Okay, I think I’m in love. With an event and a place. The Carnaval in Olinda, Pernambuco, is the sort of event that would have been high on my bucket list, had I known it existed before I actually got there. It should be on everyone’s bucket list (and, if you can manage it, try to go before you’re 25!) The following are my impressions of the day, as they occurred to me:
After two hours along sleek highways—past sugarcane fields and smog-belching factories—the minibus dropped us off along a drab industrial stretch of road. It didn’t look promising, but thousands of high-spirited young people in elaborate costumes were swarming, on foot, down an avenue to the left, and so we let them sweep us along.
Another left turn, and we find ourselves standing in the 16th century. The first thing that strikes you about the historical enclave of Olinda—a UNESCO World Heritage town—is the architecture. The narrow and steeply climbing cobblestoned streets are flanked by medieval colonial buildings.
Deep-set arched doorways and fretwork windows are fronted by curly wrought iron balconies or lamps hanging from ornamental brackets. Every house is painted a vivid pastel hue, with moulded accents in a contrasting colour. It’s as though the entire town were made of gigantic petits fours.
The next thing that hits you is the crowd. It’s just phenomenal. Thousands of people, mostly students in their teens and early 20s, throng the tiny streets. In some places we are pressed up against each other so solidly that the only progress down the street is a kind of wriggling, like maggots.
It’s twelve noon, the sun is blazing straight down, and you could probably charge admission to the space under an umbrella. Some of the town’s residents stand on their balconies with garden hoses, and spray water over the melting, grateful crowd. But the vibe is so exhilarating that you soon get over the heat…
And that’s the next thing you’ll take in: the vibe. We were told that carnaval in Olinda is more “traditional” than elsewhere; other sources used words like “intimate”, “inclusive” and “folkloric”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I totally get it, now.
Artists, students and bohemians populate this neighbourhood, making for a creative and intellectual ambience that is reflected in the street art, atmospheric cafés, wall murals, and the ubiquitous smell of maconha wafting out of open windows.
The narrow, UNESCO-protected streets preclude the use of heavy sound trucks, spotlights, or electronic orchestra (things we saw at the more urban Joao Pessoa carnaval). The different groups (troças and maracatus) weave their way through the crowded streets all afternoon, sparking spontaneous frenzied dancing that goes on for as long as their music can be heard. There is no official parade time or route, no competitions for costumes or floats or dance groups, there are no cordons to separate the blocos from the public, and there are no entrance fees (as in Rio or Sao Paulo)…it’s just one big, open street party.
Pernambuco is said to be the home of frevo, from the Portuguese word ferver, ‘to boil’ (from the Latin fervere, which gave English the word fervour, ‘intense and passionate feeling.’)
The music is redolent with African rhythms; the dance moves are typically acrobatic and fast-paced.
Not a lot of food variety…the street food stalls offer half-a-dozen deep-fried, pastry-enclosed things that look like samosas, a dozen kinds of barbecued meat-on-a-stick things, and something called a macaxeira, which I unfortunately didn’t try. But it’s not about food, which is just a necessary fuel for these partygoers. What Olinda lacks in things to eat, it certainly makes up for in things to drink. There must have been a thousand polystyrene cooler carts selling the same things: ice cold beer, bottled water, or mixed drinks in cans; there were also bigger stalls selling caipirinhas (cocktails made with cachaça, a local high-proof sugarcane rum) and whole bottles of imported spirits like Smirnoff or Johnny Walker. The cobbles were literally wet with alcohol! They make good beer in Brazil…after 5 Skols I was dancing down the streets, instead of walking, and I had lost my Portuguese language inhibitions…to the horror and confusion of the poor vendors I approached.
Bigger inhibitions than a foreign language were being abandoned throughout the day. Groups of laughing young men would approach a pretty girl and start chanting “Beijo! Beijo!” (“Kiss! Kiss!”) One boy would offer her a drink of whetever he was carrying, and if she thought he looked okay, the girl would agree to the swap.
The crowd went wild each time a brazen couple wrapped their arms around each other and enjoyed a long, steamy kiss…a few real couples standing nearby would back them up with their own passionate displays.
It was awesome. And you never know who you might meet at Carnaval…you might find true love, when the perfect person walks out of the crowd…
Pretty young women. Handsome young men. Straight kids, just fooling around by wearing each others clothes, squeezed in with the loud, proud LGBT crowd…every blasphemy cheered, every absurdity paraded, everything “respectable” turned on its head, and a fierce celebration of the whole hullabaloo. A kind of Utopia.
When it had cooled down a bit and the beer buzz had subsided, I did some people-watching. Outrageous costumes, aliveness, youth, beauty…I tried to commit the day to memory.
By five o’clock p.m. the same river of young people drifted out of the historical centre onto the highway. For a good hour or two the buses heading out of town were jam-packed with commuters in fishnet stockings, superhero lycras, sequins, bikini tops, masks, headdresses, fairytale ballgowns, gossamer wings, leather, feathers, chains and bridal lace.
Like a six-year-old when the circus comes to town, I longed to run away and join them.