We’ve all heard stories of rampant crime and violence in Brazil’s larger cities. I found out, firsthand, what happens when you let your guard down and foolishly make eye contact with someone in a very crowded park during one of São Paulo’s numerous Carnaval street parties.
We’ve just finished our second trip to Brazil. Our first trip was last year when we travelled to Rio then onward to visit friends; Kathleen on the coast in Ubatuba, then Kevin and Vance in São Paulo. The start of that trip was about a week after Carnaval. The upside was that flights and hotels were considerably cheaper, the downside was that we didn’t get to experience the cultural craziness that is Carnaval.
This year we timed our trip to visit Kevin and Vance so that it was smack dab in the middle of Carnaval merriment.
Carnival (Carnaval in Brazil) is a let-loose-pre-lent-extravaganza that happens in most predominantly Catholic regions of the world. Brazil certainly doesn’t have a corner on Carnaval but it is most definitely a large part of their cultural brand.
It’s the scale of Carnaval in Brazil that makes it like nothing I’ve seen before.
São Paulo is a city of about 21 million people. And although not everyone dives into all things Carnaval, you can’t walk anywhere in the city without seeing evidence of a prior street party (referred to as blocos) or the barricades and lines of porta-potties ready for new revellers in different locations. There were 500 blocos registered for this year’s Carnaval celebrations. Each representing different neighbourhoods with slightly different music and themes.
Here is my outsider’s view of a bloco.
Several blocks of any given street closed to vehicles. Blocos get underway at about three in the afternoon and typically go until 7 p.m. And by underway, I mean that thousands of people (tens of thousands at some) begin to assemble in the streets – arriving on foot from every direction, dragging behind a cooler on wheels filled with beer and other ‘refreshments.’
Roughly 99.9% appear to be locals wearing some sort of costume. I use the word ‘costume’ loosely. All that seems to be required is to don something you wouldn’t typically wear in public any other time of year. It’s as though they were told they had five minutes to pull together a costume before heading out the door, only to find the tickle trunk basically empty. Case in point: a woman wearing a unicorn inspired headband complete with fairy wings. Her boyfriend decked out in shorts, a t-shirt and a small wedding veil. Odd, no?
This rapid fire video should give you a flavour of the mishmash of costumes at blocos.
At the end of the block is a giant semi truck with speakers built into the sides blasting music. Atop the truck are performers. The truck is stationary at first then it slowly rolls its way down the street with partygoers trailing behind, singing and dancing with gusto. From the patio of our friends’ apartment we could hear the blocos from miles away.
The first bloco we attended is where I got myself in a bit of a jam.
It was held in a gay district of the city. The costumes were a little more ‘out there’ but nothing too revealing. Clearly these gays had actually put a whopping ten minutes of thought into their bloco attire. The music was dance club inspired rather than the traditional samba grooves. Brittany Spears, Gaga, Katy Perry. Drag queens on the truck were lip syncing for their lives. In fact, everyone was singing. Everyone was dancing. In stark contrast, our adornments were very Canadians via Argentina with a heaping helping of deer in the headlights.
I couldn’t help but look around and take it all in. It was close quarters. Throngs of people squeezing past. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Super Mario in a tutu covered in glitter. I did a double take (you would too), just at the time he looked back at me.
Now apparently this is where my eyes miscommunicated. Ballerina Mario translated my double take as a request (or invitation) to kiss. He asked if he could kiss me (translated by friends). I shook my head. Just a peck he pantomimed. Um – awkward! “No, sorry,” I said. He huffed and twirled away. It was at that point that our friends said that if you “lock eyes” with someone it means you want to kiss them. I was speechless, but it wasn’t my mouth getting me in trouble. I was betrayed by my eyes.
But that wasn’t the end of my troubles – not five minutes later, another guy walked past our group and then tapped me on the shoulder and said something in Portuguese. Not knowing what he said, I just smiled and shook my head. Then, in English, he said “you have beautiful eyes.” I mumbled some form of thanks. I turned to Frank and said, “To hell with Argentina, I think we should winter in Brazil.” With that Frank insisted I put on my sunglasses and not to remove them until we leave the country.
Carnaval in São Paulo is more than blocos. What’s a celebration without a parade. Everyone loves a parade!?! – but there are limits.
The parade happens over two nights. Each night, seven different “schools of samba” compete. I assume there are marks for music, dance, enthusiasm, not running anyone over with the floats.
Each school has thousands of parade participants who have spent the past year preparing their costumes and floats. Forget the sorry excuse for costumes at the blocos, the costumes in the parade are incredible and the floats are architectural wonders – some five storeys high. I fully expected to see someone take a header.
Each year, the parade takes place at the Sambadrome. It’s essentially a 500-metre stretch of road with tall concrete bleachers that run the entire length. Its sole function is to host the parade two nights a year. The parade starts at 11 p.m. and finishes at 7 a.m. This creates a city of sleep deprived zombies the following day.
It took each school of samba about 45 minutes to shimmy and shake past the stands. Each school has their own signature samba song and everyone in the stands is singing and dancing to celebrate and encourage each school.
Suffering a slight case of parade fatigue, we snuck away at 5 a.m. Experiencing the parade was a big highlight of the trip.
Video below is a nine-second view of the floats:
Here’s a four-minute version – complete with music:
And here is a quick look at the multitude of dancers that appear between the floats:
It was a quick trip to São Paulo and, once again, Kevin and Vance were great hosts!
Now we’re back in Buenos Aires to recharge, then off to Peru. The next update will include adventures from our 10-day ayahuasca retreat in a remote jungle camp along the banks of the Amazon. You only live once!