Oh my god.
could be is one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced in my entire life. The last night out in Salvador without a doubt ranks in my top three greatest nights ever, along with my first weekend in Suma and one particular night in Tokyo during New Years 2007.
I’ve now slept somewhere around four hours over the last five days. I have no voice at all. I’m living on Red Bull. There are bruises and cuts and scratches all over my body. The soles of my feet are so sore I can barely stand on them. Soon I’ll probably collapse. But no matter how sick I get, it will have been worth it.
It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
For awhile I was trying to keep notes on what we’ve been doing with the intent of filling in the details later, but I lost track of them long ago. The following is the best recap Peder and I could come up with. Dispite writing in a very weakened mental state, I hope I can even partially convey how the last few days and nights have felt.
Note: For those of you reading this for the first time, the photos were added later, about a month after my return to the US. There are also some YouTube clips listed in this post.
Saturday night out for Carnaval; Dave, Peder and I dressed up in our bright red togas and walked down to Copacabana, Rio. Hearing music in the distance, we decided to go check it out. It was coming from a small bloco by the beach, where a band of musicians dressed as pirates played classic rock tunes with silly electronic instruments that sounded something like cellphone ringtones. People were dressed up and dancing all over the place. It was so hot and humid that we were virtually swimming in sweat, but it was one of the best Carnaval events we’d seen so far – the number of people was perfect, probably around 70-80, and everyone just had a really, really positive energy.
At one point an extremely intoxicated old man dressed as a pirate took an interest in us and kept insisting that he be allowed to play with my cane (part of my costume). He was quite strange. The head of the cane is a skull which he seemed to really enjoy kissing and using to tap other people on the head. Eventually he started bothering us for money, following us around and annoying us, so we decided to move on.
We took a cab to Lapa, Rio’s nightlife district, where we were greeted by an unexpected explosion of music; an outdoors street concert that could not have held less than 100,000 people. The air was thick with the scent of marijuana and most streets were lined with military police in full riot gear. We roamed around for awhile and eventually started making our way towards Rio Scenarium, the enormous three-story samba club that Silvia had taken me to a week earlier. Since I got such a bad stomach sickness that night I wanted to give it one more shot. This time was just a little bit better 😉
…But I’ll spare you all the details.
When we left just before sunup it was completely pouring again, and by the time we found a cab our togas looked like we’d just jumped into a swimming pool. We were so hopelessly wet that we didn’t even bother looking for shelter while hailing the cab; instead we just stood there laughing and dancing in the rain. Except Dave. He wasn’t laughing so much, because what we originally thought was just a little foot irritation from his flipflops had over the course of the night turned into such a bad infection that he couldn’t walk on it at all; it was swollen to probably 120% of its normal size. We helped him limp home to bed.
The next day his foot was so bad that he needed help walking to the bathroom. We decided it was probably time for a trip to the hospital. Diagnosis: a bacterial infection, requiring two weeks of antibiotics and at least a few days of no walking. What aweful, unfortunate timing…
That same day the final member of our travel group, Johnny, arrived from Norway, so while Dave and Jaques were at the hospital the three of us spent a few hours going around to all the hotels in the area comparing prices for Sambodromo tickets. Tonight was our last night in Rio, so we absolutely had to see it, no matter what. Sambadromo is THE reason to come to Rio for Carnaval. But having waited till the last minute really had a negative effect on ticket prices and availability. After learning that the price you get varies HUGELY based on who you talk to, we ended up paying $125 each. The worst price we were quoted was $600 for the exact same section.
Then it was a frenzy of preparations for the next few hours. Sambadromo’s observation areas are divided into sections, and within each section the seating is free, so the earlier you get there, the better view you can grab. But our plans were to leave Sambadromo in the middle of the night and head straight for the airport to catch our 7am flight to Salvador. If we wanted to get there early enough to get good seats we’d only have a few hours to pack everything, make a costume for Johnny, clean up the house, say goodbye to the family, buy blank CDs and burn our thousands of pictures, and cab into one of the busiest areas of the city.
We got there just a few minutes before starting.
The Sambadromo parade is what pretty much everyone outside of Brazil sees when they watch “Carnaval” on TV. It runs from 9pm to 6am, and believe me, was quite a spectacle. HUGE and elaborate floats covered with gorgeous, naked women samba dancing, groups of hundreds of identically-themed dancers making the street look like an animated multi-colored mosaic from above, and ear-piercing drum beats filling the air. The seating areas were bouncing up and down as the audience screamed with excitement and mirrored the paraders’ dances to the best of their ability, confetti flying around everywhere. Seeing that parade in person was like nothing I’ve ever experienced; it felt almost surreal. “Is that woman down there really running around COMPLETTELY nude in front of hundreds of thousands of people??” Yep, she sure is.
However, there were some negatives to it as well: for one thing, the pace of the parade was a bit on the painful side. Each samba school performed for over an hour to the same song, proceeding extremely slowly down the long stretch of road between the audience bleachers. And the urine-soaked benches that doubled as walkways were pretty disgusting, especially as quick bursts of rain created rivers of garbage flowing right where we were sitting. You can’t even imagine how disgusting my red toga was when I got to Salvador and washed it the next day.
Brazil is an amazing country. But it is not the cleanest country out there.
Experience-wise, the first few hours of the parade were “alright.” I was pretty tired since I’d only slept an hour or so the night before, and Dave seemed to be understandably unhappy on account of his ultra-swollen and painful foot. When Peder and Johnny finally showed up in their costumes, however, my night suddenly caught fire. They had already chugged the better part of a water bottle full of Caipirinha, and had thrown together a pair of incredible costumes. Johnny had brought two enormous swords and shields from Norway, Spartan-style. They were wearing black boxers and bright red capes. We began roaming around and partying with the audience. By far the coolest of the people we met were a group of about 15 tourists from England who’d all dressed up as ghostbusters. One of them had a beer-bong draped around his neck. Most of the Brazilian locals were happy to give it a try 🙂
The highlight of the parade took place after one of the samba schools finished and a set of sweepers took to the street with their brooms, to clean up all the confetti for the following school. Suddenly a single one of the streetsweepers broke off from his cleaning crew and started going wild in the middle of the parade. He began dancing energetically with his broom. The audience exploded, and he just kept going. One guy in an orange worker’s jacket and hundreds of thousands of spectators. He was the star for a night.
It wasn’t until around 3:30am that we finally left the parade, which was probably a mistake considering we had a flight to Salvador in 3 and a half hours, Dave could barely walk, Peder wasn’t yet packed, and we were all a bit intoxicated. We made our way towards where we thought we’d be able to catch a cab, getting constantly sidetracked to take a photo or give high-five to a passing local who’d stop to check out our costumes.
And for an added bonus, the walk brought us right to exit of the Sambadromo parade, where all of the hundreds of thousands of costumed dancers were pouring out onto the streets.
If seeing the parade were surreal, looking out over a sea of enormous feather headdresses and women in nothing but thong bottoms was…well…how do you say “significantly more than surreal?”
All four of our jaws dropped instantly.
It’s sad that we couldn’t spend the entire night in this area; my camera, the memory card of which had long since topped off, was burning a hole in my pocket. But we had to run. We were getting dangrously close to missing our flight. And every single cab was full. Crap. Why didn’t we think of this sooner?
We ended up walking for probably 20 minutes through some pretty seedy neighborhoods before getting far away enough from the crowds to finally get someone to take us back to Copacabana. He refused to go by meter and quoted a price that was obviously too high, but we didn’t have time to complain. Then it was one more overpriced ride to the airport. We made it with half an hour to spare.
I don’t remember a thing of that two-hour flight; it was my only two hours of sleep that entire night. I woke up about 500 feet above Salvador airport.
Our lodging in Salvador was arranged by Carol, a friend of a friend of a friend who I’d never met in person but interacted with a number of times over the Internet. I was a tad worried about what we’d do if she wasn’t there when we showed up, but luckily she was. Unluckily, she couldn’t understand a word of English – apparently all of her e-mails were written using Google translator. It felt just a little awkward not being able to speak to her at all, especially because I could barely keep my eyes open and must’ve smelled horrible from sweating in that filthy toga all night without a shower.
Hopefully she understood 🙂
Salvador is an extremely different looking city from Rio, feeling at first more like Greece or Turkey than Brazil. The look of the buildings felt like the entire place was favela, which of course it wasn’t, but it did create a very interesting feeling. The main roads were much less busy and more wide-open, and most of the smaller roads we passed by were dirt. Instead of big crowds of city-dwellers, the streets were occupied by occasional cyclists or street sweepers going about their daily business. Virtually every single person was black, far different from the diversity we saw in Rio.
As Lonely Planet describes it: “Salvador da Bahia is one of the brightest gems in Brazil’s crown. Known as the African soul of Brazil, it is the darkest city in terms of skin color and the hottest in terms of culture. Here the descendants of African slaves have preserved their cultural roots more than anywhere else in the New World, successfully transforming them into thriving culinary, religious, musical, dance, and martial art traditions. Salvador is famous for combining all of these sacred and secular elements in its wild popular festivals, but even on ordinary days you can still round a corner and bump into a capoeira circle or a drum corps pounding out samba reggae.”
Somehow we all loved the feeling of this place right from the start. Maybe because of the perfectly blue sky instead of the rain we’d grown so accustomed to in Rio. But whatever the reason, I couldn’t wait to get out and start exploring.
Carol took us to the apartment and introduced us to the owner; we were renting two rooms from a guy named Normando. Thankfully he spoke almost perfect English. He was incredibly friendly and hospitable, but a bit on the talkative side – sometimes a little hard to get things moving when he got into a thought process 😉 The apartment itself was a bit dirtier and more cramped than I’d hoped based on the cost, but we had already agreed so of course we stuck with it. Besides, barely being able to stand up from exhaustion I don’t think any of us wanted to go out and try to find another hotel right in the middle of Carnaval.
We napped for 20 minutes, got a quick bite to eat, chugged several Red Bulls, and headed down to the beach. It was obvious immediately how different Salvador’s Carnaval would be from Rio’s. A street carnaval. The city was burning with energy. And super-hot sunlight. I probably put on SPF 30 every 15 minutes the entire time we were down there.
Contrary to the impression we got of Salvador from the drive to our apartment, in this area we all felt like it was tangibly more dangerous and third-world than Rio. The beach was absolutely filthy and smelled exactly like a public toilet; the ground knee-deep in garbage and random brown liquids. Keep in mind it hasn’t rained here for weeks. My guess is that it was a nice combination of urine, spilt beer, and thawed ice from street vendors’ styrofoam coolers.
We roamed around for a bit, feeling a little uncomfortable at all the prying eyes and stone-cold stares, and eventually decided to head back and prepare for the night of Carnaval.
This time Peder and I wore the Spartan costumes and Johnny the toga. Johnny had been a bit bashful about walking around in public wearing little more than underwear, so I jumped at the chance to brandish those awesome swords and shields all around the city.
When I started this post by saying Carnaval is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced, I refer almost entirely to the next two evenings in Salvador.
We must’ve broken every single rule for being a tourist in Brazil: blend in, keep a low profile, dress down, don’t behave erratically, don’t speak loud English, don’t make it obvious you’re drinking, don’t make too much eye contact…
It’s probably a bit of a miracle that we all made it through the evening without a scratch.
Here’s how it went:
We found out the names of two of the biggest bloco areas from our host: one at the beach and one a bit more inland. Having felt uncomfortable with the level of safety by the beach during daylight we decided to avoid it at night. But the other direction didn’t feel any better. Whereas people in the pricer Rio clubs responded fabulously to our costumes, here I felt like more than half the other pedestrians were eyeing us with a murdurous glare. And I know it wasn’t my imagination because Peder, who never worries too much about anything, noticed it too. Every once in awhile a group would come up to check out our outfits and socialize a bit, but these were definitely the exception not the rule. So we decided to turn back. We walked towards the beach to a restaurant that we rememebered seeing earlier; it was right at the end of where things stopped feeling safe.
There we sat for probably two hours just chatting and sipping drinks. Johnny went over to talk to some girls at a nearby table, receiving the response “If you want me you have to pay for me.”
Um, no thanks.
A quick look around revealed that the restaurant’s occupants were all either groups of men or tables full of prostitutes waiting to be propositioned. How nice.
At this point we’d pretty much decided that we’d turn in early for the night, catch up on our sleep, and use the experience as a lesson for tomorrow: in Salvador if we wanted to dress up we’d do it in the safety of a club, where cover charges could be paid to keep out some of the more dangerous riff-raff. We needed the sleep anyway.
My God am I glad we didn’t end up going home.
A German tourist we met nearby said he was going to walk down the beach to check out the main bloco that runs along Camp Grande. We told him we were nervous; it felt too dangerous. He insisted that it would be fine and should not be missed, the worst danger we could realistically suffer would be a pickpocket. It was only 8 or 9pm so we decided we’d give it one quick glance and head home the instant things didn’t feel right.
It was absolute pandemonium.
The good kind.
Carnaval in Rio was a marvel to see, but at it’s core it’s really more of a spectator’s carnaval. That’s why it’s so widely televised: a stunning feast for the eyes. Salvador’s Carnaval, on the other hand, is a feast for all 5 senses; exactly what you’d imagine for “the world’s biggest street party.” Enormous rolling speaker systems with bands blasting music for miles, nearly two million people running around and dancing through the streets. Bars and clubs overflowing with customers, people watching and dancing from balconies and rooftops and hotel room windows. Helicopters flying overhead, drummers parading left and right, lights and lasers shooting in every direction. Men and women with coolers full of $1 beers and refreshment stands selling food and snacks and T-shirts. Large groups of participants wearing identical costumes to keep them grouped together with their bloco and create a beautifully color-coordinated crowd. Women running around with their tops off and men hurling themselves into the ocean from rocks that line one side of the road. Confetti and party poppers and balloons flying everywhere.
Absolute and total chaos.
And we were right at the center of all of it.
At the beginning we were nervous, but before long Peder and I had hyped our energy up through the roof. And everyone around could feel it. Everywhere we went we’d hear exclamations of “Sparta!” (or “He-Man!”), people running up and mock-swordfighting with a borrowed accessory, always returning it with a huge smile and thumbs up. Groups would call us over to be in their pictures, others would shout down from the balconies to ask us to pose and say cheese. Favela kids would sprint out into the street to marvel at what we were wearing. Girls would run up and ask for kisses by pointing at their lips and then ours. Beer vendors would put down their ice chests to run over and join us in a Spartan battle cry. We danced through the streets of Salvador in our underwear like we were the two kings of Carnaval, TV cameras following us constantly. It felt just exhilirating. My pockets are filled with paper scraps containing phone numbers written with lipstick and nailpolish and mascara. Carnaval in Salvador was one hell of a night.
And that was just the first night.
The next morning Normando, our host, came in to tell us that his friend halfway across the country had been watching the news and saw three Spartan warriors dancing between a pair of Bloco floats. Then another friend from across Salvador mentioned the same. We were famous. Everyone knew who we were. No matter how banged up we might have been from our uncomfortable shield straps or caliced feet or bruised bodies, by the second evening we only felt more alive and ready.
We’d slept only a couple hours and barely eaten anything. We’d been pushing our bodies to the absolute limits trying to get the most out if this one long weekend. Peder’s voice was going. Mine was gone. He woke up and crammed five scoups of pure protein powder into his mouth as a quick emergency breakfast; I had a protein bar. Dave’s foot was still unusable and Johnny had decided to go out with two girls he’d met the night before, so this time it would be just the two of us. And like each preceeding night, this one somehow managed to top off the previous. Because in addition to everything above, one of tonight’s blocos featured a live performance by David Guetta and Fatboy Slim. Samba music is great, and really creates a wonderful South American atmosphere, but to learn that one of my favorite House DJs would be spinning from atop those enormous rolling stages…it seemed just too good to be true.
We found the float and waited.
Then the first beat hit. The entire city absolutely exploded. Alcohol spraying everywhere, spotlights lighting up the crowds and building fronts, and people flying into the air with excitement. You could almost see the buildings in the background swaying from the thousands of people jumping with excitement on the enormous beachfront balconies. The crowd on the street was denser than I’ve ever seen; with our shields attached to our backs we had absolutely no control over our movement. But it didn’t matter, because the crowd was dragging us right alongside the float.
At one point David Guetta himself looked down from his place atop the float and waved right at the only two Spartans in the audience. His photographer came over to take a picture.
Behind us marched a group of local Brazilians who kept buying beers and pouring them into our mouths as we danced with our swords thrust into the air. So after getting mashed in the crowd for close to an hour (and surviving an attempted pickpocket when the band of my moneybelt was somehow grabbed from BENEATH MY UNDERWEAR before snapping back when it wouldn’t separate), we decided to accompany them down to the beach. People partying everywhere, right up to the waterline. A midnight outdoor rave. The world’s biggest street party.
After Guetta and Fatboy Slim finished, Peder and I were so energized we could barely contain ourselves. We spent the rest of the evening tearing through the coastal streets meeting everyone who ran up to say hello. Millions of people everywhere, and like the night before, everyone wanted a piece of the spartans. No matter how shady an area seemed, no matter how angry some of the faces looked, no matter how poor someone seemed, whenever anyone saw our beaming smiles and loads of energy they couldn’t help but shout out to us.
We ran out of cash, but the night just wouldn’t end – vendors who were selling shots of exotic drinks began offering us shots for free. By the time the sun came up we were hours from home completely penniless; I looked down at my feet and they looked like I’d been knee deep in thick Amazonian mud; but still, it didn’t stop. Even walking back home at 8am, girls would shout to us from balconies where we’d do a quick pull-up for a kiss and a sip of beer. A circle gathered and we lent our swords and shields to two girls who had a full-out gladiator battle for the television cameras. On and on and on the fun went.
It was after 9am when we finally made our way home and scrubbed the mud and grime from our feet. Carnaval was finally over. Our voices were so gone from screaming “Spaarrtaaaa!” over the blasting music that Peder and I could barely understand each other, but the last thing he said to me before collapsing on his bed from sheer exhaustion was this:
“In my twenty years of traveling the world and partying, I’ve never partied this hard for this long. That was probably the most amazing night of my entire life.”