February 22, 2007

Salvador Carnival Exposed
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

Impressions, observations, and tips from Salvador's 2007 Carnival.

The Pelourinho (Historic Center) Circuit

Narrow, hilly, cobbled streets keep vehicles at bay, lending to a calmer, more intimate atmosphere. Primarily an afternoon and early evening event, children will dress up in adorable costumes while hoards of tourists snap photos. Small musical bands (and their many spectators) fill the streets, brass instruments or percussion drums of the performers amplified by the confined environment.

This is a place that's as safe as it's going to get for children and the elderly, and is probably the Carnival the majority of the passengers aboard the cruise ships at anchor will experience. If you can't take the sound of drums for hours on end, this is not the scene for you (although it's worth waking up to take a look at least once).

The Campo Grande Circuit

What I think of as the local's Carnival. It's in easy walking distance from (and much more exciting than) Pelourinho, but slightly more restrained than Barra. It's also filthier than the two other circuits combined (as in vomit, urine, and trash).

Paved avenues allow for the full impact of the trio eléctrios and their accompanying blocos to shake the streets, but with significantly less flair. The trucks are less expensive, the blocos less cohesive.

Packed alleyways converted into bars (or urinals) serve to connect the main thoroughfares, or as an escape from them. By midnight the party is in full swing, lasting until the early hours of the morning.

If you're uncomfortable being surrounded by Afro-Brazilians with no other tourists in sight, this is not the scene for you.

The Barra–Ondina Circuit

The Alpha and Omega of Carnival in Salvador. The start of the circuit (at the lighthouse/beach) is saturated with camarotes, vendors, pickpockets, television cameras, violence, and gringo hunters.

The circuit is host to the A-List of Carnival performers, and with them come the extravagant trio eléctrios and wild blocos. The scene kicks into gear in the afternoon, and doesn't stop until after dawn (although the starting point of the circuit is completely empty by 2:30 in the morning).

It's hard to pry yourself away from the quality and the entertaining mayhem, but if you're so inclined, a quick taxi ride to Campo Grande at around 1:30 in the morning is sure to keep you smiling.

This strip can be as intense as a hurricane. If you're not into crowds and getting drunk with kids in their twenties, this is not the scene for you.

Camarote Impressions

Aside from watching the event on television, this is the highest form of segregation you can achieve while still "participating" in Carnival. Temporary scaffolding and hotel balconies are turned into viewing platforms/all-inclusive resorts.

I can see the bored look in the eyes of the folks as they wait for the next bloco to pass. They can leave and return anytime they want, but I doubt it happens often—they might actually break a sweat or get rained on.

If I was to design a camarote, I'd have a section where you'd be able to meet people from the street in an by-invitation-only zone. You see someone you like and they want to get to know you a little better—invite them past the velvet ropes into the meet and greet area.

Bloco Impressions

Bloco fun

Blocos are fun because if you have a favorite performer it's an easy way to show your (financial and physical) support, stay with the trio eléctrio, and dance the night away to his/her/their tunes.

Blocos aren't fun because your trapped in a mosh-pit of prudes that would rather jump on your feet than give you a kiss.

Security and staff keep the bad people away, but also serve to segregate you from the Brazilians, the majority of whom can't afford to buy into a bloco.

Many of the cutest girls on the street are found inside the blocos—not just in the blocos, but in the absolute middle of the bloco. It's the only protection they get from the grabby hands of the men on the street.

Popcorn Impressions

The easiest way to experience all the sweet highs and bitter lows that Carnival has to offer. Your clothing and feet will get soiled; people will try to rob you; people will try to fight you; people will try to kiss you; and in the heat of the moment, people will embrace you as another dancing Brazilian.

Photography

Taking photos in Pelourinho is never a problem. Carrying around a camera during the daylight hours in Barra isn't an issue. If you take a point-and-shoot out into a bloco, the worst you'll have to worry about is keeping it dry and from getting crushed/dropped. Camarotes are as safe as it gets for such things.

I would always use the wrist-strap and never take a camera into the Campo Grande or Barra circuits after dark.

Beer

You have no bargaining power as a tourist in the adult beverage department—especially at night. A normal can of Skol sells for BR$1.50, Nova Shin for BR$1.25, and Sol for BR$1 (if you can find it). The taller BR$2 can of Skol costs the same as the smaller variety (ounce for ounce), and tends to get warm before finished.

Pouring your beer into a free water bottle obtained from a passing trio eléctrio is an easy way to keep trashy and annoying people from asking you for a sip or the can itself (and there are lots of them out there).

Urine

Smell—the one sense you want to dull with alcohol as much as possible. The beaches of Barra are filthy, foul litter boxes for people. The public urination knows no limits in Campo Grande. If I had a dollar for every time I took a huge whiff of urine that was not my own during the event, I would be able to pay for my Carnival expenses several times over.

Clothing and Footwear

Think disposable—plan on throwing out every article of clothing you wear during the evening festivities. Guys, buy a cheap pair of board shorts and a shirt. Girls, you might be able to get away with the same thing.

Go to a tailor with your new shorts and get them to sew in a hidden pocket for your cash and ID, below the inside waistband with a strip of Velcro at the top to keep it shut. While you're at it, get them to seal or remove all external pockets, for I guarantee it will save you much grief from the pickpockets later on. A hidden pocket should cost no more than BR$6, and take no more than 20 minutes to create and sew into place.

Near the Shopping Barra complex I saw small waistbands with pockets for sale, to be worn under your clothes like a money belt—avoid them. Under closer inspection they are easy to rip off and run away with. The fingers of braver pickpockets aren't afraid to probe when in a crowd, and you'll be in them often.

All sources warn women not to wear a skirt during the event, or men's hands will be grabbing the goods in no time. I want to try wearing a kilt without underwear to see if women would do the same…

If your playing the role of popcorn and plan on keeping your shoes after Carnival, don't wear them. Yes, your feet will get the life smashed out of them, but at least the pair of sandals you'll be wearing will quickly drain away the shin-deep, murky-grey puddle of foulness you just stepped in. Your shoes, on the other hand, will always retain some of that fluid—not the memento you want to take with you.

Shoes would be okay to wear if you were in a bloco, or if you had a new pair to begin each day with (throwing/giving the previous pair away).

The two apparel items that I would design (and possibly sell) for my next Carnival, should there ever be one, are a pair of shorts and sandals.

The swimming shorts would have your common external thigh pocket, but with a little bonus for the pickpockets—an inserted hand would close a circuit and shock the intruder, giving the would-be thief a good jolt. A standard 9-volt battery or two should do the trick, and provide countless hours of entertainment. I'm not sure about the waterproofing though.

The second would be a pair of sandals with a steel toe guard, painted in the same color. Construction workers have a steel shell in the toe of their boots—I want the same thing engineered into my sandals. Protection, comfort, and drainage, all in the same piece of footwear.

Pickpockets, Thieves, and Fights

Grime from hundreds of pickpockets

I've never heard any stories of thief in the Historic Center. I had perhaps one or two instances where roaming hands were caught in Campo Grande. The theft attempts on my empty pockets on the Barra circuit were in the hundreds—sometimes so many at the same time I wanted to scream.

The absolute worst place you want to be for pickpockets is dancing next to a trio eléctrico in the lighthouse/beach section of Barra. It is in this linear position that your movements are predictable, and hands can get at you from every direction (the guy in front, behind, on your sides, and even from below—from those damn children).

The thieving kids are some of the worst because they're so short they can slide up next to you completely undetected—if I had space to lift my knee I would have surly connected it with a few of these little bastards.

The grown men are no different, but have hurt egos when you catch them—that, and your excessive drinking, can lead to fights. You're going to loose because there's always more than one or two of them, and because others love to join in and try and rob tourists while they're in a scuffle or incapacitated.

You can easily leave all the hostility and theft on the Barra circuit behind you if you simply walk away from the lighthouse/beach district of Av. Oceânica and towards Ondina.

My guidebook warns that the road and area near the Morro do Cristo (small Christ statue monument) just up the way from the lighthouse is a dangerous place to be, but that's not the case any longer. It's the same there as it is on the rest of the strip towards Ondina. I believe the epicenter of problems have moved in recent years towards the start of the circuit.

The Worst Guys Out There

I may hate the pickpockets and thieves with a passion, but I loath a particular group ("brotherhood") of men called the Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi). They are easily identified by their white terrycloth turbans, white sari-esque robes adorned with blue-and-white beads, and of course, their behavior—all of them womanizing assholes.

The Sons of Gandhi are a boys-only bloco that is a favorite for the tourists to snap photos of. I know better than to give them attention though—I've watched their collective behavior for a week—they are the black to my white, the Yang to my Yin—my opponents, my competition, my nemeses.

This brotherhood represents everything that I am not with regards to the way they treat women. I'd cringe every time I saw them, knowing full well what was going to happen to any girl in their periphery.

They look so holy and pure dressed in white, but remind me of the bad Buddist monks of Thailand, engaging in any manner of vice desired. I know what all those blue and white beads are for—not decoration, but as bribes/rewards for kisses.

These guys are basically the jerks of the event—grabbing, groping, grappling, restraining, forcing, pulling, chasing, and assaulting as many women as possible. They'd walk outside of the bloco together like the police, roaming in 3–5 man hit squads; many concealing spray bottles of cologne used to shoot at girls (one of their trademarks).

We may compete in the same weight class (or league, if you will), but disagree with their style completely. Sadly, a lot of girls like jerks (even though they say otherwise), so they get the attention they desire.

The second group that annoys me are the bloco grunts working the rope barrier. These dudes can be just as bad as the Gandhi guys with the girls (on the outside of the bloco), and prey on exposed pockets the same as Barra's beach bandits.

The line workers are constantly begging for beer or collecting the free goodies tossed from the trucks to the crowd (that just don't quite make it). No, their job isn't particularly easy, but it pays and offers all the passing booty you can pinch or all the drinks you can milk out of those on the outside.

Fun with Flirting

Little devil with my wingman

Flirting is synonymous with Carnival, and if you're not doing it (enough), you're not embracing today's spirit of the event. If you see eyes looking at you—act!

Not an aggressive guy? No worries, neither am I. Pick one or two of the actions from the following list before your four seconds of solid eye contact expire:

  • A smile
  • A wink
  • A smooch to the air
  • A blown kiss with your hand
  • A hand held over the heart (with an I love you, don't leave me expression on your face)
  • Arms crossed over the chest (hands on opposite shoulders—this indicates love, use same expression as above)
  • A come here gesture
  • A touch to her waist/stomach/back
  • A thumb-squeeze on the chin
  • Motion for a kiss on the cheek
  • Pull her in a kiss on the lips

Some food for thought:

  • Touching a woman's stomach is fairly aggressive, much more so than the waist or back
  • The face is a very personal place—if she lets you give her a cute chin squeeze/pinch, I guarantee she's open to a smooch
  • Asking for a kiss on your cheek is good for shy girls, and usually results in them asking for the same—go for the lips if she lingers
  • Any girl that responds to a come here hand gesture is already yours
  • Don't grab her hair or hands as she passes, slap ass, or ask/beg for kisses—how is that attractive?

You don't need to utter a single word of Portuguese to have a good time—everything is non-verbal—but on the off chance you open your mouth to do something other than kiss, scream, and drink alcohol during Carnival, just say "meu amor" (my love) to any girl after a request, and you're sorted.

Sex and Carnival

The sex in the streets rumors of Carnival are grossly exaggerated (just like seeing attractive bare breasts during New Orleans' Mardi Gras). It's rare. I saw none, but my buddies Brodie and Christoph saw a semi-circle with about a hundred people watching a Gandhi go at it.

What's interestingly never talked about are the tens of thousands of Brazilians who've descend upon Salvador from cities up and down the coast who can't afford (or couldn't find) accommodations. So what does this mean to you, male tourist?

Well, you both have something the other wants—she wants a shower and/or a place to sleep for a few hours, and you want some lovin'. Chances are strong that this arrangement will be understood without words the moment you hear she's not from Salvador (or even that particular part of town).

The prime time to encounter such an exchange is between the hours of 23:30 and 01:00, in the lighthouse/beach zone of Barra. This area has the highest concentration of many things, including these girls or groups of Brazil's young, fun, and temporarily homeless.

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