Yesterday was one of the quietest days in Brazil. It was Ash Wednesday, the day after Brazil's many long days of celebration for Carnaval. More than a few Brazilians woke up late, having spent the previous five nights dancing and drinking in the streets, rooting for their favorite samba schools on television or just chalking up a few sins before Lent began. The collective hangover (largely brought on by sugary-sweet caipirinhas) was palpable.
In Rio, the sambadromo - a specially built arena designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer - was the setting for perhaps earth's biggest parade. Each of the top 14 samba schools had their 45 minutes to travel through the open-air arena, with thousands of drummers, twirling costumed dancers, and gargantuan mechanized floats topped with scantily clad samba dancers each working the crowds into a frenzy. The parade was only one of the ways that the Cidade Maravilhosa (marvellous city) celebrated Carnaval. There were also street parties happening all over town, many of which had begun several weeks before. Bands played to huge crowds on all the major plazas throughout town, while nightclubs hosted decadent masquerade balls for more intimate audiences. Meanwhile, those who wanted to escape the crowds joined the tiny impromptu jam sessions happening in homes and on street corners all over the city.
Amid such a flurry of Carnaval celebration, I arrived in Rio and walked a fine line between joining the festivities and escaping the maddening crowds filling the city. I joined in the Banda de Ipanema (a street parade where costumes - particularly men in drag - are the norm, and everyone is encouraged to drink copiously and move to the rhythm of the powerful drumbeats goading the group). I also wandered through Santa Teresa and Lapa, where the Carnaval revelry seemed to be the heartbeat of the city.
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to linger in the city, and I made my way to Minas Gerais, the state to the north of Rio. Ouro Preto, one of Brazil's most beautiful colonial towns, doesn't have a giant sambadrome, nor the tradition of staging elaborate parades, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character, and its 18th century cobbled streets and historic plazas fill with celebrants adding to the din of the numerous street parties about town. Meanwhile, local brass bands file through town (including a ragtime band made up of young and old wearing black trousers, white shirts and old cooking pots on their heads). As the evening wore on, traditional samba bands would take the stage set up in front of the old town hall and lead the crowd in rhythm-infused songs that everyone seemed to know. Elsewhere, on Rua Direita (one of Ouro Preto's oldest and prettiest streets), makeshift parties were happening, and the streets were packed (dancers, assorted tourists, and the buskers selling beer, caipirinhas, snack food and Minas' famous locally made cheese). Rua Direita was also the street where you could find the janela erotica (erotic window), which was simply a curtain strung across a floodlit room, with unclothed dancers showing off their silhouettes for the cheering crowds below.
I joined the party, spending late nights watching the colorful scene on the Praca Tiradentes, Ouro Preto's centuries-old heart. While there, I got into a discussion with a few other travelers who wondered what's the big deal with Carnaval in Brazil. What's all the fuss? It's a question that goes to the heart of Brazil's complex history, society and culture. It deserves more thought, and I'll get back to it once I've gotten over the erotic windows and street parties.
So I'm heading to Sao Paulo - a city that, unlike other places in Brazil, largely ignores Carnaval. It's the perfect place for those seeking to escape the chaos or just unwind after the many days of revelry have passed.