No matter how nice a hotel is, after a couple of days cooped up inside, you crave the delights of the outside world. Thus, after three days of what was a really engaging international conference on cultural co-operation, and despite the advice of our well-meaning but (we thought) unnecessarily over-protective hosts, Elena, a colleague from Bulgaria, and I decided to go for a walk. It was a typically magical Salvador de Bahia day – sun hanging heavily overhead, the sea glistening such a brilliant azure there seemed no join on the horizon between the water and the cloudless sky, and the beat of the city was at its throbbingly most infectious. We walked along the coast, riding the wave of the city’s energy, till we were lost in time and only vaguely aware of the distance we had walked from the hotel. We smiled past the many shades of Salvadorean Black, pausing briefly along the way, one time to admire the symbols of the city’s religious syncretism at a shrine dedicated to Yemanja, the Yoruba goddess cunningly disguised as and inhabiting the personae of the Virgin Mary, another time to converse with a dreadlocked brother who walked up to me and started speaking to me in a mixture of Yoruba and Portuguese and we were all blown away by the fact that I am actually Yoruba (“But how did he KNOW?” asked Elena. “He felt me”, I explained, as puzzled as she was).
Then we were at the Pelourinho, the magical soul and cultural heartbeat of Salvador; a hill within a city of hills that night or day jived to its own sound, a resonant perpetual drumbeat where the white-clad Mamas fried their acaraje on one side of the road and Capoeiristas gracefully demonstrated their balletic martial arts on the other to the most mellifluent soundtrack of the twanging of the berimbau, the clanging of the agogo and the bouncing pulsations of the atabaque. We were carried along on the rhythm, wandering from one street to the other oblivious to the night falling, as we became one with the Pelourinho smile. Every new street corner we turned yielded new treasures for the senses to savour in this voyage of discovery – and then one turning maybe too many – we were suddenly standing in darkness, in complete solitude and more disconcertingly, in a place of complete silence. The many sounds that had been such pleasurable invasions to our ears for the past five hours could have been a million miles and years ago. A dark narrow road stretched out ahead of us, right on the edge of the hill. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness, and then I saw that to one side of the hill on our left was a sheer drop. I vaguely recalled seeing in the daytime as we had walked up towards the Pelourinho that like many Brazilian hillside city neighborhoods, one side was used as a refuse dump. I guessed that was where we were.
On the other side of the road, there seemed a dark emptiness. We could only see a short distance ahead of us, maybe 20 or 30 metres, as the road bent. Surely, we were so close to the vibrancy and life of the Pelourinho that this road could only be short and all roads would certainly lead us back into the heart of it all in no time. So rather than go backwards, we stepped forward. I felt my friend tensing besides me, but quietly followed. As we reached the bend in the unlit road, we could feel an unseasonal cool breeze and a light mist from the dark emptiness to our right-hand side. Through the mist, we suddenly noticed tombstones. And then from the midst of them, we felt eyes on us and figures emerged, of an elderly man in a dark coat with a shocked white afro and beard, and an equally elderly lady besides him. They stood silently, just watching us. I became aware of the hairs on the back of my neck standing, but felt unwilling or unable to run.
“Stay calm”, I whispered to my colleague, but as much to myself, not daring to look at her. “Walk faster, but don’t run.” And as we walked further down the road, more of these spectral figures silently emerged from the mist to stand by the reclining road just as we approached. Unmoving, they just stood there and looked at us.
Then suddenly, we turned another bend and we were at the bottom of the hill, and at the end of the road. The streets were lit and we could once again hear the merry sounds of the city. At that point, we both looked at each other for the first time in ages and exhaled. I looked back at the road we had come down, and all I could see was darkness. The Pelourinho called in the opposite direction. We followed the drumbeat.