Carnaval. What is Carnaval exactly?
Technically it is supposed to be a time to celebrate before the Catholic season of Lent comes and partying, drinking, among other escapades are supposed to take a hiatus. It is supposed to be the last time to get everything out of your system before a time of fasting, prayer, and service.
Carnaval is much more than that and it can have many faces.
There are so many lenses one can look at Carnaval through. There is the point of view of avid participants, what an exciting time to take a break from work, school, and the day to day pressures of keeping up with society’s idea of a ‘good person’. There is the point of view of the tourist; what a great cultural experience, the various types of music, the dances, the costumes, among the other cultural aspects that can be discomforting or exciting such as the frequency in which strangers kiss each other, the crowded streets, the five day continuous all day and all night drinking and dancing. There is the point of view of the pious traditionalist; frustration with the scantily clad clothing of dancing women, disgust at the sexual liberation, anger that while Carnaval leads up to a Christian holiday it in fact does not maintain religious values. There is the point of the slightly frustrated independent woman; frustration at being grabbed or at having someone grab your face and attack your lips without your permission, the feeling that you can’t go anywhere alone or without a group of men because drunk people are unpredictable, the sadness at watching the beyond talented dancing women be sexualized through the lens of culture.
Carnaval is an opportunity for freedom, an opportunity to pursue entertainment and desire, an excuse to become inebriated, sing a little too loud, dress up as someone else, dance until your feet hurt, and kiss as many people as you can (providing you follow the recommendation of being single for Carnaval). Most of these things in and of themselves are beyond enjoyable, I always like to dance until my feet hurt and when I know the words to all the songs, I find myself without a voice the next day. But some of these things are unique to the culture of Brazilian Carnaval itself.
My Carnaval adventure started on a Friday night and went until a final event on Tuesday. In some cities it lasts for weeks. Let me give you a quick overview of what I did so if you find yourself in Brazil for Carnaval, you can know what to expect.
Some friends came into town and my roommate and I met them downtown where the free city offered entertainment was happening. We ate a quick meal sitting on the sidewalk listening to the music, mind you it was 10:00 p.m. and as we sat, people came buy to sell peanuts and decorative headbands. We also had front row seats to watch the police gruffly stop and frisk people that they deemed a threat, mostly young men, mostly wearing baggier clothes, what one might consider “thugs” at first sight.
We spent some time talking and enjoying our dinner, watching the waiters dance Samba, and humming along with the songs we knew. Then, we made our way to the event.
The music being played was amazing, although unfamiliar so I couldn’t sing at the top of my lungs. All of the groups were Afro-Brazilian groups and they played Samba among other music styles. Women around us danced Samba and after we were caught staring, came over to try and teach us. The alcohol peddlers made their way through the crowd selling cheap tubes full of some sort of alcohol that was not very tasty no matter what color you picked. The people selling water and larger quantities of alcohol stayed in one spot and let the world come to them, knowing that they were a necessary part of this equation and also charging extremely different prices from their neighbors for bottles of water.
The presence of the police force put a damper on the night for me simply because they made me nervous. Rarely do I feel nervous around armed guards, but in Brazil it has always made me feel uncomfortable. The stopping and frisking as well as watching them pull out Brazilian men and hitting them above the head, did nothing to ease my unrest. Nor did the fact that people walked by and grabbed my hair, touched my face, violated my space because I was something different, my golden hair was something new, my pale skin something necessary to touch. The smell of drugs, the amount of alcohol, and the gut feeling that something was amiss, made for an evening of less enjoyment and eventually heading home early at 1:00 a.m. instead of staying until the parade through the streets started at 6.
After a nice long sleep that never seems to be long enough, my roommate and I packed up our stuff and went to spend the day and night in a nearby town where a friend of mine lives. We rode with a kind stranger who had offered a ride to anyone headed that direction on facebook, and we made it there in no time at all. We spent our day exploring the town, house, and nearby lakehouse where my friend grew up. It was a wonderful and calm day, especially following the night of discomfort.
When time for Carnaval celebrations came, we put on our special abadas, said goodbye to the dogs, and made our way to the main downtown street. In a smaller town, it seems that everyone goes to the same area to celebrate.
It was raining and the beginning of our musical parade party was delayed, but in no time at all we were following a large float/semi trailer with booming speakers and multiple entertainers down the street. Drummers came out and played behind it, you could stop and by a shishkabob, everyone was dancing and singing all of the familiar popular Carnaval songs. People were dressed up, everyone had on their special shirts although some were cut and tailored to be more personal, and not once did someone reach out to grab my hair or my face. It was safe. My friend was related to half of the town and knew the other half, it was like being home. It was exactly the kind of fun time I was looking for, a night to dance and sing with all of my friends (although granted I had just met most of these people, but I can only imagine if I had been a part of that community for my whole life how wonderful the experience would be). This Carnaval reminded me of my past Carnaval experience in the small town where I lived for a year.
Once our group had finished going through, we made our way out, grabbed a bite to eat, and watched as the next group set up, focusing on sertaneja music. Then we made our way back to the car, not too late in the evening (1:00 a.m.) and went to bed.
On Sunday, we had more of a vacation day than a party day. We spent some time at my friend’s lake house, I tried a stand up paddle board for the first time and we got a chance to take a boat ride around the lake. It was lovely.
Later that day we made our way to the bus station, caught a city to city bus home and then took a taxi back to our apartment where we curled up with a book while it rained outside.
Monday came and we spent most of the day cleaning the house and relaxing, just enjoying our time exploring the neighborhood. We got açaí, as we do most days and then we decided to go out for pizza. There was a bloco being hosted down the street from us near the pizza place so we stopped by to buy some stickers for our face and some hair decorations while dancing around and watching people play in the streets. Eventually a friend came and met us and we danced around a little longer before the whole thing ended at 11:00 p.m. sharp and the street was opened back up to the public.
Tuesday was an exciting day because my sister came into town. She was the first relative that I had as a visitor in Brazil and only the second American that I had a chance to share my second country with. After a few botched phone calls at the São Paulo airport she was on her flight and after a short uber ride, she was snuck into my apartment for the next couple of days.
We took her out for açaí and then found a large bloco called Monobloco (a group from Rio playing near our house) to attend. We made our way over to the soccer stadium where a huge semi truck was located pulling entertainers and more booming speakers. We had met up with a group of 5 friends and so we had our own small community amidst the crowded streets. Everyone was shoulder to shoulder, and with the exception of the discomfort of not having room to dance my heart out and some people taking advantage of the last night of carnaval to
attempt to kiss everyone, it was a great evening. The trio electrico played all types of music from samba to rap and they were fantastic entertainers. It lasted for a few hours and the whole time we walked alongside the music on a closed off street with thousands of others, dancing and singing the night away.
We made our way home as it ended and then found our way to more açaí.
If I were doing Carnaval again, I would hope I would be doing it somewhere that feels safe, somewhere not extremely crowded so that I can possibly dance, and somewhere where I know the music, I am surrounded by friends, and I am worry free. If that option isn’t available, I’d settle for a bloco with good music where children are invited and people are having a good time. I think I’m getting a little too old for the crowded streets and the scene with an insane amount of drugs, although experiences are all a part of living, né?