Who would have guessed
there were so many similarities between Brazil and the Hawaiian Islands?
Besides miles of beautiful beaches, the tropical climate, and fruits—
coconut, papaya, mango, and pineapple—sugar in both places once reigned as
king. This cash crop played a key role in shaping ethnic and cultural
diversity. In Brazil, as in the islands, people from foreign lands were
brought into the country to do the backbreaking work of the sugar
plantation. It is estimated in the 1600’s and 1700’s as many as five million
slaves were brought from Angola and the Congo to work the Brazilian sugar
plantations. With the abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century,
Japanese laborers migrated to Sao Paulo to work the coffee estates.
Brazilian coffee replaced sugar as a major agricultural export. Brazil now
boasts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
My husband Frank and I added Brazil to our South American itinerary after
finding a cheap package to Argentina through Virgin Vacations. We’re always
on the lookout for a good value and jokingly refer to ourselves as TWT’s
(Tight Wad Travelers).
Best known for the city of Rio de Janeiro and Carnival, Brazil is the
largest country in South America and offers the visitor a variety of things
to do and see, from the amazing Iguaçu Falls in the south to the Amazon
jungle in the north.
The lively city of Rio de Janeiro is home to the world-renowned white sand
beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Immortalized in song, the beaches play
host to the young and beautiful who flock to them every day to soak up some
rays. Cariocas, the term locals call themselves, love the beach. Tan bodies
run up and down the beach playing soccer and volleyball, while others are
content to relax with friends and family munching on snacks bought from the
many kiosks that line the boardwalk. Caution: it’s not a good idea to take
your valuables to the beach. Theft can be a problem.
In February, the city explodes with Carnival. The weeklong event signals the
beginning of Lent and attracts thousands of visitors each February. The
highlight is the Sambodromo parade. Top Samba schools compete from dawn to
dusk in the 700-meter (half-mile) long parade stadium complete with
spectator stands and luxury boxes. If you plan to go, it’s advisable to make
your reservations well in advance. Six months to a year is not too early.
One of the top tourist attractions in the city is Corcovado, better known in
English as “Christ the Redeemer”. This famous icon pictured on Brazilian
postcards, welcomes visitors and residents alike with outstretched arms. For
about 18 real, (around six US dollars) you can buy a ticket for the narrow
gauge-rail cars to carry you up the mountain. Once on top, you can snap a
picture literally at the feet of this colossal statue. More photo
opportunities await you with spectacular views of the city and Christ the
Redeemer when you take the cable car to the top of Pao de Acucar (Sugar
Loaf) Mountain. The view of Christ the Redeemer from the top of Sugarloaf is
surreal. Suspended 2,230 feet above the city, the statue appears like a
heavenly vision drifting in and out of the misty clouds. If you’re lucky,
you’ll capture the perfect photo. Stay for sunset and see the magic of the
city’s twinkling lights as they come on one by one. The majority of tourists
stay in Ipanema or Copacabana. We prefer Ipanema for its proximity to a
variety of restaurants, shopping, and the beach. Taxis are a reasonable way
to get around the city, but the “Tight Wad Travelers” decided to try local
transportation. Armed with about 14 words of “survival” Portuguese and a
“cheat sheet”, we managed to take local buses several times and arrived at
our destination without a problem. Brazilians are friendly people and are
eager to help.
Settled by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, Brazil is the only South American
country where Portuguese is spoken as the official language. During the
early days of colonization, there was a great deal of racial integration
between the Portuguese, the indigenous Indians, and black African slaves. In
later years, Europeans were added to the mix. Bavarian-style architecture
and Italian wineries are evidence of the strong German and Italian influence
brought to the south, by immigrant farm laborers, during the nineteenth
century. Travel to the northeast and discover the rich colonial architecture
of the Dutch and the French.
Spicy Bahian food, samba dancing, music rich with African rhythms, Capoeira,
(the Afro-Brazilian acrobatic martial arts practiced to music) and Candomble
(an African-Brazilian religion) are all part of the strong African culture
influencing Bahian lifestyle today. Bahians like to say, "Salvador is more
African than Africa".
A little over 700 miles to the Northeast and a short plane ride from Rio is
the city of Salvador da Bahia, affectionately referred to as Bahia. When we
arrive at the airport, at 7:00 p.m., it’s still light. “C’mon, lets take the
airport bus”, I say to Frank. “It’s cheaper than the taxi”. Most people
would take the take the $25 taxi. But not us, the Tightwad Travelers! Before
entering the bus, we look for the luggage compartment (most of the buses
have a luggage compartment on the side of bus). Unfortunately, this bus does
not and negotiating our luggage up and over the turnstile is no easy task.
Forty-five minutes later, the bus drops us off in the main square Forty-five
minutes later, the bus drops us off in the main square of Pelourinho, the
historical district in the heart of the old city of Salvador. It’s dark and
it’s raining. Disoriented, we stand in the middle of the square with our
luggage, and I begin to feel like Goldie Hawn in the remake of the movie
“The Out-of-Towners”. Things always look a little different in the dark, I
tell myself. Looking around, we spot several tourist police. I enlist their
help in flagging down a taxi to take us the short distance up the hill to
Pelourinho, the old city of Salvador, is a UNESCO World Heritage historic
site. Since the 1990’s, more than 850 colonial buildings have been restored
to their original pastel colors of rose, light blue, green, and yellow. Many
of these old refurbished buildings have been converted into restaurants and
pousadas. You may want to consider staying a few nights in a pousada,
similar to our bed and breakfast inns. A hearty breakfast is usually
included in the price and makes it a good value. On Tuesday evenings, the
old town transforms into a mini carnival, with African drumming bands and
samba dancing in the streets. Plan on taking a few days to wander in and out
of the interesting little shops and visit the churches and museums that fill
the cobblestone streets of this delightful old town.
Brazil is a large country, almost the size of the continental U.S. When
traveling long distances, I recommend flying. The long distance buses are
comfortable but I don’t recommend using them for any trip over 10 hours.
It’s always a good idea to take water and food when traveling by bus,
although the buses do make several stops along the way.
Brazilians are a friendly people with a zest for life. They have strong
family ties: love the samba, their national dance, are avid soccer fans, and
are fiercely proud of their country. Eu amo Brazil. I love Brazil and you
Tips for the traveler: Because photos are sometimes deceiving, I always like
to inquire prior to booking how old the hotel is and the last time the rooms
were renovated. If room renovation is recent, you are assured that the
paint, carpet, and drapes will look relatively clean and fresh.
Recommendations from the Internet and travel message boards are more recent
than guidebooks. There are accommodations to suit every budget, from
backpacking hostels to five star hotels. Prices are always higher in the big
cities. It’s possible to negotiate prices depending on the season. High
season runs from mid-December to Carnival (mid to late February), during
Easter week, and July (Brazilian winter vacation). The TWT’s kept room rates
at an average of $50 including tax and breakfast.
Airlines: Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are the gateway cities. Major U.S.
carriers United, American, Continental, and Delta all fly into Brazil. Varig
is the country’s national airline with international flights from North
America. TAM, another Brazilian airliner, has limited international flights.
Both Varig and Tam fly domestically.
the Redeemer" welcomes visitors and residents alike with
feet above the city, the statue appears like a heavenly vision
drifting in and out of the misty clouds.
of Guanabara Bay from the top of Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf)
the old city of Salvador, is a UNESCO World Heritage historic site
Many of these
old refurbished buildings have been converted
into restaurants and pousadas
African Spiritual Tradition
Although Catholicism is the dominant religion in the country, African
mysticism is widely practiced in Bahia and throughout northeastern
Brazil. During the transatlantic slave trade, the Yoruba brought
Candomble to Brazil from Nigeria and Benin. Candomble is a spiritual
practice that is a mixture of both African and Brazilian Indian beliefs.
Banned by Catholic priests and the plantation owners, African slaves
worshiped their Candomble gods, Orishas, under the guise of Catholic
saints. Oxala , the god of creation and father of all the other Orisha,
was the Candomble equivalent in the Catholic religion to Jesus Christ,
and Iemanjá, goddess of the sea, was associated with "Our Lady of
Conception". Candomble deities are worshipped in terreiros (or spirit
houses) located all over the city. Present day followers often practice
a mixture of Candomble mixed with Catholicism. Officiated by both
Candomble priestesses and Catholic priests, the Lavagem do Bonfim
festival in January is a good example of these two combined belief
systems. The Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Catholic Church is the
most important church for Candomblistas. It ‘s the church of their Oxala
Westerners can visit a Candomble house, but they must be accompanied by
a recognized guide and adhere to a strict dress code: trousers for men
and covered shoulders for women. The color white is preferred for dress
but not mandatory. It is associated with the god Oxala and is thought to
reflect any negative energy and to maintain the highest possible
vibration. Cameras are not allowed.
We make arrangements, at the tourist office in Pelourinho, to attend a
Candomble ritual. Promptly at 7:00 p.m., our blonde, fair-skinned guide
Joanne picks us up for the 20-minute ride to the terreiro. Climbing into
the van, we introduce ourselves to the other tourists who will join us
in our evening of Candomble.
Our small group arrives somewhere outside the city in a poor section of
town without streetlights. Not knowing quite what to expect, we exit the
van and follow our guide. We hike down a steep hill to a small house
with only the stars and our flashlights to light the way.
When we reach the terreiro at the bottom of the hill, we see small
groups of Afro-Brazilians congregated outside. Our party of eight is
clearly in the minority. But, our guide is well known and is greeted
warmly by some of the locals. I begin to feel more at ease. Engaged in
lively conversations and puffing on cigarettes, the locals seem to be
waiting for some secret signal to call them inside. We don’t wait. We
enter a large, brightly lit room and take our seats. Garlanded with
vibrant colored paper cutouts strung from end to end—so unlike a
Christian church service— the room reminds me of an empty hall decorated
for a party. At one end of the room, there’s a small raised platform
with three large conga drums—and at the other end—rows of wooden benches
line up on opposite sides of the room. Women and men are not allowed to
We’ve been sitting on hard wooden benches in a hot muggy room for what
seems like hours, when three Afro-Brazilian men enter the room and take
their place behind the drums. The drumming rituals begin and the
ear-splitting call of the conga summons the crowd from outside. The room
fills up and we squeeze together to make room for others.
One by one, women, with shades of skin, ranging from dark Ghirardelli
chocolate to creamy caramel, enter the room. Dressed in white lace hoop
skirts with their heads wrapped in turbans, they dance slowly and
gracefully to the powerful drumming of the African rhythms. The dance,
done only by women, is frequently referred to as a “dance in honor of
the gods”. Chanting in the tongue of Yourba, they call out to the
spirits. When the spirits enter the body, the dancer goes into a trance
like state. Overcome by the spirits, the body begins to shake and quake.
Her “sisters” assist the initiate out of the room.
A few feet away from me, a brown-skinned young woman cries out. She
tries to stand but her trembling body won’t cooperate. Fellow initiates
reach out to help her and she staggers to the center of the room to join
the dancers. Filled with the spirits, she dances herself into a state of
exhaustion and is led out of the room by one of the dancers. The
continued throbbing beat of the drums whips the wailing and moaning
dancers into a frenzied state. Similar examples of this strange behavior
can be found in the Christian Pentecostal churches. Devotees filled with
the spirit of the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, work themselves into
a frenzied state. They also lose control of their bodies, and begin to
shake and quake. Although the spirit name and the location in the world
are different, it looks like the same.
After several hours (I lose track of time) of chanting and dancing,
there is a “changing of the clothes” ritual, confirming a connection
with the spirits. Each dancer returns in the dress indicative of the
particular spirit possessing them. Platters and bowls of típico food are
brought out as offerings to the gods.
of Infectious Disease
This raffia mask conceals the face of the secretive , who dances
bent over like an old man and carries a palm broom to sweep away
In the past, Omolu was considered the god of smallpox, able to
inflict or to cure the disease. Today, Brazilian AIDS patients
appeal to Omolu for relief from their illness.
It’s been an exciting evening. But by now, I’m tired of sitting on the
uncomfortable benches and my eyes are beginning to glaze over. I am
relieved when Joanne, approaches the group to ask if we’re ready to
Though perhaps not for everyone, an evening of Candomble is for those
with a curious mind, an adventurous heart, and a spirit bold enough to
plunge into another world to see what it has to offer. And when you
allow yourself to see the reality of this other world, you also begin to
see that your own “tribe”– your own culture and customs – is a much
closer relative than you thought.
About the Author: Freelance travel
Beverly Olsen lives on Kauai with her husband Frank and travels
internationally several months of the year.