Salvador: Carnaval Part 1

Our first day in Salvador was the exact opposite to what I had imagined. First of all, our bus was on time; actually, it was 3 and a half minutes early; neither of us could believe it. By the time we figured out the bus system, it was after 6pm and we were in full-fledged Carnaval traffic. An hour and a half later – with the help of a woman who literally chased down the bus when we missed our stop and told the driver that “the stupid gringos didn’t know where to get off” – we made it to the edge of the Pelorinho.

As we stepped off the bus, we were faced with was a giant outdoor elevator that rose above the city. The woman motioned for us to get on.  We were unsure what was happening, but had little other ideas of our own, so we followed her lead. Up we went, about 30 stories above ground, and the doors opened out, miraculously, onto the Centro.  It was madness. People were everywhere! Dressed up in strange costumes, men in drag, people selling beers, necklaces, street food, you name it. The noise was insane, drums and samba music blared through the streets; the place was lively and fun and people of all ages danced uninhibitedly through the crowds. This was the Placa de Se: a large plaza in the Pelo district that the buses no longer run to because of Carnaval.

Looking down at the elevator from the Placa del Se

Our directions to the hostel were simple:  “bus to the Placa de Se, then from there take a taxi to the hostel”. The problem was, the entire Pelo district was closed to vehicles for the parade. Additionally, the Lonely Planet map ONLY showed the Pelo, and our hostel was off the map by just a few blocks. What I remember from looking at the map when I booked in OCTOBER (5 months earlier) was that we were North. That is all: just North. So we headed in that direction, backpacks and all, through the throngs of people. We stopped at a random hotel to see if they knew directions. They had never heard of it, tried calling with no answer, but let us use the wifi so I could track where we were on my IPod. According to my GPS, we were 6 blocks from the hostel; so we began walking.

Now let me tell you how I booked this hostel. In the beginning of October, I started looking up places to stay. Almost EVERYWHERE required 7 nights minimum at about $100US a night: even just to sleep in a hammock on the roof was $95/night and you had to bring your own hammock. I managed to find the Hostel Barroco for $67/night with NO minimum stay! What a deal! The only downside I could see was that it was a 5 minute walk from the Pelo, but, anything that wasn’t directly on the parade route seemed like a bonus to me, and the photos looked lovely, so I booked it! What could go wrong…

We walked to the edge of the Pelo and all the crowds stopped. We were only 3 blocks away and found ourselves standing at the foot of a hill, with a military police station across the street, staring up into the alleyway of a favela. There were no lights and no cars, just some shady looking characters sitting in the shadows drinking and smoking. We both looked at each other and shook our heads.  Nope, not walking up there.  Luckily, a cab drove by and we hailed it down. We passed him the address and he shook his head.  So I showed him on my GPS where it was. He pointed up the hill and we nodded.

“No” he said.

“It’s just a couple blocks,” we said, “can you take us?”

“No. Walk, or find another taxi” and he kicked us out.  So there we were, just standing there with all our backpacker getup and not knowing what to do.

For those of you that haven’t been watching the news in Salvador, you should note that 2/3 of the police force has been on strike since January 31st. By February 10th, only 11 days later, there were already over 150 murders in the city of Salvador alone.  The police never came back for Carnaval; however, the government did bring in the military to oversee events, and their presence was everywhere along parade routes. Not that ANY of these murders were random acts of violence on tourists, but these current events were in the back of our minds while we were standing there.

After much debate, and seeing no other route on the map, we decided to chance the walk. 3 blocks. That’s all we had to go. Before we even made it a block an a half a young man was calling at us.


We ignored him.

“Gringos, go back to the Pelorinho, it’s dangerous here.”

We kept walking…

Then he got up and ran towards us, “Amigos, please, go get a pousada in the Pelo!”

“We already have a pousada,” I explain, “and it’s up here!” Adam handed him the address; he looked at it strangely.

“Bob!” he yelled down the street “Bobby, come here!” another young guy came towards us. They chat about the address then stop a third man walking down the street. After a little more confusion the third man looks at us

“The German!” he exclaims

“Yes!” I say, ” the owner is from Germany”
 Ahh yes, they know it. So the first guy motions for us to follow him and Bob.

“I’ll show you there” he says.

We hesitated.

We have no idea if they are taking us in the right direction, but we also figure going alone might be worse. So, reluctantly, we follow these two guys into the favela. 
The first guy introduces himself to Adam,

“I’m Anton, This is Bob. You know, like Bob Marley?” They both giggle, and Bob kind of does look like a young Bob Marley but with shorter hair. The two guys are probably in their mid to late 20s, with jet black skin and glowing white smiles. Anton is tall and slender, Bob is about 5’8″ and has a stockier frame.
  “It is dangerous here in the favela” Anton says “there is another route on the other side, go that way when you go back to the Pelo”

(As a side note, I’d like to mention that neither Anton, nor Bob, nor anyone we’ve met so far in this story speak a SINGLE word of English. I jumped from knowing “hello” and “thank you” in Portuguese, to being a full-fledged translator for Adam in about 12 hours. Not sure how.)

Anyways, sure enough, 3 blocks later we are led right to our hostel! Thank God! We thank the guys, and head to reception. We are shown our room, and ask where we can get some dinner. The receptionist points down the street, then leaves. So after washing up, we head out in search of food.

Not two blocks down the road we hear “Amigos!” It’s Anton. He is body painting some local women for Carnaval (which we later find out is his job). He introduces us to the owner of the cafe he is at, who goes out of his way to make us whatever food he can find. Anton joins us for a bit and asks us if we are going dancing in the parade tonight. We say yes and he offers to take us down to the Pelo. So after dinner, he and Bob take us back through the favela. On the way down they explain some of the “history”.

“You see this house?” we looked up at a dilapidated and gutted old concrete building with a 7ft hole in the side of it. “That was a drug house. You know, crack, cocaine, crystal meth? Ya, it exploded just a couple months ago.” Hmmm, safe neighborhood.

Then we all stopped at Anton’s house. It was a single room with a bed, a tv, and a makeshift kitchen. He introduced us to his mother, his neighbour and even his little puppy dog. From that point on, we were introduced to nearly EVERY person in the favela. Shop owners, people walking down the street, friends of theirs hanging out on the side of the road. “These are my amigos from Canada!” everyone was incredibly friendly and interested in us. We smiled, shook hands, “nice to meet yous” all around. They would chime in with the occasional English word and look pretty proud that they got to use it. Anton explained that favelas were dangerous places for outsiders. At any time, someone could easily rob us, or pull a gun on us; however, the favela works as a community. Everyone knows everyone else’s families and friends, and they look out for each other. Anton had lived in the favela since he was a little boy, people knew and trusted him. Because he had just introduced us to everyone as his friends, we were now part of the community, and no one would harm us: and we found, for the next three days, that we were met with many smiles and “Bom Dia’s” from the people.

So Anton and Bob took us down to the Pelo and began to give us the most amazing tour of Salvador. We met all the shop owners and artists, and saw beautiful old churches on off-beaten tracks. They explained the history while I translated as best I could to Adam. Occasionally they would ask what the English translation for a word was and it usually ended in laughter at how crazy the word sounded in our language: “eat,” “cheers,” “walk” and “thief” were not only particularly hard to pronounce, but also giggle worthy in their minds.

Anton explained how the Pelo district is the historical center where slave ships from Africa first stopped. Right in the middle of the Placa de Se, where people danced and sang for Carnaval, was where church officials ordered hundreds of black slaves hung, or their heads stomped to death on the sidewalk. They pointed out the traditional African garb that still influences Bahian dress, and how the drum beats in the parade music differ from the South of Brazil. Salvador, and the whole Bahian province, is clearly defined by its African heritage: dark skin, varied music, dress, spices in food, culture, everything.

During the tour they asked if we liked Reggae music. We both nodded and were led down a back street towards a bar. The scene was straight out of a movie. The doorman shook hands with bob and Anton who signaled that we were with them: and we all walked in. The bar was full of black-skinned Rastafarians, fully stereotyped with the long dreads; the colourful knit hats and the Bob Marley-esque tie-dye clothing. The place reeked of pot and people were doing lines of cocaine right off the tables. Slow reggae music pulsed in the background and EVERYONE stopped what they were doing to look at Adam and I: probably the only white-skinned, blue-eyed people to ever step foot through the front doors.  Anton pushed us through the crowd and introduced us to the owner. He asked him to watch out for us if we ever came in here again without him. The owner nodded and then Anton turned to us and in a very strict voice said “Don’t you EVER come back in this place alone! It’s dangerous!” and with that he dragged us right back out of the bar. Which we were more than happy about, feeling just a little out of place in there.

“Okay, should we dance?” Anton asked.

“Yes, let’s see the parade!”

So after grabbing a drink at his cousin’s kiosk and stopping to body paint his two little nieces, we trekked to the parade route. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were probably a million people dancing in the street that night. Music blared, people danced and sang along to songs I’d never heard of before as their favourite bands moved slowly along in large floats. Sorry, I’m not going to fully describe the parade until we get to the next day’s events.  We did follow some trucks for a while, pushed through the hoards of people, nearly got tear gassed trying to get through an alley and eventually walked home.

By 3AM my head was spinning with English, Portuguese and Spanish all at once. I could no longer understand simple phrases and was incapable of translating to Adam anymore. We’d been up for 21 hours on little sleep, and the craziness of the unexpected night was overwhelming. We called it a night early, according to Carnaval standards, and went to bed.

Rocinha Favela

On Monday morning, Adam and I set out for a tour of the largest favela in Brazil (population wise). I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that favelas are areas where the very poor live, for cheap, and that the living standards are exceedingly sub-par. But to be honest, I had little other expectations. Turns out, I found this to be the MOST eye-opening and interesting tour I’ve been on yet.

There are over 1300 favelas in Brazil, and a total of 59 million people exist within their borders. In Rio alone, a little over 10% of the population lives in a favela. Rocinha Favela has a total of 300 000 people, and is considered the largest in all of Brazil as far as numbers… and we were about to explore it.

Our tour bus dropped us off at the military base that was stationed at the foot of Rocinha. Our guide told us we would be taking moto-taxis to the top, then slowly walk our way down as a group. Now… for anyone who knows my history with motorcycles, you would understand that this was already a terrifying experience for me. Why I choose to only ride sketchy motorcycles in countries that have zero traffic laws is beyond me; but here I was, on the back of a motorcycle, with a random local, speeding through the windy streets, barely avoiding buses and pedestrians, taking me deeper into the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. 
The streets were overcrowded and the shops were simple and cheap, yet I found it very interesting watching the bustling life as it went by. When we arrived at the top, I assumed we would take the same route down and learn the history of the area along the way. Yes, the place was clearly an over-crowded, dodgy neighborhood, and yes I was still excited to hear about the tour, but, I had no idea what I was in for.

Our guide congratulated us all for not dying on the motorcycles on the way up.  Hooray!  Then she told us we were not, by any means, allowed to take our cameras out for the first part of the tour. Once we got IN to the favela we were free to do as we pleased, but the people here wished to remain anonymous; if their photos were taken at an entrance or an exit to a favela path, it would make it easier for the military to track them down. First of all, I already thought we WERE in the favela. Secondly, the reason no one wanted to be identified, was that the majority of favela folk are either drug dealers, or into some kind of illegal activity; and so, our guide also warned us not to take any photos of people with guns, or bombs that we saw along the way. Well this sounds safe!

Apparently, the section of road that we drove through was considered the VIP area of the favela. The fact that there was a ROAD, with CARS on it was a major hint. This area has cheap restaurants, some stores, and even a fast food chain called “Bob’s Burgers”. So we walked about a half block down the street, before we turned down a side street and ended up on our first path. This was no street really; it was hardly a sidewalk if you really think about it.  It was a path, partially paved (and those parts were NEVER even) just a few feet wide, that led us deep into the neighborhood.

Now, I know I will never be able to give the place justice as far as a description, because the place is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but I’ll try. The path wound its way between large concrete structures that are considered “homes”. The families that live there normally build these homes by hand. The problem with Rochina is that it is sandwiched between a giant mountain and the Tijuca forest; and so, there is no more room to expand outwards. Thus, the place has begun to work its way upward. For example, the higher your property, the better your position in the favela. Rent at the base of the hill (the entire favela is positioned on a hill) goes for about 100 reais/month ($60). At the top, the same building is 700+ reais/month.  For some perspective, the average family income is 900 reais/month: HOWEVER, if you can find a place to build your own home, you are free do to so, since the land is centered on a first come, first serve basis. Thus, someone will build a home, then, they will sell their roof to another man, and he will build his home on top of the first, then that second man will sell his roof to another man, and so on, until the building has 4 or 5 levels of families living in it. Utter chaos! And these homes are made of anything!! Concrete, tin, cardboard, you name it, it’s probably fashioned into a wall somewhere in Rocinha!

In addition, no family pays for any kind of cable, Internet, or electricity. They do their own wiring of the house and street, and manage to rig the power meter to say zero. The government has given up on taxing them, and has consequently raised the rest of the population’s taxes to make up for the billions and billions of lost dollars.

Another thing you should know about favelas is the families. On average, there are 7 or 8 children per household. Then, each of those children, start having their own kids at 12, 13, or 14 years old.  We met a man there who was 28 years old and already had 2 grandchildren!  Each of the children grow up with dreams of becoming famous movie stars, or dancers, but in reality, 9 out of 10 will remain jobless and living in favelas their entire lives.
  A very sad reality check…

Anyways, we began to walk along the narrow path of the favela. The sidewalk wass covered with thick bundles of low hanging, rigged electricity wires; the houses looked outrageously unstable as they teetered on makeshift stilts and were plastered together with uneven, and clearly homemade, concrete jobs. The piercing sound of 6 or 7 babies screaming was so constant I didn’t even notice it by the time we reached the bottom 2 1/2 hours later. The smells changed every two steps. First, it was baked goods from a random 20ft squared bakery that sat along the side of the path. Then, it was the overwhelming reek of urine. Then it was the smell of garbage, which filled the lower areas, sometimes a couple feet deep, with trash. The sewage and the water systems were mediocre at best, but mostly, all the sewage runs through the streets to the bottom: thus why the lower homes are so much more affordable!

The path wound up and down, with mud, garbage, and cracked concrete for what seemed like kilometers. Hundreds, if not thousands of paths led off from the “main route” that we walked. Some paths led to homes directly, others were stairs that continued into deeper crevices of the favela.  The place was amaze: nothing was in order, nothing was labeled.  It would literally take the knowledge of someone who lived and breathed the favela from birth to understand the complex routes of Rocinha.  Yet, almost surprisingly, the people were friendly. Obviously they knew our guide very well, and we were there during the middle of the day, but everyone was just as curious as we were! The kids were happy that random gringos wanted to see their homes. The women making beads to sell on the beach loved to banter and flirt with the white men on the tour, and the bakers on our path were happy to sell us their fresh goods and make a few dollars.

Obviously, I would not recommend exploring a favela alone based on how nice the people we met were. Without a guide, and during the night, a favela would be a very dangerous place. Drug dealers, the very poor, and the people who live day to day in a corrupted community, are the reasons favelas and police are so closely linked. Rio’s police force has been diligently working to clear out drugs and weapons from each of the favelas, one at a time. But having a full-fledged weapons war is a sketchy operation in a tight knit society where only the residents know the roads, and where weapons are around every corner. However, for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup, Rio is trying to clean up its act. The police announce on television, a week before a raid, exactly where and when they will be entering a favela. That gives time for the drug dealers to leave, and avoid any conflicts. Whether this tactic works is hard to judge, but propaganda says it has been beneficial thus far. Either way, it looks like favelas are in for the long haul in Brazil. Their way of life is so integrated into society, it would be close to impossible to change their ways.