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Carnival in Olinda

At Carnival, Brazilians dress to thrill.

As a kid in England I remember that the third most exciting day in the Christian calendar (after Present Day and Chocolate Egg Day) was Shrove Tuesday. 40 odd days before Easter (see above) you got to eat as many pancakes as you possibly could; the theory being that as a poor Christian sinner you would then give up such delicacies for Lent.

The Brazilians took Pancake Day a step further and invented Carnival; a 4 day extravaganza of sex, drugs and samba, none of which they intended giving up afterwards. Even as a kid I knew it sucked to be English.

Everywhere in Brazil celebrates Carnival to some extent but the famous party centres are in Rio de Janiero, Salvador and Olinda. The Rio carnival is about the biggest sell out the world has ever seen and draws tens of thousands of visitors to be raped by the Rio tourism industry. Prices go up by ten times and the call girls start shaking their poupancas, their “savings accounts” – Rio slang for a girl’s ass.

Like the blues in the US, samba comes from the African immigrants to Brazil and has always been the protest music of the poor. Give a couple of Brazilians on the street a triangle and a bottle of beer and pretty soon they’ll have a crowd gathered round singing old samba favourites. Everyone knows the words and when a roda de samba, a samba circle, forms with a guitar player and the odd percussionist, the crowd singing around them all but drown out the musicians. It’s about as democratic as music gets.

Of course all the average tourist to Brazil knows about samba are the infamous strip tease antics of the Carnival queens who gyrate on the floats that parade through the streets. The parades in Rio are amazing affairs by all accounts and good seats go for hundreds of dollars. Huge troupes of percussionists and dancers are costumed in lavish dress as they put on one of the greatest shows on earth. Shame then that no one in the favelas, where samba grew up, can afford tickets to go and watch the parades.

If you really want to get into the Carnival spirit rather than just watch it go past you need to head to Salvador or Olinda. I found myself in the latter when I was invited to pass Carnival there by an American friend I’d met the month before.

Olinda is more or less a neighbourhood of nearby Recife but the two are worlds apart. Recife tops the murder and crime charts in Brazil and most people who live there can peel off a few nightmare stories of theft and rape at the drop of a hat. Here though there’s none of the organised crime of Rio. It’s every delinquent for himself and you’re advised to keep both eyes open.

Olinda is just a short bus ride away and it’s an old colonial town built on a hill with jungle vegetation growing up between the pastel houses. Palm trees grow up in people’s gardens and break up the view, the nonchalant fronds swaying in the breeze coming up from the sea. The town follows the contours of the slopes creating hundreds of places to stop, look down at the white houses, cobbled streets and swaying palms and sigh wistfully.

It’s a sleepy place that is something of a refuge for artists and musicians and the streets can seem quite empty until you get to know people. The slow-paced ambience is violently disrupted once a year however during Carnival when a million people go wild in the streets. Houses are rented for $500 for ten days, the equivalent of 6 months rent.

When I arrived to stay with my friend she was suffering from an unhappy love affair and abruptly decided to go visit friends in Rio. She left me the house to caretake for Carnival. A bachelor’s dream.

In the days running up to Carnival the food and drinks stands began to set up and the first blocos began their practice runs. Each bloco has its own character and music and they tend to stick to the same basic formula as they snake through the streets; there are some that focus on a strong brass section blowing out tunes to shake your stuff too; others are heavy on the rhythm with a thirty drummers and percussionists in perfect synchrony with the head drummer – who’s probably walking backwards on stilts.

If you’re wondering where they find a few thousand skilled musicians to perform – they’re living all around you. Brazilians aren’t the first people in the world to pick up a book and contemplate the meaning of life – but throw them a football or a drum and likely as not in the space of a minute you’ll be left feeling a pretty inadequate human being. Sometimes it seems as if the intelligence of the country is almost corporal; Brazilians are very at home in their bodies and express themselves with lucidity with their dance and sexuality. This begins to sound like a Lonely Planet entry but after a week of watching thousands of Brazilian girls shake their stuff, it’s the only conclusion I can draw.

By 10 am on Saturday people were already milling into the streets and I wandered around following bloco after bloco. Each attracted its own following trailing behind, dancing at a slow pace and joining in with the songs. The streets of Olinda are narrow though and the blocos entered in traffic jams with each other and we had to squeeze painfully past in the 40 degrees sun.

Everywhere was fantasy. The creativity of the costumes had you laughing all day. There were people dressed as bees, rabbits and cats; sexy girls in leopard skins and bunny suits. There were fairies with wands, body builders dressed as angels and red devils looking to corrupt someone. There were babies in diapers, schoolgirls and nuns, teams of surgeons and Death with his scythe. There were crack teams of S.W.A.T armed with water pistols and even one guy dressed as a telephone booth.

There was a dentist with a sign saying: “Close your eyes, open your mouth and relax.” There as Zorro, escaped bandits, runaway brides and a guy who wore one of the signs normally attached to one of the houses in Olinda reading: “To rent for Carnival”. There were pirates, ninjas, sailors and police. Then there was another guy with a fishing rod who dangled a photo of Brad Pitt in front of the girls with the caption under the picture “Bait”.

Carnival is all about sex and there were people making out everywhere I looked. The best of the Latin Dream was evidently to be found here but the first day I went home empty-handed and miserable. The next evening though I was determined to overcome my English shyness and I noticed a black girl staring at me from across the street. I walked over to her and asked her how her Carnival was going:

“All the better now I’ve met you.” She looked at me as though she wanted to eat me but from some enforced European etiquette I felt obliged to continue the conversation for at least 30 seconds before kissing. A thunderstorm broke out on top of us and in minutes we were drenched to each other’s skin.

We adjourned to the house I was taking care of and, desire sated, fifteen minutes later we were back in the street. Before I could worry about how to stay unattached she saw the look in my eyes, kissed me deeply and said:

“Adieu.” She giggled and disappeared into the crowds.