Samba parade at Rio Sambódramo, 2010. Photo: Ana Ribeiro

Carnaval in Brazil: nostalgia and tips beyond Rio


“Quem me vê sempre calado, distante, garante que eu não sei sambar: Tô me guardando pra quando o Carnaval chegar” (Chico Buarque de Holanda)

It might be the effect of lack of vitamin D, but February is definitely the worst month in the old continent. Besides being gray, depressing and extremely cold, it is especially hard on Brazilian expats. It is the time of the year we usually avoid Facebook, Whatsapp and any other form of modern contact with the other side of the world that gets to experience carnival. The feeling of “I wish I was there” may turn, unexpectedly, to resentment and even rage when you see your friends happily smiling with ridiculous costumes in colorful pictures and you realize you have been using the same ugly sweater since New Year’s Eve— the day your social life in Europe died to be reborn in warmer months.

Not all of us Brazilians particularly like carnival. To be fair, I was never a carnival person myself.

As a teenager, I’d watched my friends skipping meals at school to purchase the largest amount of alcohol possible before carnival started. I’d also observed many relationships failing to survive the social pressure and harassment against being seriously committed during carnival. Finally, I even helped to organize a few megalomaniacal travel plans including stealing someone’s parents’ car, hitchhiking to the beach and camping in nature that resembles the storyline of Werzog’s Fitzcarraldo movie.

Once upon a time, as a mere observer of the excesses of youth, I would prefer renting movies and renewing my library card to enjoy a quiet carnival holiday. Recently, drawing from late-acquired wisdom and probably a bit of nostalgia for things you can’t experience anymore, I’ve revisited the whole carnival experience. Now I am able to smile upon remembered days in a crowded city with no water, no sleep, bad taste music and massively screwed up hangovers caused by cheap alcohol.

For those of you interested in this very special celebration, it is important to contextualize the event in the “greater Brazilian experience.”

Brazil is an enormous country — as a kid my questions of “are we there yet?” on family trips were always answered with the brutal honesty of “still 7 hours to go” no matter where we were going — but that does not mean it is not overcrowded. Carnival makes you understand that those who colonized Brazil did not do a good job at spreading people across the territory. In some of my enlightened moments during carnivals past, I remember thinking to myself, “wait, two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, but this might be happening now.” Be prepared to experience all of Brazil at the same place and at the same time (metaphorically, and somewhat realistically, speaking).

Which brings me to another point: chaos. Brazilians learned how to dominate chaos and I suspect we might actually have invented some varieties of it. Spontaneity is very important for Brazilians in general, and it can be described as the lack of planning and/or organization prior to the moment things take place (to be fair a lot of the official Carnaval festivities actually involve several months of preparation, but spontaneity is still a key element in street parties). Crowds and spontaneity usually end up in a serious stampede and ultimate anarchy. But Brazilians’ ability to deal with chaos (politically and economically as well) and make the best out of it should not be underestimated and Carnaval is a good example of this characteristic.

Wanna join the party?

My tips and advice for carnival (or carnaval) in Brazil come from a collection of personal experiences and friends’ stories gathered over the years. I am not a specialist on the topic; as I suggested before, I haven’t really taken part in the festivities for many years. But I can offer a little bit of guidance into what to expect from certain destinations:

1. Historical cities of Minas Gerais: Ouro Preto, Tiradentes and Diamatina are beautiful architectural and historical towns from Brazil’s colonial period hidden among the mountains of Minas Gerais, surrounded by waterfalls and beautiful nature. If you are interested in culture and historical aspects or enjoying quietness on the countryside, it might not be the best time of the year to visit them. Have you seen pictures of the “running of the bulls” in Pamplona? I would say it could be a similar experience. During carnaval, the tiny historical alleys of these towns are filled with people from all over Brazil that come with a single intent: party day and night. Be prepared for cheap and suspiciously prepared alcoholic mixtures, overcrowded world heritage sites, non-stop partying, constant and extremely loud music, and the warm and welcoming vibe of the “mineiros” (as people form Minas Gerais are called). As an alternative, Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the province, offers a similar kind of locally organized street parties with music, costumes and everything else. Less crowded, cheaper and less touristic, Belo Horizonte is a good option for those who are in the region.

2. Rio de Janeiro: Maybe the most popular carnival destination among foreigners. Carnaval in Rio offers the world famous Desfile das Escolas de Samba (samba school parades) and also street parties (called blocos de carnaval). By paying between a few hundred to thousands of euros, you can get an absurd costume (the coolest ones are given to people who can actually dance) and dance samba (or try your best) in the Sambódramo following the beat of the samba schools’ drums — definitely a once in a lifetime experience if you are into this kind of structured and predicable fun. For those with less money or more enthusiasm about extreme partying, the street parties in Rio offer options for all different kinds of musical tastes. Expect crowds, overly priced beers and tons of tourists like you, but apart from that it is actually one of the greatest times to visit Rio and understand why it is called “the marvelous city”.

3. Salvador: I am afraid the accurate description of what happens in Salvador is not fair to the real thing — a person singing from the top of a modified truck and being followed by hundreds of thousands of people who paid a lot of $$$ to be close to the musical truck. If you cannot really picture it, go and watch YouTube videos. If crowds and local music are not for you, there is also the “camarote” option. Camarotes are VIP areas where you can get massages, DJ music and an endless amount of any kind of alcohol and food you imagine (the magic of open bar) and watch the street party from above. I must admit it took my friends several months to convince me to invest in this particular “carnival experience,” and I don’t regret this decision for a single moment.

4. Pernambuco: In Recife, people can experience one of the most multicultural and traditional street carnival parties with hundreds of free attractions. The main “bloco” (carnival bloc/marching troupe) is Galo da Madrugada, represented by a huge rooster built on one of Recife’s main bridges. It has been placed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest carnival parade in the world with around 2 million people. So if you have been to the carnival in Cologne many times and think you are prepared to go bigger, you may reconsider your thoughts. Another option nearby is Olinda, a colonial town of winding alleys and hills with its street parties and parades of giant puppets that spin to the rhythm of frevo (the typical local music). I have never been to Recife’s carnaval, but several friends who have been there described it as the best carnaval party in the country.

On a side note: If you ever wonder why there are so many exclusive and expensive options at a traditional popular party like carnaval, the reasons are complex. It involves historical and economic explanations into how the slavery period in Brazil, massive social differences, persistent poverty and racial discrimination turned Brazil into a somewhat elitist society in which people are desperate to differentiate themselves from the masses; but this is a topic for another article.

Although carnaval has been advertised abroad for years with pictures of half naked women with glittered bodies, this is quite an unfair and incomplete description of the event. As a mix of a African influences and the Portuguese religious tradition of celebrating and indulging on the day before Lent begins, carnaval is also an important source of revenue for local communities and a celebration of Brazilian creativity and free-spiritedness. The most observant eyes may learn a lot about Brazil’s culture, traditions and ambiguities by observing the subtleties and dynamics of the event between one beer and another.

So for those adventuring South in this month of February, please enjoy it. I will be home deeply envying you.

By Luciana Meira

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

Stalking Gerard Butler at Rio Carnival 2010... photo: Gerard's friend
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