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Notes from an author: Fran Bryson

A journey to Salvador reveals a deeply religious festival where Bonfim, the patron saint of the state of Bahia, is worshipped as a miracle worker

Notes from an author: Fran Bryson

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Opposite the sacristy, inside the Basilica of Our Lord of the Good End, is the Room of Miracles. Its walls are covered by photos, mementoes, and letters — expressions of thanks to the patron saint of the state of Bahia, for answering people’s prayers. There’s a photo of Inácio, a thin, bespectacled man who had diabetes and a wounded leg and was sure he would die until his daughter made a ‘promise’ to the saint, Senhor do Bonfim; now he is cured. In tidy handwriting, Rosa Maria Meira Costa thanks the saint for her exam results. Paula, from Portugal, embroidered by hand her letter of thanks for curing her of lupus.

Each wall is a collage of gratitude: for Vitoria’s baby, for Anderson’s job, for Maria’s new house and car. The saint, depicted crucified on the altar in the basilica, has influenced smokers, eradicated pests, delivered election victories and provided relief from debt. Little wonder there’s a four-day festival in the city of Salvador to honour him. Given Salvador is the gateway to the Brazilian backlands — historically home to the disenchanted and dispossessed — there’s no lack of people in need.

The festival begins with the Lavagem do Bonfim, a procession to the Basílica, led by a group of baianas — women descended from African slaves, who dress traditionally in white hoop skirts and bleached bodices that contrast with their dark skin. Many are maes de santo (leaders of Candomblé communities). The colourful, idiosyncratic gods of this syncretic religion are said to visit Earth to cavort with their followers.

White-dressed folk occupy every sliver of shade. White is the colour of religious ceremonies in Brazil — whether performed by Catholics, Spiritists, sects laying claim to healing powers, or initiates of Candomblé.

Firework smoke puffs in the blue sky as the procession moves off to a cacophony of trumpets, saxophones, and guitars, led by the signature instruments of Candomblé: drums. A plump baiana dancing next to me drops her empty beer can to the littered road — my cue to snag a beer from one of the vendors who flank the three-mile route. Ice-crystals spill from the can and down my white blouse as I’m bumped by a photographer snapping the baiana-led crowd.

The last day is more serious, less like a carnival. The image of the saint is brought to the Igreja dos Mares (Church of the Seas), shrouded in white and surrounded by red and white roses. Fireworks announce the procession’s start. A white-robed priest, wearing a blue baseball cap, clambers onto a trio eléctrico, a truck-cum-mobile stage, to sing hymns. On the road, the crowd parts, as if for the hand of Moses, allowing the image to pass. The faithful raise their palms toward him — a gesture I associate more with Candomblé, where the faithful raise their palms to catch the axé (energy emitted by a passing deity).

Traffic stops to let the procession by; passengers watch through open windows, some chat with pedestrians. A woman raises pearl-tipped fingers to her collarbone at the spectacle. In a doorway lies a urine-stained hobo, head buried under a pile of newspaper.

It’s a serious business accompanying the saint on the mile-long journey to the Bonfim church. Today, vendors sell only water and soft drinks, but rockets still shoot into the air; charting the return of the saint to his altar. From there, the Lord of the Good End can continue working his miracles.

Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)