The Bash of Brazil

April 2, 2010

When most people think of Carnival in Brazil, they think of brightly colored, scantily clad samba dancers in Rio de Janeiro. But the most popular Carnaval celebration in Brazil is not in Rio; it is in the tropical locale of Salvador de Bahia. For one week every year, well over a million people descend on this bustling port city to join a party that is unrivaled in the world.

I arrived a couple of days before the official celebrations started, in order to get acquainted with my surroundings before the madness began. My hostel was in the historic neighborhood of Pelourinho, famous for its vividly painted colonial Portuguese architecture and charm. The view from my balcony proved to be priceless once the parades started marching through. Day and night, thundering drumbeats coming from the street facing the hostel would announce the arrival of yet another jubilant procession.


It was fascinating to see the sheer variety of creative groups who marched through the Pelourinho. In a whirl of colors, dancing, and positive energy, their propulsive rhythms compelled onlookers to join in and follow their path through the old city.

But parading through the Pelourinho is only a small part of Carnaval in Salvador. You see, nearly round the clock, there are hundreds of thousands of people partaking in not one, not two, but three enormous street parties going on simultaneously. Each of these parties covers dozens of city blocks, and each of them is jam packed full of revelers. Enormous sound systems pushed by big-rigs slowly make their way down wide avenues filled with an endless sea of moving bodies. The experience of being on ground level is one of complete sensory overload: your eyes never run out of things to observe, your nose is overpowered by the smell of sweat and beer, your body is constantly being pushed by sea changes in the crowd, and your eardrums are relentlessly blasted by a sonic assault of high-energy music. When a rolling sound system passes by that is fronted by a popular band, called a trio electrico, the masses are sent into an absolute frenzy.

In moments like these, the darker side of Carnaval in Salvador becomes apparent. Impatient revelers shove their way past the crowds. Fights routinely break out. Police wielding night sticks cut through the hordes like wraiths. These things add up to make the onlooker constantly vigilant of their surroundings, in the simple interest of self-preservation. On top of all of this, thieves run rampant in the midst of the chaos. Anything you have in your pockets will invariably be picked...especially if you are clearly a tourist. And as a tall, white, blond, blue-eyed man, I might as well be wearing a glowing red target over my head. "Hey robbers! Pick ME!" As such, I ventured to bring a disposable camera to the party, knowing that it would be too risky to bring my digital camera. Well, my cheap throwaway camera would be stolen from me not once, but twice!

The first time this happened, I was trying to push through the crowd when a large woman seemed to inadvertently block my path. After about 20 seconds, I finally got past her, only to feel a hand reach over and tap me on the shoulder. A similarly large man with a disappointed look on his face handed me my disposable camera back. Clearly they were working together to distract me and loot my possessions. Two days later while marching with a trio electrico, I reached down into my pocket and realized that the camera had been stolen from me again. But this time, the thief lacked the courtesy to return this worthless object back to me. I hope that this impolite character enjoyed using the remaining 9 photos, and paying to have the roll developed. In the meantime, I'll share some more pictures with you that I found through google.

Because participating in Carnaval with the general masses can be unpleasant, many people choose to pay for a more protected experience. From anywhere from $80 to $800, you can get access to a viewing booth, called a camarote, on the main route. From here you look down, mesmerized, on the unending party below, and are eye level with the passing trio electricos. Or for a similar price range you can choose to follow a particular trio electrico, as part of their bloco, where you are kept separated from the nonpaying crowds by a rope surrounding your mobile block party. In order to get a full-taste of Carnival, I choose to spend one night as part of a bloco and another in a camarote. My bloco was with a legendary percussion ensemble from Salvador. Click on the youtube video below to get a sense of what its like to march with OLODUM.


Carnaval in Salvador was drawing to an end, but not before I had the chance to spend another festive night in the Pelourinho. A live band playing to exuberant dancers in an unforgettable atmosphere would introduce a new musical passion to my life: Samba. I'll never forget the feeling of being lifted to the heavens as the music ascended, ascended, and ascended,until a wave of euphoria was unleashed through the enraptured audience. Before coming to Brazil I already loved Bossa Nova music, but by the time that I left, I was completely head-over-heels for Samba.

After nearly a week of uninterrupted celebration, the 2010 edition of Carnaval de Salvador officially came to a close. It had been an intense introduction to Brazil, for all of the good and bad that exists in this enormous country. But above all, I'll remember the incredible electricity I felt by being in that particular place at that particular time. So if you're ever thinking of experiencing Carnaval in Brazil, remember that samba in Rio is only a small part of the madness!


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