Portable Earthquakes, or A Fifty-Something Looks At Fortal – Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil

Portable Earthquakes, or A Fifty-Something Looks At Fortal

Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil

“Richard,” my friend Jimmy said to me bluntly, “before you commit to anything with Cristina, you’ve GOT to visit Fortaleza. In fact, the weekend before you’re planning to get there is Fortal – you really, really have got to go!”

I’d been planning to fly down to Asuncion for Crissi’s birthday since we’d met and fallen in love over New Year’s. I should amend that; at least I had fallen in love. I hadn’t heard anything from her from Valentine’s Day till Easter, but she’d just replied to my message “If you’d given me up for Lent, it’s already passed!” Now we were in touch again, and I was ready to book my flight. But I did have some uncertainties about ‘minha garota da Ipanema,’ and I had to admit that Jimmy had a point.

Jimmy’s a career diplomat, back in the States between postings abroad. He’s been all over South America – something we had in common, though I hadn’t visited anyplace longer than two weeks – and he’d been an exchange student in Fortaleza before he started his career. To hear him speak of it, this city on the north coast of Brazil was the embodiment of a tropical Shangri-La, and their off-season carnaval, Fortal, was the hottest party on Earth.

Me, I was only “committed” to Crissi in that I’d promised to celebrate her birthday with her. If I visited Fortaleza first, what would it hurt?

Having decided to do Fortal, I then had the choice of…how? Shall I join the ‘pipoca’ (proletarians) in the street, get a ticket for the ‘camarotes’ or reviewing stands, or get the ‘abada’ (costume) and become a full-out participant in this event? With all I was spending on this trip, I figured I might as well “go whole hawg” and get the abada. So I hit Yahoo for ‘fortal brazil abada’ and found a likely-looking site.

Fortal is not as big as ‘the real Carnaval (Rio)’, or many of the other Carnaval celebrations around Brazil. I discovered there were four ‘blocos’, or associations, involved with it – Nana Banana, Siriguella, Cerveja & Coco, and Uau! – and Nana Banana rolled only on Thursday night. I also found the event had moved from its original track on Avenida Beira-Mar, the hotel district right on the beach, to a site called ‘Cidade Fortal’ that was well outside the downtown area; but I could always take a cab, couldn’t I? The web site I’d chosen had prices for each bloco, and also some mix-and-match packages; I chose one for Nana Banana on Thursday, Siriguella on Saturday, and Uau! on Friday and Sunday. The price was 400 reais, a bit more than $170 at the June 2005 exchange rate.

Now, my first problem: Uau! didn’t take credit cards. After booking the package, I got an e-mail list of bank accounts that Uau! used for wire transfers. I called my credit union about this – and they said they didn’t do wire transfers to South America. Fortunately, I have a Brazilian-specialties store near my house, and they had a sign for wire transfers. Together we puzzled out the accounts; hopefully I gave them my money and their fee, and they sent it out. A few days later, I got an e-mail confirming my transfer; a few weeks later, I got a registered letter from Brazil with my tickets. What – where are the abadas? As best I could puzzle it out, I’d be able to pick them up at the event itself. Compared to this, getting my flights and my visas were a snap.

Fortaleza is 3300 nautical miles from my home in Washington, DC, but you can’t get there from here. I’d have to backtrack 1200 miles from Sao Paulo to my destination. After not-quite 24 hours in economy seats and airport terminals, I finally crossed from the jetway to the country-porch corridors leading to baggage claim at Fortaleza’s Pinto Martin Airport.

The desk clerk at my hotel said the bus to Cidade Fortal ran right down Beira Mar. As far as I could tell, I’d have to be down there around 7 p.m. to enter and collect my costume – actually, an athletic shirt or what the “Cops” TV program calls a “wife-beater”. The bus let us off a block or so from the gates, which weren’t all that crowded yet. At the end of the line was a sign for “Associados,” and as far as I could gather from my lesson-tape Portuguese, that meant me. I asked at the gate about the abadas, and the attendant told me I could get it at the ‘trio eletrico’ (at least that’s what I thought he said). About half a kilometer from the gates there loomed a huge tractor-trailer blazoned in bright lights with the logo for Nana Banana, in the middle of a crowd of people wearing green ‘wife-beater’ shirts with the same logo – I’d certainly found the bloco; now where are the shirts?

Lonely Planet’s guide to Brazil describes the ‘trio eletrico’ as ‘electrically amplified bands playing atop trucks’. I submit that definition falls far short of the truth. The proper translation is more like ‘portable earthquake’. For one thing, it’s not just a ‘truck,’ it’s a TRUCK – a tractor-trailer upwards of 30 meters long, about 5 meters wide and 5 meters high, and ALL loudspeakers. (I suspect they have a small nuclear power plant inside to run the amplifiers. I can attest to having watched a helicopter fly over the camarotes during the performance, and the music drowned out its noise except when it was about 50 meters directly overhead.) On top of this Brazilian juggernaut is a bandstand and a light show. Playing on the bandstand will be one of north Brazil’s hottest “axé” groups – Chiclete com Banana for Nana Banana and Siriguella; Asa de Aguia and Ivete Sangalo, for Cerveja & Coco; and Uau! had Babado Novo. Axé, to my ears, sounds like a fusion of high-energy rock and samba with the occasional strong dash of disco. Even for a boomer the far side of fifty, with his own reminisces of the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound, it can be addictive; but five or six hours of it can approach an overdose, especially when you’re trying to samba down the parade route in a five-kilometer caucus race with three thousand fellow maniacs and Babado Novo!

(A fantasy advertisement comes to mind – some young punk pulls up alongside a truck with his CD player playing gangsta rap full-blast. We look down over the rail of this trio eletrico with Babado Novo – suddenly they cut loose with “Sem-Vergonha” and the car is blown over on its side. Last shot is the car driver with his eyes as big as soup plates, and his hair blown straight away from the trio eletrico. But what would this be advertising? Fortal, perhaps? I wouldn’t care; I’d buy anything that could drown out rap!)

I approached the green crowd, and found myself blocked by a line of ‘cordoneros’ with a blue rope until one of the black-shirted “SEGURANÇA” fellows came over to check. In response to my halting ‘portuñol’ (more Spanish than Portuguese) he called another, who brought me into the cordon and told me in halting English to go back to the “cantina” truck about a hundred yards back of the trio eletrico.

Now, when you think of it, this is yet another expression of the fact that Brazilians really know how to throw a party! Bringing up the rear of the cordon would be another tractor-trailer devoted to our liquid refreshment. Not only that, a crowd of ‘vendedores’ were replenishing coolers full of bottled water, sodas, and beer — at 2 reais a can. I’d already seen them within the cordon, and here was their mother lode. But no abadas – not yet. “Espere aqui, por favor.” A beer and a half later, someone showed up with crates of abadas — “Extra-grande?” I was asked, and with a nod I gratefully accepted my costume. (I’d worn a cheap T-shirt from the big craft market at Praia Meireles, and figured someone would be grateful to find it.) The other half of the beer later, the parade started.

When a ‘norteamericano‘ thinks “parade”, we tend to think of the Tournament of Roses or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. This idea creeps over to Carnaval with the idea we might have of Mardi Gras in N’Awlins or the videos we might see of Rio – which is more of a spectacle, in fact a contest of spectacles.

Fortal isn’t like that. It’s more like a disco brought outdoors, with live music from the trio eletrico, thousands of partygoers inside the cordon, tens of thousands outside the cordon – and reviewing stands holding their separate parties for VIP-type guests who would rather watch. (I will admit, from what I saw and heard, the people in the camarotes were well-coddled with open bar and buffet. I get the picture that they’re like the box seats at an opera house, or the skybox tier at a modern sports arena. But I was here to party, not to watch!)

Thursday’s parade was the smallest, with only two trios – one without an attending bloco, and the trio for Nana Banana. We watched and listened to the first trio as it made its ponderous way up the circuit and into the Arena VIP and camarotes; the cordoneros around us made sure they had the rope laid out properly and untangled, and then they walked out to the front and back as far as it would permit. They were protecting a crowd of some 3000 associados who wanted to take advantage of every night. Some of us live in Fortaleza, perhaps; the vast majority are from Brazil; then there are the ‘estrangeiros‘ like myself who came five thousand miles or more to participate. All of us spent quite a princely sum, by Brazilian standards, for our abadas – so we were either well-to-do, quite fanatic, or both. I picture that this was kind of a hyperbolic extension of what “spring break” might be to America’s college students. But here I am, old fart that I am, right in the middle of the press – when the strobe lights go off like lightning, the band goes off like polychrome thunder, and the leader of the cordoneros blows his whistle (“Head ’em up – move ’em out!”)

We set off at a very leisurely pace, probably about 1 km per hour. My eyes are on my neighbors’ feet, looking for the right step, but the neighbors who catch my eye are so distracting; it’s so easy for my eyes to slide up their long flashing legs, their shapely hips and torsos, their tight breasts straining their cut-down abadas… The instructions I got with my packet said it’s OK to tailor the abadas, so long as all of the logo is left showing. Some of these young lovelies have taken that seriously, much to the delight of the boys (and the old boys like me). Then my habitual shyness, my awareness of being different – older – starts to crowd into my mind: What’s an old fart like me doing in a place like this? I realize that I’m dancing in front of a chubby, forty-something woman and her young slim (but chubby-faced) daughter. They’re both smiling at me. I pull out my camera – “Nao vos disculpe?” – and they get their friend to take a photo of the three of us. I’m not the only boomer in the crowd – and young and old, we’re all here primarily to have fun!

The crowd around us is thinning out. Ahead of us is the gate separating the ‘pipoca da paz’ from the VIP arena and the camarote. Watchful guards opened the gates for us, and we surged through behind the cordoneros, carried by the pounding Afro-Brazilian beat and lightened by the bright melodies. It seemed to me that everyone else was singing, and I wished I knew the words. A group of college kids were posing for a photo, and I sidled in by the snapshooter – “Pode tomar uma tambem?” They grinned their assent, eyes bright. Why not? We’re all here to get down, enjoy ourselves, have fun.

One of them, a blonde with sloe eyes, asked me, “Voce e estrangeiro aqui? De onde voce e?”
I was curious where she’d guess I was from. “Que pensa voce?”
She cocked her head on its side, spilling that soft flax of her hair down her tan shoulder. “De Alemania? Holandia? –Inglaterra?”
So estadounidense.” (I’m from the United States.)
I smiled and nodded. “Verdade!”
One of her friends spoke up. “You … visit for Fortal? How you like it?”
Very much – tudo bem. A musica, a festa – fantastica!
Tudo bem,” he grinned back. “Ciao!”

We danced forward, slipping our different ways through the crowd. I bought an icy beer from one of the vendedores, drained half of it and savored the rest, then looked for a place to put the empty — the one item that was in short supply. I finally added it to a pile of crushed cans under a tree, then we came into the lights of the VIP Arena grandstands. The cordon stopped with a whistle-blast from their chief; the music never slacked, and after maybe 20 minutes we proceeded into the camarotes.

Here, the incredible sound was even more so, bounced off the walls that boxed us in. The lights were bright for the crane-mounted TV camera that panned and paused over the crowd, and everyone was just that much more energetic – that much more bright-eyed – that much more “on stage.” Chiclete Com Banana, up on the rolling bandstand, were the stars – belting out their music to the night sky – but any of us might have our fifteen seconds on Brazil TV, and we were playing to the house! I sidled back to get a photo of the trio eletrico, but the red “change battery” light flashed up only a moment before the camera closed itself in my hand. I thrust it back in my pocket, rueful of the fresh batteries back in my room. Maybe tomorrow night.

The trio eletrico finished its show at 2 a.m., six hours of straight playing for Chiclete Com Banana. Their voices, their fingers, must be flayed raw. As for me, I wasn’t with anybody; there weren’t any friends or new acquaintances encouraging me to keep partying; and I had filled the last six hours with more live music and frenzied dancing than I managed in the average year at home. I headed out the gate and hailed a taxi for my ride back to Beira Mar.

The next day, I took a long bus ride through the old city to Fortal’s headquarters in the Marina Park Hotel for the next three days’ abadas – only to find I had to go back to Shopping Santos Dumont, just a few blocks from my hotel, to Uau’s headquarters. Damn, I wish I’d known that Thursday – I could have picked everything up ahead of time – oh, well, we live and we learn.

I had more living and learning to do as Fortal rolled through. I lost my camera – or it was pickpocketed from me – on Friday, and I bought a disposable to get a few photos on Saturday. I took more breaks during the next evenings, delaying the point where I’d get “too much ratchet in my boogie”; I drank more bottled water and less beer, and spent enough of the days out enjoying the brilliant weather and the beach. I also spent a little of that time in real-estate agencies, getting an idea of the Beira Mar housing market – because I was coming to love Fortaleza, and not just because of Fortal.

I can easily picture myself back there on Praia da Meireles, in a few years, strolling up and down the beach, taking my ease and a ‘coco frio’ till the sun gets low enough for me to switch to beer or a caipirinha. Maybe sailing up and down the sheltered waters on a small sloop. And, as long as my boogie doesn’t get too ratchety, I can see myself every July amid my three thousand fellow maniacs, dancing around the portable earthquakes of Fortal.

Rick Westlake is an aging boomer who missed the sixties because he was a bit too young and the seventies because he was way too strait-laced. Now after he’s lost most of his hair, he enjoys leaving the remaining fringes of it down in South America – where he’s looking for his One Particular Harbour.

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