My first Carnival in Brazil

Brazil, Brazil, Brazil, is it just me, or does it seem to be all about, erm… Brazil at the moment?  God, it’s kind of boring is it not? And just as you were getting sick and tired of hearing about the Brazil word, just as Europe sinks deeper into depression, just as the Government of… let’s just call her “B” – to prevent repetition – introduce extremely harsh entry requirements for all Spanish, so harsh in fact, some may say the Inquisition is back. It seems the only document that is not being asked for is a note from mammy and daddy (touché B, touché!). Just as B continuously annoys the FIFA with the on-going farce of the world cup preparations, just as we had said tchau to the charming Prince Harry, sent here by Granny to get some cash, but instead spent his time running around favelas and playing on the beach. Just as everyone on the outside think that Brazil could be the place of dreams, but everybody on the inside actually knows the real situation. What does B decide to do? Does it offer to help little auld Europe out their big auld mess? Do they offer to buy the Greeks a few plates so they can at least smash them at their weddings? Does the Brazilian Government finally decide stop messing around, build the stadiums, sort out the airports and the logistics problems? Or do the politicians finally decide to stop paying themselves absurd salaries, and actually start giving a shit about the poor? No, don’t be silly! Brazilians do what Brazilians do best – turn a blind eye and have a party.

But this is not just any party, this is the biggest and most expensive party on the planet ever. If you’re not in the business of drinking, dressing up, and shaking your ass, don’t come. Brazil is officially closed for a week (although to be honest, I don’t think it’s really re-opened since Christmas)! For the next 5 days, there will be no sleep, only wickedness, it’ll be caipi-breakfast, caipi-lunch, caipi-dinner, skewered barbecued meat and grilled slabs of cheese. Energy has been kept, shillings have been saved. Christmas, New Year, your child’s 1st birthday, your granny’s 100th, all come second best to Carnival in Brazil.

In the state of Pernambuco, in the north of the country, the principal parties are in Recife and Olinda, the former, the capital of the state, and the latter, a very pretty historical city set high on the hills overlooking the capital. Some people argue that Carnival here is the best in the country, being the most traditional and purely by its location, less touristic than Rio, Salvador and São Paulo.  For sure Recife has the biggest bloco, “Galo da Madrugada” – Chicken of the late night, which happens on the Saturday daytime, attracting more than 2 million people.

This is the story, officially the partying starts on Saturday. If you’re brave, go to the aforementioned bloco in Recife, which is on the first day only and lasts all day. Or you do what we and lots of other people did and go to Olinda where the party kicks off at 9am every morning and finishes 4pm. Which then gives you time to get to Recife, where everything after the first day starts at 5pm, and continues until you fall over. We were pumped up, ready to party, my hips were well lubricated, and the muscles on my ass still sore due to the rigorous samba training. So long BH, see you in a week! I couldn’t wait.

The Fighting Irish

Our first night was horrendous. The hostel we were staying turned out to be less than dreamy. The room we were given was normally occupied by someone who lives there full time who had just vacated it what seemed like only minutes before we’d arrived. We knew this because her stuff was still there. There was no actual bed, it was just a mattress on a floor. The bathroom was dirty and we were given no towels and no sheets. Paying R$900,  I’d normally go all European, shout and scream my way through a complaint, and then storm off down the road throwing my eyes to heaven several times. But we were lucky to get accommodation at all at such short notice, so I swallowed my pride, put a peg on my nose, and stayed.

After our long days travel on the Friday, we decided to stay in and be fresh for Saturday’s events. Good idea if everyone else is thinking the same. Bad idea if they’ve already started going crazy. Gang by gang, they arrived back to the hostel, and each one insisted on partying right outside our door. I thought, either this is their way of inviting us to join in or they deliberately wanted to keep us awake. But after a couple of hours, I had decided it was just being rude. The third time I got up involved me bursting out of the room and confronting four guys.  Well, when I say four guys, it might have just been two, as I was without my contacts lenses. It was 4am, I wasn’t a happy man, and I let them know it. Funnily enough, it seemed to work, and they scarpered elsewhere, triumphantly I returned to the room. But later my wife informed me lovingly, that maybe it wasn’t my great Portuguese but probably the sight of a large-bearded pale Irish man in boxer shorts that actually did the trick. But unfortunately our peace and quiet was short lived, not long after we’d fallen asleep, we were woken up again, but this time to the serenading voice of a Brazilian chap trying to coax his female companion to the horizontal position. We both just looked at each other and laughed, it was hopeless. We got up and went out for breakfast.

The Reliable public

Public transport is always a tricky matter wherever you ever are in Brazil. The Government’s been in bed with vehicle manufactures since the 50’s and thus preference to the car is given. Metro system if there is one is never well serviced and the buses resemble those used for transporting prisoners, so patience is always needed. But again, it can be the jovial Brazilians that soon make you forget your woes. We didn’t know where to go, but at the bus stop there were quite a few locals waiting – so we asked one of them to point us in the right direction. What happened and what nearly always happens in Brazil is comical, and sometimes, it’s just better to stand back and watch the show. So one elderly man started to tell us which bus was better to take, he seemed like he knew what he was talking about and looked happy with his decision. But then he suddenly changed his mind, apologised and then stared into the clouds as if looking for divine guidance. Another gentleman who’d been hovering then commented that this particular bus wasn’t very frequent and suggested another one. Then, another, a lady this time, popped her head in and informed us that because of Carnival that one wasn’t running, and recommended a different bus altogether. One by one, more joined in on the debate, but bit by bit, the conversation moved from the topic of buses to something completely different. I hadn’t said anything in ages, I was quietly laughing to myself at this stage and watched as my wife being her normal polite self, tried many times unsuccessfully to politely interrupt. I think if we’d walked off, they wouldn’t have even noticed! Brazilians by nature are a curious bunch, they like to know what’s going on, who’s around, give their opinion, and just for the sake having a chat. Walk into any bar, restaurant, café, and everyone will have a good look at you. In this way, the Irish and Brazilians are quite similar, the exact same thing would happen in Dublin. Finally a bus came and this started another barrage of chatter as they all disagreed with each other whether this was the right one or not. We took our chances, stuck our hand out anyway and low and behold it was the one we wanted, the majority of them were wrong, we thanked them all, jumped on, leaving them still in full debate. It was like a Laurel & Hardy movie.

Bloco bloco bloco

Like every big event, roads and streets are closed off, traffic is diverted and thus there is usually a walk of some nature involved. Our bus dropped us off on the motorway, we had no idea where we were going, so we just followed the guy with the funny hat who was on the same bus. We walked down a side road, rounded a corner, and were suddenly shocked by the number of people who were walking down an adjacent road. Like a Formula 1 car coming out of a pit stop, we were now merging and joining the other hoards of funny dressed people readying ourselves for whatever was going to happen in Olinda. I was like that inquisitive child all over again. My eyes were wide open as they darted around absorbing every image, my ears twitching at every sound. There was an excitement in the air, like being at a concert waiting for your favourite artist to finally walk on stage. But unlike a concert, this wasn’t going to end in 2 hours, this was the start of a 5-day festival. Apart from money, nothing motivates people more than a party and Carnival is probably the only thing that motivates Brazilians more than football. Put on a bit of Samba, and watch as their behinds start to shake uncontrollable. Like an Irish man trying to walk past a bar; they just can’t help themselves.

We enter the historical city of Olinda, and I’m overcome with the need for a Caipirinha – its 11am folks, it’s late already! Olinda is set up on a mountain overlooking the sea, so the first part of our Carnival is a challenge as it entails a steep walk – thank God for the Cachaça. Immediately, we got swallowed up by the energy, the smiles, the laughter, the music.  Sure before you know it, I wasn’t even walking anymore. My feet were moving uncontrollably, my hips were breaking through the morning rust. Yes, I was dancing.   Again, we’re following the crowd, who are following the music and the blocos, we’ve no idea where we’re going, and what will happen in the next few moments. There is no plan. There’s nothing else to do but sing, dance, drink, smile, and wonder at all the costumes and the alegria – the happiness – around you. We went along with it to see where we’d end up. It’s a barrage of colour, music and laughter. It’s a welcome confusion.

To my left, I suddenly see people running into the main street, covered head to toe, in muddy water. We have stumbled into our 1st bloco of Carnival, “Bloco Tira Lama”. We’ve only just arrived, and already we’re laughing. What I noticed immediately is that there were lots of children, whole families, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, all dressed up. I look at their faces, and they look completely comfortable with their surroundings, there was no crying or wailing. It’s been proved that music releases ‘dopamine’ – a feel good chemical that funnily enough is associated with addiction. From the way these children were participating, I reckon they were addicts, and it probably all started while they were in the womb.

Our suspicious minds continue to carry us up until we arrive at what seems to be the centre of Olinda, right in front of city hall, the tall cardboard mannequins ‘carnavalising’ its normal baroque façade. It’s a junction, a central hub of activity, and more bobbing from side to side to the rhythm of the music. We stop to see what’s going on, to make sure we’re not missing anything. We allow our bloco to continue on its way, its music and its half-naked “dirty” participants eventually disappearing down a side street and out of view. But don’t think you have to wait for another one, or you have time to relax, the bloco’s fading music is drowned out by another one approaching from a different side street, a different theme, different outfits, and different songs. This band are in full cabaret costume, trumpets, horns, drums, and triangles, whole families, friends, participants, supporting them, dancing, singing, they seem like the happiest people in the world. You could stand there all day, take it all in, and be quite happy. But there are over 500 blocos that parade through Olinda in the 4 days, it’s non-stop, it’s crazy, it’s electric, it’s absorbing. You can rest for a while, but you hunger to see more, to see what’s going on around the next corner. Every 20 meters there is something new to see.

My wife and the Indian penis

With the soaring heat, and the steep and winding streets, it can be hard going in Olinda. You got to look after yourself, don’t get dehydrated, keep those Cachaça and vodka drinks coming, otherwise you’ll get left behind. But going without a drink or having to queue just doesn’t happen, you’ll never go thirsty or hungry thanks to the locals who are out in force selling cans, making cocktails, and cooking up some snacks. It’s quite impressive, apart from the portaloos, some of them will even allow you use their homes to go to the toilet. Luckily enough, there is also help from the weather. It seemed like someone up above was looking after everyone down below by providing a quick tropical downpour every 2 hours or so. Not that it stopped the party, it only seemed to egg the revellers on and sure anyway, the locals here treat it as luck – sure of course they’d say that!

But at any stage, if you’re in the need of a pick-me-up, and you dare to try something extremely local, well then get your hands on some Indian cock!  …Or “Pau do Índio” as they call it, but don’t worry, fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your taste) it’s only a drink that is only made of Cachaça, and 32 herbs. You’d want to be just a crazy-man to try the stuff – so we just ordered one. I can now say, with hand on my heart, that it’s the vilest shite I’ve ever tasted in my life, imagine Jagermeister x 10! I took a sip of it, made one of those faces, as if someone had stuck a pencil up my anus and quickly handed the drink to my wife. Now, as bad as it was, I was still going to drink it, of course, I’m Irish, and I have that horrible reputation to keep up with, but by the time I was ready for another dose, my wife had already drank all of it! On a normal day, I would have minded, but it’s also served as an aphrodisiac, “Would you like another one dear?”

Supermen

But being an Irish man I didn’t need any Indian cock in me, I was quite happy with my caipi-whatever. Speaking of the Irish, I did see a few leprechauns running around, and anytime, my wife got a glimpse of one, she’d scream like a banshee and pull me over to introduce myself – I think she may have thought they were real! Apart from the little lads, there were also gorillas, lions, tigers, dogs, cats, guys dressed up as taxis, women dressed up as taxis, there was even a guy dressed up as a Chinese takeaway. There were policemen, fire brigade men, there were Bob Marleys, Heavy metalers, angels, demons, vampires, wolves, there was a bloco solely made up of women dressed up as brides off to a weddidng. On the second day, there’s a Superhero bloco, there were Batmen, Batwomen, catwomen, catmen, Wolverines, and a million spidermen. And who would have thought in Brazil, we’d actually see Superman fly. We watched in awe as the man of steel (with can of beer mind you) sprang off a balcony and landed on top of an enthusiastic crowd, only to be clapped and cheered, and egged on to do it again and again.

In the meantime, we had met up with our friends, who had dressed up as a four piece heavy metal band, wigs and black covering most of their bodies. Every now and again, they would shriek and scream and stick their tongues out as do their heroes on stage, and if we happened to bump into another band, well it was a like an AC DC concert, there was a sudden and quick head-banging, grunting and air guitar session. We happily followed our friends around the city, following bloco after bloco.  It’s a real bonus when you hook up with people who know the area. André, having lived there for a good part of his life knows the streets, the goings on, the particular blocos to see and not to see. For me it was perfect to walk around a while  and get our bearings a little. But it’s nice when you don’t have to make any decisions, you can just rely on a local, just tell me what we’re doing, and I’m all “yes”. So, on behalf of my wife and I, André, Fernanda, Guillerme and Joanna, thank you so so much for looking after us and making us very welcome. You literally do..rock!

Six hours later, we were starting to fade. The beat of a drum and the energy of the people could only hold us up for so long. It was 4pm, and before the entire cavalry intended to depart at the same time, we did the real mature if not slightly boring thing of quitting while we were ahead. Our previous night’s adventures in our accommodation had also taken its toll, the feet, the hips, the bodies, were re-rusting. Anyway, my wife was looking for more Indian Cock and that just wasn’t going to be a good idea. It was time to leave Olinda.

Recife, a different party.

In the capital city Recife, the party is a quite the contrast. There’s definitely more of a plan to the proceedings. It’s way less bohemian than Olinda and thus more of a family event. Instead of just wandering blocos, there are various stages set up around the city for concerts and show. The blocos themselves start on the stages and are actually introduced to the thousands of onlookers, rather than having to guess what’s what. They then descend and walk to every corner of the city. I was very impressed with the organisation, and again, there were plenty of places to get good food and drinks, you were spoiled for choice. The party goes well on into the early hours with well-known Brazilian singers and bands appearing during the evening. It’s Carnival, with a constant stream of colour and music bombarding you from every angle it seems. The very flat streets of the city were a gift on the joints after the trek-like hills of Olinda, which allowed us to wander around the capital itself without breaking into a sweat and collapsing. The city is old and a welcome change from Belo Horizonte with not a skyscraper in sight. The old architecture had been allowed to stand in defiance. And it was nice to see that there’s a genuine effort being made to restore them to their former colonial beauty.

Back at our accommodation, things had surprisingly calmed down. Whether it was my fluent Portuguese or the sight of my large curvaceous half-naked body, something had worked, as we never had any further problems. Maybe their eyes and ears were still burning from the experience. Although at the time, our accommodation problems were graver, we won’t be scarred for life or anything.  We had a fantastic time. So, thanks to the people of Olinda and Recife for welcoming us. I’ll even say thanks to our serenading Brazilian. It was my first Carnival. It was nothing like I had expected, it was much more.

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