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Carnival in Brazil is reputed to be one of the most intense celebrations the world has to offer, the natural result of a fun-loving people taking seriously the mission to get out all their sins before Lent. Knowing that a foray into the madness would distract from my studies in tango and Spanish, I still could not resist the call to experience for myself why those who visit and leave Brazil immediately begin plotting their sun-kissed returns.
Bidding a temporary chau to Buenos Aires on a drizzly afternoon, my first taste of a long-haul Argentinian bus ride was as good as advertised. The overnight journey to Puerto Iguazú delighted with a deeply reclining executivo Lay-Z-Boy-style seat to keep me cozy, wine-included dinner and breakfast to keep me sated, and What Happens in Vegas playing in English to keep me moderately entertained. Unwilling to put my personal development mission on hold for three weeks, I alternated chapter for chapter between the meditation book I’ve been trying to read for a decade and The Bible, which I am exploring for myself for the first time cover to cover.
Drifting off somewhere between the Sahasrara chakra and Noah becoming a naked vintner post-Ark, I awoke in the midst of the modern-day deluge of Iguazu Falls. There are several ways to explore the Argentinian side of the highest flow waterfalls in the world. A gangway dangles you over a roaring chasm, dodging birds dive-bombing into the billowing mist. A raft skims across the top, past a wary caiman guarding her nest, keeping you just far enough from the edge for the boatman’s boss not to yell at him again. A speedboat plunges you into a solid wall of water, rendering your 6 peso poncho as effective as an Argentinian table napkin in keeping you dry. Finally, after a day’s adventure, the Brazilian side is the Ansel Adams to the Argentinian side’s Bear Grylls, affording spectacular panoramic views of the entire system.
The falls were a gorgeous welcome mat to Brazil as I continued towards Carnival, learning along the way that my terrible Spanish sounds like perfect Portuguese. Next came stops in Florianópolis and São Paulo, a study in contrasts. One a tropical beach island, the other an endless maze of concrete. While in the latter I stayed in a sterile hostel surrounded by an electrified fence, and in the former a ramshackle shanty run by a freelove German couple offering a jar of prophylactics at the door. With the Floripas I surfed for the first time in eight years and snoozed in a hammock cocoon. Among the Paulistanos I enacted my “it’s probably chicken” Kosher travel policy over a traditional lunch of feijoada. Able to stomach the “chicken”‘s tongue, hoof, and curly tail, I drew the line on the ear after spotting several patches of marinated hair still attached.
Lent approaching with still much to do wrong, I met my good friend Nate from Cal in Salvador en Bahia, the epicenter of Brazil’s festive northeast. The energy was palpable as we explored the narrow cobblestoned alleys, the laundry overhead dancing to the beat of mobile drum circles. The city’s characters played their parts: shirtless Santa Claus, salsa-dancing Norwegian CouchSurfers, and musclebound zombie chaser together wove a tapestry of stories and laughter.
Striking up a conversation with an Australian Moulin Rouge dancer whose unexpected clumsiness was ripe for comment, we were invited to spend a few days surfing the nearby beaches of Itapua. Later that evening we began to have second thoughts as we wandered lost into crumbling dead ends seeking an address that not even the taxi drivers could suss. As guard dogs barked nastily behind heavy gates on each lot, we finally found Lara’s address scrawled on a fortified metal door breached by only a small slit to see through. Only half joking about a Hostel-like feel to this arrangement, Nate sent a quick text home with our coordinates before the door creaked open to reveal a lovely empty guesthouse that seemed relatively unlikely to specialize in selling tourists to wealthy businessmen for torture. We spent the next few days riding surf, sipping caipirinhas, practicing yoga, and dancing tango in the pool. The only worry in the world was deflecting the gringo tax: surf shops claiming they meant 40 reals/hour when they said 4 and our beach waiter trying to overcharge us even above the menu he brought out at the end which was itself 50% inflated over the menu we actually ordered from.
The energy building up behind Carnival reached a boiling point. Blocos are the primary means of celebration in Salvador: an oversized megabus packed to the gills with speakers, a popular band on top (Timbalada in our case), a rope line maintained by workers every 2-3 feet setting the perimeter, and revelers on the inside all dressed identically in the most expensive t-shirt they’ve ever bought. It is safer inside the ropes, with only overly aggressive frat boys crushing beer cans on their foreheads while seeking ficar contigo to contend with rather than the real trouble outside.
Always seeking a complete travel experience, we got a taste of both. Late into a fun night, just a few feet outside the rope line sanctuary on our way out, a Brazilian tried to get into a fight with me. Busy diffusing the situation, I didn’t notice the distraction’s friend quickly cutting my digital camera out of my pocket. Quite self-satisfied with my handling of the situation, only 20 seconds later I felt something amiss as we continued walking. Nate and I quickly headed back, and spotted my former assailant preparing to pull the same trick on another. Confident, forceful confrontation having worked for me with thieves before, I approached and demanded my camera. While inviting me to frisk him, I noticed his upraised hands signaling his crew as chaos erupted. One of his friends shoved another as a diversion. Two tripped Nate, who received a quick kick to the head and lost his shirt. I saw all the developments quickly playing out … except for the liter beer bottle swinging towards my blindside brow. A gash opening up above my left eye, I fought my way out of the four guys with small street weapons surrounding me with blood dripping down my chin. The crowd was so dense that Nate and I lost sight of each other. While looking for him from higher ground to no avail, my Brazilian guardian angel appeared by my side, offering ice for my wound and urging me to the medical tent for attention. After resisting for several more minutes of cyclopian search, I submitted to four stitches while she held my hand. Meanwhile, Nate, reasoning kidnap as one possibility for my disappearance, hobbled (for his toenail had become separated on the way down) to the police outpost for help. We made it home within 10 minutes of one another, no easy task considering the short-term memory haziness induced by a strong blow to the head.
The next morning we found a hospital to get Nate’s toenail fully removed (during which he was a strong, silent stud), and ruminated over the prior evening. Dramatic and annoying, yes. But to have both traveled to 40+ countries and have this be the only incident of its kind for either of us is truly a blessing. It could have been much worse, and I was proud of the way we both remained fearless and composed. The losses were minimal: Nate’s toenail will be back soon, my camera is covered by travel insurance with only a few days of pictures missing, and I’ve got a cool eyebrow scar which I am told that “chicks dig”.
Each morning for the remainder of Salvador we woke up with açaí, the super energizing berry that is served in delicious smoothie form, which we (coincidence?) only neglected to enjoy the day we ended up getting hurt. We spent evenings dancing in the rain (Nate with a plastic bag over his bandaged foot), watching Brazilians kiss while unhinging their jaws like anacondas about to ingest small deer (presumably to avoid locking the braces many of them wear as status symbols), and enjoying another bloco (this time with intentionally empty pockets).
Halfway into Carnival, Rio de Janeiro beckoned, and “The Marvelous City” immediately began to live up to its reputation. First view in the morning was Sugarloaf Mountain rising proudly across from Flamengo Beach. Families frolicked among churro vendors at the edge of the crisp yet murky water and meatheads pumped “iron” at the makeshift beach gym of weatherworn benches supporting rusty bars which balanced coffee cans filled with cement on either end. Despite, or perhaps because of, the emphasis on fitness and skin on display, there is no shame of body in Brazil. The Girl from Ipanema makes each one she passes go aaahh in her fio dental but she is far from the only one sporting dental floss, many of the others neither tall, tan, young, nor lovely. At first it is jarring to witness such brazen image indifference, but soon becomes refreshing to appreciate the lack of attempt to nip and tuck from reality by the women who wish they had less, or the men more.
The bloco experience in Rio was a world removed from Salvador. While the latter was more “spring break wooo!”, the former was a quinceria combined with jazz in the park, led by a jester-costumed Dick Van Dyke. Beginning with a small group of neighborhood friends singing to a sax, drum, and ukulele on speakers, we paraded up a winding hill road. As we disrupted neighborhoods with joyous sound, recruits went from dancing on the roof to streaming out the door, and the collective swelled with each block. Merriment ensued, and no one even tried to hit me in the face with a bottle that I didn’t deserve.
Rio’s Carnival is famous for images from the Sambódromo, where the best samba schools in Brazil compete for King Momo. The garish costumes, imaginative floats, and spirited dance tickle the eye and ear, this MIT nerd most appreciative of the Ode to Technology entry with men in foil jumping in and out of giant semiconductors. Putting to shame Prince Ali’s seventy five golden camels, the coterie grooving to the recursive samba beat set the packed stands into frenzy. Stork heads bobbing between feathered samba princesses in jewelled bikinis among Viking warriors prancing around dancing splashes of color and monkeys. The monkeys won … they always do.
The buses made exploring the city much easier than actually remaining upright in them as they rocketed through favelas:
- Adjoined Leblon and Ipanema, centered around Post 9, are the two most fashionable strips of beach, the shore a maze of umbrellas and beach chairs, flying soccer balls, and jugs of Brazilian sweet mate. Yes the girls are pretty but I’ve still got to give it to SoCal.
- Trying to strike a pose just slightly less cheesy than the other tourists in front of Christ the Redeemer, huge thunderclaps made me hope that my phone calls last Yom Kippur and relative sinlessness of the Ash Wednesday pilgrims around me were enough to prevent our smiting.
- Sugarloaf Mountain revealed a breathtaking panorama of Rio, the contaminated water than Nate swam in gently lapping far below against the severe peak.
- A taxi that we tried to hail crashed just down the street. My EMT training asserted itself, but the other standarounds could not be bothered to pay attention long enough to help me immobilize the fellow’s neck or refrain from trying to pour shots of cachaça into his bloody mouth.
- We enjoyed an “epic dining experience” at Restaurante Marius. By far the most expensive meal of the trip, but the pirate-themed churrascaria (all-you-can-eat meat buffet) had a bathroom made of rocks, boats and grandfather clocks dangling from the high ceilings, bottle breaking for sport, and most importantly approval of our loosen-the-top-two-buttons-halfway-into-the-meal gluttony.
One night after Carnival we tapped into the national rhythm at a samba club. The dilapidated building housing Democráticos, the scene for young beautiful people to see and be seen, was intense with character and energy. Salsa steps adapted surprisingly well, and I secretly thanked Mama for making me take dance lessons at the retirement home (classes were the cheapest there) as a kid. It was a classy change from the bump-and-grind of American clubs, language no longer a barrier, exchange of more than smiles and hand cues unnecessary.
Rio also provided the opportunity to finally make my thesis credible. My tome on government regulation of commercial human spaceflight used adventure sports as analogy, and hang gliding was the only one that I had not yet personally experienced. I felt a slight nervous anticipation as the line of wings in front of us grew shorter, and soon I was running off a mountain strapped to a Brazilian and a hastily-assembled foil of plastic and curved metal spokes. The other peaks within reach and people reduced to extreme minature below, the birds gave us knowing looks as we flew by. Occasionally, to better take in the city and ocean below, we would intentionally stall and just float upright in the air, neither rising nor falling, physics be forgotten. At the end, my professional stuntman copilot executed his signature move: a steep dive down to the beach, panicking the sunbathers we swooped past, pulling up just as our toes grazed the sand.
One last açaí con manga and eggcheeseburger at my favorite corner stand, and it was time to return to Buenos Aires. On my way to the airport I drank in Rio again: the sun pleasanty smiling, the floats in suspended animation outside the Sambódromo for one last bash, and the Big Jesus on Corcovado waving me goodbye, welcoming me to return to Brazil anytime. He knows I will.