Lost Samba – Chapter 15/01 – Carnival in Recife part 01
The holidays in my new Brazilian School, the Colégio Andrews on Botafogo Beach, were enormous: if you achieved good grades, the holidays began in early December and only ended in mid-March. However, the classes were in Portuguese, and on top of this I had subjects such as Chemistry and Physics which were new to me; the result was that these shortcomings made me stay back in December and January while most of my friends were travelling and enjoying their vacations. Anyway, body surfing the entire morning and then going to school for an hour or two was not a torture.
When the support classes finished, I passed my exams and there were still almost two months of holiday ahead. Out of the blue, Edu asked me if I wanted to go with him to Recife and spend a month with his relatives, carnival included. He was one year older than me, had just passed the college entry exams and was from a respectable Jewish family so my parents had no problem in giving me approval.
For us, the Brazilian Northeast, or the Nordeste, was like an exotic country within Brazil lagging five to ten years behind Rio and São Paulo. Going there would be like revisiting the city that we had grown up in but as pre-adults. What also made the trip exciting was a new wave of artists from that region – Alceu Valença, Fagner, Zé Ramalho, Geraldo Azevedo, Robertinho do Recife – making the head lights, and transforming the Nordeste into a trendy destination. Also, everyone said that Recife’s carnival was superb. The draw back were the 2,300 kilometers between Rio de Janeiro and Recife; aeroplanes were for the very rich and the only way to go there was a 48 hour bus trip.
On a hot January night, we went with our parents to the interstate bus terminal. It was packed with people of all classes, colours and walks of life wandering by ticket counters, cheap food booths, newsstands and souvenir stores. The hustle bustle made the place exciting and familiar for us but the excess of humble people made the experience uncomfortable for my parents. The information system was confusing and we took some time to find the terminal for the Nordeste. When we finally found it and went down the steep metal stairs that took us to the busses, we encountered the aisles full of rural folk loading their old suitcases and gigantic bags onto the luggage compartments. Among them was also a small number of youngsters with long hair in colourful T-shirts together with girls in flowery dresses, wearing handmade bracelets and bead necklaces who were also preparing to get on to the buses.
After hearing our parents’ embarrassing recommendations, we went in, found our seats and waved goodbye as the bus left. We had a chat, managed to sleep and when the day broke, we were already far away in, what was for us, unchartered territory. As the bus passed through the first small villages, we looked out of the window and began to see people riding donkeys on earthen roads, semi-naked children running around, old cars and mud huts with straw roofs. The complexion of the population had changed: there were fewer Europeans, and more descendants of natives and of slaves.
As we continued up the BR-101 and progressed into the remote countryside, the extent of the forest devastation was striking. At school, we had learned that the Atlantic forest covered this area and we were expecting the bus to pass under trees with monkeys jumping from one side of the motorway to the other. Instead, on both sides of the road, there was a melancholic landscape of endless empty fields. The only trees still standing were the ones made of a wood too strong for the motorized saws.
After close to an entire day in the bus, things began to change; the further north we went, the more it felt as if a weight was leaving the other passengers who now could be themselves. They started talking louder and lost the shame of their accent. The roadside restaurants also began to change and went from bad to worse: the food became cheaper, harder to accept as eatable and the quantity of flies around our plates and glasses began to bother us. The radio DJs began sounding northeastern and playing the local rhythms that our favourite artists had stylized.
After they opened up, our fellow travellers treated us well, offering food, drinks and starting up conversations. They knew who we were but for them, we were nice boys from the educated elite, the pride of the nation, and there was a lot of respect. I was not sure if they could differentiate us from the majority of the youngsters of our age and social bearing: we respected them and we were interested in what they had to say, something that was not common.
Anyway, the trip was not a political exercise and our intentions were not noble at all – as every teen male on the planet, we had only one objective in mind: to score. We were off to Recife’s carnival to have unpaid and hands-free sex. Our expectations were high: coming from Rio gave us an edge as cariocas had the reputation of being street wise, trend setters and sexy.