February 16, 2007

Carnival 2007 Chaos: Day 1
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

…And so it begins.

A New Home

Yesterday found me on a local bus, relocating from Barra (pronounced bah-ha—like Baja) back to Salvador's Historic Center (Pelourinho). In the early afternoon Mario had finally realized that he'd neglected to send me the address of the apartment I'd be staying at for the festivities, and wrote me an apologetic e-mail.

The two bedroom home has a small third story balcony overlooking a "calm" side-street, and happens to be only a block or two away from the hostel I was staying at earlier in the week.

Mario was grinning from ear to ear when I saw him, and again apologizing about the address, but had some big news to tell mem. I said no—you didn't… tell me you didn't get ask that Argentine girl you've known for two weeks to marry you! Mario's smile was so big it almost connected around the back of his head. Dude, I'm engaged, he replied. Crazy ass guy.

I sized up the apartment after meeting some of my housemates. Each bedroom had a bunk bed and a single in it (for a total of six beds between the two rooms). A pile of thin mattress pads were stacked in the living area—and I was a little disappointed to learn that I didn't have a bed (as I qualified for one since I signed on before many of the others).

Did I mention that there was going to be a total of 13 people living in the apartment for the next week? Six girls and seven guys from all over the world (South Africa, Australia, Holland, Israel, and me from the U.S.).

One of the only known photos of me in the apartment… (the awesomely tan one w/ blue shorts)

One of the Aussie girls had apparently usurped my bed, and later that night Mario had a quick talk with the girl who organized the apartment. It was decided that a boy room and a girl room would be the best approach (for dressing and all that jazz—but what did I care, everyone was probably going to see me naked sooner or later), and thus a bed was again mine.

Carnival, Day 1

The first day of Carnival found me and a small group from the house on the beach in Barra, not far from where Brodie was moving into his new apartment for the event. As I walked the beach I knew it would be one of the last calmer moments I'd be having for some time to come.

As I strolled I'd occasionally hear someone shouting out my name, and turn to see a face who knew me from the past (although sometimes I honestly had no idea who they were—oops!). Sipping on a coconut, my path took me off the beach and onto the main avenue—the location soon to be the scene of one of the most intense series of moments in my life.

Property protection

For days now the Barra area had been undergoing an intense renovation. Most every building had barriers of wood and steel put in place to hold back the mayhem that would wash over the district for six consecutive nights. If it wasn't for the stages, television platforms, and street vendors I'd say that Salvador was preparing for a both a hurricane and revolution caliber rioting to rain destruction upon the city.

I turned the gentle corner on the main drag and gasped in awe at the vehicles in front of me, prepping for the evening. Imagine the size of the rig of a semi-trailer truck (not the trailer, but the vehicle pulling the load). Now, instead of a trailer, imagine a party platform that makes the semi-truck look insignificant by comparison. The Brazilians call them trios elétricos.

Behind these trucks stood massive creations of speaker, light, and steel. Wider on each side of the semi by several meters, and some standing upwards of three stories tall, they were truly the manifestation of a nightclub on wheels—the harbingers of smiles, sound, and salacious behavior.

Speakers the height of two men created the foundation from which the rest of the platform was mounted. The upper level contained everything from lights and more speakers to platforms for performers and live bands. These are not cheap vehicles—some probably costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I kept walking—the scene was already intensifying as people began assembling for the onset of the festivities. I walked for at least two kilometers, looking at the trucks and people with no end in sight. I hurried back to the beach to share with everyone what was mounting, just blocks away from the sand.

It was starting to get late, and I had invited Brodie over to the apartment for drinks. I would have loved to taken a nap, but I was home just long enough to shower before a shout from the street below announced the arrival of my friend.

After Dark…

It started off with caipirinhas at my house and ended with me waking up on the tiles of the kitchen floor in Brodie's apartment in Barra—everything in between was absolutely amazing.

As Brodie and I finished off an entire bottle of cachaça (the high-proof sugarcane rum called fire water elsewhere in the continent), we listened to Mario and others describe the fight they'd gotten into after three others and I had left the beach.

Ugh, Mario?

Mario had festively gotten his hair braided earlier in the day (common among locals), making the lumps on his forehead all that more obvious. The crew had stuck around the Barra scene too long and over the course of an hour or two one of the girls in the house had her beach bag (a smallish purse) slashed twice and eventually snatched.

Mario gave chase to the thief and ended up getting into a scuffle with a few local kids—pummling his head with fists pretty. The bag was retrieved, but he later found out there was nothing of particular value in it anyways—so much for doing the chivalrous thing.

Parade!

It was probably an hour or two before midnight by this point, and Brodie and I, having watched the little parade go past our balcony and the last of our supply of booze go into our mouths, started getting antsy to get out onto the streets. Two of the girls wanted to come with us, yelling as we descended the stairs, but after giving them two solid minutes to catch up we were gone.

The scene in Pelourinho was much quieter than we expected—in fact there were crews still assembling and welding things together all over the place. The sound from bands of drummers and brass instruments filled the cobbled streets, slickened by the slight drizzle that was coming down.

Because of the street size there are no vehicles in this part of town, lending itself to a calmer environment filled with more youngsters and elderly than elsewhere in the city. Following a group of drummers didn't really do it for Brodie and I, and with beers in hand we began to wander.

Salvador has three official Carnival circuits in neighboring districts of town: The Historic Center (where we were), Campo Grande, and Barra. Walking from Pelourinho to Campo Grande is easily done (as we discovered this night), but from Campo Grande to Barra requires a bus or taxi.

Campo Grande is not a historic neighborhood, but a collection of paved, spider webbing streets (ranging from wide avenues to dark, narrow, foreboding alleys). Trios elétricos were already on the scene, moving slowly through the jubilant crowds like ancient Titans. As the drizzle fell on our heads a smile stretched across our faces—we, like two million others in the city, had caught the Carnival fever.

There are three primary options for participation in Carnival: Watching from a camarote, following a trios inside of a bloco, or to fazer pipoca (be popcorn) in the street—appropriately named, as it often actually feels like you're a kernal being tossed around inside an hot-air popcorn maker.

Camarotes are walled-off spectator sections, ranging from street-side bleachers to hotel balconies and elaborate structures of scaffolding that look (and function) like nightclubs. These are self-contained party observation complexes that, for a hefty price (some upwards of BR$700 for a single night), give participants all the food, alcohol, and security they want.

Blocos are directly related to the massive party trucks crawling through the streets, each with a particular band/sponsorship/affiliation. Followers are grouped in a roped-off area around the vehicles, forming a bloco. Participants pay upwards of BR$300 for their single-use abadá (shirt or costume required for entry) for their favorite band, but mostly for the prestige and safety the roped area provides.

As popcorn we experienced about all the pleasures and pain that Carnival has to offer. We were the only white faces in the crowd that night as we danced among the locals. I was drunk, but Brodie later recalled that my composure didn't reveal the severity.

We wandered the streets of Campo Grande, not lost, but also having no clue as to where we were. The music pouring out of the trucks was fast paced—almost beating to that of our hearts. We weaved in and out of alley bars filled entirely with intoxicated Brazilians, danced in the frenzied crowds that squeezed in next to the trios eléctricos, received free drinks from teenage girls, and were groped countless times while flirting and kissing our way through a sea of Afro-Brazilians.

Euphoria.

…and then, the smell of piss. My God, it was everywhere. Men (and even some women) will let the urine flow anywhere and everywhere—no matter how public or private the venue. Pissing on walls, through gates, in any type of corner—it didn't matter.

The sludge of Carnival mixed with the rain, caking our lower extremities. You'd be pushing along the side of a crowded street and step shin-deep into a murky-grey puddle of vomit, excrement, and trash. SO FOUL.

Your choices of footwear are between flip-flops or sneakers—the thongs provide better drainage from that filth you just walked though, but the trainers offer better protection for your toes (which are constantly getting stomped on), however retain all those nasty juices. The choices are simply bad and worse.

After hours and hours of dancing Brodie and I finally walked down yet another unknown street, stumbling across an open taxi. Happy and exhausted I sized the cab up, gave it the thumbs-up, slurred instructions were given to the driver, and we were on our way to Barra.

Setting eyes on Brodie's new apartment for the first time, I spotted an armless, cream-colored pleather couch that looked awfully welcoming. Both feet still planted firmly on the floor, my torso and head on the cushions, I promptly passed out. Brodie told me later that he came over to try and move me into a bed, but after several Aussie "Oy's!" failed to rouse me he retreated to his bedroom.

I awoke a handful of hours later, the room spinning furiously, the extra saliva in my mouth warning me of an impending purge. Sliding the window of his 7th story apartment open I prepared to cover the sidewalk, street, and parked cars with the contents of my stomach—but luckily for all the fresh air helped to subdue the urge to share with the neighborhood.

The moment of panic having passed I headed for the guest bathroom next to the kitchen, just in case another wave of nausea hit me. Oh, I thought to myself, that bathroom is barely big enough to turn around in—but I need to be close to that toilet… maybe I'll just lay down here for a while…

I awoke with Brodie standing next to me, a cup of water in his hand, looking awfully perplexed as to why I had moved from an very uncomfortable position on the couch to the even more uncomfortable ceramic tile floor of his kitchen. He showed me a bed, returned to his, and we both blissfully fell back to sleep—smiling—silently knowing this was just the first round of many to come.

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