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Lessons in Revelry

Lessons in Revelry

‘Carnaval’, smiled my friend as he dropped me at my door, ‘don’t you
just love it’. So, this I thought, is carnaval, coming home at 7am, slightly drunk and
with that song about cachaça still ringing in my ears.
By Philip Blazdell

If you want to annoy, or at least mildly upset a Brazilian, casually mention to them
that Brazil is only famous for three things: football, samba and carnaval. Football and
samba I understand, in fact one of my earliest memories, long before I ever knew where
Brazil was, was watching Zico score a stunning goal in a thrilling World Cup match.
Carnaval, however, is a different matter. Everyone seems to know something about carnaval,
but no one I spoke to could really divine it for me in a few words.

My trusted Lonely Planet guide book says it’s when people descend on mass ‘to get
drunk, get high, bag some sun and exchange exotic diseases’. Which I thought sounded all
well and good until I considered that I don’t have any exotic diseases to exchange. For
the five months I have been here in Brazil I have heard carnaval mentioned almost
everyday, but yet I was still not really sure what it was really about. It seemed the only
way to understand was to experience it first hand.

Carnaval’s roots go back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who celebrated the rites of
spring. In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church tried to suppress all pagan ideas, it
failed when it came to this celebration. The Church incorporated the rite into its own
calendar as a period of thanksgiving. The nations of Europe, especially France, Spain, and
Portugal, gave thanks by throwing parties, wearing masks, and dancing in the streets.

All three colonizing powers carried the tradition with them to the New World, but in
Brazil it landed with a difference. Not only did the Portuguese have a taste for abandoned
merriment, (they brought the entrudo, a prank where merry-makers throw water,
flour, face powder, and many other things at each other’s faces), but the Negro slaves
also took to the celebration. They would smear their faces with flour, borrow an old wig
or frayed shirt of the master, and give themselves over to mad revelry for the three days.
Many masters even let their slaves roam freely during the celebration. Since the slaves
were grateful for the chance to enjoy themselves, they rarely used the occasion as a
chance to run away.

The Friday before Carnaval I was killing time wondering around the local supermarket.
To the casual observer it might have seemed as a state of national emergency had been
declared. Beer was being rationed (only five cases per person), people were fighting with
two, sometimes three trolleys loaded with meat, and the queues at the checkouts stretched
almost the length of the store. When I finally made it to the checkout I asked the young
assistant why it was so busy. She looked at me quizzically; I guess my question was
blatantly obvious, ‘carnaval’ she smiled.

So, this I thought, is carnaval. Chaos in the supermarkets and beer rationing. Rather
like Christmas Eve in England.

My own carnaval had begun a week before with the Carnaval da Saudade in a local club
(which means roughly something like Carnaval of longing or home sickness). The Carnaval da
Saudade is the traditional ‘first shout’ of carnaval and marks the beginning of the
country becoming a little bit more unglued than normal. The 13-piece band were banging out
the classic songs of carnaval, many of which seem to be about drinking cachaça or
how special Brazil is whilst the dance floor was packed with people dressed in their most
exotic and colourful clothes.

It seemed, to a casual observer such as myself, that sartorial elegance had been
suspended for the night—which gave me a good opportunity to deep into the back of my
wardrobe and pull out the shirt I had made for me one particularly drunken night in India,
the one which my girlfriend had sworn never to be seen dead with me wearing. The party
went on well into the early hours and as we staggered out the club the sun was rising. My
ears were ringing and I was drenched in sweat. ‘Carnaval’, smiled my friend as he dropped
me at my door, ‘don’t you just love it’.

So, this I thought, is carnaval, coming home at 7am, slightly drunk and with that song
about cachaça still ringing in my ears.

Early on Saturday, the first proper day of carnaval, I was driving along the packed
highway with some friends. The roads, which are normally empty, were packed with cars with
case upon case upon case of beer stacked impossibly high on the roof. The traffic jams
were horrendous and to kill time I asked my friend what carnaval was really about. He told
me that as carnaval season opens, Brazilians start to make a sort of annual balance. It’s
a time to forget or recall an old love affair, to celebrate a new passion or search for
new romantic experiences. It’s also a time to protest against corrupt politicians, to
complain about the poverty and give creative suggestions to turn the country a fair place
to live in. It’s also, he winked at me, a good opportunity to have the odd beer or two.

So, this I thought, is also carnaval—a time of social readjustment.

A few minutes later we were pulled over at the first of a number of police roadblocks.
Normally I have no problems with the authorities here, unlike some other countries I have
lived in, and it is extremely unusual to be stopped whilst driving, in fact this was the
first time it had ever happened to me.

As we climbed out the car and I was ticked off for not wearing my seat belt I asked the
police man why we had been stopped. He told me it was nothing personal, and that it was
just normal carnaval procedure to check on all cars to make sure no one is too
drunk or the car is not too stolen. ‘After all’, he told me, ‘anything is possible
in carnaval’. We were soon on our way, and I had another definition of carnaval for my
rapidly growing list: carnaval is a time when anything is possible and the authorities
hold their breath and hope for the best.

Prior to 1840, the streets of Brazilian towns ran riot during the three-day period
leading up to Ash Wednesday with people in masks hurling stink bombs and squirting each
other with flour and strong-smelling liquids; even arson was a form of entertainment. In
1840, the Italian wife of a Rio de Janeiro hotel owner changed the carnaval celebration
forever by sending out invitations, hiring musicians, importing streamers and confetti,
and giving a lavish masked ball. In a few years the masked ball became the fashion and the
wild pranks played on the streets disappeared.

Today Rio de Janeiro has the biggest and best-known pre-Lenten carnaval in the
world—its most colourful event is the Samba School Parade. The samba schools taking
part in the parade—each roughly having three to five thousand participants—are
composed overwhelmingly of poor people from the city’s sprawling suburbs. Every carnaval,
Rio’s samba schools compete with each other and are judged on every aspect of their
presentation by a jury. Each samba school must base its effort around a central
theme. Sometimes the theme is a historical event or personality. Other times, it is a
story or legend from Brazilian literature. The costumes must reflect the theme’s
historical time and place. The samba song must recount or develop it, and the huge floats
must detail the theme in depth.

One of the most popular schools, 5500 dancers in 47 contingents, this year based its
presentation on the sad years of military dictatorship. Its floats recalled the victims of
nearly two decades of iron fisted rule. Even the sudden, and mysterious explosion of one
of the school’s floats did not dampen the schools enthusiasm and their chant of ‘I go from
ashes to celebration’ seemed to touch a collective nerve. My own personal favourite
school, Caprichosos de Pilares, based their theme on ‘God Save Brazil’, their
message was clear—only the supernatural, not economic reforms can save Brazil, and
that God had best be Brazilian.

This is the glitzy visually stunning tourist orientated carnaval that everyone knows
about, but in the Northeast carnaval is just as important. Towns such as Salvador and
Olinda have some of the most famous, and according to a lot of people, most authentic
carnavales, the main difference is that they take place on the street whereas Rio’s
carnaval take place mainly in balls and clubs which can be prohibitively expensive. I had
chosen Bebiribe to experience my first carnaval for two reasons: it was close to Fortaleza
and it was considered to be one of the state’s finest.

By the time we arrived at the beachfront house we were staying at the party was well
underway. The barbeque that is a focal point of Brazilian life was almost ready and the
beer was chilled to perfection—as only Brazilian beers can be. Although I only knew a
few people there I was made instantly welcome and soon found myself centre of attraction.
It often strikes me that the Brazilians love only one thing more than children, and that
is a visiting foreigner who is willing to try and learn a few words of Portuguese, try to
understand the culture and accept things for what they are (it also helps if they are
football mad and admit freely to crying last summer in France).

In between lumps of perfectly cooked meat my host explained to me how important at this
time of year it was to be with family and friends, and that as I was so far away from
home, I had to make myself at home and consider myself amongst family. Being with family
and reconciling the past year that is carnaval he told me.

No sooner than I had finished my food I was dragged off for a cruise on the beach. I
stood on the back of the neon pink beach buggy, as the front seat was taken up with the
driver’s cooler of beer. We went shooting round the beach at about 100 km/h. Suddenly
whilst bouncing over the sand dunes the driver, who was old enough to be my father, would
see some pretty girls and would shoot off in the opposite direction to chase them along
the beach, we chased another group into the sea and spent an amusing five minutes driving
in circles around another whilst they threw bags of flour at us. I was still hanging on
the back for dear life, tears rolling down my cheeks. So this is carnaval I thought, doing
all the things you really wanted to do all year, but for some reason, you couldn’t.

Later that night, after a few more beers and a lot of good conversation we headed off
for carnaval proper. I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. So far the day had been
like any other normal day in Brazil—a little bit of drinking, a little bit of
silliness and a little bit of chasing semi naked girls around the beach in a neon pink
buggy. Driving to the next town for the carnaval was something incredible, almost beyond
my comprehension.

Every conceivable road law was broken; I saw seven people in a buggy and people sitting
on the bonnet of cars, I even saw one car slide gracefully into a military police car with
a sickening crunch of metal. The police didn’t seem too concerned as they were sitting on
a bench, pump action shotguns resting on their knees, drinking cokes and chatting with
some girls. Every car had its boot open and awesome sound systems pumping out loud
distorted carnaval music—Los Hermanos’ Ana Julia seemed to be the most popular
song that night. We left the car about a kilometre away and made our way through the
crowds.

I had received an invitation from the town’s mayor to enjoy carnaval from the VIP area,
but when I arrived and saw the few sad empty boxes overlooking the square and then the
packed throbbing square below I tucked my VIP invite into my shorts and dived headlong
into the mass of humanity. Eventually after much pushing and shoving we made our way to
the central town square (normal capacity about 5000) where 100,000 people were dancing and
sweating in front of a stage. The atmosphere was undeniably tense and electric, but
despite the crush of humanity surrounding me I didn’t feel particularly
threatened—besides, I had only the clothes on my back and a few notes stuffed into my
shorts, anything I couldn’t afford to loose, like my camera, had to be left at home. As I
shoved my way to the front I was sprayed with snow spray and had untold bags of flour
emptied over my head. By the time I reached the stage I was covered from head to toe.

No sooner had we pushed our way close to the front, which was not mean feat, than the
band started blasting out this year’s most popular carnaval song, which is about a
Brazilian guy who falls madly in love with an English girl and the problems he has
communicating with her. The chorus is something like ‘blah blah blah latino
americano…blah blah blah…thank you very much’. 100,000 people screamed ‘thank
you very much’ and it sent shivers down my spine. I found myself screaming along in
Portuguese much to the amusement of my friends. Like they told me, anything is possible
during carnaval.

And than, just when I was loosing myself to the music, a fight broke out. Quite how
anyone had space to throw a punch was beyond me as I barely had room to breath let alone
flail my arms about wildly. I think security handled this in a bit of a heavy handed
manner as they went in fists flying to the group of nuns which had started the
trouble—surely no way to treat ladies of the cloth. Before I knew what was happening
the night was a mess of flying habits, scattered rosary beads and dislodged wimples. Their
opponents, a bunch of beefy black guys wearing nothing but loincloths, and covered from
head to toe in blue paint dispersed quickly into the crowd. I thought about asking my
friends if they had been beaten black and blue—but the translation was too difficult
and I carried on dancing instead.

By now I was squashed in-between a group of rump-shaking pensioners on one side and a
bunch of girls dressed as babies on the other. My shirt was covered in snow spray, water
and flour that was being thrown around in liberal quantities (mostly by me I must add).
The music never stopped, the band went from throbbing number to throbbing number without
pausing even if everyone hadn’t known all the words and the dances it would still have
been the most impressive show I have ever seen.

The energy the band radiated was almost frightening. At one point I was fighting my way
through the crowds for a beer when the band started playing a song about drinking cachaça
(cachaça não é água….) and as on cue everyone began to bounce backwards
and forwards. The sight of 100,000 drunk, sweaty bouncing Brazilians all screaming their
heads off is something to be appreciated—preferably from a safe distance, of a couple
of miles, but definitely not from the middle of the crowd. As I bounced and groped my way
to the nearest beer seller I bumped into a beautiful girl dressed as a devil. She smiled
at me enticingly and I thought: if this is carnaval I love it.

We planned to leave the next day under the vague pretence that I had to prepare my
lectures for a trip to Europe and that we were all tired—real carnaval aficionados
will be shuddering at this—but no sooner had we driven half a kilometre out of town
we were turned back by the police who told us it was too dangerous to try and leave town
now due to the number of drunk people around. It was 7am and none of us had slept. There
was no alternative but to return back to the house and carry on partying. So, this I
thought, rather sleepily, is carnaval, stranded in the middle of nowhere under martial law
in a beach house with 28 hangover Brazilians.

Later that night I was back dancing in Beribe. The crowd was even thicker this time and
as a precaution against having another T-shirt ruined I wore only my shorts and sandals.
No sooner had we squeezed our way into the square then I was attacked by a group of girls
who covered me in head to toe in spray snow. Every time I thought I had lost them in the
crowd they would pop up, spray me with snow, pour flour over me, and then melt back into
the crowd. Once again I thought: this is carnaval and I love it.

Just as I was loosing myself to the music again, Death tapped me on the
shoulder—complete with white face paint and scythe. I started to splutter an
explanation of why I had drunk that last bottle of cachaça last night and how I
would definitely cut down my consumption in the future, when I realised that I was
actually standing on his cloak and he couldn’t move. He smiled as I freed him and gave me
a knowing look "até logo" (see you soon). He was soon moving easily
through the crowd to meet up with a dozen other grim reapers and four dozen priests were
busily getting slightly hammered on cachaça.

Squashed as I was in front of the stage I had no choice but to dance. If I had been
able to look around I would have seen men dressed as women, women dressed as babies, one
group of men dressed as nuns, one group of women dressed as go-go dancers, another group
wearing cloaks and masks from the movie Scream, the odd bare breast and everything
in between. I guess there must have been more than about 120,000 people jammed into the
square.

Once again there were a few small fights throughout the night, but considering the
number of people, the amount of alcohol consumed and the sheer energy of the music I was
greatly impressed with how trouble free the night was, and I will always treasure the
memory of the six burly security guards carrying a screaming and kicking mountain of a man
dressed in a frilly dress shoulder high through the crowds.

Later that night as we made our way home I chatted to some other sweaty, bruised and
slightly drunken revellers. In between singing and declaring their undying love for my
country, which is the opposite of what normally happens, they explained why carnaval is so
important, especially here in the Northeast. They told me that it was a festival that
everyone, regardless of social standing or wealth could participate in. Covered by the
anonymity of carnaval, working class, businessmen, judges and maids dance together. With
new identities, modelled by a costume, all of them reign for a while. It seemed the most
accurate image of carnaval I had heard so far.

We had almost fought our way back to the car when I caught a grubby little child with
his hand in my pocket. Clearly he wasn’t a professional pickpocket as instead of screaming
blue murder and blaming everyone standing around him he just looked miserably at me with
sorrowful eyes. He told me he wasn’t trying to rob me, which would have been difficult as
I had no money anyway, but he wanted my empty beer can, which like a good civic minded
person I had stuffed in my pocket until I came to a garbage can. To authenticate this
story he pointed towards a huge sack of cans which he was dragging behind him. I willingly
gave him my empty can and he explained to me that during the four days of carnaval he
would work collecting cans more or less continuously and the money earned from this allow
him perhaps to buy school books or some food for his family. This, I thought, is also
carnaval.

By the time I got home a few days later I hardly recognised the person who stared back
at me from the mirror. My bloodshot eyes, my stubbled chin and the remnants of a bag of
flour in my hair gave me the look of a wild man. I hobbled on bruised feet (the result of
some excessive bouncing on the part of a rather over zealous, and overweight girl) to my
bed. It had been so long since I last slept that I was vaguely worried if I still
remembered how. I lay quietly trying to find sleep humming a song about cachaça.
In all honesty I was none the wiser in understanding carnaval. I had been there, of that I
was sure, but had I really understood all that I had seen? My final thoughts as sleep
finally claimed me was to find when next year’s carnaval is going to be. Perhaps, then I
will finally understand.

The author grew up in London and left at the earliest opportunity for a
glittering career in Asia. After failing miserably to adapt his Japanese colleagues to an
English sense of humour he took off for sunnier climes. He currently lives, and is
rumoured, works in the NE of Brazil. He has travelled extensively, mostly using other
people’s money—of which he is absurdly proud. He is a regular contributor to this,
and other esteemed travel magazines. He is always happy to receive letters from readers
and will personally reply to all. He may be contacted at philip@dem.ufc.br

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