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Towering over all in Olinda

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It’s bumper to bumper as we slowly crawl our way towards the historic centre of Olinda, just a few kms away from Recife. We’re moving at the rate of a car length every 5 minutes, so we bid farewell to our taxi driver, and leave him stranded in a one-way gridlock. (He did make a good amount of money though, so we don’t feel too bad)

Then we’re on to the streets, picking up a few drinks and nibbles along the way as we make our way up the cobblestone streets for the awesome Carnival street party that is Olinda. It never seems to end!

Frevo is the order of the day – all other music styles have been banned by order of the historians and traditionalists, in order to preserve the cultural heritage of the area. No one seems to mind, they are too busy going crazy on the streets, dancing, drinking and having an absolute ball…

And of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the Bonecas of Olinda. Those giant oversized dolls that are worn by individual dancers. This is their home. And they roam the streets towering above all else throughout the Carnival period, bringing a few smiles and raising cheers from the crowds. 

Apparently the idea with the giant dolls is that with them towering above over the top of you, it makes you feel that they are the adults of the carnival, and you are just a child again, and can feel free to have fun and muck around like you did when you were a child. 

I must have been taller than most in Olinda, because I distinctly recall hearing at least two times, someone commenting to look at the ‘Boneca of Olinda’ passing in front of them… hehehe   Of course, I often used that height to my advantage, to spot people from afar, act as a mobile point for friends to meet at, and yes, even use the height to strike up a conversation or two with a playful and cheeky local. 🙂

Each street has a different vibe and feel, and there’s bound to be an atmosphere in Olinda to match every person that comes to celebrate. Anything goes on the streets of Olinda and for a utopian moment, love, peace and joy abound regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality.

Think you’ve got what it takes to dance Frevo? Check out these dancers and see how you compare…

 

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Beseiged in Bezerros

Our merry band of revelers decided to see what the countryside had to offer for Carnival, so we made our way on Sunday to Bezerros, an hour and a half outside of Recife. It was Robson’s hometown, so we were welcomed by family and friends and invited to stay for the food and festivities. 

There in the heart of Bezerros, the traditional ‘Papangu’ festival was already getting underway. In this parade, costumes are key, particularly masks, and the locals have clearly spent a lot of time preparing for this annual event. 

Picture small cobblestone streets filled to the brim with colour and sound of every description. There are no giant floats, just lots of people hitting the street and in a total festive mood.

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I was apparently the only foreigner in town, beseiged by Brazilians in full party-mode. I ended up feeling the sun a bit too much halfway through the afternoon, so took a quick nap (and lots of water) at one of Robson’s relatives houses. It was kind of difficult grabbing some shut eye while the bass of a thousand drums are beating just out on the streets.

 

After I woke up, I really wasn’t feeling all that hungry, but you know hometown hospitality. Robson’s brother wouldn’t let me stop eating. The fact that he was a little tipsy and wouldn’t take no for an answer didn’t help the situation. I eventually begged him to stop feeding me after three plates of food, and I think the family decided that I’d had enough.

The sun was setting, and the party looked like it wasn’t going to be ending anytime soon, so I headed back out onto the streets to find Ricardo, Robson and the gang. It was fun walking through the the crowds of happy drinkers. There was no violence, just happiness, as everyone put aside their worries and concerns and just enjoyed the moment. 

A twenty-something Brazilian slowly pulled up a car on the side of the road, popped open the trunk and got some seriously funky tunes pumping out of the speakers. Within minutes there were flocks of people dancing to the tunes, that quite clearly, they’d grown up with all their lives.

I felt somewhat disconnected, yet happy to be the observer. I couldn’t relate to the music that clearly had evoked some rapturous high inside them – but I could relate to their sole goal of enjoying the moment. After all, what more do we have?  

I found Ricardo and Robson and the rest of our merry bunch dancing their way through the side streets. Realising that I had some major catching up to do to get into the same state they were in, I grabbed a few drinks and tried my best to dance alongside them. 🙂 

At the end of a long day of dancing, drinking and absolute mayhem – we found ourselves sitting outside in the balmy breeze, in a small square in front of an aging church. We talked about Robson growing up in Bezerros, and about some of the town’s traditions.

And then, just as we were enjoying the quiet of the moment, another of the town’s traditions sped past us. All the guys from town were on motorbikes, dressed in womens clothing, racing past at high speed, screaming and having fun. 

Ah Carnival in Brazil. Joy comes only at the cost of sensibility. 

 

Galo de Madrugada – Carnival Saturday Morning

One of Brazil’s biggest street parties (blocos) is Recife’s Galo de Madrugada (the early rooster) on Saturday morning. In fact it’s considered by the Guiness Book of World Records as the world’s largest Carnival parade. This year, almost 1.7 million people took part in this year’s parade as participants.

It’s the biggest drawcard on a very packed calendar of events on Recife’s Carnival calendar.

The Galo began in 1978, and focuses around a set path in Recife’s Historic Centre. The locals are pretty proud of their musical heritage, so usually the style of music revolves around the locally created ‘frevo’ style.

Brazilian Paulo Montezuma wrote some thoughts down about this carnival parade which makes complete sense once you’ve been part of it – it translates roughly to…

The Galo da Madrugada invades the city center so that it becomes unclear who is the Galo, who sees the Galo, who is not of the Galo, which is the Galo. The Galo is the people. It is the people dreaming, singing, playing, without prejudice or restriction, under sun or rain, with money or without money. “

It’s not called the early rooster for nothing, an early start is definitely required to beat the crowds and get to your vantage point. (Well an early start considering the night before… so let’s say around 9-10am). The best way to view the Galo is in a VIP area or ‘camarote’. Each VIP area has its own style, services and pricetag to match. What all of them pretty much guarantee is security, and somewhere to base yourself for a very full day’s worth of dancing , drinking and general debauchery.

The action slowly winds its way around a set path, and the giant carnival trucks or ‘trio eletricos’ take their time ambling by with performers on top singing down to the crowds below. The giant dolls, or ‘Bonecas of Olinda’ also make an appearance or two throughout the parade. 

It gets a little messy towards the end of the day when the drink kicks in a few fights break out over who’s looking at whose girlfriend, but largely with a cautious eye, you can let your hair down and party up – if you’ve got hair that is.

Check out this link for some awesome photos of past parades from over the years.

Marco Zero – Carnival 1st Night

The bus station in Recife is 17km south west outside the city limits for some insane reason, so unless you plan on paying a bucketload of cash on cabs, then I recommend jumping out earlier if you are coming down from the north. Picking up my backpack, I hunted for a cab that was free and could take me quickly where I wanted to be. After all, this was Recife, a city with one of the highest murder rates per capita in Brazil. 

Nothing to worry about though as everyone was in a fine mood preparing for the first night of Carnival! I found the hotel, and checked myself in, freshened up and headed out to grab a pre-Carnival haircut and pick up a few much-needed sleeveless tees for the remainder of the celebrations.

I gave my mates Robson and Eliseu a call to see where they were at and around 8 or 9pm we headed into Recife Antigo (or the older historical centre of the city). This is where it all happens in Recife for Carnival. On the way in, we pass a giant statue of a rooster – the Galo da Magrugada (the early rooster). It’s the city’s symbol for Carnival and celebration and clearly it had crowed already. Hordes of revellers made their way into the historic centre in time for Marco Zero, the opening show – with a whole host of great singers. 

My personal favourite was Maria Gadu, who was sporting some very fetching pink hair and a yellow feather. Everyone was wearing some kind of ‘fantasia’ or costume and drinking and having a good time. The vibe in the city was fun and the crowds were fresh with anticipation for the next five days partying for Carnival. There were numerous zones around the city and areas where performances were happening. Plenty of space to become part of this huge party in the streets and get up close and personal with the maracatu – or the drumming beat!

Check out some of these clips from Youtube which give you a good dose of what the nightlife was like. Also there’s an ad from the Recife government which paints a fairly toned down but comprehensive version of the Carnaval celebrations… 

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The only downside to this amazingly vibrant street festival – not enough toilets… so of course some streets ended up smelling like you just didn’t want to go down them… while others seemed to be overflowing with beer that just wanted to get out of the body as quick as it could. All in all thought, well worth braving the ‘xixi na rua’.

 

Squeezin’ in a little pre-Carnival action

If you are ever in Rio and it’s the month before Carnival, then you’re in for an added bonus. You can have a mini Carnival experience by heading to any of the street parties or ‘blocos’ that happen in the weeks leading up to the main event.

What’s a bloco? Well, it’s best experienced, but in its simplest form, it’s a group of people getting together in the street. There’s music, usually a band, or a large group of drums & percussion, plenty of drinking and even more dancing. Bring costumes, smiles and a sense of fun and you’ll fit right in.

(The picture above is from my 2005 trip but it will give you the idea…)

Ask around when in Rio, the locals tend to have a pretty good idea of where and when the street parties are happening… The most famous one, and possibly the most debaucherous, is the ‘Banda de Ipanema’ which starts at the General Osorio park and then take over the streets of Ipanema.

Start drinking early, but pace yourself, as the truck with the huge speakers pumping out the tunes goes pretty slowly around the streets for four hours or more. First hour – drinking/dancing. Second hour – drinking/dancing. Third hour – flirting/drinking/dancing. And the fourth hour? Well it’s is best viewed in person…

Everyone wears a costume or ‘fantasia’ and you can buy pretty much anything you’d need on the streets, so take just some cash and not much else for a worry-free Carnival experience.

This time, I was wearing some shorts which were hanging quite loose on me, so I was glad for the belt I had on to keep them up. That was until I went to the bathroom and the belt buckle broke! (Of all the days…) So I raced around to all the shops in Ipanema, which were rapidly closing their doors before the street filled will revelers. I found myself a new belt, and was back on track for a pants-on bloco experience. 🙂 

Banda de Ipanema usually happens each Saturday in the month leading up to Carnival and starts around 4 or 5pm in the afternoon at the General Osorio park, just next to the metro stop. Follow the drum beat if you get lost or turn up late…