Olympic Torch Lighting in Salvador

Because the Olympics were going to be held in Rio in August, the Olympic torch was slowly making its way through Brazil during our time there.  Even though I had watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics every two years, I never realized how big the ritual was.  The torch was lit in Greece in April, and it made its way to the Olympic museum in Switzerland in May.  After that, the torch was brought to Brazil, where it traveled through five different regions until it reached Rio de Janeiro.  It was a lucky coincidence that the torch would be passing through Salvador when we were there, so we jumped on the opportunity to see it.

Sand Art near the Torch Lighting

It was absolute chaos getting into the gates as all the streets had been closed, and there were only two entrances into the area.  Each person’s bags were checked, and all the men were patted down.  It was strange that there were no female police officers, and all the women passed through with a mere metal detector test.

One of my classmate’s host family had the honor of carrying the torch to the stage, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to witness the event.  The lighting was followed by an outdoor concert, and my friends and I danced well into the night.  Unfortunately, a phone and necklace were stolen from our group, which put a damper on the evening.  As we made our way through the crowd, my friend felt someone’s hand in his pocket, and before he knew it his phone was gone.   My other friend had her necklace ripped from her neck, but thankfully no one got hurt.  I was hesitant to bring my phone to the event because of theft at crowded events, but I was happy that I could take pictures.  Fortunately, my phone stayed safe and sound that night.

Many of my friends were surprised by the thefts, but it is just a sad reality in most countries around the world.  I have witnessed theft in dozens of countries around the world, including first-world nations.  Americans are spoiled by the amount of trust we place in strangers, and I am amazed by the respect everyone has for personal property.  However, it was a good wake-up call to stay vigilant and alert about our belongings.

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An Overview of Salvador & Authentic Brazilian BBQ

As an introduction to the city, our class went on a panoramic tour of Salvador.  I had previously learned that Salvador was one of the major hubs during the slave trade, but I did not realize how much African culture had become integrated into the day to day life.

Although Catholicism is one of the main religions in Brazil, a remnant of the Portuguese rule, traces of African religions were present all throughout Salvador. Candomblé, which originated in Salvador in the 19th century, is a combination of a few West African religious systems.  They have multiple god figures called Orixás and one supreme power called Olorun.  Each follower of the religion has their own orixá who controls their destiny and protects them.

Shrine of Iemanjá

For a long time, it was looked down upon to be a practitioner of Candomblé, even though the majority of the population had African roots.  It is believed that many people practice Candomblé in private and then claim to be another religion in public.  However, to my understanding, those prejudices are starting to change and Candomblé is becoming more accepted.

Despite the historic disdain for the religion, many cultural norms and architecture in Salvador were influenced by Candomblé.  I noticed that many locals would reference the orixás or other aspects of Candomblé in their normal conversations, and the most popular street food in Salvador was Acarajé, a staple in the Candomblé religion.  We even visited a shrine to Iemanjá, the goddess of the ocean.  For good luck in the beginning of the year, the people of Brazil go to the ocean and release flowers.  If the flowers come back to shore, then it is believed that the offerings are not accepted.

After visiting the shrine, we drove along the coast and visited a number of historic buildings.  As the Olympics were happening in Brazil that summer, Salvador had many preparations up.  My favorite stop along the coast was to an ice cream shop with dozens of flavors.  They had tons of fruity, creamy, and unfamiliar options, and I tried 5-6 samples before settling on the Acerola flavor.

We also stopped at the Basílica do Senhor do Bonfim.  This is one of the most important churches in Salvador, and the famous Bahia bracelets are tied along its gates for good fortune.  These bracelets are a symbol of good luck, and you can make three wishes when you tie it onto your wrist.  When the bracelet breaks, those wishes are thought to come true.

Bahia Bracelets

Aside from the beautiful decorations, this church is known for it’s history of miracles and a room with body part replicas.  It is tradition for people to pray for ailments or sicknesses that they might have.  If they are healed, they can create a plastic replica of the body part that was healed, and then hang it from the ceiling of a special room in the church.

Finally, we could not visit Brazil without going to an authentic Brazilian BBQ.  We ate at Boi Preto until we were full up to our necks.  If you find yourself at a Brazilian BBQ, skip the salads and non-meat dishes as you want to save room for all the different types of meat that they serve.  Servers come around with huge skewers of meat, and they cut you off pieces if you so desire.  There were more cuts of meat there than I could have even imagined.

Despite our professor’s warning about visiting the beach at night, we found a big group and went for a night swim at Porto do Barra.  Retrospectively, it was probably not the smartest idea, but the water was warm and we were enjoying our time in Salvador.  Totally worth the lecture the next morning from our furious professor.

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An Intro to the Culture of Brazil

This past May, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Brazil through a general education class at my university.   We spent two weeks in Salvador de Bahia with host families and one week in Rio de Janeiro in a hotel. It was the first time I was going to formally study the culture of the country I was in, and looking back it was one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had while traveling.  I particularly enjoyed understanding the social, governmental, economical, and cultural factors at play within the community, and I hope to continue this type of travel in the future. Listening to the locals’ stories about life in Salvador and understanding the history of Brazil changed how I view many social justice issues in the US and around the world, and it made me realize how connected these issues are between countries.  These next few posts will be a bit different as it is not just merely a recap of what I did during my travels but also some realizations and lessons learned abroad.

We arrived in Salvador late on a Saturday.  My classmates and I were picked up by a shuttle, and we went straight to our hotel where we were greeted with a wonderful hotel dinner.  I decided to stay in the first night as the airport process had been long and draining, and I wanted an early start the next day.

The next morning, we had orientation with the director of ACBEU (Associação Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos, Cultural Association of Brazil-United States), the school we would be attending for those two short weeks, and then met our host moms.  Despite the language barrier, my mãe (mom in Portuguese) was amazing and one of the best cooks I have ever met.  We would have an appetizer, entree, and dessert for every meal, and she loved trying new recipes and smoothies on my roommate and I.  My favorite dish was called stroganoff, slightly different from the typical Russian  stroganoff, which had beef and a delicious pink sauce made out of a mixture of ketchup, cream, and other ingredients.  If you are really curious, just google Brazilian Beef Stroganoff and there are tons of recipes for it.  It is best served with potato sticks and rice.  My mãe also made an assortment of smoothies and fresh fruit juices, my favorite of which was Acerola, a type of cherry I had never heard of.

On our first day with her, she brought us around some of the local sites, and we spent a few hours walking along the coastline.  It was a beautiful city, and I already knew I was going to miss it when we had to leave.   The closest beach to us, Praia do Porto do Barra, was only about a 20 minute walk, so we meandered down to the water.  Because it was Sunday, the beach was very crowded, but the warm waters made it easy to wade in the ocean for hours.  After we had our fill of the water, we walked along the coast, stringing together the little amount of  Portuguese we knew to communicate with our host mom.   We  stopped at the Museu Nautico da Bahia (Nautical Museum) and Morro do Cristo, a small park on the oceanfront.  After that, we headed back home to prepare for the first day of classes in Salvador.

Staying with a local family is one of my favorite accommodation options while traveling because it immerses you within a culture completely.  Although I absolutely loved my time in Spain living in an apartment, I do wish I could have stayed with a local family in order to tune my language skills and learn more about Spanish culture.  This opportunity in Brazil to live with a host mom taught me how the locals live and forced me to practice my Portuguese.

However, there were a number of things that stuck out to me about our homestays, one of which was that many of the families were comprised of single mothers and their children.  Growing up with a single mother myself, it was fascinating to see the number of families with this dynamic.

I also learned that the average monthly wage for people in Salvador is somewhere near 1500 BRL (less than 500 USD).  If you do the math, that equals out to just $6,000 USD per year.  This might make you think that the cost of living is extremely cheap in Salvador, but it is not.  To this day, I do not understand how people are able to survive off their wages given that rent is usually at least 1200 BRL per month for a small studio.  I was glad to hear that ACBEU pays their families well as these good-hearted people deserve a break from financial stress.  In fact, I believe that many of the families, my mãe included, had made hosting exchange students their full time job.  ACBEU has a constant flow of students running through their doors, and they house them with these families.

Given that we were studying culture and race in our class, one of the most striking differences I noticed about our host families was that almost none of them were black.  As one of the major hubs during the African slave trade, Salvador remains one of the largest Afro-Brazilian populations in Brazil.  Yet, our neighborhood and host families were 90% white.  We were witnessing institutionalized racism, and I would not even have noticed it if I  was not taking a class about Afro-Brazilian culture.

My time in Brazil was one of the most intellectually productive travel experiences I have had, and I hope to continue thinking this critically about every city I visit.

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