Note: This is part three of a series about my world cup trip. Read part one here about Natal and USA/Ghana, part two about Porto de Galinhas and Costa Rica Italy here, part three about Manaus, Sao Paulo, Natal and USA/Portugal, Chile/Netherlands and Uruguay/Italy, part four about Recife and USA/Germany and Costa Rica/Greece, or the entire series here.
After watching Costa Rica advance to the quarterfinals, we set out to the south, aiming for Salvador, about 750km away. Every Brazilian we’d told we were driving south to Salvador looked at us like we were crazy and tried to convince us to change our plans. They said the road was terrible, there were frequent robberies, potential kidnappings, random objects in the road to get you to slow down so that people could rob you, and that many of the police were so corrupt that you weren’t even supposed to stop for the police if they tried to stop you. I assumed this was another case of south americans exaggerating the danger, but I looked online on trip advisor and found dozens of stories of bad roads and dangerous conditions.
We needed to get to Salvador for the US game three days later and we wanted to see the beautiful Brazilian coast line, so we decided to go. Because the Costa Rica game went to extra time and penalties and we got stuck in traffic, we ended up leaving Recife after dark. We stopped at a truck stop for a traditional meal of grilled meat, farofa, beans, rice and fruit juice and planned our route south. I so wish I had a russian style dashboard cam for this drive, as it was one of the craziest of my life.
Within 20 miles of leaving Recife, the road went from decent highway to a two lane road with no shoulder, car eating pot holes and heavy truck traffic. This route connects Brazil’s third and fifth largest city, but at least half of it is worse than anything I’ve ever driven on, even in South Africa. Over the next few hours we avoided: a road kill horse that was blocking our lane, a fully intact truck tire in the middle of the road and a two and a half foot long piece of metal that would have popped our tires.
After avoiding pot hole after pot hole in the now dense fog, we saw red flashing lights off in the distance. We had been told not to stop for police, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do when we came to the flashing lights. As we got closer, we saw that the police were blocking the road. What to do? We slowed down and got closer and we saw the entire road sparkling in our headlights. And then we saw it. A jackknifed semi truck blocking 80% of the road that had spilled its entire contents across the road: 10,000+ now shattered glass beer bottles. The police had used shovels to clear two tire paths for cars to pass and were trying to direct traffic.
We finally cleared the area and pulled into Maceió, which we later learned is the most violent city in Brazil. As I was pulling into the city, I read an article that said Maceió was mostly lawless, people solved problems with knives and that the police could be bought off for even the biggest of crimes. It was late, I was tired and we weren’t paying too much attention as we sped into the city, keeping up with traffic going 110km per hour, blasting through red lights, in 50km zones.
As we got closer to our hotel, I tried to turn left and had to take evasive action to avoid an oncoming car, as I’d turned down a one way street. That oncoming car was a police car with its lights on. I figured we were screwed and he’d stop us and maybe demand a bribe. But he just kept on going and didn’t pay us a second thought. I can’t think of many other places in the world where you turn the wrong way down a one way street, almost crash head on into a police car and don’t get pulled over. The entire drive reiterated why Brazilians were mad about the world cup. Basic infrastructure connecting the 3rd and 5th biggest city just didn’t work. And was outright dangerous.
The next day we went to Praia Francesa, a small beach town about 30 minutes south of Maciaó. It was absolutely beautiful and really relaxing after the long, harrowing drive the night before. Besides for the natural beauty, the first thing I noticed was the amount of people with knife wounds. On their faces. On their chests. On their legs. I looked it up later and found articles saying that people solved their problems with knives instead of fists, guns or calling the police. And it showed. I bet we saw 10+ people that afternoon with some sort of knife scar, including our waiter who had a mouth to ear scar.
After spending the day at the beach, we headed south again, with the intention of getting to a small town about an hour from Salvador. We missed our turn off and by about 1030pm, ended up in Conte, a tiny town about 120km from Salvador. We were some of the only tourists in town and stayed in a beautiful hotel for about $50 for the night. We ate dinner at a small restaurant where locals were drinking beer and sampled the local food.
Salvador and its region has some of the most interesting food in Brazil. It’s the center of afro-brazilian culture and you can see the influences in everything, but most of all the food. There are dishes that are very similar to southern food in the US, including Acarajé, which is very similar to hush puppies, boiled peanuts and stewed chicken with spices. Acarajé, one of my favorites and a ubiquitous street food, is made of smashed up black eyed peas and then covered with okra, boiled shrimp, greens and sauce.
There’s also fish and seafood stew cooked with spices, served with the stew sauce thickened by manioc flour. I had this stew in Salvador and had to convince the waiter to let me order it, as he thought the shrimp and fish stew, along with the manioc would be too much for my gringo digestive system. I’m glad I was able to convince him, as it was by far my favorite dish I tried in Brazil.
Acai is the hidden gem of Brazilian snacks. I’d had acai juice before and didn’t really like it, but the frozen acai with bananas, granola and honey. I had it for breakfast, in hot weather on the beach and after hangovers. An incredible treat that I wish we had either in Chile or in the US.
In Conte, I sampled a manioc and chicken stew that had been cooked for 4+ hours in a spicy broth, while my friend had carne de sol, the most popular meat dish in the region. We also ate cheese grilled over open coals, another ubiquitous street food in the region. It’s really easy to always order grilled meat when you’re in Brazil, but if you go off the beaten path a bit, you can find really interesting, flavorful dishes.
We got up early the next morning, ate Brazilian fruit for breakfast, and then headed south toward Salvador and the USA Belgium game. We stopped for a coconut water halfway to Salvador, then drove to the mall near where we would be staying to take the shuttle to the game.
Salvador was my favorite city I visited this trip and I would go back again. It’s a city that made sense to host world cup games. The historic Arena Fonte Nova is located downtown, within walking distance from Pelorinho, Salvador’s historic center, the beach and areas with bars. Located between a major street, a favela and a beautiful lake, the redone stadium is beautiful from the outside and had good sight lines from inside. We bought beers outside the stadium from entrepreneurial Brazilians and got into the stadium.
I had tickets from the US supporters club and was expecting to be in an all US section as I had been in the previous games, but FIFA screwed it up and I was in a mixed section with Belgians, US fans and Brazilians. I’d stood and cheered the entire first three games with thousands of other US fans, but this time I had to sit as Belgium dominated the first half. The US were lucky to be tied at halftime, but were still in the game.
My friend and I decided to move seat locations and stand with other US fans in another section, which improved the atmosphere. Tim Howard stood on his head the entire game, turning in the best goalkeeping game I’ve ever seen. Belgium really should have scored two or three times in regulation, but Howard kept them out. In the last seconds of the game, the US missed it’s chance win the game, missing a wide open chance from about six yards out.
Belgium finally broke through in extra time and scored twice, but the US fought back, scoring quickly and almost scoring again off a beautifully executed set piece. It would be have been nice to see the US play more attacking in the Belgium game, but it was a good end to a fun world cup run. I was surprised how anti-US the Brazilian crowd in Salvador was, chanting “USA go home,” “bye bye USA,” and whistling loudly to drown out our cheers whenever we got something started. Although the US advanced to the round of 16 again, just like 2010, it was a good world cup that showed US progress. Hopefully Klinsmann learns from this world cup and puts in a good showing for Copa America 2016 in the US.
The next day was a public holiday, for Bahia independence day. Salvador de Bahia, founded in 1500, was the first settlement by the Portuguese and just oozes history. We drove to Pelorinho, the old city, which gets its name from the stockades where the Portuguese originally hung and tortured slaves and locals. We watched the celebratory parade with full brass marching bands and dancers, had a beer and enjoyed the old architecture. Everyone was incredibly nice, open and willing to talk to us. This was true everywhere in Brazil, but especially true in Salvador.
We spent the next day in Barra, one of Salvador’s many beaches, enjoying the sun, caipirinhas and warm water. Barra is one of the only beaches in Brazil where you can see the sunset, which was absolutely beautiful. The Brazilians on the beach stood up and cheered as the sun went down, thanking it for making the day a great one. We decided to watch Brazil vs. Colombia in Pelorinho, the old section of town. People piled out of their homes to set up chairs in the streets and watch the game on tvs perched from windows and porches. When Brazilian won, this was the reaction:
I went to one last game, the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, which was a tight, exciting and chance filled game. The entire crowd were behind the Costa Ricans, willing them to win. Both teams had great chances, but neither could convert. The Dutch manager substituted goal keepers in the last minute of extra time and his gamble paid off. Tim Krul, the substitute, taunted, psyched out and disrupted the Costa Ricans and then saved two of their shots, winning the game for the Dutch and sending them through. The atmosphere was electric, with the Brazilians singing anti-Argentina songs throughout the entire match at full volume. Argentines sang right back.
By the end of my three week trip, I was ready to sleep in my own bed and stop traveling, but I was sad to leave sunny, warm Salvador for cold, rainy Santiago. It was an amazing trip through northern Brazil and I’d love to go back to explore more of Salvador and the surrounding area, along with southern brazil. Although it’s still four years away, I can’t wait for the world cup in 2018, even if it is in Russia.