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Bacchanalia
   -- One Man's Struggle to Find a Vibe at the World's Most Amazing Party
by Erik Olsen



She does not speak. She sidles up to me slowly, moving like the shimmering fragment of some dirty dream. She is young, no more than 20, and has the most luxurious cascade of black hair I have ever seen. When she puts her hands on my hips and smiles at me, I feel a tremor of panic. Panic and dread. Why on earth have I never learned how to Samba?

I should have known better. I am here in Salvador de las Bahias, the city on the bay, at Brazilian Carnival, by many accounts the world's greatest party. It is a bacchanalia in every sense of the word, a week-long phantasmagoria of Samba, costumes, food, potent beverages and, of course, sex.

I have arrived following a long, excruciating trip up the coast of Brazil, all the way - with stops in between, of course - from Antarctica. All the way with nothing but the clothes I'm wearing, a backpack full of my stuff and a guitar. I arrived in the city a few hours ago, just as the festivities began, and at once feel decidedly out of place. Not only am I clad in shorts, a T-shirt and Tevas, but judging by my immediate surroundings, I am one of the few light-skinned folks here at all. Meanwhile, people around me are dressed in some of the most ornate outfits I've ever seen, like some Carmen Miranda cloning experiment gone horribly awry. As comparisons go, I fit in like Jimmy Buffet at the Iditarod.

But this gorgeous, copper-skinned woman doesn't seem to mind at all. Perhaps it is my blond hair, because she keeps running her fingers through it. Or maybe my blue eyes, because she has pointed to them twice. Or perhaps she just happens to have something for guys with pale, thin, wobbly legs.

Whatever the case, she is looking at me now, playfully and suggestively. She hoists her cleavage as if offering me honeydews for breakfast, and when I reach out for them, she knocks my hands away and looks at me as if I have just violated some mysterious local covenant. But then she smiles. Just teasing.

Salvador de las Bahias. Known to some just as Salvador; to others as Bahia. Whatever you call it, the place is like no other I have ever experienced. The city is a curious melange of African, Indian and European cultures, as if, not so long ago, three continents collided on this spot, causing great hordes of people to all tumble together into a kind of Cobb Salad of humanity.

Of course, if one of these cultures predominates, it would have to be African. It is everywhere, and more than most places where cultures mesh, the people here have learned to embrace it as their own: In music, there is the Afrocentric band Olodum, whose punchy rhythms and lyrics about African culture all Bahians know by heart. In dance, there is the capoeira, a martial-arts-like choreography brought by Bantu slaves and adapted into an art form, part Saturday Night Fever, part Jackie Chan. And there is food, like the delicious bean curd pastries from Nigeria called acarajé, which are cooked in hot oil on every corner and whose aroma fills the air like the best french fries you've ever had. These things are the reason people here say that while Bahia may be in Brazil, it's heart is in Africa.

I have found a place to sleep in a hostel in an area of town called Pelourinho, in the city's heights, the Cidade Alta, although, given the endless cacophony in the streets, sleep will be more of a concept than a reality. The people staying in the hostel are your typical mix of rag-tag shoe-stringers. They are mostly young and disheveled, often-times foul-smelling, many have poor taste in music, and even worse taste in books (one girl from Belgium is reading Tom Clancy and swears it's the best thing she's ever read). They hail from all parts of the globe - a few too many from Germany for my taste - and altogether constitute an endearing snapshot of the global future of humanity.

When I arrive, I stand behind a Canadian and his two American friends who are checking in. The guy, a kid named Mike from Vancouver, is lanky and scrawny as a weed, which is appropriate since, when he turns to look at me, his watery eyes remind me of an old fraternity brother who's idea of a nutritious breakfast was a long, deep pull off his bong. The two girls with him are from Virginia. They are cute, but hardly glowing bulbs of brilliance, and talk in that awful songy way that some American girls do. They seem far too preoccupied with their hair. When they hear I'm American they immediately want to chat about "how, like, incredibly cool this place is", and how grateful they are that the local pharmacy sells their brand of moisturizer.

When I head out the door in the late afternoon about an hour or so later, I hope not to see much of them.

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I am on the streets with the dancing crowd, now thousands strong. I am still with this dark, wonderful girl. The crowd presses into us, pushing us closer together so that she and I are just a few inches apart. I catch a whiff of her breath, sweet, like puppy's breath. The sound of drums is everywhere. They seem to boom down from the heavens as if the angels have turned in their harps for Zildjians. To say the scene around me is celebratory is somehow a massive understatement, like saying sex feels good. The music is so loud, so penetrating, that it has become a part of the permanent world, another fundamental element after fire, air and water.

A hand falls on my shoulder and I spin around to find another girl, equally as pretty - if that is possible - who drapes her arms around my neck and presses her hips hard into mine as if hoping to make flour from the grindstones of our pelvises. I smile at her, and try to insinuate with a pinch of my facial muscles that my dance card is already full, but when I turn back to the first beauty, I find she is gone. Such is the way of things here, I learn. No one belongs to anyone.

I move on, and make my way to the Praca da Se, an open square dominated by a massive baroque cathedral splashed with gold leaf and skinned with a dazzling arrangement of blue and white Portuguese tile. The square is packed with revelers, chatting, dancing, drinking. Lots of drinking. There are portable food stands on each corner where heavy-set black women called Bahianas are dressed in gleaming white robes and turbans, trademark symbols of Afro-Brazilian culture. They sell Cokes and acarajés, the latter of which they pluck out of large steel vats of boiling oil.

The square has huge historical significance. This is the place where, until 1888 when slavery was abolished in Brazil, slaves were sold on blocks like cattle to slake the labor thirst of Brazilian sugar lords. For hundreds of years before that, Bahia had been the capital of the slave trade in Brazil; and Pelourinho, which means "whipping post" in Portuguese, the central market square.

Bahia's slave past is an integral part of what the place is today. As in America, once they were freed, most of the slaves brought to Brazil stayed and tried to make a life of it here. And as in America, racism lingers here like a bad smell. Still, if any place in Brazil seems - on the surface, at least - to have made progress, it is Salvador. About 70 percent of Salvador's 2.5 million residents are of African origin, more than the black population of Detroit, making it one of few major cities in the western hemisphere with a majority black population.

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It is getting dark and it's time for a drink. There are stands everywhere selling beer, a local favorite called Antarctica that is a bit too watered down for my taste and will hardly give me the mood boost I need. I decide to search for something a little stronger. At a nearby stand where two peaches and a banana are artfully arranged overhead to resemble male genitalia, I buy a drink called a Caipirinha. Made with a local sugarcane liquor called cachaça, the drink tastes like a vodka cocktail, and goes down smooth - perhaps too smooth, as it is gone in less than a minute. The delicious warmth of a buzz crawls over me like a girlfriend's cat, and I begin to picture myself dancing again, perhaps meeting another one of these dark Brazilian goddesses.

I order another Caipirinha and sip deeply from it as a procession of about two dozen men march into the square dressed in bright white, yellow, and red African tribal wraps. Wearing drums around their necks, they beat the things furiously, but in near perfect unison, rattling the stained-glass in the nearby cathedral and drowning out every other sound. Not soon after they disappear around a corner and the drums fade, another group arrives, this one consisting of a long single-file train of men dressed in purple gowns with white sandals and turbans. They wear dark blue socks and twisted blue and white sashes. There is a tall old Brazilian fellow clapping and stomping next to me and I ask him who they are:

"The Sons of Gandhi."

"As in Mahatma?" I ask, immediately hating the way I sound saying 'Mahatma'.

"Yes. They are a very famous afoxé. Probably the most famous." He pronounces the word "a-foh-shay". The afoxé are the black organizations for whom the Carnival is the culmination of a year's preparation. Numbering over a dozen, the afoxé date back to the end of the nineteenth century, when they emerged in Brazil to celebrate their strong ties to African and black history.

The Sons of Gandhi pass and yet another afoxé arrives, this one a train of Brazilian women dressed in bright persimmon tank tops. They must be the afoxé du jour, because it seems like everyone around me decides at once to follow them. Not one to stand around while others are having fun, I leap in line behind an obese older woman whose stretch pants make me appreciate the load-bearing qualities of certain synthetics. The group grows, gathering adherents like a religious cult, as we move slowly down the street. It is strange. People seem to materialize from out of nowhere and join us so that soon, we are many hundreds strong, mob-like, and I'd swear we were setting out to bring down the local Pasha if everyone wasn't so damn happy.

Everyone is dancing. Girls, glistening with sweat and showing more skin than a Scottish tannery, are jiggling in every direction. An old man who looks like he's made of copper wire, is bouncing on the balls of his feet and throwing his arms up in the air like the president of the college rah rah club. The fat woman in front of me moves with the most perplexing quickness and agility of anyone her size I have ever seen. I can't help picturing a fit and energetic Eddie Murphy bounding around inside of her Nutty Professor physique. My hips carry half, perhaps a third, the amount of weight hers do, yet she is able to whip them from side to side with a grace and fluidity that is hypnotizing.

But something is wrong. Despite the two Caipirinha, I can't escape my own pathetic inflexibility. I try to move like the people around me, to dislocate my hips from my vertebrae so that they move independently, to add a dose of spontaneity to my step, but my muscles feel rigid, my movements unnatural, as if a once-latent gene for a rare muscle disorder was suddenly expressing itself. I start to feel horribly self-consciousness, aware of the spasmodic, out-of-synch gyrations of my hips, the clumsy choreography of my footwork, but then I spy a gaggle of Norwegians (easily identified by their Norwegian flag T-shirts and doo-rags), flopping around like cheap puppets and I immediately feel better. I suppose one of the beautiful truths of Carnival is that no one really cares how well you dance. The only thing that matters is that you move.

We reach the top of a small hill and I realize that this dancing mass of which I am now a part, this jiggling protoplasm whose size I am no longer able judge, is now a single organism sharing the same nervous system, a jangle of burning neurons that, at this moment, is so jacked up on happiness it is if some celestial opiate is being pumped from the sky.

The drums boom and I howl into the early evening sky like a cur drunk on estrus fumes in the dead of springtime. I take a deep swig of my drink, toss the cup over my shoulder and bellow at the woman I am now dancing with, a Bahian beauty whose nipples show through her tight-fitting T-shirt like push pins. I beseech her to tell me her name, but she just shakes her body, throws up her hands and laughs.

------------------------

It's difficult to pin down the exact beginning of Carnival, there were Carnival-like celebrations going on as far back as ancient Greece, when an annual festival honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, gave the Greeks a reason to get hammered and even more philosophical than usual. The Romans, who at times took their partying seriously, followed suit with a version of their own called Bacchanalia, celebrating Bacchus, Rome's god of wine and revelry. At their most debauched in the height of Roman decline, the bacchanalia were symbols of such excess that the Roman Senate, party poopers extraordinaire, criminalized them in 186 BC.

But the celebrations picked up again in the Middle Ages, when Carnival celebrations became an important means of release for the Christian devout just before the coming of the prohibitions of Lent, the forty days of fasting and penitence before Easter. Although the celebrations never quite recaptured the profligate grandeur of Imperial Rome, excess was still de rigueur.

Today, Carnival is celebrated in some form or another in countries all over the world. In Europe, there is a Carnival celebration held every year in Spain called Shrovetide; in France the Nice carnival attracts thousands of visitors every year to the sunny decadence of the Cote D'Azur. Carnival is celebrated throughout the Caribbean, in Malta, and even in the small city of Notting Hill in England. The United States, of course, has Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras, Carnival brethren which lure thousands of hormone-stoned college kids to the French Quarter of New Orleans for a week of boozy decadence.

But compared to these, Bahian Carnival seems to have evolved into something different, something that so surpasses these other expressions of merrymaking that it hardly seems right to call them by the same name. It is certainly much more than an excuse to get wasted with friends and have sex with strangers - although these things are unquestionably part of the thrill.

There are several distinguishing factors that make Bahia special: First, there is geography. Bahia's southern latitude - just 13 degrees south of the equator - puts Carnival smack in the heart of summer rather than winter, so Bahia's climate is conducive to removing clothes rather than putting them on. But more importantly, there is the Bahia's history, and the unusual way that religion and music have fused and come to play a dominant role here in the lives of blacks.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Portuguese-speaking religious leaders in Brazil were eager to convert the heathen, polytheistic Africans to Christianity, and went to great lengths to do so, erecting churches in almost every small town on the map, across the gaping Patanal and even in the dense and disease-infested Amazon jungle. The slaves were receptive to the idea of an omnipresent god, the sacrifice of his son for a sin-soaked humanity. But they had gods of their own, a complex belief system that they shrewdly sought to preserve by adapting the new Christian characters to those of their African deities, known as orixás. By identifying the orixás with Catholic saints, black Brazilians were able to appease the church without losing their own religious heritage and as a result, created a clandestine mixture of Roman Catholicism and African polytheism called Candomblé that is now the dominant faith in Bahia. Candomblé imagery is an indispensable ingredient of the music of Carnival and is present in some form in the celebration's costumes, dance and imagery.

------------------------

We reach the top of another rise in the street, a point from which I look down upon a massive, brightly lit plaza called the Praca Castro Alves, where four streets intersect and unite the dancing multitudes like four rivers emptying into the sea.

The scene before me is surreal, insane, something I would have thought only the boys at Industrial Light and Magic could dream up on their ultra-fast Sparc workstations. Hundreds of thousands of people, almost a million, said the papers the next day, all on the same delirious, lust-laden high, all spilling into one another at this junction of Babylonian delirium. There is a sound that rides over the whole scene, a kind of convulsive hum, as if the energy from all these human bodies is collectively generating a single throbbing electrical field. The energy passes through me, and I realize that I am no longer an individual, but have become a cell in the larger organism, part of the beast.

A massive black object appears in front of us. A block of sound called a trio eléctrico. Specially rigged for Carnival, trios, as they are more commonly known, are giant mobile stages, like Woodstock on wheels or an 18-wheeler semi-truck built by a stereo fanatic who's just been on an unbridled binge at The Wiz. The entire back trailer is piled two stories high with a massive bank of woofers, tweeters, mid-range and sub-woofers, topped by a brightly-lit stage where a dozen musicians perform.

The band is called 20 Ve. They are singing something in Portuguese that I can't understand. Most of the crowd knows the words, though, and people around me shout them out. The song ends and there is a brief pause. Then the speakers crackle, and when the guitar player on stage lets go with a power chord like a wake-up call from God, I wonder if the needle on a seismometer in, say, Hokkaido just leaped off the scale.

My first thought is that the trios have to be an American invention. They are so big, so boisterous, so overdone. But the reality is that they started right here in Bahia. They began at the 1950 Carnaval, when a pair of local musicians named Dodô and Osmar, decided to bolt a pair of speakers to the roof of their Ford pickup and then drove through the city playing electric guitars. They people in the streets loved it, and the next year, someone imitated them, but in a larger car and with larger speakers, and the next year someone did the same, and so on, until the escalating audio arms race led to the creation of these mega-sonic monsters.

How's this for power: the modern day trio can put out upwards of a hundred decibels of sound, enough to blow out a human eardrum at close range, enough to shatter a half-inch plate of glass. Trios can carry several tons of equipment, can accommodate a 40-piece band and often costs upward of half a million dollars.

Of course, whether this is a good or bad thing depends on who you talk to. The question gets to the heart of one of the most contentious issues about modern-day Carnival. Carnival purists argue that it is the ever larger and more expensive trios that have ruined Carnival with commercialism. Just a few years ago nearly all of the trios were built and sponsored by civic groups, who raised money throughout the year holding various paid events and also by charging tourists for the experience of dancing inside ropes behind the truck during the celebration. That's not the case any more. For the most part today the trios are sponsored by large companies who pay for the most powerful and gaudy assemblies, a development many say has ruined the more individualistic, free-wheeling feeling of Carnival.

"It's just a week-long commercial," said a rather dour Carnival watcher I spoke with named Miguel. "Like in America. The whole thing is for sale now."

He did seem to have a point. The side of nearly every trio I saw was emblazoned with the name of some brand of beer, soft drink, or snack food. In fact, the encroaching profiteering has many people worried that the week-long celebration is no longer a pure form of human celebration, but just another over-hyped annual drunk-fest, no more interesting or unique than, say, Woodstock II, which was largely panned for its rampant commercialism. This has long been the case for the Rio Carnaval, which many people, particularly those from Rio itself, regard as a touristic extravaganza whose sole purpose is to make money from foreigners. Alma Guillermoprieto's excellent book on Rio's Carnaval, Samba, echoes this sentiment and makes the case that the most interesting stuff actually occurs in the favelas before the celebration even starts.

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Sometime around midnight, rain falls and a few people - mostly tourists - scatter and hide under canopies and in doorways. The drops are heavy and as big as olives, but the rain is as warm as the sweat that it washes off our bodies. Those of us standing beneath it are caught up in a dream-like revelry. We twist and jump and kick and throw our arms in the air. I point my gaze to the sky and let the drops smack me on the face. All around me people do the same; their eyes roll up in their heads as if a part of them has just left their bodies for a place of secret bliss. The lights from above shine through the rain drops and give the effect of a million jewels tumbling to earth.

A girl comes up from out of nowhere and kisses me on the lips. She has black eyes that sparkle like chips of obsidian. I ask her name.

"Tanya." She takes hold of my shirt, pulling me close. My pulse quickens and my heart springs into my throat. We dance for hours and hardly speak. The rain stops and then comes down again hard sometime around two a.m., dripping and steaming off our bodies and the bodies of the people around us, until the street becomes a swirling miasma stirred up by our dancing feet.

There is no such thing as inhibition. In every direction, there are couples embracing, so that the smell of human and animal craving hangs in the air like a sweet gas. Tanya and I, our faces close, speak to one another in tight, simple sentences. But it doesn't really matter. There is no reason to speak, nothing really to say. That is what the Carnival is about. It is about movement and sweat and rhythm and passion. It is about carnal lust and celebration and an impossible riot of hues. Differences in language and culture don't matter because the music binds and unites everyone to the same sensorial rhythms and warmth that every human being is familiar with, the rhythm of the heart and the warmth of blood. Of course, it helps that I am drunk.

There is one song that is played over and over called Tic Tic Tac by a band called Carrapicho. The lyrics go: "Bate forte o tambor eu quero é chicki chicki chicki ta!" I have no idea what they mean, but the crowd loves the song, and everyone dances the same moves to the words, so that when the chorus is sung, all the women spin themselves around and press their butts into the men they are dancing with and then bend over to suggest being taken from behind.

Tanya does this too, so that I find myself standing there with her buttocks grinding into my groin. I gaze across a crowd of what seems like thousands of upright men and bent over women, the largest mass dry fuck in the world. Tanya's hips move to the rhythm, matching every beat with Tag Heuer precision. I try desperately to keep up, to match her rhythm with my own, but it's no use. My bones and sinews creak and snap like kindling.

We dance for hours into the early morning and then Tanya's friends find us and talk her into leaving. I want her to stay, but she says no, kisses me, turns away. I call after her, and she stops, comes back and kisses me again. "Fofo," she says. Cute. I'll never see her again.

A faint blush of morning light creeps over the horizon as I make my way back to the hostel. I push through the crowd, still many thousands strong, feeling a bit worn out and hung over when a fist flies from out of nowhere and strikes me hard in the mouth. A flash of white. I reel from the blow, not falling to the ground, but stumbling backwards into someone's arms. When I look up, there are six dark Brazilian young men poised and bouncing like boxers waiting for me to get up. They are dancing, but they also look like they very much want to kick my ass. I surmise that there's something about me - perhaps my clothes, the color of my skin, my style of dance - that they don't like. The odds are not in my favor and so I do the only sensible thing: I straighten myself up, smile at them and run.

Not soon after, I am back at the hostel. I find my cot and fall upon it. Hard. Drums beat outside and I shut my eyes in the hope that the morning will bring some clarity and order to the events I have just experienced. My thoughts swim in a thick, grayish haze and my head throbs as if someone has nailed the country of Capri into my skull. My shirt is soaked red because my bloody nose has been running like the bulls at Pamplona.

I lay there, staring at the ceiling, and sadly realize that I am not cut out for this. That no matter how many 16-hour work days I've put in over the years, no matter how much partying I might have done in college, I've never worked this hard, or felt this exhausted, especially when trying to have fun. I begin to doubt if I'll make it all five days.

But when the new day dawns, I rise to find the American girls drinking rum and cokes in the lobby. Mike from Vancouver is chicken bobbing his head and mouthing the words to a rap line pouring out of a portable radio. The girl named Tracy passes, trailing a Chanel chum line that makes my eyes tear.

"What happened to you?" she asks. An accusation, implying that whatever happened I probably deserved it. I hate her even more. I realize at that moment that I am in for the long haul. Whatever notions I had earlier of packing it in must be put to rest. For I am a traveler, and committed to the travelers' code that says I must see it through no matter the cost and physical hardship. AI pour myself a Coke, and as the drums rise, I head out into the humid bliss of another day.

THE END




Other stories:
The Family Values Trilogy - Part II
Lennon in New York
Leaving Traudi
The Matador




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