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The Best Catholic Party in the World: Bahia's Lavagem do Bonfim

Published by Jeff McCreight, Writer

Country: Brazil

The Experience

A dominant image of the Brazilian street party is being swept up in a crowd of joyful participants, abandoning restrictions, and living in the moment. There are throbbing crowds, tropical music, and a beach backdrop.

Carnival can be too big for some, so there is a Catholic celebration every January in Salvador de Bahia that offers all that Carnival brings, and more. The Lavagem do Bonfim in Salvador will be the best and craziest Catholic party, if not the best all around party you've ever been to.

The roots of the Lavagem do Bonfim festival are tied to an old Baroque church built by the Portuguese in the 1750s in lower Salvador: The Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. During this time Salvador was experiencing dramatic cultural melding as the colonizing Portuguese, the enslaved Africans, and Indigenous groups were forced together in the smelter of this slave-active New World port city.

As in other places where African religion met Catholicism, an interesting evolution of the faith developed. Not recognized by the Vatican, but also prohibited from worshiping alongside Europeans, the African slaves incorporated Catholic dogma into their African Religions, associating each Saint with a corresponding orisha.

Because the Church of Nosso Sehhor do Bonfim was a main fixture in a key area of black settlement, it became an important symbol for the people. Our Lord of the Good End came to represent for the Brazilian Africans: Oxalá, the creator of mankind. Perhaps the most central deity in the pantheon, Oxalá represents God the father. Groups of worshipers organized around the church, and great devotion became widespread. Candomblé is the name in Brazil for the main branch of this religious synthesis, which is considered a cult or tribal religion, and its connections to Christianity are undeniable. Either way, it's widespread here, and you'll see it in full effect during the Lavagem do Bonfim festival.

The important families of Candomblé are still very influential among black communities in Salvador. The past here is vividly remembered, and the faith remains genuinely strong. The devotion as the faithful wash the steps of the church (lavagem), launch boats and fireworks, go to mass, etc., is very real, along with the intensity of the party.

The most accessible part of the ten-day festivities, and the most spectacular, is the huge all-day procession when thousands of people leave from downtown Salvador to walk 8 km through neighborhoods to the Church. In order to better pass the time, scores of local samba and samba-reggae groups show up to march. These are percussion groups comprising dozens of members thundering out infectious tropical grooves on big side slung drums and bells. Each group has its colors and theme and corresponding place in Salvador culture. There are women's groups, African pride, youth groups, and groups that you will have a hard time identifying.

In Brazil, drinking on the street is no big deal. Ramshackle stands all along the route and guys with coolers offer cheap capirinhas, beer, barbecue, and everything else. The procession is lead by rows and rows of distinguished elders dressed in white to honour Oxalá. The women wear big hoop skirts and head wraps in the old Bahiana style. They're fanning themselves, carrying flowers and scented water, and trancing out to the cacophony.

This sweaty mass of blissful worshipers lasts several hours, and pulses down the avenue, sweeping you and your friends along, inviting you in, mixing it up. If you get tired you rest, if you're thirsty you drink then rejoin the flow. We slipped down an alley to the beach and swam to hang out on some guy's boat for a while. Normally I wouldn't do that sort of thing, but in this atmosphere, inhibitions are best abandoned.

As different bands enter and leave your immediate aural zone, you are exposed to the current sound of a Salvador street party, some of the best in Brazil. Eventually you get there in time to witness other events and occurrences that you will little understand, but that's okay. Part of the fun of Salvador Carnival is being in way over your head, forced to form impressions about things that are completely foreign to you. Be respectful, always. The celebratory vibe here is infectious, and you'll quickly feel welcomed, if not exactly at home.

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When to Go to Lavagem Do Bonfim

The Lavagem do Bonfim happens on the second Thursday after Three Kings Day in the Catholic calendar (on January 6th). There are no special arrangements to be made, just show up earlyish that morning in the lower city in front of the elevator. It will be easy to find thanks to the crowds. Try to link up with some friends or make new ones. Watch events unfold, but participate as well for best results.

Odds n' Ends

Don't forget sunscreen. The tropical sun is brutal, and you will be at its mercy all day long out in the street. A bottle of water and a snack wouldn't be a bad idea either. Don't take anything too valuable so that you can relax. Some pocket money for drinks and food and bus fare home is enough.

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Language Guides

Italian , Japanese , Portugese are some of the languages spoken in Brazil. If you know of a freely available phrase book or podcast for one of the missing languages, let us know!


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