Brazil: Carnaval – as instructed, I had one hell of a time!!
Carnaval…oh carnaval. Argued to be the best party in the world. In my world, I´d have to agree. And the best part is, we made it out alive!!
My first impression of carnaval and the week we had ahead of us was on the bus from Natal to Recife last Thursday…as we approached Recife, everyone started singing and laughing and cracking open beers and basically dancing in their seats in anticipation. That festive and lively spirit didn´t dwindle for the next 6 days! We decided to spend the first part of carnaval in Olinda, a town of about 300,000 just north of Recife. The book said that it was #3 in terms of places to celebrate carnaval and also described it as a really cute little town, so we decided to head there. The morning of, I started calling hostels….and my goodness….the same hostel that would normally charge about $15 for a double room, was charging $80+….gulp. Shouldn´t they have regulation about that kind of tourist abuse?!? The other option was to just show up there and walk around and look for a place, as they say that many people rent out their guest rooms in their homes, but that idea wasn´t too appealing to us as we were arriving after dark and I´m a big pansy when it comes to walking around with my growing-heavier-each-day pack. So we chose to stay at the Pousada Alquimia and just suck it up. A few days later I actually read our book and it said “book several months in advance and be prepared for massive price hikes.”…hmm, I guess that it wouldn´t have helped in this situation anyway.
As we arrived in Olinda, I fell immediately for the town. It is full of narrow cobblestone streets lined with perfect little pastel colored houses. We settled into our room and then went out to hit the streets. The general idea of carnaval is endless mini parades with lots of dancing and drinking and being goofy. Each band or dance group is called a bloco, and each bloco wanders the streets picking up people along the way to dance through the streets with them. We had a great time just joining random blocos and the people are all very inclusive and encouraging to join along. Dancing the streets in Olinda is hard work though, as the streets are all insanely vertical with ankle twisting stones hindering the path. The typical song and dance of this town is called the frevo, and is a fast and kind of spastic (Suzy, you would love it!) dance that is done with an umbrella. Kind of like an Irish jig. I think we probably heard it played about a million times in the days we were there, and it´s quite the catchy little tune. Even now, 5 days later, Lani and I still find ourselves humming it. We also heard a fair amount of samba, which is overall the Brazilian music and rhythm.
The first night was relatively tame, as carnaval hadn´t officially started yet, but the next morning we were awakened at 8am to fireworks and craziness!! We went outside to see everyone in full costumes and just having a great time. Early in the morning were the children´s blocos and as they day went on the rowdier folks came out. Even those not participating in a bloco were wearing costumes and each group of friends tended to have a theme. For you halloween lovers, this is the place to be as it´s 6 days of dressing up and wearing the most ridiculous thing you kind find. If you are a very hairy man, but can only find a speedo and a pair of frog ears to put on in the morning…no problem…go for it!! 🙂 As time went on, we were more and more happy to have our hostel, a little safe haven, smack in the middle of the mayhem. We had a guard at our door to keep all the rifraff out and to save us from the mobs when we were trying to get in. So, in the end, it was worth the inflated prices. Granted, had I known when we booked the place that I was only going to get to sleep about 3 minutes in the 4 days we were there…I might have been more upset about the cost but que sera, sera. We really only saw a handful of other foreign tourists but most of the people there were from other parts of Brazil. To me, that meant we had randomly chosen the REAL place to be.
We barely made it to the bus station in time for our bus, because I was having money issues and ended up having to rely on the kindness of a friend to bail me out..but we made it just in the nick of time. I´m sure we were a sight to see as we ran onto the bus with our luggage all scattered, our masks on, sweaty, slightly boozy and exhausted…but everyone on that bus looked equally beaten up. We were really, truly sad to be leaving Olinda on Sunday evening, so much so that I had a lump in my throat as we rolled out of town. It´s my new favorite city in Brazil and I can´t wait to come back!!
14 hours later we rolled into Salvador. Salvador is a huge city on the bay that is known for it´s Afro-Brazilian culture. We had an impossible time finding a hotel that we could afford, so I had to issue a call for help and again, due to the kindness of strangers, we ended up staying in a very nice ladies house. She is a friend of a friend of a friend and lives in a wonderful house a 10 minute bus ride outside of the city center. She helped us make our way to carnaval and gave us some tips on where to be and what to see. Pelorinho is the historic part of town and is actually very similar to Olinda. If I thought my legs were going to get a rest after 3 days of dancing and walking up a lot of hills…think again. The hills here are just as steep! The first thing we noticed is how much more Salvador is on the beaten path. You can usually tell how touristy a place is by the number of ATM´s and internet cafes there are. In Olinda there was only one ATM (which hated me and my card!) and 3-4 internet cafes. Here in Salvador, there are that many on every single block. We jumped right into the parade route. The difference here is that the blocos are roped off and you have to pay a pretty penny to participate. The alternative is to stand outside of the bloco, or try to stand, as there are mobs of people pushing and dancing. It was a bit too much for us and we had to escape to the outer fringes to try and not be killed by the mob. The music here is a lot more upbeat, percussion based, and fun to dance to, so I enjoy the music more here, but I preferred the inclusive style of Olinda better. We only had a day and a half of Salvadorean carnaval and we took it easy. It was harder to know where to go as there were lots of different areas of the city celebrating. We elected to spend most of our time in Pelorinho, where it was a bit calmer and family oriented, but still with lots of music and dancing to enjoy!
Anyway, that´s about all I can say for carnaval: It was hot, sweaty, exhausting, overkill, crazy, so much fun, insane, etc….well worth being here for it.