“If you’re going to be pickpocketed or mugged in Brazil, Salvador is likely to be the place.” –ye ol’ Lonely Planet
Salvador da Bahia is stunning, dipped in more beach than it knows what to do with. Crowded on the southern tip of a peninsula, like water pooling in the corner of a plastic baggie, the city brims, pushes against the ocean, threatens to topple over into the Bahía de Todos os Santos.
I arrive at the airport Friday afternoon—for my first and only solo venture outside of Recife—and hop aboard a bus that swings around the praia-lined perimeter of the peninsula to land in Pelorinho. The city’s historic center is now a World Heritage Site, colorful and cobblestoned, adorned with unexpected plazas and music—always music—wafting from somewhere. (It is also, you can’t take two steps without being told, where a famous Michael Jackson video was filmed.)
Arriving at the golden glow of 5 p.m., turning new corners as sunset emerged, clomping past bright buildings, row after row of color; it is wonderful. I meet folks at the hostel bar, over vegetarian curry and cerjeza, and we venture out to find a cachaca bar near the main plaza. Six of us—two tall northern European gents, and three blond girls from Denmark—not fifty meters from the hostel. A dude sprints at me—I don’t see him until both his hands are around my neck, grabbing my necklace, breaking the gold chain. It’s too fast to really understand what he’s doing, so I resist before I realize that, really, I shouldn’t, but my resistance is momentary and futile, as he’s already got what he wants and he’s already sprinting away, and I don’t even see his face. I’m left shocked and scared and with only a short scratch where my necklace once was (and relief that I was not wearing earrings). It is a twenty-dollar necklace bought on sale when I was in college, and I’m not hurt, but it’s such a violation of my space, and, now, I feel like I’m being watched, scoped out, surveyed for anything shinny and bright that might be on my being; now, I’m uncomfortable and suspicious and I can’t get into the rhythm of the city.
I re-boot the system and move to a different hostel in Barra, a beach suburb on the southern point of the peninsula. I ask a lady on the street for directions to the beach, and she is confused. “Any which way,” she says. If you’re headed downhill, you’re headed to the beach.
I have been told I have to try acarajé, which is sold on every street corner by women adorned in elaborate African headdresses and wide white skirts. I reluctantly shell out five reais for what looks like a fried ball of bread, but what is, I soon discover, magic: deep-fried black-eyed pea fritters, filled with cashew paste, tomato salad, and shrimp fried in palm oil. I alternate my meals between mountainous acai bowls and the magic bean fritters.
Salvador is the only location in continental Brazil where you can watch the sun set over the ocean, and so I watch, at the Barra lighthouse along with a gaggle of guitar-toting Brazilians. We watch the sun strut over the water, and applaud at 5:21 p.m. when she disappears with a shimmy.
I’m still not totally happy wandering alone in the city, so I climb aboard a ferry and head to the Ihla de Itaparica, and discover paradise. At the dock, while negotiating the price of a taxi to paradise, I make friends with a fellow visiting Salvador from Belo Horizonte, and thus spend the day happily wandering with him. The island is quiet… lapping waves and wide streets and shady palms… I think that’s cacao, he says, point to a tree, and sure enough, chocolate fruits hang heavy. A whole day of Portuguese is a wonder, and it’s nice to have a Brazilian around to sort things out, like when the last ferry leaves, and whether there’s time before then to have a sunset beer on the beach.