Airplanes full of hopeful
revellers descend on Salvador, Bahia, Brazil,
in the days before Carnaval anticipating the best time of their lives.
While posh and exclusive hotels are claustrophobically booked up,
many of the poor sleep tucked away in the "safety" of alleyways,
next to dumpsters, on top makeshift garbage bag mattresses.
Americans and Europeans flock to Rio de Janeiro every spring to celebrate
Carnaval. Brazilians know better and go to Salvador. The capital of the northeastern
Brazilian state of Bahia, Salvador is hailed as Brazil’s real party capital
during the days before/after Lent.
Days spent sleeping off
hangovers at one of the cities countless exquisite beaches, followed by nights
of dancing, drinking, and kissing other beautiful Brazilians until dawn.
These activities comprise
the "rigorous" routine of Carnaval. A whole year of planning, pre-parties,
and hype result in blissful seven days of happiness. It’s a party that goes
unmatched in intensity and size anywhere else in the world.
But how exactly does Carnaval
in Salvador work? At least a month before the fiesta, construction crews get
to work. The always sunny main streets of Salvador are lined with camarotesexclusive
VIP boxes where Carnaval goers can watch the festivities with a sense of safety
and comfort above the madness below. One pays a set fee before Carnaval to
ensure nights of safe dancing, eating, and drinking with some of the most
important people in Brazil.
But for the more adventurous
at heart, there lies an even better option to revelling in the festivities
of this annual bash. Every year, the best singers and bands in Brazil sing
to the masses atop of large floats, while those who can afford it pay to wear
the bands signature T-shirt and follow the group along on foot for all the
days of Carnaval.
The official music of
Carnaval in Bahia is called pagode, a slower reggae influenced variation
of samba with sexually charged lyrics. Ivete Sangalo, a spicy Baiana
with a nationally recognized voice, and Chiclete com Banana, the Brazilian
version of Rolling Stones, demanded the highest numbers of eager and fit followers
this past year. Trails of up to 3,000 people per band bounced along after
flashy and speaker laden floats, during every day of Carnaval.
Popular media images of
Carnaval in Salvador da Bahia show Brazil’s gente bonita, the international
definition of the exotic: the most beautiful and perfectly tanned racially
unidentifiable long haired women that the country has to offer alongside of
their equally attractive male counterparts.
Needless to say, the thought
of mixing with these specimens piques the interest of many international tourists.
The easily marketable and sexy image of Carnaval helps the celebration grow
bigger and bigger every year. Yet in a city of two million people, 80 percent
of them of African descent, there are little to no black faces included in
Is it possible that a
whopping 80 percent of the Salvador’s residents leave Carnaval for the hectic
seven days of revelry? Yes, many blacks leave the city to make way for tourists
from other parts of Brazil and few international tourists that are in the
know about Brazilian affairs.
Carnaval’s Ugly Side
Unfortunately, the dark
side of Carnaval in Salvador is exactly that, dark. Dark faces sleeping in
dark alleys, serving dark drinks, dark clothing and dark skin caked with dirt.
It is not an understatement by any means to say that black equals poor in
Bahia. It is the reality of a country shaped by slavery, a struggling economy,
and centuries of racism.
Airplanes full of hopeful
revellers descend on Salvador in the days before Carnaval anticipating the
best time of their lives. Poor people from the periphery cannot afford the
extravagance of taking the bus miles into the city center to set up for the
quasi lucrative benefits of working during Carnaval.
Families walk for hours
with the hopes of making a marginal profit for six days of working, providing
drinks, local food, and security for people who don’t even think twice about
the luxury of being able to afford a one dollar can of soda.
While posh and exclusive
hotels are claustrophobically booked up, many of the poor sleep tucked away
in the "safety" of alleyways, next to dumpsters, on top makeshift
garbage bag mattresses.
While the tourists and
upper-class Bahians spend their days relaxing on the beach and their nights
flirting and dancing, there are families of dark faces resting on the street,
lying on top of cardboard boxes and garbage bags to get comfortable.
Lost little children roam
the streets during the height of the Lent celebrations begging everyone they
see for money to buy food, bottle cans to trade in for pennies, and that last
sip from a water bottle. Kilos and kilos of cans are collected by children
and the elderly every day.
In the early morning hours
as the party has died down for the day, these same families can be seen rummaging
through garbage cans for scraps of food to feed their beautiful yet hungry
Hundreds and hundreds
of cans of beer are sold by young fit street touts that sometimes don’t even
break even in their earnings. The reality of the failing capitalism in Brazil
can be too much to bear when malnourished children can be found on every street
With an illiteracy rate
of more than 40 percent in the city of Salvador and unemployment at equally
astonishing highs, it is amazing to witness the remarkably strong will of
Bahia’s black population to overcome their living situations and provide decent
homes for their families.
Sadly, there are many
factors including lack of money and access to healthcare that constantly impede
the success of these ostracized communities. Not to mention the police.
During Carnaval, throngs
of military police walk in groups of 5 to 10 men wearing helmets and camouflage
and carrying rifles, batons, and pistols. The experience of a festival that
celebrates inhibitions and merriment juxtaposed with menacing troops throws
off the mood of those revellers sober enough to notice.
Police trucks are full
of young poor black men that are locked behind bars as they watch the city
party through the evening. It is a not so urban legend in Salvador that four
black boys are ruthlessly murdered by the police every night of every year.
There is an undeniably eerie undertone of poverty and oppression that undermines
the joyful and carefree pretensions of one of the worlds most sought out parties.
Carnaval is a visual manifestation
of the problems of Salvador and Brazil. The city is unjust and unfair and
Carnaval throws these inequalities into the light for the world (or maybe
just Brazilians) to see. The astonishingly obvious injustices of the world’s
largest afro-Brazilian city go unnoticed year after year by millions of tourists
Race and class issues,
like in most countries, play a huge role in the social problems of Brazil.
Salvador da Bahia, a city with a majority black population, has a ridiculously
low number of ethnic minorities in political or economic power.
Access to public universities
is extremely biased, leading the nations of black youth to dream of careers
in the entertainment and sports disciplines: the only fields where blacks
are praised and welcomed in the country. This city with a famed international
reputation for being a racial paradise, does not even come close to fulfilling
Luckily the creation of
afro-Brazilian community groups, theatre, and political groups are raising
awareness on the heightened injustices that take place every year during Carnaval
in Bahia. The paradox of Carnaval experiences for rich and poor, white and
black, will soon come to an end. In the beautiful city of Salvador, there
lies a glimmer of hope for the future.
Rayme Samuels is a journalism student at the University of Westminster in
London, England. Last spring, she spent the semester abroad in São
Paulo and Salvador, Brazil and independently travelled throughout the states
of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Ceará. As a native
New Yorker, she enjoys travel, language, and writing about her experiences,
however complex they may have been. Please feel free to contact Rayme with
any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.