Around the World in 100 Days
Editor’s note: Videographer Sony Stark has embarked on a world tour aboard the MV Explorer to make a documentary about Semester At Sea, a program of the Institute for Shipboard Education.
Second Port of Call: Salvador, Brazil
By Sony Stark
Salvador, Brazil is known as the greatest Afro-Brazilian city, where the music never stops and people rarely sleep. This is especially true during Carnival, usually February through March. It always begins on a Thursday and usually ends the next Wednesday at dawn.
Vibrant Characters, Lively Places
My friends Mary and Phil are professional travelers and swear that this city is one of the liveliest. They celebrated here last year and have the scars to prove it. Albeit it’s September and I’m coming in on a Tuesday, I was still able to track down some vibrant characters and lively places.
Anchors away onboard the M/V Explorer! It’s nearly sunrise and after five days at sea our ship has finally reached its second port of call. Women in wide traditional dresses called Fantasia or Carnavalesque costumes welcome us with wish ribbons (fitas) tied to our wrists like bracelets.
Portuguese is the language spoken here, but knowing Spanish can help. There are 750 of us, majority under 21 years, disembarking on a city of 2.4 million, many living in favelas or shanty towns.
A Need For Vigilance
Semester at Sea (SAS) dutifully prepares us in advance how to handle professional panhandlers, pickpockets and scam artists. Sure enough, within minutes and in broad daylight, three students are accosted and expensive cameras snatched. Fortunately, local witnesses identified the thieves, cops were called and cameras returned. This was the scary wake-up call needed to keep students vigilant about safety.
I’m toting expensive video equipment myself, along with a backpack and a tripod. Most of the time my face is buried in a viewfinder so I need to be especially careful. All partying and play time aside, this is historical Salvador, a city to be taken seriously – even photo-taking of street musicians can cost money.
Our historical walking tour of 16th and 17th century Jesuit and Pelourinho Square begins: cobblestone streets, impressive arches, brightly painted houses. I gather enough footage to move onto an evening of Capoeira.
Capoeira is a dance first performed by African slaves. African slaves were imported here by the Portuguese in the 1500’s. Part martial art and part sport, it’s fascinating to watch and easy to learn. SAS students have days of pent-up energy to burn off so they join the percussion troupe and dance until dawn. Picture it: some 300 white students emulating the dance moves of 25 Pro-Brazilian dancers. What a memorable sight!
The next few days we journey the countryside by guided bus tour. Traffic laws are left to the discretion of the driver, so my advice is to pick a seat where you can’t see what’s happening. I would have been much better off not knowing we nearly hit a donkey, three cars and a pedestrian.
Cachoeira is small rural colonial town set in the oldest farmland in Brazil. It used to be the focus of huge sugar and tobacco plantations but today it exists mainly for sightseeing. Worker women in beautiful lime-colored skirts still roll cigars the old fashioned way, taste-testing their product for quality-assurance.
Our bus continues on a one-lane, rusted-out, 300-meter railway bridge, long overdue for retirement. It creaks and cracks and my camera is rolling and just in case we don’t make it, I’ve got the exclusive! Understand, I come from a sordid background of tv spot news.
“Whew”. Everyone lets out a sigh of relief after we get to the other side.
We eat lunch in an abandoned 17th century monastery converted into a hotel/restaurant for ecotourists. It’s called Pousado Do Convento. A Churrascaria is a restaurant featuring meat sliced off skewers onto dinner plates right at the table. The monastery is not one of these but I’m reminded of it while enjoying the tastiest batter-dip fried pineapple ever. Even a vegetarian can eat hardy at a Churrascaria buffet. Churrascaria Villa’s is not to be missed.
Praia Do Forte is another day trip worth risking. It’s just north of Salvador and plays host to the country’s largest endangered turtle preservation project. September through March are the best months to see green and hawksbill turtles lay and bury their eggs on the shore. Ask about full moon tours. Sometimes the best time to see these slow moving monsters is during a full moon.
The fluffy white sand on Coconut Highway, the name given to the beach strip at Praia Do Forte, is some of the softest I ever tanned on. Colorful fishing boats marooned here make for wonderful photography and the waves are ideal for learning how to surf.
Because of its many creature comforts including unique shopping opportunities Praia Do Forte is incredibly popular with Europeans. If you speak fluent German, French or Italian, you’ll feel more comfortable here than in any other part of Portuguese Brazil.
My last day day trip is not on a bus but a small motor-equipped private boat. Twenty-six of us cross Bahia’s All Saints Bay in 90 minutes to a tropical island called Itaparica. The island is best known for its vacation homes and views of the Salvador in the distance.
Such a Deal
Our guide lets us in on the going price of a modestly-built home, a fraction of what is paid in the Hamptons. I’m tempted to go in halves with another single female but we better not. There are snorkeling activities, a soccer game in progress, and fishing opportunities.
We dine at a place called Restaurant Philippe on the dock, where I mistakenly spread hot mustard on my bread rather than sweet butter. My SPF lotion was remembered, yet still, my tongue goes home torched. Ouch!