Monday, February 11, 2008

Carnaval: Some Final Thoughts

The Small Town Carnaval Atmosphere

As Americans, we only had about five basic images of Brasil before April of last year (when we were presented with the opportunity to move down here later in the year): the Amazon Rainforest, the vast farmland that American farmers are rushing to buy, beautiful beaches with tall thin dark haired tan women in skimpy bikinis, gobs of poor street gangs that are out to get American tourists (hey, I didn't say they were accurate images, just what I envisioned 2 years ago...), and the ritz, glamour, and feathers of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Obviously, we have since learned of a whole lot of other things Brasil has to offer and cleared up a few misconceptions we might have had about the country. But when it came time for Carnaval in a small colonial town, we really didn't have the faintest idea of what to expect.

What we found was priceless. São João Del Rei has a population of about 80,000 (which is quite small by Brasil standards.) From what we saw walking around the town, it was a very simple place with simple people. We saw some nice houses, but no one really appeared to be rich. We also saw a large working class who didn't have much. But they put everything they had into this Carnaval celebration. The very first parade we watched, it was obvious that the costumes had been sewn from any cheap cotton fabric they could get their hands on. There were few sequins and no parade floats. But the people in the parade might as well have been wearing the fanciest costumes from Rio-they danced and twirled and bowed and put on a great show. And for me, that summarizes what made our Carnaval experience so great: it was absolutely genuine. Sure, later on we saw some awesome floats and incredible costumes, but it wasn't an industry. The groups who put on the parades weren't doing it for the money. I'm sure whatever money went into it, they put up themselves. We didn't pay an admission fee to get to watch the parade, but the people of São João Del Rei put on a show that I would dare say rivals the $200 per ticket shows of Las Vegas.

Next year, we plan to go to Rio for Carnaval, because, well, you can't be in Brasil for a couple years and not experience it. A friend of ours went this year and had a blast and brought back some great pictures. But, as amazing as all the floats are and as well put together as the parades of the Sambadrome are, there will be no way to compare it to our first Carnaval in a little colonial town along cobblestone streets. Rio's Carnaval may be grand, but São João Del Rei's is genuine!


Now, that's not to say that we didn't see a couple things that raised a few eyebrows. We had a great time, but there were a few culture shock moments too. I present these not to criticize, but to highlight a few differences and to chronicle the thoughts of a couple of not-so-young-and-crazy-anymore gringos.

Os Beijos (The Kisses)

We have found Brasilians to be very warm and inviting people. Girls are always greeted with a hug and cheek kisses, and men greet each other with a handshake and hug. Carnaval, however, seemed to turn the average young Brasilian into a hot, passionate one with a burning desire to, as Eric put it, see how much saliva they can gather from other people. One of the guys Eric works with was trying to explain the kissing phenomenon of Carnaval to us. He said something along the lines of "They love to kiss. Men will grab you (referring to me) and kiss you and it doesn't matter to them that you are married or that Eric is there." Hmmm...I didn't really see that going down very smoothly. Number one, I have three brothers, I did manage to learn to punch not like a girl, and it isn't beyond me to exercise that knowledge (just ask the boy in my sixth grade class who thought it would impress his friends if he grabbed my butt!) Number two, I have a husband who rarely leaves my side in a crowd and I've never seen him punch, but I imagine he knows how as well. Now, to go ahead and clear the air...Emily didn't get kissed by anyone except her husband.

But, oh boy we did see some kissing go down. Sometimes a group of guys (3 or 4) would gather around a girl trying to make her way through the crowded streets. They wouldn't let her pass until she had kissed them all (or sometimes just one of them.) Some of the girls giggled and smiled and held a 30 second spit exchange session. Other girls would try to push her way through the guys and one of them would grab her and force a kiss before letting her go. Her friends would laugh, his friends would laugh, and everyone would go on about their business. Other times, a guy would work on his own and make it his mission to get as many girls as possible to kiss him by their own free will. We called these ones the smooth talkers. One guy in particular who was standing near us for a while was especially talented at this. Over the course of about an hour, we watched him approach 10 or so girls. We never heard what he said to them, but each one would act like she was uninterested, he would say something to her, she would smile, and it would look like she was about to walk away. Next thing you know, they are kissing in a very major way and then he would return to his position with his friends and the girl would continue walking wherever she was going.

Now, I've not seen any data, so I don't really know, but I'd dare say there is an exceptional outbreak of herpes simplex (the one that causes cold sores) in the weeks after Carnaval. And it might not be a bad time to invest in the stocks of penicillin manufacturers in Brasil either. I fear random communicable diseases from drinking after someone. Eeeek! and Ick! at the thought of kissing that many strangers in one weekend!

The Requirements to Drink

Can you walk to the beer vendor? Can you say the word "cerveja"? Do you have R$2 (about US$1.20)? Are you tall enough to see over the side of the styrofoam cooler? Perfect! You can buy beer. Sure, the legal drinking age is 18, but the cops patrolling the crowd never even took a second look when the two girls who couldn't have been a day over 11 sashayed past them with their can of beer and bottle of hard lemonade. Growing up in small town South Georgia it's not like I've never seen underage drinking, but geez! Combine that with the trio of 6 or 7 year old boys on the street who were thoroughly enjoying their cigarettes and well, WOW.


All in all, we had a great time and really enjoyed our Carnaval experience. We are really glad we chose to do the small town this year. We learned some new things, experienced some new things, and I guess that keeps you growing as individuals when you are trying to absorb as much of the local culture as possible in a new country!

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