If you want to annoy, or at least mildly upset a Brazilian, casually mention to them that Brazil is only famous for three things: football, samba and carnaval.
Football and samba I understand. In fact one of my earliest memories, long before I ever knew where Brazil was, was watching Zico score a stunning goal in a thrilling World Cup match. Carnaval, however, is a different matter. Everyone seems to know something about carnaval, but no one I spoke to could really divine it for me in a few words. My trusted Lonely Planet guide book says it’s when people descend on mass ‘to get drunk, get high, bag some sun and exchange exotic diseases’. Which I thought sounded all well and good until I considered that I don’t have any exotic diseases to exchange.
For the 5 months I have been here in Brazil I have heard carnaval mentioned almost everyday, but yet I was still not really sure what it was really about. It seemed the only way to understand was to experience it first hand.
Carnaval’s roots go back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who celebrated the rites of spring. In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church tried to suppress all pagan ideas, it failed when it came to this celebration. The Church incorporated the rite into its own calendar as a period of thanksgiving.
The nations of Europe, especially France, Spain, and Portugal, gave thanks by throwing parties, wearing masks, and dancing in the streets. All three colonizing powers carried the tradition with them to the New World, but in Brazil it landed with a difference. Not only did the Portuguese have a taste for abandoned merriment, (they brought the “entrudo”, a prank where merry-makers throw water, flour, face powder, and many other things at each other’s faces), but the Negro slaves also took to the celebration. They would smear their faces with flour, borrow an old wig or frayed shirt of the master, and give themselves over to mad revelry for the three days. Many masters even let their slaves roam freely during the celebration. Since the slaves were grateful for the chance to enjoy themselves, they rarely used the occasion as a chance to run away.
The Friday before Carnaval I was killing time wondering around the local supermarket. To the casual observer it might have seemed as if a state of national emergency had been declared. Beer was being rationed (only five cases per person), people were fighting with two, sometimes three trolleys loaded with meat, and the queues at the checkouts stretched almost the length of the store. When I finally made it to the checkout I asked the young assistant why it was so busy. She looked at me quizzically; I guess my question was blatantly obvious, “Carnaval,” she smiled.
So this, I thought, is carnaval. Chaos in the supermarkets and beer rationing. Rather like Christmas Eve in England.
My own carnaval had begun a week before with the ‘Carnaval do Saudade’ in a local club (which means roughly something like Carnaval of longing or home sickness). The Carnaval do Saudade is the traditional ‘first shout’ of carnaval and marks the beginning of the country becoming a little bit more unglued than normal.
The 13 piece band were banging out the classic songs of carnaval, many of which seem to be about drinking cachaca or how special Brazil is whilst the dance floor was packed with people dressed in their most exotic and colourful clothes. It seemed, to a casual observer such as myself, that sartorial elegance had been suspended for the night – which gave me a good opportunity to dig deep into the back of my wardrobe and pull out the shirt I had made for me one particularly drunken night in India, the one which my girlfriend had sworn never to be seen dead with me wearing.
The party went on well into the early hours and as we staggered out the club, the sun was rising. My ears were ringing and I was drenched in sweat. “Carnaval,” smiled my friend as he dropped me at my door, “don’t you just love it?”
So this, I thought, is carnaval. Coming home at 7am, slightly drunk and with that song about cachaca still ringing in my ears.
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