Salvador de Bahia is Brazil's third-largest city, is one of the oldest cities in the Americas (it was Brazil's capital in colonial days), and is home to the world's largest carnival. Naturally, it's a place with amazing culture and history, especially in regards to Brazil's African heritage. In the historical center, Pelourinho, the beliefs, food, and music that make this city unique can be found in abundance.
Before arriving in Pelourinho, I'd seen these colorful ribbons decorating everything from clothes to beach blankets to purses. Their origins are more complicated than I can explain, but they go back to Catholicism and Candomblé, a religion that originated in Salvador as a mix of spiritual beliefs from different African tribes whose members were enslaved here. The individual colors stand for different sorts of wishes, and/or different Candomblé deities. The bracelets have the words 'In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia' printed on them, and are supposed to be tied on around the left wrist, by another person. Each bracelet is knotted three times, with a wish for each knot. When the bracelet finally falls off, the wishes are supposed to come true. Outside Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, the gates were covered with bracelets - wishes come true?
I had some great food in Salvador - fried balls of shrimp and fish, amazing empadas - but I also discovered my favorite Brazilian street food, acarajé. In its original form, the recipe came from the coast of western Africa, but has undergone some Brazilian twists. Black-eyed peas are peeled, formed into balls, and then deep-fried in palm oil. Once they're done frying, the ball is split open (or cut up, depending on your vendor) and filled or covered with shrimp, green peppers, okra, and a sauce containing shrimp, coconut milk, and peanuts, amongst other stuff. Soooo good, especially with a Caipirinha.
Capoeira might just be one of Brazil's most famous exports. This martial art started in the colonial days and was a way for slaves to practice self-defense, disguised as dance. For years after slavery ended, it was abolished by the government, as capoeiristas were often hired as bodyguards or hitmen. Salvador was the city that brought it back, in the early 20th century. Today, you can watch capoeiristas performing in Pelourinho's squares, to music that sounds like the heartbeat of the city.