We spoke no Portuguese. So on our second day in Salvador, one of the 12 Brazilian cities that hosted the 2014 World Cup, we haggled for an Esporte Clube Bahia soccer jersey by tapping dueling numbers into a calculator. My 14-year-old son, Maverick, pulled 35 reals (about $10) from his backpack and handed it to the street vendor. Then he put on the red, blue and white Bahia jersey.
Like magic, our relationship to the people around us changed instantly. “Baéièah!” someone shouted at Maverick every block or so as we trudged along the steep and narrow streets of the old part of the city. “Baéièah!” they called out the team’s battle cry in the distinctly Bahian accent. “Baéièah!” We heard it again and again, from sidewalks or car windows, the shouter often raising a fist in triumph.
Never mind that Bahia is an often ill-fated team in a second-tier Brazilian league. (We’d watched them play the night before.) With each greeting, my son’s chest puffed up a bit.
Later, as we ate grilled fish and fries at an outdoor restaurant near the gilded church of São Francisco, Maverick suddenly leaped up and pulled a soccer ball from his backpack. He darted off before I could say, for the zillionth time, “Not in a crowded public place!”
I feared he would knock over some European tourist wielding a telephoto lens, but instead he spurred local Brazilians into action on this bumpy urban square. Onlookers laughed when a 40-ish man botched a trick, sending Maverick’s ball crashing into an umbrella at the next table. A surprisingly tolerant waiter fetched it and tossed it back into play. A little boy of about 7 squared off against Maverick, exchanged a few passes and then vanished.
By the time our eight-day visit to Salvador ended, Maverick had practiced several times with Bahia’s squad for 14-year-olds and made friends with lots of Brazilians his age. He also learned to answer the “Baéièah!” call with a local comeback that’s a little too off-color to translate here.
Good thing he was a fast study, because we were mostly winging it in Salvador. We were initially supposed to come with a larger group of soccer families from the District, but plans fell through. My son and I came on our own anyway.
He wanted to see how his favorite sport is played in Brazil, venue of not only the 2014 World Cup but also the 2016 Olympics. Brazil did not invent modern soccer (the British did), but it embodies “the beautiful game,” a nickname for the sport that signifies the poetic movement of the players. Soccer, samba and sand represent Brazil so often that it flirts with cliche. But soccer — both professional players and the culture — is one of Brazil’s most visible global exports, and inside the country it is the social glue that unites a massive and diverse population.
As a black woman who studies and writes about race and culture, I was thrilled to connect with scholars and activists in a city of 3 million where 80 percent of residents are of African descent. Although its economy has stumbled recently, Brazil’s explosive economic growth (its economy is larger than Canada’s) has long been a source of pride for those of us with roots in the developing world. Brazil’s black population is the largest outside Africa, and Salvador is the country’s oldest, blackest core.
So this trip, taken the summer before Maverick headed to high school, gave us a rare opportunity to explore things we are both passionate about and expand our circle of relationships together.
Taking your teenager to a country where you don’t speak the language is not the most relaxing vacation. But even though a slight majority of everyday Salvadorans we met didn’t speak English, most could communicate in Spanish, and we got by just fine using my fading skills in that language. And we made one smart decision right away: We chose to stay at the Pestana Convento do Carmo hotel, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The price ($150 a night) shocked the local people we met, but it was worth it. Many on the hotel staff spoke English, and the setting — a converted 16th-century monastery — was built for peace and contemplation. I felt safe allowing my son to wander through the old monastery, with its expansive hallways, high ceilings, wading pool and window nooks built for meditating over lush gardens.
But what was outside the hotel’s massive stone walls was just as enticing: the ancient neighborhood of Pelourinho, one of the oldest parts of Salvador, where the streets of blackened stone were bustling with street dancers and drummers, vendors selling local streetscape paintings, restaurants, bars and shops. It was in those streets that I got my introduction to Bahia’s unique history of slavery, migration and continuing racial struggle.
On the first of the three days Maverick trained with the Bahia youth soccer squad, we hopped in the car with Kleber Batista, the D.C.-based former pro soccer player who made our “futebol” connections. As he skillfully barreled a tiny sedan through the narrow colonial roads, he told us stories of the slaves who laid the stone streets and built the grand neo-Gothic Catholic churches by hand. “You feel their presence throughout Salvador,” he told us.
The Portuguese settled Salvador in 1549 and made it the country’s first colonial capital, and Pelourinho was its original commercial district. The name translates roughly to “whipping post,” and indeed Pelourinho was home to several actual whipping posts, where offenders — mostly slaves — were publicly flogged for their transgressions. Local historian Isabel Cristina Ferreira dos Reis told me that the whippings were so brutal and loud that local businesses asked that the pelourinhos be relocated from the main square so their customers wouldn’t have to hear the screams.
The geography of the slave trade encouraged this cruelty, according to João José Reis (no relation), a native of the city and another leading scholar of Brazilian slavery.
Favorable wind patterns and routes from West Africa made access to the northern coast of Brazil relatively easy, he told us. So it was often cheaper to replace enslaved workers with a fresh shipment from West Africa than to invest in keeping them alive.
By the time Brazil ended slavery in 1888 — the last major country to do so — some 5 million Africans had come to the country. So the Brazilian government, beginning in the mid- to late 1800s, pursued a policy aimed at trying to lure at least that many Europeans, Asians and Middle Easterners to immigrate, with a stated goal of “whitening” the population.
Modern Brazil — particularly the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia — bears witness to the failure of that plan. Brazil is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world, and Bahia is one of its most African enclaves.
Reis told us this history over dinner at an upscale Afro-Brazilian restaurant, Dona Mariquita, and ice cream afterward at Sorveteria da Ribeira, a bustling shop in the waterside community where Reis grew up. He indicated that the restaurant’s rich sauces, like a lot of Bahian dishes, were based on palm oil — “Africa’s gift to Brazil.” On another night, we went to a well-known Afro-Brazilian food stand, Cira de Itapuã, where we ate acarajé, a West African dish made of beans formed into a ball, deep-fried (in palm oil), split in half, and served with spicy tomatoes and shrimp inside.
It was clear that West African influences continue to dominate Salvador’s cuisine, music, religion and culture. We saw it in the ubiquitous dancers performing capoeira, a mixture of dance and martial arts, in the town squares. Throughout Pelourinho we saw black women dolled up in African head wraps and colonial hoop skirts — a blend of traditional European and West African dress that is their everyday wear. We saw a similar dress on the women representing the West African Yoruba deities, “orishas,” at a Condomblé ceremony at a Salvador temple. Once banned by Brazilian authorities, the Yoruba-derived religion now boasts some 1,100 churches in Salvador.
But the exuberant street life masks the racial inequities I heard about from black officials and activists. Racial intermixing is common, but white and light-skinned Brazilians hold almost all the economic and political power. Célia Sacramento, Salvador’s vice mayor, told me that Bahia’s nearly all-white power structure — from elected officials to the courts — is unresponsive to concerns about police violence in Salvador’s poor black communities. In particular, she noted the case of the shooting deaths of 12 black men and boys on the eve of Brazil’s annual Carnival festival last year. The police said they died in a gunfight, but witnesses say they were on their knees, hands up and unarmed.
I saw some tensions with police firsthand. We were among a rainbow of skin colors and hair textures frolicking on the beach one afternoon, eating grilled cheese on a stick and drinking beer. Suddenly, a squad of military police arrived, tracking the source of a marijuana smell, and plucked out, seemingly at random, three Speedo-clad black men. A lengthy, invasive and humiliating stop-and-frisk came up empty. The men submitted without complaint and quietly returned to their friends when it was over.
Whites are never similarly targeted, Isabel Reis told me. When I asked why no one objected, she said: “They are afraid. If they complain, they could disappear.”
Bodysurfing on the impossibly blue waves with his new friends, my 14-year-old son — who, at 6-foot-1, looked a lot like the men who had been frisked — was blissfully oblivious to the darker currents running through the city.
He certainly had no problems fitting in at soccer. When Batista first arranged for him to suit up with Esporte Clube Bahia’s youth team, I had expected his teammates to be resentful of this American kid, who is soft by Brazil’s highly physical standards of play. But it was just the opposite. The one English-speaking kid on the team occasionally translated. After the first day of practice, they crowded around Maverick, eager to exchange Snapchat and Instagram accounts.
Many of the kids he met face a tough future. Roughly 70 percent of the kids that Maverick practiced with on the Bahia team would drop out of high school to work to support their families, Coach Laelson Lopes told us. Another new friend of Maverick’s, 16-year-old Kauan Sacramento, the son of the vice mayor, played for Esporte Clube Vitória, Bahia’s bitter archrival. But Kauan Sacramento had to stop playing soccer because it interfered with his studies. At least he was able to focus on school without having to work to support his family — a luxury that many of his peers don’t have.
A very small number of Maverick’s new friends will make it to the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova stadium, where six World Cup matches were played in 2014. Across the stadium, there is a man-made lake ringed with illuminated statues representing the orishas. Both Bahia and Vitória have stadiums that draw tens of thousands of fans twice a week.
During games, competing drum sections narrate the action with maximum drama and a kind of military flair. The games are so intense that armed police escort referees off the field. A weekday victory means amped-up fans create an instant street party around the stadiums. In Brazil, they don’t need much of an excuse to party.
Like the beaches, the crowds at the soccer stadium impressed me with their racial integration. Sacramento, the vice mayor, agreed that soccer is a unifying force. But she noted that political and economic empowerment for Salvador’s majority black population is moving at a painfully slow pace. She, for example, is only the second black person to hold a government office as high as hers in the history of Salvador.
She hopes to see more black people attending college and running for office. “Some problems we need to solve ourselves,” she said.
On our last day in Salvador, Sacramento had a gift for Maverick. She had seen him wearing his blue-and-red Bahia jersey like a second skin. When he went back to Washington, she wanted him to represent Salvador the right way. She handed him a brand new red-and-black jersey for her favorite team: the rival Vitória Clube.
“V.C.!” she chanted, shaking a powerful fist.
Maverick, always polite, said, “Thank you” — and resisted the urge to shout back, “Baéièah!”
Hopkinson is the author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.”
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Pestana Convento do Carmo
Rua do Carmo, 1
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this former 16th-century monastery at the center of the Pelourinho neighborhood rents for around $150 per night.
Rua da Ordem Terceira, 13
Located directly above an Internet cafe that is a hub for expats and travelers. This Pelourinho hostel is a bargain at $13-$30.
Ladera do Carmo 7
Cuisine includes Brazilian, Italian and South American. Great salmon. Entrees $10-15.
Rua do Meio, 178
Located in the Rio Vermelho near Mariquita Plaza, this restaurant serves traditional Bahian seafood dishes, such as Feijoada seafood, Hausa rice and bean stew. Entrees $16-$40.
Sorveteria da Ribeira
Praça General Osório, 87
The line for this popular ice cream spot goes out the door, but service is fast. They have more than 60 flavors, including corn and Ovaltine.
Steve Biko Cultural Institute
Largo do Carmo, 4
Programming targets young Afro-Brazilians, but visitors can stop by and pick up Portuguese-language pamphlets, books and other information. Call in advance.
Museu Náutico da Bahia
Largo do Farol da Barra
There is a gift shop and tours of this historic lighthouse museum, which is a short walk to the public Porto da Barra beach, complete with surf rentals, beach soccer and sunbathing.
Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova
Ladeira da Fonte das Pedras
Esporte Clube Bahia, one of Salvador’s two pro soccer teams, plays at this state-of-the-art stadium built for the 2014 World Cup.
R Artenio Valente, 1 (Nossa Senhora da Vitória)
The 35,000-capacity home stadium of the rival Esporte Clube Vitória pro soccer team (known locally as V.C.).