Sunday 15 April 2012

End of the Road: Reflections on a Carnival

This is the concluding part of my final blog, focusing exclusively on Carnaval activities. The first instalment, discussing all other Brazilian goings-on, can be found here.

Taking a 32 hour bus ride away from Rio de Janeiro in the two days before Carnaval may seem like a foolish move to make. After all, it's the 'Rio Carnival' right? Well, it turns out that week-long festivities are actually observed in earnest throughout the region; not just Brazil-wide, but across the whole continent. Rio is simply the most well-known carnival location; the most touristed, the most commercial. It was only during my first encounter with David and Lauren (way back in Colombia on Halloween night) that I heard whisperings suggesting that perhaps Salvador was the best place to be for carnival week instead. After a little further research, my mind was made up. I would join D & L (plus the later addition of Woodgate) in Salvador when the time finally came. And now the time had come....

Home for Carnaval!
The primary difference between Carnaval in Rio and Salvador is in terms of interactivity. The biggest events at the former are held in the Sambadrome arena - in which the audience are seated, primarily observers to the action below - whereas in Salvador, the main action takes place on the streets and anyone can get intimately involved. Along the main beachside stretch, huge trucks crawl along the road, stacked dangerously high with humongous speaker systems and topped off with a band or performer blasting tunes from the roof. Surrounding each vehicle hundreds of people are employed to carry a rope (forming a bloco) and revellers pay hundreds of Brazilian reais for a t-shirt (or adaba) that affords them the privilege of entering this roped-off area. Thriftier party-goers can fazer pipoca (be popcorn); pogo-ing alongside the bloco and following the truck on it's rambunctious journey through the packed streets. This all sounded a lot more fun to me than sitting in a stadium.

Anna & Jimmy
For the duration of our stay in Salvador, we were housed at Nega Maluca - a highly-recommended hostel with a lovely communal atmosphere and an affable Israeli owner, Inbal, as the energetic master of ceremonies. I was offered a $100-saving last-minute accommodation change and, as a result, spent the week sleeping on the roof (not a huge amount of time was spent sleeping, though, so it's not as bad as it seems). The hostel was packed beyond capacity with high-spirited patrons, eager for the carnival experience to begin. I met so many wonderful people that there really isn't enough room to list everyone, but they included Adam C (an Aussie friend I lived with for a while back in London), his friends Ernesto & Mel, a mate of Dave's called David (confusingly), Helen D (who my long-term travelling companions knew from earlier in their trip), dreadlocked dude Elton, the slightly insane pairing of Anna & Jimmy (generally known as JIMMMMMMMY), and the (probably) swinging foursome of James & Sophie, Sarah & Matt.

Free sushi at the Camarote
Carnaval officially began on the 16th February, which also happens to be my birthday (very nice of the organisers to arrange proceedings in this manner). As such, we decided to splash out for an all-inclusive Camarote on our first night and kick things off with a bang! Camarotes are large, multi-roomed, many-levelled complexes set up in high rise buildings that stand alongside the route of the truck-led blocos. Our chosen camarote had a number of rooms playing a wide selection of music, a live band strumming along on the seafront and a huge open-air food court serving all manner of grub (paella, pizza, steak, ice cream, sushi.... whatever you might desire) - everything cooked to perfection and completely free, just like the unlimited supply of alcoholic beverages. Along with 5000 other camarote adaba holders, we pigged out, got sloshed, threw some questionable moves and watched the raucous street party below. Not a bad way to see in your quarter century, and the perfect start to a week of unrestrained Carnaval excess.

The five days that remained after the camarote went by in a blur of caiprinha-fuelled decadence and it would be nearly impossible to recall events in any sort of linear form here (my memory is somewhat blunted anyway). Instead, I will just randomly recall whatever events I can in no particular order; my attempt to convey some approximation of the Salvador Carnaval experience.....

Barman Diego
Each day would begin slooooooooowly, with a lack of any noticeable movement until the early afternoon. However, by the time Nega Maluca Happy Hour came round at 7pm, most people had shaken off the hangovers sufficiently and were able to start throwing back $1 cairprinhas, mixed by enigmatic hostel barman, Diego. Two hours later, we'd be ready to go. Most of us would stick together and head out in one big group - usually to the busiest, safest beachside area known as Barra. On occasion, we'd also check out the other two Carnaval party zones - Avenida and Pelourinho - generally considered to be a little 'dodgier' but with the ever-aware Inbal leading us, we never felt in the slightest danger.

The streets in Barra are lined with almost as many vendors as revellers, carrying cool boxes and offering 4 beers for 5 reais (approximately £1.75). Pockets stuffed with beer cans, we'd venture into the throng of carnival-goers: tens of thousands of carefree bodies, drunk on life (and cairprinhas..... and beer) determined to have a good time, feeding off and adding to the hedonistic atmosphere in equal measure. Nothing else matters except to give yourself up to the moment, the now - give in to Carnaval!!

Beer for sale!!
We'd lose ourselves in the seething mass of people - some barely-clothed, others in extravagant costume, and more cross-dressers than a camp cabaret on Canal St. - until ripples of anticipation passed through the crowd, followed by pumping music gradually increasing in volume; announcing the imminent approach of a bloco. The energy in the crowd would increase to a crescendo as we cleared a path for the truck; relentless dancing reaching a climax as the band worked the audience and the last official adaba wearers passed by. Then, everyone surged back into the middle of the street and regrouped at the back of the bloco; following the truck in a crazed procession of grinning faces and writhing bodies. Once we'd had enough, there'd be a little stop for more beer-based refreshments, a short wait for the next bloco truck to approach, and then repeat...

On occasion, one of the trucktop bands would stop outside a particularly rowdy Camarote and perform especially for those inside. A particular highlight for those of us lucky enough to witness it was an impromptu rendition of No Woman No Cry, led by Daniela Mercury (a hugely popular Brazilian singer) atop her moving speaker stack, and then joined by Rohan Marley (son of Bob) who suddenly appeared on one of the camarote balconies, and then Gilberto Gil (a legendary figure in Brazilian music and politics) who just as suddenly appeared on another. A spellbinding, unique moment, epitomising the random beauty of Carnaval, Salvador-style.

Another 'spur of the moment' occurrence that sticks in my mind is when we were wandering around the Pelourinho late at night, only to turn around and find a troupe of Capoeira artists (a Brazilian martial art that incorporates elements of dance and music along with incredible athletic ability - or, think Eddy Gordo from Tekken) performing flowing movements in perfect unison and slowly moving towards us. Their faultless synchronicity was ruined the moment we all joined in, but nevertheless, we were welcomed with open arms, encouraging smiles and became part of the gang for the rest of the procession.

James & I
I'm aware that I'm giving a slightly rose-tinted, sugar-coated description of Carnaval events, so in the interest of balance it's only fair to acknowledge the negative elements too - incessant pickpocketing, overly-aggressive policing, very 'rapey' guys, and occasional street fights. Still, most of this can be avoided with a little caution and common sense and the unsavoury factors fail to have much of an impact on the overwhelming positivity that makes Carnaval so intoxicating. Even the frequent thunderstorms are unable to put a dampener on proceedings; on the contrary, they are welcomed by the hot, sweating masses. In fact, another highlight I clearly recall is jumping around like a group of lunatics in the pouring rain, dragging in droves of other shimmying strangers, arms wrapped around whoever was closest - instant new best friends. It's hard to explain when you're no longer in that state of mind, much like the effect of mind-altering drugs (I imagine....); your mind is wonderfully blank and free from worry, individuality lost as you merge with others feeling the same delirium to create a collective of carefree consciousness - an ecstatic experience, without the need for the ecstasy.

Loz & Han @ Olodum
To mix up the routine a bit, we opted to fork out for an abada and join a roped-off bloco for one night.... At least, we thought it would be a night. As things transpired, our chosen band - Olodum, the biggest percussion group in the country - were actually playing from 2-8pm. Learning this at 6am, as we were returning to the hostel from the previous evenings festivities, it seemed like a bad joke - but, no, it was true: We only had 6 hours until we needed to head out again - oh dear! But, we all dug deep and found ourselves back in the packed streets of Barra by 2pm. It was, understandably, a little difficult to get moving at first, but after a little loosening up (helped by the first beer) this turned out to be one of my favourite days. We followed that truck for 6 hours straight, feet barely touching the floor as we became one bopping organism with 3000 other people in identical adaba t-shirts. Intermittently refreshed by grateful showers, we stayed right until the end of the route; soaking, sore, shattered, smiling, satisfied.

Painted white
I was a broken man on the 6th and final day but managed to find deep reserves of energy from somewhere and went hard for the last night: Shirtless and covered in white paint decorations (sweated off completely within half an hour) I finished proceedings covered in urine, booze and general filth, falling into bed just after 8am. To clarify, the urine wasn't my own - portaloos are in short supply and mostly ignored as people relieve themselves in the street - something that would be disgusting in the cold light of day, but during carnival hours you really couldn't care less. Still, I was forced to throw out many stinking, crusty items of clothing - a pair of shoes, two t-shirts, one pair of shorts, and all my socks - when the festivities were finished.

To be honest I was relieved when the party was over, but only because I wasn't sure my body could have coped with the excesses of Carnaval for even one day more. An experience I will never forget, and quite a way to end the trip!

As the long-ignored hangover kicked-in and the streets emptied for the last time, I realised this was it: The end of the road. There was now just a 32 hour journey back to Rio to look forward to, before jumping on a plane and heading home - not a hostel 'home', real home. The fat lady had found her voice and it was time to face the music....

As I write this, I've now been back in the UK for about a month and a half. As you'd imagine, it was slightly strange returning after all this time, but I'm back into the swing of things now: It's been great to see friends and family again after so long, and I have a new house and job in London sorted. Still, I have no intention of calling time on the travels - there are so many new places to be explored, and just as many that I need to return to. I've had many people ask me if I've finally "got it out of my system now" and if I'm now ready to face "real life". I find this statement rather nonplussing - I was never travelling with the aim of expelling some unwanted desire from my body and I don't consider the most socially-accepted and common lifestyle to be 'real life'. In fact, surely it should be the opposite! How can residing inside a concrete building, staring at a computer screen for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, be the 'real' way to live? There's so much to see, do, feel, experience in the world that you would need a thousand lifetimes in order to even scratch the surface. I'm under no illusions that people need to work in order to make money, but I'd rather see that as a necessary evil in my life - something that allows me to do what I really want - rather than the primary reason for my being. So, I think it's fair to say that it's not quite over yet: Tennetstravels is on something of a working sabbatical, but will return at the earliest opportunity.

Thanks for reading! :)

See below for some photos of Carnaval (I didn't actually take any myself, so these have been stolen from Anna, Lauren, Sophie & Inbal - thanks guys!):



  1. Wow, what a conclusion! And as one of those people who has put down roots, pays a mortgage and numerous bills, pays into a pension, has a full time job, I couldn't agree more with your selection of priorities, well done son xxx

  2. Brilliant James, just brilliant. Where's next?! XX

  3. Nice round up of crazy Bahia Carnaval. So this is what you've been doing all this time in the computer. Photos stolen from Inbal were stolen from me! :-)