Okay, wow, it’s been forever. Before I get started, I’m going to reflect for a bit. I think there’s a direct correlation between my being bored and/or depressed with how much I journal and how many blog posts I write. While Brazil was in many ways a great year for me, in many ways it was also not a great year, and that is reflected in the frequency of my posting, because journaling and blogging was a way to relieve my boredom. As such, I am honestly not hugely bothered by the lack of blogging I have done since arriving in Scotland. But then I started getting bothered about the lack of personal documentation I’ve been doing, which then bothered me about the lack of blogging I’ve been doing, so here I am again.
Friday, April 5 was the last day of term, which is incredible. After term ends, there is two weeks of spring break, one week, of revision, and then exams. My only exam is on May 10. Everything else I’ve had to do for classes has already been completed, so in reality, I don’t have anything to do until May 10 in terms of academics, except for studying for that one exam. I’m enjoying the free time and also freaking out because I have so much free time. So that means it’s time for more exploring!
I did, however, manage to do a ton of exploring even while classes were in session. One of my goals before arriving in Scotland was to find something to do every weekend, and I’m very proud of myself for delivering on that promise.
So let’s back up a bit! (not necessarily in order but whatever)
February 9, 2019
I was able to see the lovely Chiara! One of the reasons I wanted to come to Europe (geographically, at least) was because so many of my friends from Brazil were European exchange students. I wanted to be able to see them again and do some traveling myself over the summer, but Chiara, who is from Germany, was in the country herself visiting family friends, so I took a train to Manchester and then to Stockport to see her and spend the night!
While I didn’t really see any of Manchester, and just a little of Stockport, seeing Chiara more than made up for that.
However, the journey to Stockport was more than memorable. Already a lot of people were going Manchester, and then my train there was canceled. So I was with a lot of unhappy people at the train station, all trying to figure out how to get to Manchester at 7:00 in the morning. Eventually, I was told to take one train to Carlisle, and transfer there to Manchester. So I got on the train, and everything was fine and dandy, until an announcement came over the loudspeaker saying that the train from Carlisle to Manchester had also been canceled, so we should stay on until the next city and transfer there, so that’s what I did. Unfortunately, the next train would be in a few hours, so I got a cup of coffee and chilled with my book in the train station.
A few hours later, I joined the crowd of people all hoping to get on the same train. When the train pulled up, it already looked incredibly full. But I was determined to get on, so I squeezed onto the train along with the other determined people. It was so crowded that I could have lifted up my feet and stayed exactly in the same place. Luckily, Manchester was only about a half hour ride from the station, but this was still a half hour of claustrophobia. I’m just happy I made it, even if it was a few hours later than planned.
From Manchester, I took another train, this time only about a five minute ride, to Stockport, a post-industrial town south east of Manchester. And at the train station was Chiara!
After a few minutes of awkwardness, and trying to figure out what to talk about after not having seen each other for three years, we picked up as if we had never stopped. It was great to see her again, and I can’t wait to see her again this summer.
Moreover, our hosts, Alan and Anna, couldn’t have been better hosts. I was treated to amazing food and got to see a little bit of Stockport, which was nice. Over all, a fantabulous trip.
A Week Off
Right around Week 5 or 6 or classes, we had a week off. Officially, the week is called Creative Learning Week, and I didn’t find out about it until basically the week before, so everyone had already made plans by the time I realized I had an entire week with nothing to do.
My week was amazing even though I stayed in Edinburgh. I spent one day in my pajamas watching James Bond movies all day. I spent another day wandering around. I downloaded a podcast about the Royal Mile and took a podcast-guided tour and went to two different museums along the Mile, topping the day off with a whisky tasting. I spent a day in New Town and went to the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, both of which were amazing. My personal highlight was the portrait gallery with photographs of different famous Scots. David Tennant had a prime location close to the Queen, which I thought was funny. I also spent a day wandering around The Meadows, where I discovered that the crocuses had come up, so I took a ton of pictures. All in all, a great week!
March 23, 2019
I asked two friends from class, also both American exchange students, if they wanted to take a day trip to Stirling with me. So we took a train and had a great time! Here’s the adventure in pictures, and I’m not much of a photographer other than of the smartphone variety.
The Hairy Coo Bus Tour
March 10, 2019
Wet. That’s all I have to say. It rained the entire day. We went to Doune Castle and five minutes later I slipped (twice) and was covered in mud for the rest of the day. The sights were beautiful but mostly I remember being cold and wet and covered in mud.
I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been procrastinating the writing of this blog post for a while now. It’s not really flowing off the fingertips like some of my posts do. And I think the reason for this delay is because my life has taken somewhat of a dramatic turn in the last two weeks, in that I am now home. Back in Colorado. And I’ve been back for about two and a half weeks.
Leaving was so weird. I couldn’t sleep the two nights before I left. I was so hyper. I was so excited. And then the scene in the airport. In contrast to Veera’s leaving, when Chiara, Virna, Veera, and I sobbed all over each other at the airport and the target of many stares and became a kind of weird attraction, I didn’t cry at all. I did want to say goodbye, but at the same time when we were all sitting in the airport together just waiting for it to be a reasonable time to go through security and go to my gate, I felt as though everything was drawn out.
At the time of my departure, I was ready to leave. I gave Virna one last hug, and then I went through security. I was wearing my blazer, covered with pins. I had two suitcases that were checked under the plane, a red wheelie that was with me, and a backpack. In the gate while waiting for my flight I sat and thought. I am proud of everything I accomplished over these past ten months. I have learned so much. My confidence has skyrocketed, I learned a new language, I made friends and family. But I was also ready to come home. It wasn’t until my layover in Sao Paulo and subsequent takeoff to Dallas that I really started to tear up. I had spent my two hour layover reading and responding to messages from my friends and family of Brazil. And now I was headed home. When I would get off the plane, I would no longer be in Brazil, but in the United States. What a bittersweet moment. It was the moment I had been waiting for and thinking about since my arrival in Brazil, but I was also sad to go.
Goodbye, Brazil. I love you.
And now I am home! I feel as if I just woke up from an incredibly detailed dream. I feel as if everything is the same and yet something about me has fundamentally changed. I don’t know what that is yet. It hasn’t been long enough for me to reflect on everything that happened and really produce a big takeaway from Brazil.
All I can say is that it’s weird being home. I love seeing the mountains and the heat that isn’t humidly oppressive and carpeted floors and the fact that I can successfully negotiate a conversation over the phone without having to ask my host mom for help. But I miss my host mom like crazy, and all of the exchange students I met and love so much.
Guys, if you’re reading this, I miss you and love you so much. We went to talking with each other every day to being separated by oceans. What a weird concept. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to leave you all behind. I see you as being my friends twenty years down the line, and I hope I ca see you in person again soon.
I lived in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil as an exchange student.
I learned how to speak Portuguese fluently.
I lived with two different host moms.
I met other exchange students from all over the world.
I took a surfing lesson.
My family came to visit me.
I studied in a Brazilian high school.
I suffered from homesickness.
I drank coconut water out of actual coconuts.
I made cookies.
I made Brazilian friends.
I ate so much acai it’s embarrassing.
I went to Rotary club meetings.
I learned how to make torta de limao.
I drank enough passion fruit juice to fill up a small lake.
I made tapioca.
I went to the mall enough that I practically lived there part time.
I bought (and wore) mountains of bracelets.
I stood out like a sore thumb pretty much everywhere I went.
I binge watched Netflix.
I filled my blazer with a mountain of pins.
I went to the Amazon Rainforest, the Pantanal, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Foz do Iguaçu, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Gramado, Florianópolis, Bonito, Recife, Joao Pessoa, Olinda, and Pipa.
I had a year I will never forget.
I leave to go home tomorrow. I will have been here for exactly ten months at the time I leave. I have a lot of mixed feelings about my departure, but I am mostly excited. I am happy and proud of what I accomplished this year. I will miss the friends and family I made, but I am ready to go home. Bye bye, Brazil. I’m gonna miss you.
Virna gets back from wherever she was. I think she was getting her hair and nails done. “Are you ready?”
“I thought we were leaving at 8pm.”
“No, that’s when the party starts. We are leaving at 7:30pm to pick up Mamãe (her mom) and then we will go to the party.”
“Okay, I need to take a shower.”
Virna proceeds to spend approximately forever in the bathroom, and I finally jump into the shower at around 7:15 or so, washing up, putting on a dress, and doing hair and makeup in record time, managing to be done right around 7:30. While I was getting dressed, I heard Virna say, “So we are just waiting for Claire, right?”
Veera, Chiara, and I are ready, and waiting on the couches in front of the door. Virna spends the next thirty minutes nattering around the house, doing I don’t know what, calling Mamãe, and doing more random things of nothingness.
We leave the house, at the time Virna originally stated. We pick up Mamãe and head over to the ninetieth birthday party of the mother of Virna’s ex-husband.
We walk into the venue of the birthday party, thus starting the most awkward walk of my life. There were two lines of tables, with an isle in the middle that we had to walk down in order to get to our table. We arrived later than most of the people at the party, and alone, so everyone was staring at us as we navigated our way to our table.
One thing to know about Mamãe – she is elderly and infirm and requires support to walk. She is also like a crow attracted to shiny objects. The shiny objects in this case were Mamãe’s many acquaintances, whom she had to walk over to in order to greet, despite many efforts to convince her to go sit down and let her completely abled friends come to her. Being Mamãe’s support, I was dragged along. This meant that the twenty foot walk from the entrance to our table took about five excruciatingly long minutes. Five minutes during which everyone in the entire room stared at us. It was like we were in a zoo – who were these foreign looking girls? Veera, Chiara, and I exchanged glances, and then proceeded to pretend that we didn’t have any idea that about forty people were staring at us and whispering.
Later that night, after the birthday song had been sung and best wishes exchanged, Virna told the three of us that we would leave now, and to go wait by the door, while she helped Mamãe. After about fifteen minutes, we migrated to the couches right by the door, waiting for another fifteen minutes until we finally left.
When I was in second grade, my class had a unit about the Amazon Rainforest. I remember watching videos of monkeys, seeing pictures of all sorts of different animals like sloths and jaguars and alligators, learning about the different levels of the forest, and thinking, wow, that’s amazing. Never once did it cross my mind that I might be able to go there one day. I can’t believe how lucky I am, because I spent the past ten days in the Amazon, and they were the best ten days of my life. I feel like I woke up from a dream.
Excerpts from my journal:
April 16, 2016
I left the house this morning at 2:30am and now I’m currently on the plane from Brasília to Manaus.
Manaus! Do you know what state Manaus is in? Amazônia!
I’m on my way to the Amazon!
April 18, 2016
We have divided into three different boats of twenty three exchange students apiece.
Yesterday we went on a city tour of Manaus, which is basically us driving through the cities with a guide pointing out landmarks. The thing I was most excited to see was the teatro of Manaus. When I was younger, I read a book called Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, and now over the past few months I’ve been chipping away at the same book in Portuguese. This book is set in Manaus, Brazil about a girl named Maia and her friend Clovis who performs at the theater and her other friend who leaves to find his mother’s tribe.
I felt like I was coming to live this book in real life. And we saw the theater/opera house and now I’m on a boat in the Amazon and I feel like I’m living my dreams.
After that we went trekking in the forest. We drove two hours north of Manaus and stayed at a hotel called Santuario on a reserve and went trekking in the dark for a time. It was really cool. It involved wading through water that was almost to my knees and there was a this pool with a waterfall at the end. There was a time where we all turned our flashlights off and it was so dark that when I held my hand in front of my face I couldn’t see it.
Today we went to a part of a stream and there was this platform where you could jump into this really deep part. I jumped twice while some people didn’t jump at all. And then we packed up and took the bus back to Manaus to get on the boats. Each boat has twenty three people, and I landed with a good group of people. There is a third boat where we eat. I am on Barco Bicho Preguiça (Sloth Boat).
We saw the huge lily pads today. The water lilles. In order to go see them we had to get on smaller boats, and when they asked if anyone wanted to sit on the very front part of the boat nobody was saying yes so I went for it. Never be shy when something good is going to come from putting yourself out there. I definitely had the best view.
I just feel so happy here and one with nature. This whole thing is just so cool and amazing. I’m in a place I never thought I would ever go to in my life before. So many people in the world never get this opportunity.
Life is good.
April 19, 2016
This is the best trip ever!!!
I just held a baby alligator that our guide caught just moments before.
We slept in hammocks last night. I was so exhausted and tired that I basically fell asleep right away, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about how cool it was.
The boats were anchored and we set up the hammocks in the upstairs living portion of the boat and we climbed in and then they turned the generators off (no power means no light) and it was completely dark. I was asleep before they turned the lights off.
We were all woken up very early in the morning when a few of the workers on the boat were running to get the tarps down. It felt like the second they managed to get them all down this HUGE ginormous downpour started. And lighting! It was really epic. There was this lightning strike that appeared to be right outside of the boat. There was a lot of screaming and running from the girls at the end of the boat but I was too tired to care, because I fell asleep again right after. Rain and the sounds of the rainforest is a good thing to fall asleep to.
April 20, 2016
Yesterday morning we went to a tribe of Natives. They were a tribe of about seventy “indios” living in a little village. They have built a sort of industry around tourism, but even with that they retain most of their traditions and beliefs. Veera said that she was talking to one of the teenage boys and they had basically no concept of the world outside of their tribe and why would they want to leave? It’s scary to leave.
And we happened to arrive on a very special day. Special because of a few different things – it was Dia dos Indos in Brazil. I don’t think the tribe did anything differently because of Dia dos Indios but there were people from the Policia Federal and also it looked like some doctors that were vaccinating people in the tribe.
The other way it was special is because it was a day of ceremony for the tribe. We just happened to come on exactly the right day.
In order for this tribes’ men to be considered as such and to get married they have to put their hands in a sort of glove that is full of the most dangerous type of ant that is found in the rainforest and get bitten. They do this ritual dance thing while keeping the glove on and then they take the glove off. They aren’t allowed to cry. If they cry, it’s a shame/dishonor and they have to do the ritual again. If they cry a second time they have leave the tribe for a year. They can tear up and sweat but no full blown sobbing.
We happened to be there on the day they were doing this ritual. We watched some kid that was maybe twelve years old stick his hands into gloves full of ants that bite you with venom that burns for twenty four hours. In order to become a man they do this forty times, starting from around the age of eight or so – it depends on the kid in question apparently. Once they have done it forty times they are eligible to marry.
We saw a marriage ceremony, too. We got so lucky. So a boy/man who has been bitten by the ants forty times (at least) chooses a girl that he would like to marry, and he gets permission from her family to marry and then they have another ant ceremony because that’s really what the wedding is. So while the guy is putting his hands into the ant-gloves the girl is outside thinking thinking thinking deciding if she wants to get married to the guy in question. If she does she breaks into the singing stomping circle next to the guy and then when they gloves are put back they are considered to be married.
So the guy put his hands in the ant-gloves and he looked like he was in serious pain. And then eventually the girl joined the guy in the ritual circle so they were now married. It was really interesting for a lot of reasons, but the ones that stuck with me was that the girl was fifteen years old and they guy was seventeen years old. And after the ceremony was over and everyone was done clapping the girl just went off with her friends and the guy just was off to the side – no them being happily married together. They didn’t even talk. It was almost like an everyday event, except the tribe’s medicine man person told us what a happy day it was for the tribe. There were like sixty strangers watching a tribe of seventy’s ceremony. We almost outnumbered the tribe. That’s gotta be awkward, so maybe they were waiting to celebrate after.
Also there was this girl that was pregnant and she was thirteen years old. Apparently her husband was twelve.
I can totally understand why the Europeans of old would want to “civilize” the native tribes they encountered in the New World because I like to think of myself as pretty open minded and accepting of cultures different than my own, but this totally weirded me out. And the in the 1500s and 1600s it was way more unaccepting than it is now.
It doesn’t mean that I like or agree with the complete domination of the natives of the Americas, but I understand why it happened.
That night we went alligator hunting. When they said that, I didn’t really know what to expect, and it turned out to be the absolute BEST thing ever.
We have this “indio” on our tour who has been our nature guide over the trip. His name is Ananias. To go jacaré hunting (jacaré = alligator) we had to split up into smaller boats that are motorized. They are the adventure (passeo) boats. Ananias was on my adventure boat. So we were out in the dark and he had a flashlight and was shining it along the coast. At first everyone was really confused – what was he doing – and then we pulled into part of the coast and Ananias jumped out into the water and he kind of tiptoed forward and then he lunged down like a ninja and came up holding a JACARÉ.
It was maybe a foot or so long, and after he came up with it he hoofed it back towards the boat and the driver of the boat tied a string around its mouth so it couldn’t bite and then they passed an ALLIGATOR around the boat so everyone could hold it and take a picture.
Can we establish that Ananias ninja style picked up an ALLIGATOR and that I held an ALLIGATOR?!
This is the coolest trip of my life.
Ananias said that he has been bitten by a lot of jacarés. Once he got drunk and went alligator hunting and it tried its best to eat his leg. He showed us the scar on his leg. He said, “I had a kind of crazy childhood.” No shit.
April 21, 2016
Yesterday we woke up really early to go fishing for piranhas before breakfast. Milena, who is one of the coordinators told us that last week with group 1 of Amazon her boat didn’t catch any, but I felt plenty of tugs on my line and our boat caught maybe ten piranhas in total. The bait was small bits of uncooked steak. One of the guides caught two huge ones and he kept them for dinner. All of the others we released.
Then we went back to have breakfast, and after breakfast we went to this Casa de Farinha were they grow the actual fruit of acaí (every exchange student in Brazil’s addiction) and the vegetable plant thing that becomes tapioca (a Brazilian food). It’s called mandioca.
After that, we went to a small community of Brazilians that live in the Amazon and got schooled in futebol (soccer).
Today was really amazing. I felt like we did all the things that everyone thinks of when you go to the Amazon Rainforest. I really think that this trip has encompassed some of the best things of my life.
After breakfast we split up into the adventure boats. We found two sloths hat we “split” among three boats. It was so cool. We spotted sloths – real live sloths that live in the rainforest – and then the guides became monkeys and scaled the trees to collect them. Then we passed the sloths around the boats to take pictures with it. That must have been the weirdest day ever in that sloth’s life – just chilling on a tree doing sloth things and then some human comes and takes it down from its perch and it gets passed around to a ton of exchange students.
Also, sloths are an evolutionary mystery. They really move as slow as everyone says they do. Apparently one of the ways they die is they grab their own arm thinking it’s a tree branch and then they fall to their death. Also at the top of trees they are predators to eagles and at the bottom they are prey to alligators. They basically have survived evolution by some miracle.
Then we went to the same place of the Casa de Farinha and we were all lounging around looking for a cage with an anaconda until we saw said anaconda just hanging around in the trees. It was FIVE METERS long. FIVE. It was really heavy and in order to pick it up and take pictures with it there had to be at least four people (plus the guy holding the head so it wouldn’t eat some innocent exchange student) holding it.
Honestly I enjoyed the anaconda more than the sloth. It was really quite gorgeous. It had all of these cool colors and it was pretty soft. And the people from the Casa de Farinha say they basically let it roam free around the property during the day and then at night they lock it up in the room of artesenatos.
After lunch we went to see the pink dolphins – that’s right, the famous pink dolphins of the Amazon. I was in the water with them and touched them and it was really cool. We also saw the biggest fish of the Amazon by way of luring it to the surface by way of smaller dead fish.
This trip is so amazing. Words can’t describe how happy I am.
April 23, 2016
Yesterday we went to a sandy beach along the river and hung out there until lunch. It was a don’t worry be happy day.
After lunch our boat had more time to just chillax and then we split up into the adventure boats to go bird watching. We were traveling up the river looking for birds and just enjoying the nature and the view in general when we spotted some monkeys in the trees, so we stopped to look at them for a while. While we were looking at them we spotted a sloth on a tree that was basically right in front of us.
Somebody said, “Can we go get him?” and the next thing I knew one of the drivers of the two boats was scaling the tree and brought down the sloth. The sloth had cool brown markings on its back which signified that it was a boy and also it wasn’t the nice, calm, and docile sloths that we held a few days back. He was clawing and hissing. Apparently there are two types of sloths. One is calmer and they have three claws, and the other is very aggressive and bites and scratches and you can’t just grab them off trees. They have two claws. The sloth we grabbed had three claws but Ananias’s best guess that he was a cross between the two types.
When we passed it to the other boat to hold it the sloth grabbed onto one of the support beams and refused to let go and it even tore a hole in the tarp. Everyone was cracking up, even Ananias and the other guides as they were wrestling with it to get it off.
After everyone was done holding the sloth, Ananias said, “I told you that all animals of the Amazon can swim so its time to test out that theory.” Then he put the sloth into the water. The sloth swam to a tree in the middle of the river and hung out at the bottom before it finally pulled itself up when we left ten or so minutes later. The sloth was a faster swimmer than he was a climber.
Ananias told us, “Well, our bird expedition turned into a sloth expedition.” Right when he said that there was this really loud CAW and he looked up and said, “That’s the sound a toucan makes!” We never actually saw the toucan though.
We went trekking this morning with a different guide who has lived in the area for more than forty years. It was really really cool. He was showing us plants and trees and pointing out what was poison and what was medicinal, and we saw this HUGE tree that reminded me of the tree in the book The Great Kapok Tree. Somewhere along the trek it began to rain and all I though was this is the rainforest and I just felt so insignificant and in awe.
To the exchange students who went on the South of Brazil trip, March 2016:
This morning I cried and cried and cried. Last night it was tears of happiness when we were dancing and singing together and this morning it was tears of sadness when we were hugging goodbye.
These past twelve days have been the best days of my life. We did so many things that people all over the world never have a chance to do. We went to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, we rode a boat into said wonder of the world and got drenched by the catarata, we drove in a bus for days and days to different cities, we freaked out together over the European-ness of Gramado, we all became Mexican when we joined the huddle during the mariachi serenade at a restaurant, we had nightly shows on Bus 1, we sang happy birthday over and over again when it wasn’t anyone’s birthday and then again when it was. We listened to more than enough Mexican music on the bus and had rap battles and had wars over who’s speakers were the loudest often enduring listening to two different songs at the same time in two different languages. We learned songs in Taiwanese and Spanish and Portuguese and English and French and German. We went to amusement parks and churches and botanic gardens and the beach and ran through the rain to buy acaí. We went to Argentina and Paraguay and are now very familiar with shopping malls all over the south of Brazil. We pushed each other into swimming pools and played Uno and 99 and Mafia and went to a chocolate factory. We ate cake for breakfast and learned cusswords in a dozen different languages and bought keychains and postcards. We made everyone in every hotel and restaurant that we visited hate us from being too loud. We laughed so hard that we were doubled over with tears streaming down our faces. We took thousands of photos and gossiped together. We danced to Italian opera music and ragged on our host families and went to a bird park. We went to a wine and cheese tasting store and didn’t taste any wine. We listened to Brazilian pop and funk music together and all screamed the lyrics and danced. We signed flags and signed journals and exchanged business cards and exchanged pins. We went to Foz do Iguaçu, Paraguay, Argentina, Lajeado, Porto Alegre, Gramado, Canela, Florianópolis, and Curitiba.
And even though we did so many amazing things and went to so many amazing places, it is the people I traveled with that I will remember for the rest of my life. I have never felt so happy than I felt on this trip, and it is all because of the friends I made. Last night my face hurt from smiling, but I couldn’t stop. Words cannot express how much I love you guys and how much I will miss you. I already miss you.
Before coming on exchange, they tell us we will make great friends, but I didn’t comprehend just how solid those bonds would be until now. And the hard part about these trips is that you never know if you will ever see any of these people that you just gave a part of your heart to ever again. Now I have seventy-four pieces of my heart spread around Canada, Switzerland, Russia, Australia, the United States, France, Mexico, Taiwan, England, Germany, Japan, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, and Denmark, India, and, of course, Brazil, because that is where I met you.
My heart might be spread out all over the world, but I have no choice but to think that I will see you again or my heart will completely shatter. (So expect hosting requests in the future so I can avoid hotel costs, haha. I’m already planning my trip to Europe.)
Carnaval is absolutely insane. Words cannot do it justice, but I am going to do my best to try.
I asked my host mom if Carnaval was to celebrate anything specific. She thought about it for a few seconds, and then told me that Carnaval was just Carnaval and they celebrate to celebrate. I did some research and found that Carnaval is a festival that celebrates the days before Lent in the Christian calendar. Brazil is not the only country to celebrate Carnaval, but it has by far the biggest celebration. The country stops for the days of the holiday. Ash Wednesday is hangover day, and then normal life resumes.
Saturday was the day that I went to the biggest Carnaval in the world. By all accounts the best Carnavals in Brazil are in three locations: Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and Salvador. While the rest of the world (and the internet) knows Carnaval through Rio, in truth the biggest Carnaval is in Recife, where there are two hot spots: Galo da Madrugada and Olinda. (Olinda is actually an historic town that’s a bit away from Recife, but that doesn’t really matter.)
I was picked up from my apartment by Virna at 4:15am, along with Viveca (Virna’s sister), Chiara (Germany), and Veera (Finland). We drove to the bus stop and met Jeanne (France), her first host parents, and Haven (California), his host mom, and Luisa and Joe (Virna’s daughter and her boyfriend). The bus left at five in the morning, taking all of the exchange students, our various host families, and many other people, to Recife for a day of Carnaval.
The party started on the bus. The bus was pretty quiet for the first few hours, but once we got closer to Recife the entire mood changed. Everyone put their costumes on and applying makeup and then someone cracked open a cooler and the singing and drinking and dancing started. Frevo is the type of music that is typical of Recife’s Carnaval, and everyone knew the songs and were singing them at the top of their lungs. The guide got up and danced the traditional dance to frevo while everyone laughed and sang and shouted encouragement at him. It was impossible not to be excited and happy because everyone on the bus was excited and happy. The bus was its own mini Carnaval. There were at least one or two people that were drunk before we got to Recife. There was one guy in our bus that dressed as a baby. He was known as O Bebê (The Baby), since he was very memorable, only wearing what appeared to be a giant diaper and some flip flops. I think everyone was hoping that he had underpants under the diaper.
We finally arrived in the Galo da Madrugada, and received instructions for everyone to meet at a specific point when we would then go to Olinda. If we wanted to stay longer at the Galo, or leave early from the Galo, we needed to take a taxi to Olinda, from which there was another meeting point so we could take the bus to go home at the end of the night.
Then off we went!
The Galo da Madrugada is the biggest Carnaval in the world. I was told that there were supposed to be something like two million people there in one day. Seeing as how we arrived somewhere around ten in the morning, it was relatively “early”. Mainly, we ran into a bunch of street vendors, already camped out along the sides of the road screaming, “Water! Beer! Soda!” There were police and firemen lining the road or sometimes in these kind of stand things so they could see above the crowd. And already people were filling the streets.
The translation of galo da madrugada is morning rooster. It turns out the main attraction of this particular location of Carnaval was exactly that: a giant rooster. And when I mean giant. It was this huge, rotating, colorful statue of a rooster that was the center of all of the activity. Leading to the Galo were all sorts of pathways that had been created by barriers and police for the different blocos of frevo to go down.
It turns out that a bloco is just a group of people, some with instruments, others with just drums, walking down the same route together playing the traditional music of whichever part of Brazil they happen to be in. People just attach themselves to a bloco and follow them for a while, so there can be hundreds and up to thousands (and maybe more, I don’t know!) following one bloco. It gets really crazy when the blocos run into each other, and then absolutely insane when three or four or five all meet up.
We stood along one of the pathways created waiting for a bloco to pass in the sun and heat and with a group of fifteen or so people – all of the exchange students and their associated families. I was already hot and tired and overwhelmed and the party hadn’t even started yet. The bloco hadn’t passed. And there were thousands of people all centered around the Galo already.
Finally, it was decided that our group would split up, something I thought was a sensible decision since it is very hard to keep a large group together with an even larger amount of people surrounding. Luisa, Joe, Virna, Viveca, Veera, Chiara, and I split off and we took two taxis to Olinda, the other big Carnaval celebration in Recife.
If I had thought that the Galo was full of people, boy was I wrong. Olinda was stuffed with people. After talking to some street vendors during a lag when a bloco passed by and a new one hadn’t taken its place, we found that even though the streets were stuffed to the brim, it really was what they thought was a slow day. The next day would be bigger, because the Galo only lasted for one day.
In order to stay together in one group, we all latched on to each other’s arms and backpacks, etc. When blocos were passing, and we just wanted to stay in watch, it took a lot of work to stay in one position, while mainly people were just swept up by the crowd. Wedging one’s feet into their own square four inches of space and staying there became a real act of accomplishment.
We went up and down the streets of Olinda, being swept along with the crowd, celebrating the craziness that is Carnaval. We made our way to the very top of Olinda, where there weren’t really any blocos, but many people besides. We took the chance to have some lunch and throw confetti and have a chance to recover before diving back into the fray.
At the end of the night, we ended up at the meeting place to go back onto the bus. There we found out that O Bebê had been lost somewhere amidst the partying! Everyone was pretty worried about him, since he had no ID, no money, no phone.
We got onto the bus after waiting a pretty long time to see if O Bebê would show up, and the tour guide solemnly told us that this was the first time in fifteen years of leading tours that they would be leaving someone behind. He said it wasn’t an ideal situation, but if we wanted to get back to Natal before one in the morning, we needed to go. After everyone on the bus said a few prayers together, we were off to go back to Natal.
Fifteen minutes after our departure, the bus received a phone call. O Bebê had been found! He had apparently wandered onto another bus, and we would swing by to pick him up at a gas station. Everyone on the bus cheered, and the party resumed. More beer was passed around, and people started singing different frevo verses all over again. Finally, O Bebê staggered onto the bus, without diaper, and without shoes. He was very drunk. He told us (in very slurred Portuguese) that he had gone on an adventure and his diaper and shoes were stolen. If he told us anything else that was important, I didn’t understand it. Oh, and in case you were wondering, under O Bebê’s diaper was a very brightly colored speedo.
Natal does not have a big, traditional Carnaval celebration like Recife does. Instead of blocos, people gather in certain parts of the city, were there is usually a stage set up and there is some sort of entertainment planned. On Sunday afternoon, Nelly took me to the Bloco das Kengas, which is where a bunch of men dress as women and then after they wander the crowd a bit, a fashion/talent/beauty show takes place.
Nelly told me that all of these men are either homosexuals or transvestites. She also told me that if I saw any women hanging around the crowd that had a more masculine aesthetic, they were homosexual (her words, not mine). I have no idea if any of this is true. But I do know that Brazil is a very intolerant country when it comes to differences in sexuality.
I took many pictures with the Kengas and watched a bit of the show. I didn’t understand what they were saying on stage, so while people around me were laughing, I didn’t find it to be quite so entertaining. Also, I was finding it hard to find Natal’s Carnaval as entertaining as Recife’s, because nothing else can match the awesomeness and craziness of that day.
After a while, we left, and I went to Virna’s house, where I had plans to watch the Super Bowl with the other exchange students. It turned out that only the girls of the group came, so we watched the game and turned it into a sleepover, staying up until five in the morning talking.
When I came back to Nelly’s house, I ate lunch and took a nap. When I woke up from the nap, Nelly told me to pack my stuff; we were going to Pipa, a beach town about two hours away, where we would spend the rest of Carnaval. If I could do things over again, I would have argued, asking to stay in Natal for the last few days of Carnaval. Pipa does not have Carnaval. The only day they do have a celebration is Ash Wednesday, and I missed out on that too. Instead, I was very groggy, so I gathered my things together and off to Pipa we went. I like Pipa. But this Carnaval was my first Carnaval, and I wanted to be able to get as much out of it as I could.
Now, I’m back in Natal, and even though I might not have been able to celebrate the last two days of Carnaval, I’m very happy with how my first celebration of the holiday went. I look back on Saturday, and it seems so long ago, even though not even a week has passed. It’s hard for me to believe that that was something that actually happened, not something that my brain made up. I’m so lucky to have experienced an authentic Brazilian Carnaval, which is not something that many people have experienced. And I can’t wait for the next one.