind to me. One of my interviewees knocked on my door every day to ask whether I needed anything, and another invited me to a family picnic at the weekend.

Visitors to Bahia are encouraged to make the most of the culture, which is considered independent from the rest of Brazil’s. The flamboyant traditional dress, intricate percussion concerts, and energetic samba-masses may now be put on mainly as a show for tourists, but they still provided a viewpoint into a very different way of life. And the local food – heavy on dendê (palm oil) and light on meat compared to typical Brazilian fare – was well worth trying.

By the time I’d completed my project, though, I was looking forward to a very different adventure. For five days I escaped Salvador’s constant humidity and 30°C gloom and discovered the joys of Rio de Janeiro, basking mould-free in unquestionably the most beautiful surroundings I’ve ever seen.

I fell in love with Rio on the first of those days, in melodramatic year-abroader style, starting with spectacular views from the plane, then seeing the bustle of the central zone out of the bus window, admiring a panoramic view from Glôria where I was staying, and later, watching the sunset from the Morro da Urca. I only grew to like Rio more over the next few days. Compared to Salvador, Rio appeared cleaner, richer, more beautiful, more spacious.

From the splendour of the Palácio Tiradentes, now the state parliament, to the rambling Parque Lage tucked away near the lagoon, from the arrogant charisma of Copacabana to the charm of bohemian Santa Teresa, all surrounded by incredible natural scenery, Rio has an inexhaustible capacity to entice and delight its visitors. Safe in the tourist bubble, I could easily ignore any social problems that seemed more pressing in Salvador. I enjoyed the novelty of getting around the city on the metro – open and safe all day and into the night – and was amazed when friends living in Rio talked about late trips to bars, with no suggestion that they’d been saying prayers to keep themselves safe. The fact that the sun shone almost constantly and there was no rain while I was there only emphasised my positive impressions.

I went back to Salvador briefly before going home, and realised that in my time away, my mental picture of it had become warped, making it seem worse than it was in reality. The cobbled streets and multi-coloured houses of Salvador’s historical centre are maybe just as appealing, seen with fresh eyes, as anything I’d come across in Rio. Perhaps my outlook had been affected by the fact that I was purely a tourist in Rio, with no aim other than getting to know the best the city had to offer. I returned to England with brilliant memories from both places – but with Rio significantly higher than Salvador on my list of cities I’d love to see again.

Two completely different places, same language… for another different place, same language, same fab author see Amanda’s previous piece, Lisbon: A Glimpse and a Taste. Or for same place, different experience try Lise Noyau’s The Burden of BureaucracyLisbon: A Glimpse and a Taste. Or for same place, different experience try Lise Noyau’s The Burden of BureaucracyLisbon: A Glimpse and a Taste. Or for same place, different experience try Lise Noyau’s The Burden of Bureaucracy.