11 March 2011

I'm not your John Carioca

Carnaval ended three days ago, I think. I’m still not quite sure when it started. Actually, Carnaval hasn’t really ended, but the banks are open, and people are starting to work again. The official Saturday-Tuesday Carnival confused and amazed, permanently changing my vision and understanding of Rio and Brasil. I’m not sure how, but it did.  I am sure that my first experience will not be my last, and as I repeat the dose in years to come the words I am about to write will no doubt seem increasingly naive. All the same, some reflections…

Carnaval is calmer than Mardi Gras and bigger than Katrina. It’s as exhilarating as Pamplona’s San Fermin without being dangerous. It’s as steeped in lore and iconography as Double Ten in Taiwan, with fewer fireworks, fewer boats, and much more skin. If Halloween in the USA and Carnaval in Brasil were football teams, the result would always be the same. St. Patrick’s Day parade, Erin go tomar banho. Eyore’s Birthday in Austin, TX would be a quaint bloco here. Songkran in Thailand, yup, nice, but not the same kind of party. 

Bigger than I had imagined, Carnaval is more, for longer, than all of those other parties combined, at the scale of a continent.  It is simply the biggest, best party, ever, every year. Leaving the apartment (in Laranjeiras), it was never more than fifteen minutes to the nearest bloco where masses of costumed dancers moved their feet insanely quickly, lurching behind huge sound trucks down suddenly narrow streets. Moving through the crowd was the same as getting to the front of a packed rock concert, in all directions. Everyone was getting pushed, trying to make their way, wherever, closer to the music, away from the crowd, to the port-a-potty, to get a beer, to go across town, to meet some friends, to throw up, to dance, to step on toes, knock into each other, go nowhere at the same time. No one got mad. I did not see a single instance of confusão. The cops were nowhere to be seen. The crowd was totally in control of the city. We took the streets, the plazas, the alleys, the parks, the hillsides, the buses, the taxis, the sidewalks, the city, the country.

450 blocos rolled through Rio over four days. A bloco in Ipanema had more than 400,000 people. One bloco! I went to 7 blocos over four days, a modest and endearing number, but surely my limit. All of the other major cities in Brazil were doing the same thing. Recife, 400,000 people at a concert. Salvador, one million people on the street. São Paulo, probably the same thing, I don’t know. I couldn’t pay attention to the scale of things. It was too much to imagine that the crowd I was being crushed into was being repeated across the entire city, much less the entire country. As I flowed through the streets of Rio completing a beer-soaked hydrologic cycle in sparingly placed public toilets, the drama of the samba schools unfolded in the Sambódromo, which always seemed really far away. The competition was intense and emotional, marred by fires in the production warehouses, stories of perseverance, excellence, brilliance and (almost inevitably) a voting system plagued by claims of corruption. I have only mediated impressions of extravagant costumes, flying flesh, and herculean projects.

After describing my experience of Carnaval in these minimal details, what it is that has changed about my perspective? For one, I now have something to look forward to in 2012. A second, more profound shift is based in my new understanding of Carnaval as a such a profound and important part of culture that no matter how much crap gets dumped on Rio and Brazil in the form of mega-event projects (and all of their wasteful, corrupt, brutal, and shameless ways), there is always going to be a time to invert reality, and at those moments possibilities for “progressive” transformation and revolution (in the sense of turning over) are always more alive. 

Carnaval is a way for society to organize, dis-organize, and re-organize itself in myriad ways.  I was amazed by the lack of visible and official police presence, the general sense of abandonment that had an ordering about it. Everybody followed some rules, but no one knew exactly what they were (except for the peeing on the street bit).  The blocos were organized and registered by the city, the streets were cleaned soon after. As  someone that did not have to work, clean, report, police, sell beer, or make a living for four days, my general feeling was one of a generalized abandonment to an infective happiness spreading from person to person, street to street, neighborhood to city and beyond.

Curtei. Gostei, e muito. Parabéns Rio de Janeiro, obrigado Brasil.


Luciana said...

Uhmmm... que delicia de carnaval no RJ. Quem nunca experimentou precisa experimentar... Congrats to Dr. Gaffney for this cool review. I am glad Brazil is treating you fairly.

Jim said...

So, that was really your first Carnaval?! I'm glad it changed your impression of Rio/Brazil for the better. What is amazing to think about is that Carnaval keeps changing. It's not the same as it was 10 years ago, or 10 years before that. Of course something probably stays the same, and it would be interesting to try to put one's finger on that essence.

Dr. Christopher Gaffney said...

that would be a nice finger to have, but I'm not sure that I will be able to add any more insight than DaMatta. There are so many amazing and contradictory elements to Carnaval that it's hard to know where to begin looking for essences and fundamentals. I'll try again next year!


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