Let me try to set the scene a little bit. For those of you who don't live in Brazil, when you picture Brazilian Carnaval, you might think of the pictures on TV of Rio's Sambodromo, in which pretty ladies with lots of sparkles and feathers samba along in high heels, lines of drummers following behind, and everything is bright and shiny and clean. Yeah, Carnaval in Salvador is not like that. Salvador, being a much poorer area with a more populist, street-fair-esque vibe to its Carnaval, does not involve many ornate costumes, samba queens, or organized troupes of drummers. There are some, true, but they are not the focus of the party. Instead, it is a chaotic street festival whose only organization is divisions of blocos, which are essentially huge groups of people who pay to wear matching tee-shirts and follow behind a particular band or singer on a big truck. You can sort of get an idea of what the trucks (called trio elétricos) look like from the picture above.
So, if you want to participate in Carnaval in Salavador, you can either buy a tee-shirt (abadá) for a particular bloco, which entitles you to walk behind that truck with its band -- and be protected from the hoi polloi who didn't pay for a tee-shirt -- or you can be part of that hoi polloi (called pipoca, or "popcorn" since these people bounce freely around outside of the blocos) and just follow along the sides of the trucks (you are stopped from entering by ropes protected by guards). Another option, if you don't want to be out on the street, is to buy a ticket for a camarote, which is a private, partially indoor party on the side of the street that allows its members to watch the goings-on but keeps them at a safe distance from the madness.
This whole scenario may not make a whole lot of sense, I guess it's one of those things you have to see to understand. Anyway, each bloco has several thousands of people, and there are lots of blocos, and three separate parade routes, so Carnaval in Salvador is a massive affair with hundreds of thousands of people. Yikes.
My friend D and I had tickets for all 5 nights of Carnaval (Friday through Sunday) for a bloco called Skol D+ ("Skol Demais" or Too Much Skol (beer), if interpreted literally), which featured a group called Zorra on the first two nights (sort of typical Carnaval rock music with lots of songs about Brazilian pride and stuff), Falcão (lead singer from a Brazilian rock-reggae group called O Rappa) for the second two nights, and Fat Boy Slim for the last night. I knew I wasn't going to make it for all 5 nights, but I figured I could pick and choose which nights I wanted to participate in based on how I was feeling. So, Friday was my first foray into Carnaval -- the festivities went from 4 pm to 4 am, and involved, in brief, a lot of pushing and shoving, a lot of dancing, a lot of drinking, and a lot of the same, "eu sou brasileiro" lyrics over and over and over and over. All the Brazilians seemed to know coreographed hand movements to these songs, too, so I felt a bit left out. I sung along with the "sou brasileiro" one anyway -- once I heard the song for the 16th time I figured out the lyrics.
After our bloco ended its 4 km route, we spent a couple hours pushing our way backwards through other people's blocos, which was a scary affair, since the crowds were wild, we were going against the current, and there were lines of military police with guns and clubs pushing their way through the crowds as well. At one point, trying to keep up with D, I felt like my arm was going to break, or that I would be pushed down into the crowd. It was nuts. Then, due to D's insistence that we go off the main path so he could eat some highly-suspect looking hot dog smothered in ground beef/unidentified meat product, we ended up in a sketchy area of town about 6 km from where we were staying, where it was impossible to catch a cab, and there were no bathrooms for me to pee in. I had to take matters into my own hands and ended up using the bathroom in a brothel, and then thanks to some nice Brazilian guys I met, we got a cab 2 hours later. Combine all of this with the fact that I had to deal with uberbizarre behavior from my travel companion the entire night, and you have a very not fun way to end the evening.
Saturday I spent on the beach, and went to bed early. Sunday I decided to give the bloco another shot, despite my less-than-stellar experience on Friday. On Sunday, our bloco was supposed to start on its parade route at 10 pm, but didn't get going till almost 1 am. While waiting for it to get going, we met some really cool surfer people who own a pousada (which is featured in my Rough Guide to Brazil, www.papaterra.com.br), and as we were chatting to them, we ran out of drinks, so we decided to go back to the hotel (just a few blocks away) to refill. D took off skipping manically through the crowds, so fast that I had to sprint to catch up with him, and as I was running behind him, yelling after him to slow down and wait for me, I tripped on something and went down on the asphalt. I skinned both knees and my right hand, and as I was lying there momentarily on the ground, shocked and pissed off, I thought -- what am I doing here? I got up and we went to the 24-hour medical post, where they dumped iodine on my wounds and bandaged me up. Some chick on the table next to me was hyperventilating or something, rolling her eyes around and looking scared. And all of this is before the blocos had even started to move! Ay yay.
So, I didn't think it was possible for Sunday night to be any more chaotic than Friday, and although there was not nearly as much pushing and shoving (hallelujiah), it was perhaps an even more unpleasant experience, as my companion acted completely bizarrely and pulled us out of the bloco before it ended and screamed, "What the f*** have we been doing for the last two hours?" This is after he had tried to jump under the barrier ropes in front of the truck, had lost me several times in the crowd, had called some inoffensive Brazilian dude we met a "non-entity," and had danced so "entusiastically" that he had apparently put out his back. Consequently, as we began the 4 km trek home as the sun came up and the street cleaners emerged to hose down the vomit, trash and pee from the streets, D was limping behind me, barely standing up straight, stopping occasionally to peer over the seawall or sit on the ground. Long story short, we got home, and I decided I was done with Carnaval.
On Monday I was still sort of debating whether to participate in Tuesday's festivies, but as the day wore on and my knees and hands began to scab over, I realized that I was pretty much Carnaval-ed out. I called the airline to see if it was possible to change my flight from Thursday night to something on Wednesday, but all that was available was a flight on Tuesday night. I took it. It was relaxing to be at the airport, away from streets that reeked of porta-potty, vomit, and sweat. I even splurged on a People magazine, and sat at the gate reading it, feeling completely relieved to be getting away from Carnaval.
Don't get me wrong, I am completely glad I went and experienced Carnaval. I think it had the potential to be really fun, but circumstances sort of collided so that it was not that fun for me. A couple of observations:
- being Brazilian definitely helps with the enjoyment of Carnaval -- they seem to love the songs that are played ad nauseum that foreigners (like me) just don't seem to get. For example, the most popular Carnaval band is called Chiclete com Banana (Gum and Banana) and their main song goes like this: "chiiiii-cleeee-teeee, rouba, rouba, chiiiii-cleeeee-teeee, rouba rouba...." for like 20 minutes. And then it gets played 334289734 times throughout the course of Carnaval, and Brazilians NEVER get tired of it. It never gets velho for them.
- you gotta go to Carnaval with people who share your partying M.O.
- I am really glad I am going back to Salvador, because it was a beautiful place and I can't wait to see it sans vomit, pee, people sleeping in the street, sunburnt gringoes everywhere, etc.
- they say that Carnaval in Salvador has "stubbornly resisted commercialization," but I'm sorry, that is just not true. Well, maybe they resisted, but by 2006, they have totally sold out. Our bloco, for example, was sponsored by Claro (phone company), Skol (beer company) and Sony Ericsson, and all of the other blocos had large corporate sponsors as well -- Pepsi, Cristal beer, Kibon ice cream, Coke, etc., etc... Maybe it is not as polished and well-organized as the Carnaval in Rio, but that doesn't mean it is any less corporate.
Anyway, that was my experience. Thanks for listening. I am going to try to figure out a way to put some pictures up so you can get an idea of the madness, but for now, go to http://www.carnaval.salvador.ba.gov.br/fotos.asp, select Domingo (Sunday), and scroll down to see some pics of the crowd.