This week the Bahia of All Colours show brings the rhythms
of the Brazilian state to Dunedin as part of the Otago
Festival of the Arts. Globe-trotting travel-show presenter
Michael Palin was recently in Bahia and writes about it in
his latest book, Brazil.
This is an extract from that book.
Bahia is the fifth-largest of Brazil's 26 states, with a land
area just about the size of France.
In terms of Brazilian history it is one of the most
It was on its long and pristine coastline that the first
European set foot in Brazil - by accident, as it turned out.
A Portuguese expedition headed by one Pedro Alvares Cabral
was blown off-course while trying to sail round Africa.
Somewhat confused, they stepped ashore on April 22, 1500 near
what is now Porto Seguro, in southern Bahia State.
They discovered thick forest along the shore. A later, and
this time deliberate, Portuguese expedition found this to be
an abundant source of a wood they called pau-brasil, which
produced a valuable red dye which glowed like hot coals
(brasa in Latin). So the new-found land took its name from
its chief product - Brazil.
They also discovered an indigenous people called the
Tupinamba, who had in all probability been Brazilians for at
least 10,000 years.
Once the Europeans landed, they set about converting them to
Christianity, or if it suited them better, slavery. It's been
estimated that there were then five million indigenous people
in Brazil. The number is now around 350,000.
The Portuguese soon discovered that an enormous natural
harbour lay a couple of hundred kilometres up the coast from
where they had first accidentally stumbled on Brazil. It
offered shelter and abundant safe havens and in their
devoutly thankful way they christened it the Baia de Todos os
Santos - All Saint's Bay - as it was discovered on All
Saint's Day in 1506.
At over 180,000 sq kms, it is believed to be the
second-largest in the world after Hudson Bay. In 1549, Tome
de Souza set up the first capital of Portuguese Brazil on the
eastern headland of the bay and called it Salvador da Baia de
Todos os Santos.
The state became Bahia and Salvador the name of the capital.
It remained the capital of Brazil for over 200 years.
Sugar and cotton production made Bahia rich but, like all the
other unlocked wealth of Brazil, that could never have been
achieved without the millions of slaves brought over from
This potent mix of a relatively small number of Portuguese, a
much greater number of indigenous tribes and a huge number of
slaves created modern Brazil.
The city of Salvador may have ceded its capital status, first
to Rio and then to Brasilia, but it remains the third-biggest
city in Brazil, with a population of over three million, 82%
of whom are black.
Salvador is the biggest African city outside Africa.
As our flight from Recife descends through scudding clouds I
can see the spread of All Saint's Bay below me, an enormous
body of water contained by the island of Itaparica on the
west and the peninsula of Salvador to the east, with its
bristling crest of skyscrapers clustered between the bay and
the Atlantic, dazzling in the sun.
It's a given that there are weird and wonderful things to see
in Brazil, and Salvador is no exception.
It's partly a lightness of touch, but also a lightness of
The road snakes out of the airport through a long bamboo
tunnel, which at night is lit up in blue and green, like a
Halfway into the city, on the central reservation of a
six-lane highway, there rises a huge cross made from the
compressed bodies of crashed cars - a divine warning to
Even higher than the cross is the long, elegantly curving
shape of a newly-built Metro line. It runs above us for a few
kilometres, offering tantalising but unfulfilled hope for all
those stuck in jams below.
Finished five years ago, it has yet to run a single public
train. A disaster, I'm told, cheerfully.
Trains ordered proved wider than the tunnels and it doesn't
connect anywhere that people want to go to. The magic and the
madness continue, as we drive through underpasses whose walls
are decorated with hundreds of white-tiled seagulls, and
rumble up the steep cobbled streets to a hotel called the
Redfish, painted green of course, in a half-smart,
half-run-down neighbourhood of colonial-style houses.
A tall baroque church stands opposite my balcony,
uncomfortably big for the narrow streets it overlooks.
From my third-floor terrace, I can see the waters of the bay
over which a new-ish moon hangs decoratively, on its back,
like a man in a hammock.
Intoxicated by the unfamiliar feel of the city, I walk the 20
minutes or so from the Pousada Redfish down towards the
Pelourinho, the centre of the Old Town.
Having seen a pelourinho in Alcantara, I know that the word
means a whipping-post and marked the place where slaves were
bought and sold and beaten, so I'm surprised the name should
still be used in such a black city. Not only used, but used
with some pride, for much money has been spent in restoring
the steeply angled square and the buildings around it, and
the Pelourinho is now a magnet for visitors.
This brings its disappointments.
Tourist attractions are somehow predictable wherever they are
in the world, and even in Brazil they can't defy the trend.
So there are a lot of big smiling ladies about, made even
bigger by their wide Bahian skirts. They wear brightly
coloured bandanas and stand around in front of shops managing
to look both maternal and seductive at the same time.
The tourist cameras obligingly record them. But up the side
streets there is still plenty of unstaged life to catch the
Men playing draughts with beer caps, a barber's shop with
football posters from the 1950s and grass growing out of one
wall, a group of very black men all dressed in white, sitting
on chairs beside a grubby old wall, phone booths in the shape
of two enormous ears, a white poodle with red shoes on.
And there is a mix of music everywhere, one band overlapping
another, sounds from the street mixing with a thudding beat
from somewhere inside.
All of a sudden the street opens out into a long rectangle of
cobbles with houses and grand municipal buildings on either
side, and at each end mighty double-towered churches, one
Franciscan, the other Jesuit, face each other.
The little breath I have left to be taken away is shed inside
the Church of St Francis, an overwhelmingly powerful interior
with gold-encrusted walls rising all around, profusely
decorated and carved in copious details.
Flowers, foliage, fruit, cherubic faces all lead the eye
towards the dominant image of Christ, with St Francis
clinging to him, that soars above the altar. I walk up to the
Jesuit church, on a square called the Terreiro de Jesus, and
am just standing there, marvelling at this amazing city, when
a big black four-wheel drive draws up nearby.
Four or five people get out and open the tailgate, revealing
a white polystyrene icebox of beers and a honeycomb of
At the flick of a switch the music crashes out, and they
start to dance. Intuitively I look in their direction,
registering toxic disapproval. Their reaction is to smile,
wave and invite me over for a beer.
My anger withers and I join them.
I'm slowly learning not to worry that Brazilians don't worry
about the things we worry about.
• Reproduced from Brazil, by
Michael Palin, ($59.99) with permission from Hachette NZ