After weeks of pre-parties and anticipation, the Editor finally gets to experience the real Carnival in Brazil. However it seems his beloved sleep is not on the agenda…
“A-CORDA, A-CORDA, A-CORDA!!!!” I am fast asleep in my hammock, in the imagined safety of a family home in Olinda’s old town, when the aggregated clamour of fifteen or so of the most twisted and evil human beings I have ever encountered, together with the incessant banging of their drums, gives me the rudest awakening of my life thus far.
There’s been a conspiracy. My host, Rick, already active at this preternatural hour of the day, has – like a modern-day Tarpeia – unlocked the front door and allowed this troop of tumultuous vagabonds to tip toe inside our stronghold. Gleefully filing down the corridor to the dining hall, where several of us were sleeping, it was my unlucky lugholes they selected to stand next to, before unleashing the full fury of their infernal dawn racket upon their unconscious victims.
A corda (two words) is Portuguese for “the rope”, and the chief participants of this bloco, a multi-human cockerel crowing for the start of the day’s festivities, do indeed chain themselves together with twine as they maraud through the morning streets. However acorda (one word) means “wake up!”, and the rope definitely plays second fiddle to the group’s self-appointed mission to wake every potential reveller up in Olinda and get the party started…. whether they like it or not.
Mud, Sweat and Beers
If you can’t beat them join them, as the old adage goes. And so it is that at 9am already (when I’m usually fast asleep dreaming that Arsenal have signed me at right back as a replacement for Bacary Sagna, or that my parents finally bought me Optimus Prime for Christmas), myself Pedro, Sabrina and several of Pedro’s friends have gathered in the morning sunshine outside the Mosteiro Sao Bento, beer in hand. We’ve heard about a Bloco de Lama or “mud bloco” whereby participants get covered in mud, but as even Pedro – born and bred in Recife – has never made it this early to Olinda, we’re not quite sure to expect. Suddenly there’s a commotion to our right and all of the idling bystanders rush over to where a paddling pool has appeared as if by magic. We move over to see what the deal is, and sure enough the pool has been filled with a sickly looking yellow mud: no one needs any encouragement as the first few revellers on the scene eagerly clamber in and start splashing themselves and those around them. But of course, once the first person has slipped and fallen and got head-to-toe covered in gunk, the precedent is set for full submergence and before you know it the pool resembles a slippery game of twister as limbs writhe and splash in their eagerness to get coated with the ochre slime. As the pool is only about four metres square there’s a rugby scrum around the perimeter as the youngsters hustle to get in and get dirty. Dropping my bag with camera and wallet outside, I stumble in and gleefully take a face first dive. Yes it’s engineered and pointless, but it’s also incredibly fun.
It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re surrounded by hundreds of hipsters caked in mud, and once we’ve undergone our baptism of mire, it’s high time to crack open a beer and take some photos to load up on our Facebook accounts. Too late I remember the snorkelling gear I bought specifically for the mud dive, but I put it on anyway for the cameras. Others are wearing bathrobes and shower caps for similar comic effect. The atmosphere is great.
By definition a bloco means a march around the block, something we’ve almost forgotten by the time the band starts up and a Bacchanalian legion of half naked, half sludge-coated – and half drunk – party animals starts its procession around Olinda’s beautiful colonial streets. Onlookers can’t help but smile at the sight, and we the mud-bathers are happy to be the centre of attention as we march, dance and drink!
Whilst most of the crowd seem to be coping well with the day’s exertions, I’ve had to switch from beers to Smirnoff Ices which, in the cruel Brazilian heat, somehow aren’t rehydrating me as much as I thought they might. Meanwhile I begin to suspect that any sun protection the wet mud might have offered my sensitive, Northern-hemispheric skin no longer applies now that the dirt is baked dry and flaking off my body. Not only that, but I’ve gone from being surrounded by friends to being alone, as Pedro, Sabrina and the others are lost somewhere in the melee. All things considered, I decide I’ve had enough fun for one morning and that it’s time to beat a tactical retreat and maybe sneak in a nap and a bite to eat back at Rick’s house…
The Kissing Game
Despite a romantic encounter at the end of the Royal Parachutist bloco a few nights earlier, it’s safe to say that overall Brazilian girls have been distinctly underwhelmed by my, let’s call them “idiosyncratic”, charms. Perhaps that’s why when a cute girl checks me out on the way back home, I don’t offer much more in return other than a polite smile. When I draw level and she’s still looking, I think to myself I really should do something here, but how am I supposed to approach a girl completely surrounded by guys? And then when I go past, look over my shoulder, and she’s still checking me out, I have to tell myself… no more excuses, it’s time to man up! Thinking that I’d better ingratiate myself first with her male friends, so that they don’t beat the crap out of me for trying to steal the only girl in their group, I tap one on the shoulder and kick off a conversation.
I wasn’t sure what response I’d get, but the guy in question is very friendly… very friendly indeed. “Where are you from?” he says, flicking back his hair and looking me up and down. Too late I realise that all the guys in the group are gay, and suddenly I’m the unwitting centre of their attention. Whilst I struggle to answer the barrage of questions my unlikely admirers have for me, as they crowd around, I desperately try to catch the eye of the slim and beautiful, dark-haired girl that is leaning back on the wall, looking distinctly unimpressed. Eventually she comes to rescue me.
“If you want to talk to me, you should talk to me. Not my friends.” Yep, in case you’re wondering, I do feel pretty small right now.
Now that the girl has isolated me from the group (has she been reading The Game?!), I am at least able to work my magic. In fact after just a couple of minutes I’m confident that things are moving onto the right track. Then disaster strikes. The gay guys, now bored with me, want to head off – and they want to take my olive skinned beauty with them.
“So, I’m going,” says M.O-S.Beauty.
“Ok, erm, really? Maybe we should swap Faceb…”
“Yes. Goodbye then.” She leans closer.
“Ok so, I guess, this is goodb…”
Finally, as she moves to within a foot of me, I get the hint. I grab her by the waist, pull her close and, in true Brazilian caveman style, give her very little option but to kiss me. Which she does. Both willingly – and ably – I should probably add. Not that this is a true love story however. Thirty seconds later and she turns tail and goes, not even giving me a chance to get her number. I guess that’s just how it’s done in Carnival. Farewell hot brunette girl, wherever you are!
We Could Be Heroes
As you get older it’s fair to say you give less of a f@ck about pretty much everything. Which is perhaps why in my mid-thirties I was finally ready to make my first ever (public at least) appearance in drag. I’d seen several Wonder Woman outfits for sale in Recife old town for 20 reias and, after a little hesitation, snapped up two, one for me, and one for Pedro (if I was going to dress up in a pair of skin-tight, star-spangled blue hot pants and a bright red boob tube, damn well he was too. Although I spared Pedro the electric pink wig – something of a fetish of mine, ever since Natalie Portman in Closer). On the third day of Carnaval, the two of us set off, together with Sabrina as Pocachontas, to the Enquanto Isso Na Sala da Justiça (“Meanwhile In The Hall of Justice”), super-hero themed bloco in Olinda.
Unfortunately we were too tired recovering from the concerts the night before in Recife to make it in time to see Spiderman abseil down Olinda’s water tower, but we did make it in time for the mainstay of the revelry. Here at the summit of the city, it looked like one of those American Comic Con conventions, as heroes from the world of TV, film and graphic novels had gathered to… get pissed basically, and maybe pose for the odd photo. Wolverine was there, brandishing his claws and muscles – and a fat cigar, Skeletor minced around in tight trousers, a cohort of Greek Hoplites closed ranks behind their shields, Beatrix Kiddo wielded her katana, in her Kill Bill yellow jumpsuit, Cat Woman preened and hissed from her perch on a wall, whilst many more unrecognisable freaks and geeks ran amok in merry abandonment. Then came the traditional march, and once more I was plunged into a moving mass that once entered was inescapable as it wound its way down the narrow streets. I barely had room to lift my arms and take a photo of Jesus Christ superstar, as he lifted his arms towards us from on high and shepherded us through the streets to the city centre. Heaven would be way cooler if God was Brazilian I surmised.
Olinda and Recife Carnival Tips
There were many more Carnaval adventures and highlights, but I think you get the picture by now. Obviously lesser known than the Carnivals of Rio and Salvador, the celebrations in Olinda and Recife are nonetheless considered by many natives and travel experts to be the very best in Brazil, and from my personal experience I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them (even if I can’t compare them directly to the others, never having been to those). Perhaps a few tips are in order so you can benefit from my experience:
Turning up to Carnaval without a costume is like turning up at a wedding without a gift. You feel like a bit of plonker. You might not want to go all out every day, but some fun paraphernalia always help you get in the mood, not to mention intermingle with others. (If I wasn’t dressed at Wonder Woman on day three, I never would have met the Emmanuelle Beart lookalike who took a fancy to my costume!). Whilst you will find some shops selling costumes and accoutrements if you look around the Old Town, I’d strongly advise arriving with one or two costumes already packed, as choice was limited and you’ll want at least two main costumes I’d say. You should also bring some red and yellow clothes as one of the best and most popular blocos, Eu Acho E Pouco, took place a couple of times and typically one is supposed to attend in red and yellow garb.
What Else To Bring?
A waterproof camera, or else a cheap portable one, comes in handy in carnival when you’ll likely to be assaulted by mud, water pistols or beer… and not unlikely to fall victim to pickpocketing or your own stupidity/carelessness brought on my inebriation. I also find a drawstring bag really handy during such festivals to carry a few things around, without really feeling the impediment of a bag. Plus they are almost pickpocket proof. Earplugs might also help you sleep… but don’t count on it, as the noise day and night is almost relentless.
Olinda vs. Recife
Olinda and Recife are right next to each other, but obviously moving to and from them is a bit of a pain in the arse, as everyone else in the city tends to be trying to do the same at the same time. Olinda is also better by day, with not too much going on at night, whilst Recife is better by night. I was lucky enough to be able to stay in Recife some nights at my friend Pedro’s flat, and other nights in Olinda in the house that Pedro’s friend Rick had rented out for the week. If I had to choose one, I’d say stay in Olinda, because the day parties tended to be more fun. If you do stay in Recife, stay in the north side so you can taxi or bus to and fro more easily.
After discovering cassava with sundried beef during the aforementioned night at the Royal Parachutist bloco, I didn’t think anything could surpass it for festival food. But I was wrong. Try the tapioca.
Ok that’s about it from me… if you have any questions, or your own tips, please do add something in the comments section below! Meanwhile join me again soon “On The Road” (hint: you can follow on Facebook, Twitter or subscribe via email) as I fly back to Rio and then head to the island paradise of Ilha Grande.