My Gringa's Guide to Carnaval
I cannot wrap my head around the fact that I have already been here for 6 months. That's half a year and means I'm more than halfway through my exchange. I feel like I've learned so much already, so it's odd to think I still have 4 more months ahead of me. It's strange that the number of days I have left in Brazil are less than the number of days I've already been here. I still feel like Month #3 Natasha with 7 months and plenty of time to go, but I'm closer to Month #7 Natasha with a short 3 months remaining.
This post is ... late. Very late.
In Brazil, February means the start of a new school year and Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese), both of which happened a month ago, and I still haven't written about either of them. It's getting closer and closer to the end of March 2018, so I should update on what I've been up to.
The good news is that I've been busy, the bad news is I've been too busy to type.
I was lucky enough to travel to Divinopolis, Minas Gerais for Pre-Carnaval and have my rotary youth exchange officer (YEO) take me to Pirenopolis, Goais for the actual Carnaval weekend. This post is mostly just documenting my personal experiences with Carnaval here, but I'm calling it "My Gringa's Guide to Carnaval" because I was clueless about what Carnaval would be like before experiencing it, and hopefully some of the things I learned can give some pointers to anyone that is interested in traveling to Brazil for that time of year in the future.
I honestly didn't know what to expect from Carnaval. Before coming here, my knowledge of this event in Brazil was limited to the images that came up when I typed "Carnival Brazil" into Google Search. All that showed me was the world-famous Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. To me, Carnaval meant bright, colorful clothing, a crowed parade of festive people, samba dancers, and drums in Rio de Janeiro.
But Brazil is a whole lot bigger than just Rio de Janeiro. So what about the rest of the country? What do they do for Carnaval?
Turns out, not all cities in Brazil do something for Carnaval. My city, João Pinheiro, does not. But I really wanted to go a city that celebrates. It's something Brazil is famous for, and I'm in Brazil, so I would be really disappointed if I didn't get to experience it. I started talking to my host family and Rotary to see if it was possible for me to travel for Carnaval.
I knew I couldn't go to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval because Rotary forbids exchange students from traveling to densely-populated areas (the coast) at that time of year, but I wanted to travel somewhere.
Luckily, my host aunt that I met on the family trip to Cabo Frio, Rio De Janeiro sent a message to my host mom inviting me to her city for pre-Carnaval.
Pre-Carnaval in Divinópolis
I'd never heard of pre-Carnaval, or Divínopolis (the city my aunt lives in), but I was really excited. My aunt shares an apartment with my cousins, who I also met in Cabo, and they're a really fun group of people.
As I just said, Brazil is a lot bigger than just the city of Rio de Janeiro. It is a giant country, and the cities are really spread out. From what I've seen, most Brazilians are very accustomed to traveling these large distances because they often go and visit family members in other cities. This leads to a skewed perspective of how "close" one city is to the next.
To Brazilians, a city that is a 3 hours drive away is "close." And the craziest thing: after all the traveling I've been doing in Brazil, I've adopted this mentality. It's a 10 hour drive to get to my friend's city? No sweat. No problem. Been there, done that.
That being said, the drive to Divinopolis was around 7 hours, so my host parents, 2 of my host aunts, and I drove to Nova Serrana (a city on the way) and stayed the night there at a family member's house. We drove the rest of the way to Divinopolis the next afternoon after doing some shopping. Nova Serrana has a lot of factories and is famous for its shoe production. I bought some brand new sneakers for $30 USD before leaving. Score.
ARRIVAL IN DIVINOPOLIS, MINAS GERAIS
It was so good to see some of the extended host family that I met on the Cabo Frio trip again. I missed them. The Pre-Carnaval celebrations started the next day.
It turns out pre-Carnaval is basically the exact same thing as Carnival. It just takes place a week before the actual Carnival, on the first weekend of February. Here's a breakdown of what I saw there.
Carnaval is kind of like a tuned down, non-spooky version of Halloween where costumes are concerned. You see everything from full-on Mario & Luigi and superhero costumes to a unicorn headband paired with a normal T-shirt and jean shorts. And if you don't want to, you don't have to wear a costume.
I thought the look above was really odd. Tutus, this bathing suit looking thing, & headbands were a popular combination. I saw a lot of different versions of the bathing suit in a lot of different stores. The stores with headbands, jewelry, costumes, and glitter were packed full of Carnival-goers trying to put together a look.
My group decided to clown around for Carnaval (please excuse the very bad pun) and we made our own clown costumes. Aunt Gra and the rest of the group are the only people I will ever dress up like a clown with. They made it fun. It was kind of cute to walk through the crowds as a 6-clown train and have little kids look at us in awe while pointing us out to their parents. It wasn't my first choice of costume, but I gave in to peer pressure and went with my crowd (even though my mind couldn't stop thinking of how recently Stephen King's movie IT came out). We made the outfits ourselves using white T-shirts with sewn-on handmade yarn pom-poms, red ribbon suspenders sewn on to jean shorts, and store-bought plastic red noses.
And you can't forget the glitter explosion. Glitter is very Carnaval. I'm pretty sure glitter was invented just for Carnaval. It's a must for whatever look. Face painting and stick-on rhinestones are also very popular.
Each Street Block has a different theme. The theme can be colors or costumes and the different blocks usually have their own programs and shows/parades. My group went to a block with a giant music bus in the beginning. The festivities began in the morning, but we didn't go until the afternoon because we were making our costumes.
The second block we went to had a parade that was more like what I was expecting. Bright colored clothing, smiles everywhere, drums, colorful streamers, dancing, and singing.
Whatever block you go to, there's always music.
Carnaval is essentially a huge street party. Which means that people were drinking. A lot. There were vendors at every corner selling cold beer and waters and a couple groups I saw were carrying coolers around with alcohol they'd bought beforehand. I saw a lot of teenagers purchasing beer that couldn't have been older than 14. The legal drinking age here is 18, but the street vendors didn't check ID's. That being said, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, I could not and did not drink.
One thing that surprised me was how everyone chucked their beer cans on the side of the street after they were done drinking. By that night the sides of the streets were lined with empty beer cans and plastic water bottles. The city didn't put out garbage cans for the people to properly discard their trash, but then again, no one spent the time to look for any trash cans.
A good chunk of the time spent at Carnaval was spent searching for Port-a-Pottie. All that drinking translated into mad dashes for bathrooms. It was actually a lot of fun trying to track down port-a-potties, like an adult scavenger hunt. I didn't have to use one, but I'm betting they didn't look too pretty after all of those Carnaval goers used them. I'd recommend bringing your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
After only 10 minutes in to Carnaval, half of my hair got covered in spray foam. The culprit? A small child. I couldn't even get angry at him. Aunt Gra's friend saw it happen, cackled, leaned in, and said "Welcome to Carnaval." Thanks.
That's what happens. Small children run around spraying people with spray foam. Later that night, I was the one that was cackling when I saw the people that lived in the apartment buildings next to the street dump water on the costumed people standing in the street below. There was definitely a little trickster spirit.
Because it was so crowded, it's better to have as little valuables on you as possible. All I took with me was a little cash and my phone tucked into the front of my shorts next to the red ribbon suspenders. There was a police presence everywhere we went which made me feel safe, and having a group was not only fun, but probably also gave us strength in numbers.
I met a few English speakers and talked to them. Everyone still takes one look at me and assumes I don't speak Portuguese. I don't really mind. It's interesting though how sometimes even when they can speak English they prefer to speak Portuguese when they find out I can.
I went to bed that night tired and happy to have experienced Carnaval with some wonderful people that I have grown close too. The next afternoon, Sunday, February 4th, I had to go back to my city because school was starting the next day. I really had a blast and I'm so thankful to my host parents for taking me there and to my extended host family for letting me stay with them for the weekend.
Pirenópolis 2/9 - 2/13
My actual Carnaval experience was less about Carnaval and more about traveling with my YEO (Youth Exchange Officer), a.k.a my counselor. I stayed with her and her family on a farm in Pirenopolis. There was no cell service and no wifi, and I will admit I wasn't sure how this trip with my Rotary Youth Exchange counselor would go because I didn't know her very well, but I really enjoyed everything about it and I am very happy I went.
Students get March 12th and 13th off from school because of Carnaval, so I spent the 4 day weekend in Pirenopolis.
My counselor, Janaina, picked me up at my house at 6 am on February 9th with Humberto Vieira, her daughter, and her mom. From there we drove to Anapolis, Goaís (a city in another state in Brazil) and had lunch at a family member's house. I talked and shared a lot about Alaska for the 4 days I spent traveling with Janaina. Later that day we completed the trip to Pirenopolis, and I had a good night's sleep after all that traveling.
I met a lot of her family members, played a lot of card games with my "cousins" (I've gotten used to referring to people I've just met as family because that's the life of an exchange student), went horseback riding, went to a gorgeous waterfall, almost died in a truck bed as it steadily climbed up a mountain, went into the city at night with the family for Carnaval, and bought some souvenirs.
This was the first trip I've taken where I've met a lot of "cousins" that are close to my age. That made it fun.
My favorite part was fitting 21 people into one pickup truck and driving up a mountain. I was squished in the truck bed with 15 other people up against the tail-gate praying to heaven above that the tail-gate wouldn't break. I kept having flashbacks to this one time when I was snowboarding in Alaska with some friends. There's a mountain range that's a 15 minute drive from my city in Alaska and it doesn't have a ski lift, but it's the popular local spot to ski and board. My friends and I were hitchhiking up the mountain in a beat-up Chevy truck. Two of our friends were leaning on the tail bed as we began to ascend when tailgate suddenly gave out. One of the friends leaned forward instinctively and was safe, the other managed to grab the side of the truck bed, get his feet under him, and hang on, his shoes skidding on the ice while the truck kept going. Everyone was fine but "NEVER LEAN ON A TAILGATE" has been burned into my brain. That's why I was extra on edge as we climbed the mountain.
There was a nice view at the top. Worth the trip.
We had a traditional Brazilian lunch (rice, beans, meat, vegetables) at another farm after the cramped truck ride.
Pirenopolis is a cute city with cobble-stoned streets and an old, historical feel, and we went into the city at night.
Notable stuff from Carnaval nights in the city:
-2 guys came up to talk with our group in English claiming that they were Americans from Cambridge, Massachusetts that wanted to find a club to dance funk (a popular Brazilian music genre). They had a clear Brazilian accent and I had a fun acting as a translator for the rest of my group while these guys badly tried to convince us they were foreigners.
-I was called a gringa by some very drunk people that were commenting on everyone that walked by and they asked where I was from. They all cheered when I said USA. My group and I kept walking, but I stopped them, and decided I had to go back and get a picture with my fans. This is something I usually wouldn't do, but I wanted a picture to remember these crazy people that called me a gringa.
-Pirenopolis is more of a tourist city so I finally had the chance to find some cool trinkets from Brazil.
-There were a lot of people in green shirts. I found out later on one of the nights that it was a church group that was using Carnaval as an opportunity to spread their message. They performed some powerful plays, had a fire-breather, and had a large group of members of the church that were available to talk after the demonstrations. I don't know if it was a Catholic or Christian denomination, but it was clever to use Carnaval as a way to outreach.
Getting to know my counselor and her family better was really cool. I'm happy the trip went so well and I'm very thankful that Janiana took me with her to Pirenopolis.
If you're looking to come to Brazil for Carnaval and you want a sit-down show, go to Rio de Janeiro or Salvador. They have parades with insanely intricate colorful costumes, rivalry between the competing samba classes, and a huge crowd. You can watch from the stands. I'm sure it would be amazing to experience in person. I hope I will one day.
But there are more options. Go to one of the lesser-known cities with a smaller population so you can walk the streets and experience Carnaval as a giant street party. Go to Belo Horizonte or Brasilia where there are a staggering amount of different themed blocks you can explore and shows to see.
Personally, I can't imagine experiencing Carnaval without my host family members, locals of Brazil. I feel that I saw an authentic Carnaval through a local perspective, which was very cool.
Learning about all these things and talking to my host family about Carnaval made me grateful to be in Brazil. I am beyond blessed to be here at 17 years old, traveling through the generosity of the people I meet here, and communicating in this language that used to be foreign to me.
The Next Post
My next post will be about an exciting trip that I took to Goiania from March 9th-17th and the differences between the American and Brazilian education system that I have seen.
Until the next post,
Thank you for reading.