by Eugene Henninger-Voss
February was crazy! It started of finished “Training Seminar 2”, the second of three program retreats. This time I was hanging out with all of my friends in the state of São Paolo. On the second weekend of February I went to Blumenau, the city with the largest Oktoberfest in the world after Munich. The next weekend saw me in Rio de Janeiro. Then I was barely able to return home before heading out again to Iguacu Falls (worth the google image search if you don’t know what it is). I finally returned to Florianopolis, for probably the last time, the day before Carnaval. If I thought the rest of the month was crazy, I had another thing coming to me.
Carnaval is crazy. It is split, as far as I can tell, into more or less two major parts. There are the ‘blocos,’ a.k.a. giant street parties, and the parade of samba schools. The blocos were unlike anything I have seen before. Imagine a bus or a subway on a really crowded day. At rush hour. And they are doing repair work so only half the cars are running. Imagine that, but everyone is drunk, shirts are in the minority, costumes (Not that modest of costumes, obviously. Think more cat ears.) are common, and there are two loudspeakers duking it out for top dawg at each end of the subway car. Some people are dancing. That’s the blocos. They are just as hot as that, too. The only differences are the blocos are outside and keep on going for blocks. That’s the blocos.
The parade of the samba school is a whole different breed of crazy. These happen in a stadium probably longer than a football field but only as wide as a four lane road. Once the parade begins around 10:30pm there is an endless parade of elaborately dressed dancers. When I say endless, I mean they literally keep coming for the hour and 10 minutes that is allotted to each samba school. They are all decked out in the most ornate, fantastic and creative costumes I have yet seen, and the costumes change every five rows or so. In addition to the over the top costumes, they push giant floats taller than the stadium on either side down the center, with dancers strategically stationed on top. The seemingly endless line of bedazzled dancers on bedazzled dancers dazzles the eye in an awe-inspiring spectacle that doesn’t end until four in the morning.
For many, this is the height of the year. Samba schools spend months practicing for the parade and making costumes, let alone the dollars of private and public money lavished on the festivities. In fact, one Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro went as far as to say that Carnaval was part of what it meant to be to be Carioca (Carioca is what you call someone from Rio). Internationally, and for many domestically, Carnaval is seen as THE symbol of Brazilian culture.
And yet, and here it gets really crazy, in my experience most Brazilians do not actually like Carnaval. Most of my coworkers had plans to leave the city or hide away in their houses over Carnaval to escape the celebrations. My host family only likes it for the days off of work. My host cousins came to visit and stayed for all of Carnaval. They came to the city with the largest Carnaval in the south of Brazil. They are young adults, the target age of the blocos. And yet they, too, stayed at home and chilled with my host fam, only ever attending the ‘children’s carnival’ that my host mom volunteered at. Even the Cariocas, in the city with the biggest Carnaval in the world, whose identity is apparently tied to the festival itself, by and large do not like it. Of the numerous Uber drivers I spoke to in Rio, when asked if they were excited for Carnaval, only two replied in the affirmative.
This attitude towards Carnaval comes from a few different sources, I believe. First of all, half of it what it amounts to is a giant club party in the middle of the street. If that scene isn’t for you, there goes most of Carnaval. And even if it was your scene, I know many people who used to like Carnaval when they were twenty-somethings but no longer enjoy it. While immensely popular with a certain age group, trying to dance in a disgustingly hot, densely crowded space to the sound of loud popular music while surrounded by a bunch of drunk people doing the same does have limited appeal. And for those not actively involved in these street parties, they get horrible traffic, closed off areas, and a bunch of rowdy people. Obviously not the most desirable thing. Others look at the social aspect, deploring the animal conduct and flagrant waste of money on elaborate costumes or throwing street parties while Brazil faces serious economic problems. I find it perfectly understandable that if faced with this kind of craziness every year since birth people would be thankful for the long weekend but would rather go to the beach or visit family than get involved in it all.
None of this is to say that Carnaval is bad, or anything close to it. But I do find it interesting that the aspect that most defines and represents Brazil is only enjoyed by a small percentage of the population. Many times I have heard something along the lines of “Samba is Carnaval, and Carnaval is Brazil.” But just as there only small amounts of samba in Carnaval, there is only a small population of Brazil interested in Carnaval. Far from being the most authentically Brazilian experience so far, I spent all of Carnaval activities with my American friends, because they were the only people I knew who would go with me. The same people who told me I simply had to go to Carnaval while I was here in Brazil also often opted to stay at home themselves.
I think that demonstrates something very true about Carnaval. Even though only two Uber drivers in Rio were looking forward to Carnaval, I think all would agree that it is part of being Carioca, and that they were all Carioca. Even the people who don’t partake recognize that Carnaval is Brazil. Carnaval is so much a part of the cultural and social identity of Brazil that even those opposed to it still identify with it as a Brazilian. I think it is similar to how closely New York City and the Statue of Liberty are linked, even though there are probably thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who have never been.
After a crazy month of traveling I came back to some crazy parties and insane parades, spectacles I will never forget. But here Carnaval is so pervasive that even those opposed to it identify, at little, with the celebration, and that is the craziest thing of all.