OLINDA, BRAZIL (March 3, 2019) It’s official. Not everyone loves a parade.
As I walked through the streets of the quaint Brazilian city of Olinda during its historic, annual carnival, I began to feel claustrophobic. I was outside, but the walls were closing in on me.
Trapped in a mob of literally tens of thousands of colorfully costumed, more-than-slightly-inebriated people, I was being stampeded from all directions.
It was as if Mardi Gras in New Orleans increased to five times its size and exploded in the middle of Comicon, but without the reward of Cajun food, colorful beads, or cool video games.
Street vendors were passing out free fans, free bandanas, and free condoms. I took two of the three.
I was only there about 20 minutes and my head was already throbbing in sync with the ridiculously loud, never-ending banging drums.
As I was getting drenched in booze and sweat thanks to playing bumper cars with thousands of drunk Brazilians, I began to think of about 4,000 places where I would rather be at that moment:
Big crowds and loud banging drums are just not my thing, I suppose. It was important to me to experience carnival in Brazil, so while my mind was racing with activities I would consider more fun, I looked around and realized that I was probably the only sober person in the dense crowd.
“Maybe I need to be drunk to enjoy this,” I thought to myself. “Everyone else seems to be having a blast.” I began a very quick hunt for anything containing alcohol. I looked around at the hundreds of street vendors selling booze and worked my way through the maze of bodies to the closest one.
A piña colada served from a real coconut. Perfect!
About that time, the sky opened and began to pour onto the maddening crowd. No one seemed to notice. I was happy to wash all the splashed booze out of my hair and clothes. As I stood in the rain, getting pushed and pulled by the crowd, I held tightly to the belt loop of my friend’s jeans as we muscled our way through the pack. He was like the offensive guard running block for his tailback while I clutched my purse tightly in my right arm like a football.
I kept trying to convince myself that I could enjoy the experience.
But my mind began wondering again as I thought of other activities that seemed like more fun:
Maybe it’s just me. These people were having the time of their lives. Through the masses of glittery Wonder Womans, sequined tutus, mermaids, and togas, I caught glimpses of the beautiful colonial architecture. Olinda is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hub for local artists and musicians. I longed for the opportunity to explore the city that was hidden somewhere in the sardine can I found myself stuffed inside.
Around every corner, another parade came barreling down each street with masses of partiers joining in what became 10 or 12 conga lines of people dancing and jostling their way through the narrow streets along with the costumed dancers and banging drums.
This street party made Mardi Gras in New Orleans look like an afternoon of tea with the Queen.
Carnival in Olinda is mostly free, except for private parties. It is centered on folk traditions. Rather than the large samba parades, huge figurines are paraded throughout the town representing saints and spirits, known as mamulengos. One of the most famous of these huge dolls is the 10-foot tall Homem da Meia Noite (Midnight Man) who is carried through the streets at midnight to symbolize the beginning of Carnival.
The street parties (known as blocos) are large crowds of people that follow a slow-moving truck that meanders through the streets blasting music. The first official Carnival street party is Sábado de Zé Pereira. It begins with a huge parade of street puppets and live music, and is represented by a large rooster figurine on the city’s bridge. It attracts a crowd of about two million people.
I get it. This is fun for most people. I could still think of things I could be doing that would be more fun. For example:
I’m happy to have experienced carnival in Brazil. I can’t really recommend it, but I am clearly in the minority. There are millions of other people who feel differently.
As for me, I miss the Bay of Biscay.
Brazil Carnival South America Olinda
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