Salvador de Bahia

Several mornings during this trip to Salvador, I woke up asking myself what I was doing there, alone. Surely I felt a bit lost in that huge and rather unsafe city where almost nobody speaks english. The dawn of those feelings was promptly brightened by the people I met and the discoveries I made thereafter.

First, a step by step arrival! On THursday, the 9th of December, the snow in Paris delayed my flight to Sao Paulo and made me miss my connection to Salvador. Air France paid for the taxi and the hotel and I quickly found myself sleeping in a hotel Mercure in Sao Paulo’s suburbs. A first impression about Sao paulo: urban lights out of sight, huge mawl centres, plenty of people. An unsafety feeling was also present: on my way from the airport to the hotel, a taxi driver used large main roads whereas, on my way from the hotel to the airport another taxi driver took smaller and darker roads and drove slowly. Nothing happenned but this was a bit frightening. I realised that I had an unjustified feeling of unsafety with regard to those people, feeling surely galvanised by what I used to hear about Brazilian criminality.
On Friday the 10th, I got my flight from Sao Paulo to Salvador de Bahia. From the plane, I had a breathtaking view of the Bahian Bay and of its islands. Before landing, I got along well with my flight’s neighbor who is professor of medieval history in Salvador. He offered me a free ride by car from the airport to the house of the CouchSurfer where I was going to be spend my first three days in Salvador.

The road from Salvador Airport to the house gave me a glimpse of Salvador’s life frame. Over the past few decades, the city of Salvador has greatly expanded and the villages have become part of the city but mainly as slums. On the main roads are located the stores and public transports and in general the further you go from the main road, the poorer and the slumier the place is.

Salvador de Bahia was one of the first place colonised by the portuguese in 1500 and quickly became its main Brazilian sea port, an important center of the sugar industry and of the slave trade. Nowadays, more than 80% of Salvador’s population is black. The black people are more located in the slums and the white people are more located downtown.

I spent my first three days at Alberto’s house. Alberto is a 50 year-old, open minded, careful and cool man from Colombia who was attracted by Salvador city sometime ago. He has a nice house with a small garden and coconuts trees. He does not live in a slum, but he does not live in a touristical area neither (a touristical area is basically a place where you have policemen).
For Alberto’s neighbourhood, I looked quite original with my European appearance though I tried not to look too fancy and did not wear t shirts like « I love New York »… :p. Alberto confirmed what I thought: generally, when going out, do not take your camera with you, avoid showing you cell phone to everybody, only take with you an identity card, your keys and some cash. « Take enough cash so as to bargain your life or to quickly take a taxi back home in case you were assaulted by robbers ».

On my first day, Alberto and I joined three other people (from couchsurfing) and altogether we went to Salvador’s coasts by car. We stopped in a restaurant by the sea and ate a nice « moqueca de peixo ». We also visited nice churchs (Bonfini).
In the evening we went to a very nice historical neighborhood called Pelourhino where the houses are nicely coloured and where you can see free shows (samba, capoeira, music). It is also a nice place for the thieves from late evening.
To go to Pelourhino neighborhood, one can take « El Elevador Lacerda » ; initially, Salvador center was divided into an upper and a lower city, the upper one being the administrative and religious area and where the majority of the population lived. The lower city was the financial center, with a port and market. In the late 19th Century, funiculars and an elevator, El Elevador Lacerda, were built to link the two areas.

During my second day, I started to live in a more independent way: I jogged along a beautiful beach, I went to a cybercafe and I bought some food. Then, I joined Alberto for lunch in one of the famous meat restaurants where the coffee is always offered at the end. We joined other people (Brazilian, Spanish and American) and swam briefly in the sea (the flag was red). I ended my second day in Salvador with a nice dinner and a quiet party at Alberto’s house. One Brazilian man played the guitar and made the evening go sweetly. Checking my emails, I was told to join people from my work to visit a favella (Brazilian slum) on Sunday morning.

On Sunday morning, I took the bus from Alberto’s neighborhood to the hotel where my colleagues were gathering before leaving to the favella. The only thing is that I was not sure which bus would bring me to this hotel. Hopefully, I had a map and more interestingly, I met helpful people from Salvador to find my way to the hotel. In the first bus I took, my seat neighbor helped me and told me that I had to take another bus. I got off and reached a new bus stop and, to make sure I  took the right bus this time, I « asked » (with gestures and smiles) two old women for help. Eventually they understood me and helped me successfully.

I was a bit lost in Salvador because I could not use the language to go ahead (I do not speak Brazilian). I had to make it without words, to place more confidence in people I did not know. « What you do not know is not a trap or a frigthening thing but an opportunity to open yourself and to move forward ». Eventually, I arrived on time in front of the hotel, and met my colleagues of FIOCRUZ (brazilian public health institute). Half an hour later I was in Pau de Lima, a favella of more than 2 000 households located in Salvador ‘s suburbs.

It was quite incredible to be there. I tried to pay attention to everything I saw. I understood easily how diseases could spread widely in such environments especially at the bottom level of the favella where sewerage systems and rivers are confounded, where people get rid of their disposal along the river, and where rats thrive. I also saw a group of drug dealers during this visit (I was told they were dealers). Surprisingly, almost every family in the favella had a television (it seems to be quite  important in their way of living). There was also a lot of music in the favella and most people were rather smily. On our way, It started raining, and a family accepted us inside their house. People from FIOCRUZ started talking to the mother. In the favellas, many families consist of women alone to grow their children. The mother works as a recycler and won 300 euros a month to feed her 3 children and her cousin. In the rainy season her house at the bottom of the valley is often flooded.  Though this was not the rainy season, I was impressed by the quantity of water which flowed down the valley within 20 minutes of rainfall. On the afternoon after a lunch stop, we left the favella and worked on computers. Afterwards I went back to ALberto’s house to say bybye! I packed my stuff and took a taxi to the 4 stars hotel booked by FIOCRUZ (hotel with a swimming pool and located in front of one of the most beautiful beaches of Salvador).
On Sunday’s night, we had a dinner with my colleagues and I swam in the pool  before going to bed.

The two next days were very amazing since I was introduced to the whole FIOCRUZ team who is working on Leptospirosis project (the disease I am interested in). They have been working in Pau de Lima since 2004 and it took them many years to get the confidence of the people of the favella so as to be able to collect data there. I met interesting people and to observe my supervisor discussing with them was quite nice to show the utility of a statistician to deal with concrete issues. On Monday evening we had another nice diner after the meeting. On Tuesday, we finalised the meeting by planning the work to be achieved by everyone in the future.
During those two days I got a lot of  new information and new acquaintances in link to my PhD. From tuesday evening to thursday evening, I went to a cheap youth hostel where I met new people (French, Brazilian, Argentinan, Canadian, etc). 
On Wednesday morning,I went to el Mercado Modelo (a market for tourists). On the afternoon, I rested, kept quiet, I saw the sunset on the sea.

On Thursday, I met a new couchsurfer named Luana. We visited a free exposition about Salvador’s most famous religious celebrations (african or catholic, carnaval). Full of life! We ate a chinese lunch and after I left her in order to join FIOCRUZ colleagues and acquaintances from the youth hostel for a last swim and drink on the beach. On Thursday evening, I had to go back to the airport but the taxi booked by FIOCRUZ never came. I called for a new taxi and got my plane on time at 5 am. This plane led me to Belem which is located on the estuary of the Amazon river in North Brazil.  It seemed to be a nice place.

To sum up about this Brazilian week, a mixture of feelings: apprehension, paranoia, surprise, wonder, anxiety, excitation, enthusiasm, open-minded state, compassion… 
Not a working week but not a holiday week neither. All the same, what a week! Beautiful images and tastes, awareness of new things, and meetings with great people! Salvador de Bahia, I do not think I could live inside your coasts right now (first of all, because I do not speak Brazilian) but for a short stay it is definitively worthwhile! Ate logo ;)

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