Carnival Actually Happens on the Streets
I wake up with the increasingly sticky morning heat and the crushing smell of the traditional feijoada’s black beans with pork that Suzanna is already stirring in the tiny kitchen. Suzanna is the live-in maid. All middle-class households have one here—just because they can. Ours is twenty-two, with warm sparkly eyes and three kids, the youngest of whom she had at sixteen. Preta (Portuguese for black), she says, poking an index finger at her chest. Three days after our arrival she asks our host where we come from (Bulgaria and Serbia, speaking in English), then exclaims triumphantly: “I knew they were foreigners!” She listens to sentimental Brazilian ballads on her phone and sings along with them. What is this music, I ask with the help of some Spanish vocabulary and international gestures. Who-mun-chee-kuh, she replies. Romantica, in the local accent. We are in Rio, we’re staying at Copacabana, and it doesn’t matter that it’s only nine in the morning—we’ve already overslept terribly for the first carnival party of the day.
In the murky, dully shaded living room, its white walls nearly covered by mirrors, religious symbols, and family photos, Granny has already sunk into her collection of stuffed toys on the sofa. She is actually our local friend Melissa’s granny, but we treat her as our own and she responds in kind. She chats to us incessantly, sincerely, and cheerfully, as though we have a language in common. Oi, vo (hi, granny), we greet, and thus our Portuguese is depleted. Granny has just finished her habitual morning mango and has already moved on to prayer, a rosary in her hands. When she is done, she will turn on the TV and binge-watch whatever is on—a skateboarding competition, the latest local telenovela, half of which—for reasons unknown—takes place in Istanbul, the Brazilian Big Brother, where all the women are Gisele Bündchen clones. Sometimes, on days off work, Uncle, who mixes the caipirinha not in glasses but straight into bottles, will sit down next to her. Or she will be joined by Aunt Regina, whose husband is a wealthy businessman we will never get to see—they live a block away, so she drops by often. Family is a force of nature here—these guys invented the telenovela, after all It’s how they live—they call each other a hundred times a day, mind each other’s business, and get together for extended family reunions at every possible occasion.
When we finally manage to leave the house, the sun is already scorching and the famous waves on Copacabana’s signature sidewalk are hardly visible from the crowds of joggers, skaters, and half-naked people of all other sorts. Not all of them are heading to the beach–it’s just how they go about here, you often see bare-chested guys even downtown. We look around and the view is 360 degrees breathtaking, so much so that it borders on kitsch: it’s all palms, hills, ocean, beaches, sun, and sky, interrupted only by the massive concrete-gray towers of the apartment blocks. You can see plenty of coconuts on the trees, as well as occasional orchids, like the white ones that the singer Bebel Gilberto tucks into her hair. Lush steep hills loom all over the city and devour most of the streets’ far ends. That’s where the favelas sprout—those fearsome, illegal, and practically vertical shantytowns inhabited by people like Suzanna. Places we itch to see, but will neither have the balls to go to on our own, nor would we ever join a travel-agency-organized safari-type of ride around one, obrigada.
Instead, we head towards Ipanema, whose beach promenade is lined up with hotels resembling the good times of Bulgarian 1980s resort architecture. We search for our place under the sun amongst tens of thousands of people. There are over 300 km of wide and wonderful beaches only in Rio, but there are also twelve million locals enjoying them daily, coming down with nothing on but a canga, a long beach towel, wrapped around their waists and a mobile phone tucked into it. Whatever else they need, they can buy from the beach vendors, who constantly offer anything and everything—from beer to sandwiches, from sun protection to hand-made jewelry, from swimsuits to dresses.
I redefine my idea of what “crowded” means and it hits me: in spite of all the concrete covering the Black Sea coast, we are rather spoilt for space in Bulgaria. Here, if you want to enjoy more than a square meter of sand, it has to be cloudy. And to see an empty beach, it has to be raining. Then only the surfer teenage boys, who all look like they just stepped out of Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar nominated “City of God”, will be diving into the ever cold, salty, and rough Atlantic waters. The other Cariocas (that’s what you call the Rio locals) will be at home, and some won’t even let their kids go to school.
But back to what we came here for. Whenever the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is mentioned, people imagine what they’ve seen on the news—the exuberant samba queens, happily flaunting their enormous crowns, feathers, tits, and wings, the profusely decorated floats, and processions of fancy dressed dancers. And that’s what carnival looks like indeed, but only in Sambodromo‚the purpose-built stadium designed by Brazil’s great architectural pride Oscar Niemeyer. This is where only the best samba schools parade and compete. It is also where you will find the glamour, the cameras, the big sponsors, the exalted fans, and the people who can afford to pay hundreds of euros for a ticket. For everyone else, Sambodromo is what it is for us on the other side of the world—something you only see on TV. While Carnival actually happens on the streets.
In other words, Carnival comes down to dozens of block parties called blocos, taking place all over the city daily—downtown, on the beaches, in the favelas. The earliest ones start at eight or nine in the morning and the latest ones at around seven or eight in the evening. Some gather a few hundred people, while others are attended by hundreds of thousands. Sometimes they take place in a park or on a square, while other times the whole crowd slowly dances its way down one street after another, hands mostly up, following a float with singers and musicians, or a truck loaded with speakers.
We stumble into our first spontaneous micro-bloco before Carnival has officially started. It is in the neighborhood whose reason for existence seems to be to reinforce the cliché of Brazil in every tourist’s head. Dirty, stinky, pissed all over, amazing Lapa is full of beautiful colonial architecture, street art of a mind-boggling quality and quantity, and street bars and dives of inimitable South American charm. There, not far from the iconic colorful stairs covered with tiles from around the world and immortalized by Snoop Dogg and Pharrel’s sultry video Beautiful, a few young guys are blowing their horns in the middle of the street and playing a song from Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack as if their lives depend on it. A small crowd of about fifty surrounds them, prancing around and singing along. We join them, cans of beer immediately finding their way into our hands, thanks to the street vendors whose carts have helpfully sprung up right next to us. We get the smaller cans—beer here warms up fast.
At some point, someone pushes me aside with a careful apology—a massive Brazilian Forest Whitaker gets in front of me and joins the band with a cheeky tamborim, the type that nudges you in the hips. “Why is it that as soon as I start playing, only intelligent women come on to me?” he flirts with us afterwards. Men in Rio are not afraid to talk to you, quite the contrary. You could say they don’t know when to leave. And then, there are those who don’t even bother with small talk, the guys who will wait for eye contact and then kiss you right off the bat. They’ll kiss you for a while and then they’ll go, our local guiding light Melissa says. Some kiss as many as thirty people a night. Apparently Brazilian guys tend to be pretty promiscuous as a whole, but this time of the year things get completely out of control.
At the next bloco I discover the bateria (stress on the i). We are in Santa Teresa—a significantly friendlier, artsier, and more bohemian version of Lapa. The small square is bursting with all sorts of people—young, old, teenagers, teenage moms with babies on their shoulders, white, black, colorful. All beaming as though they’ve just won the lottery or at least secured a government job (every Brazilian’s ultimate dream—four times the average salary and no one can fire you, for life). The vibe is one of ubiquitous and sincere joy, as if they’re celebrating something huge. It’s life they’re celebrating. They dance as if no one is watching. No one watches you either: the Cariocas are extremely generous in that way—under no circumstances will they mock or judge you, no matter how weird or funny you may appear. Of course, compared to them, you’re dancing like Pinocchio, at best. To trace the movement of those bare, Havaiana-clad feet is practically impossible, and the trajectory of the proverbial Brazilian butt (all you’ve heard is true) is a series of quick slaps in the face of the claim that we Europeans know anything at all about dancing.
I insist that Melissa give me a lesson nevertheless. I can’t, I don’t know what I am doing either, she swears. There is an odd-looking hipsterish threesome right next to us, peddling cocktails out of a bag in their feet: caipirinha or caipivodka (the same but with vodka instead of cachaca) with different flavors—lime, coconut, mango—frozen stiff in small plastic bags. That’s sacole, a popular drink sold on the street. You punch a tiny hole in one end and you suck out whatever is melting inside. It’s wonderfully refreshing. Apart from the caipirinha mixed and sold off trays or carts on the streets, it is the only alternative to beer here. Good luck finding anything else.
But back to the bateria—the percussion section is the heart of every samba school. It involves 200 to 300 people, pounding fast on several types of drums and creating a mighty, multi-layered music that penetrates straight into your atoms, reaches for your solar plexus, and yanks out your most primordial instincts—the ones you only unleash during sex and fighting. Then it leaves them sticking out and exposed like bare electric wires. I heard this kind of music is meant to resonate with one’s heartbeat. As deaf to music and as alien to dancing as you may be, something starts moving inside you. Especially if you are too close to the bateria. It’s indescribable.
Once, heading to yet another party, we see the dark side of Carnival—the remains of Cordao da Bola Preta—the most popular and massively crowded bloco, which gathers the unimaginable 2.5 million people in downtown Rio. It’s apocalypse, now. Hundreds of Porta-Potties, baking in the heat and gang raped numerous times by the crowds, give off an unbearable stench. Countless crumpled cans, flip-flops that slipped off, and a stolen, then discarded little girly purse all float in the muddy puddles of beer and who-knows-what-other-shit-the-hoards-have-spilt. Holy mother of God. Whatever happened here? It’s full of sketchy individuals of appalling personal hygiene, and evil is literally in the air. They said on TV that the crime rates hit a record low this year, but we try to clear out of this hell as soon as we can.
Ten minutes later we are relieved to be in a different place, at an extremely nice and civilized bloco where the theme is some local legend of the past. After a series of clarifying questions to Melissa (Does your mom like him?), I conclude that this must be the Brazilian Julio Iglesias. Everyone but us knows the songs by heart, and screaming along happily, together with the thousand-strong crowd, seems to be one of the most sublime carnival experiences. We get the chance to do this only when we end up at Sargento Pimenta–a great bloco in a beautiful park, where only samba covers of Beatles songs are being played. By now it’s clear that Carnival is all about samba music. You can’t hear anything else in Rio, especially on the street. Except maybe for some rock, by which they mean Guns N’ Roses. It’s as if the Western Top 40 doesn’t exist. We didn’t even get to hear any of the famous Brazilian jazz, no one played Garota da Ipanema once. Sure, there are people who listen to other types of music too, but apparently they stay home during Carnival.
When we head home at around 2 am, the blocos for the day are over, but the streets are still crowded and the city buses are roaring by at 75 mph, loaded with passengers who are still buzzing and occasionally breaking into song, collectively. A Darth Vader is hailing a cab to unanimous approval. Almost all Cariocas dress up for the carnival blocos—if not in full-on costumes, they at least put on a crazy hat, a wig, weird sunglasses, or some makeup. Men often cross-dress too. Our personal first prize is split between an exceptionally convincing Frida Kahlo and a much-applauded dude with tight white pants and a blond wig, apparently channeling the alpha-bitch from the Brazilian telenovela de jour. We also give the thumbs up to a chubby guy in a one-piece swimsuit, which is not just brave, but pretty smart of him, as even at this time of the night, the temperature is still 29 С. We are in Rio, we’re staying at Copacabana, and we are in a rush to get home—we don’t want to miss the first bloco tomorrow morning.
Bistra Andreeva is a freelance interpreter, translator, and cultural journalist. She graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the American University in Bulgaria and had extensive experience as an author and editor at culture and arts monthly Magazine One, including a stint as an editor-in-chief. She has also contributed to weekly Capital Light, One Week in Sofia, Sofia Live and The Guardian. Recently active mostly as an interpreter and translator from and into English, Bistra balances between conference interpreting and literary translation. Her first published translation was Stephen Kelman’s Man Booker-nominated novel Pigeon English, which was awarded the 2015 Special Krastan Dyankov Translation Award of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. She went on to translate works by Colm Toibin, Nick Hornby, Yaa Gyasi and Taiye Selasi, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie next on the line.
Photos courtesy of Bistra Andreeva.
Originally published by the Bulgarian weekly, Capital Light