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Brazil

Day 36: Salvador

 
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Three men and a boat. With artist Bel Borba, centre, Malaca, and behind us the brightly coloured hull of a saveiro, one of the old wooden sailing boats they're trying to save.
Michael Palin - BrazilIn the 1950s there were over a thousand saveiros plying All Saints' Bay. Malaca remembers first going aboard one of them when he was on holiday at the age of five. Once on it, he never wanted to get off, and, in a sense, never has. New roads and the rise of truck transport superseded the saveiro and today there are only twenty left, of which only a handful are seaworthy. Malaca is determined not to let them die. Though his energy and ebullience, along with the involvement of local cultural icons like Bel Borba, have gone a long way to raising awareness of Salvador's maritime heritage, they have two big problems facing them. One is finding craftsmen with the traditional skills to work on these big, curved timber frames. They only have two or three full-time restorers, and one of them is eighty-four. The other problem is that, thanks to rules imposed by IBAMA, the government's environmental protection agency, the hardwoods from which the boats were built are protected, making it often impossible to get permission for replacement timbers. So they have to cannibalize materials from other saveiros.

Once out on the bay the wind picks up and the sun beats down and beers are called for. There's much macho banter between Malaca and his crew, as they cook sausages and make up a salad of onions, tomatoes and coriander with a dish of farofa on the side. Over lunch Bel talks of his first experience of travelling in the hold of a saveiro. It was like being in a barrel, he remembers, with the smell of cognac, cachaça, tobacco and whatever else they'd carried permeating the timbers.

One of the benefits of being out at sea is being able to look at Salvador from a new perspective. The wide panorama of the city skyline runs from the high- income skyscrapers clustered at its southern end, through the Financial District and the Old Town with its landmark church towers, to the long spread of Liberdade which, like its namesake in São Luís, was the area settled by the slaves freed after 1888. Here, also, it is the poorest part of town.

Our return journey, tacking slowly against the wind, is slow, and it's late afternoon before Sombra da Lua is finally back at the port. On our way back to the Redfish Bel invites us to see one of his workshops, in a row of old houses in one of the steep streets leading from the Pelourinho to Santo Antônio.

The studio is up on the first floor, with his work on sale downstairs. It's all a bit of a clutter and makes for easy browsing. I ask him his inspirations and he shrugs. Just people, he says, people in the street.

His public work is entirely self-generated. The city doesn't pay him, but it more or less lets him decorate where he wants, which to an Englishman sounds almost unbelievably liberating. And it all began because, as he admits, his free-style work wasn't accepted by the established art colleges so he thought he'd just do it himself. 'What moves my creativity is intuition, spontaneity, and even moments of rage. I have to have fun to create,' says Bel.

Hence the seagulls and the orange fish decorating highway embankments. He's currently using some of the old saveiro wood to make new installations and sculptures around the city. There's one in the street outside, a chunky, playfully colourful wooden horse. I can't help but admire the way Bel has remained working at the heart of the city. It certainly isn't the usual genteel art quarter. Only a few yards up from his studio I pass a man slowly sorting through a pile of rubbish, stowing what he selects into different plastic bags before hitching them up onto his shoulder and moving off down the hill, past Bel Borba's shop. Different levels of achievement, maybe, but both men share the same spirit. Waste nothing.
 
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Aboard Sombra da Lua, 'Shadow of the Moon'.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 36: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 157

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