World's Biggest Party

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Brazil  , State of Bahia,
Friday, February 8, 2013

With a relatively urgent need to get home (Revenue Canada is not impressed by our world travels) running up against a very understandable desire to avoid as much of a Canadian winter as possible, we looked for a big WOW to wind up the first stage of our world travels as slowly as possible. Flying from Portugal to Toronto via Brazil (not exactly a straight line) seemed to be an appropriate plan especially for that WOW. Carnival in Rio has been on my bucket list for as long as it's taken me to convince DH that joining a massive party of scantily clad women is a good idea. Unfortunately, given that our long term planning currently doesn’t extend much beyond two or three weeks, and given that hotels in Rio during Carnival are sold out months if not years in advance (at extortionately high rates), we had something of a mismatch. Google Search offered up a unique solution that was also a nice fit with our desire to take the slowest path possible to the snow storms waiting for us in Toronto- a floating hotel- a cruise ship that would be sitting in the Rio harbour during the Rio Carnival.

Since, even for a transit stop, there were no available hotels in Rio we had to find somewhere close with reliable short haul flights that would allow us to jump directly from the Rio airport to the ship. Enter Salvador (note to Deb P- this was not El Salvador the country but Salvador, the third most populous city in Brazil) which just happens to host what the record books claim is the largest Carnival in the world. Not as well known as Rio or Trinidad, but huge (4 million people and 800,000 visitors), and we were going to be in the middle of the chaos for a few days.

Our battle with the bureaucracy of Brazil continues as we were met at the Salvador airport by a multi-hour work slowdown by the immigration officers and baggage dudes (this after a 9 hour flight from Lisbon arriving late at night). Things picked up a bit with our hostel at the edge of the old town of Salvador- pretty good view over the harbour area, close proximity to the most colourful part of the town, and …iron bars on all of the windows and doors and buzzer security. The trusty bible of backpackers, the Lonely Planet, suggests that "if you are going to be robbed in South America, it will likely be in Salvador". The hotel staff warned us repeatedly against carrying a camera, excessive cash, DH’s gaudy bobbles, and even my plastic watch (fortunately it was Carnival so walking around stark naked wasn’t as frowned upon as it otherwise might have been).

There are three big parades happening in Salvador and the hotel staff suggested that we grab tickets for the one in the Bahia area because that’s the one the very cool dudes and dudettes attend. You can join two million new friends along the route for free (not sure I ever believe the published parade counts but there were definitely samba bobbing heads everywhere!!). The moving party was essentially a never-ending stream of customized flat bed trucks that were transporting two story speaker systems with a band perched precariously on the top- if you really like a particular band (and have lost most of your hearing anyway) you can buy a ticket/T-shirt and walk inside a roped off area that surrounds the truck- the heavy ropes are carried by an army of security people that try to maintain order. Since neither option held much appeal for the Princess, we opted for tickets that got us into a Camarote; picture a prefabricated nightclub (when the whole building started creaking and wobbling as the dancing ramped up, it wasn’t hard to envision those nightclub disasters that make the news every now and again). It was great to be watching from above the crowd with all you could eat and drink, but entry required us to wear a one-size-fits-all pink muscle shirt which apparently doesn’t-fit-all (I spent the night feeling like a big pink balloon that was about to burst). Parade highlights included:

-Collective singing and dancing that was likely setting off seismic alarms all over Brazil

-Music volume that rattled fillings loose and blasted our hair straight back. There were probably folks in remote villages on the other side of South America tapping their toes to some of the better songs.

-Beer consumption that was off the charts. I’m not sure why some of the big drinkers didn’t just hook themselves up to a large intravenous bag and eliminate the time wasted lifting the beer can to their lips. Cans were crumpled and tossed into the street where an army of homeless types would swoop in and bag the scrap metal (melting these cans down would probably allow you to build an aluminum bridge to Rio!!)

-Law enforcement that almost stole the show. A single file of heavily armoured coppers would march up and down either side of the parade route- the crowd would magically clear a path out of what we thought was respect, but turned out to be fear (after a couple of dudes didn’t move quick enough and found themselves coldcocked staring up at the moon). Periodically the cops would surround someone in the crowd, search them in a manner that might result in a forced marriage in some cultures, and if guilty, frog-march him to waiting buses (if not, he was usually punched in the chest and released). As a former law enforcement superhero, DH saw it as an enthusiastic crime prevention strategy versus my own less generous interpretation.

-Beefcakes and Cupcakes that had DH spinning. Apparently there’s a shortage of men’s clothing in Brazil that we were unaware of. A multitude of weightlifting studs dealt with this clothing crisis by attending the parade without shirts on and making their pecs shake and roll for DH (where the D stands for Dance For Me).  The rest just borrowed their spouses clothing and showed up at the parade dressed like women?? Some even had diapers on complete with soothers?? Not exactly the Latin machismo we were expecting.

Just before the sun came up, we made our way back to the hotel so we could rest up for the non-stop party in the old town. We actually got a bigger thrill from this party than we did from the parade the previous night. We were able to sit in the main square and watch numerous bands, dancers, various costumed critters, happy kiddies, and assorted clowns arrive up one alley and disappear down another. The constant collision of clowns had me flashing back to senior management meetings in my previous work life. The very important African influence on Brazilian culture was on colourful display. This was a multi day event and seemed closer to what we had envisioned as a grassroots Carnival celebration. Not as much beer drinking and police brutality but even more men dressed as women.

We almost managed to escape Salvador without being robbed (at checkout, the hotel folks charged us 8% for using a credit card!!) and I’m not sure it’s as bad as we were constantly warned about (someone suggested that since Carnival is a quasi-religious celebration, the bad guys would behave themselves for the duration and then resume the muggings?). The city has a ton of potential as a travel destination, and hopefully the booming Brazilian economy will start to show itself in improved living standards and personal safety.
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