Rio de Janeiro hosts the most famous Carnaval in Brazil, but the title for wildest Carnaval goes to the colonial city of Salvador in Bahia state. Unlike the stadium-enclosed processions in Rio, the Salvador parade routes take place in the city streets with the public taking part. This is why some travelers argue that you watch Carnaval in Rio and live it in Salvador. Having thrown down on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches the previous year, my girlfriend and I headed to Salvador for the 2011 party.
Being an active part of Carnaval sounds amazing on paper, but from the opening night, it felt like being thrown into a ring with wild animals. There was fighting, thieving, puking, groping and even a blow job in the hostel stairwell. Seemingly everyone—men and women, straight and gay, local and tourist—ate up the atmosphere like a Viagra hotbox prowling like predators and abandoning all standards. With a lack of public bathrooms, a steady stream of urine filled the gutters, yet our favorite public urinator was an American letting loose next to the hostel door. When my girlfriend and I exited, he turned midstream and declared, “Your bitch is fuckin’ hot, dude.” Mama must be proud.
Bahian Carnaval is not a spectator sport, and you will definitely get dirty. In fact, the pro tip is to bring shoes you don’t mind tossing later because that urine smell won’t come off.
My girlfriend and I arrived the night before Carnaval after spending several mosquito-bitten days in the Brazilian wetlands. Accommodation costs skyrocket during Carnaval, and many locals pack their apartments with bunk beds and rent them out for about $100 per night. Travelers can save money by staying in Pelourinho, the UNESCO-honored colonial center perched high in Cidade Alta (upper city), but the old town is separated from the lower city by a massive set of stairs and an elevator that, during Carnaval, demands Disneyland-like waits. Our desired neighborhood, Barra, was a commercial area at the tip of the peninsula, and one of the three main Carnaval circuits (Barra to Ondina via Avenida Oceânica) begins here. For a grand, we landed beds in an apartment-turned-hostel with a rooftop deck, but the place only had one bathroom for about 20 guests. This meant you might have to wait through multiple showers before taking your morning piss.
On the first day, my girlfriend and I met the other travelers. Joining us in the makeshift hostel were our friend Adri from Colombia, four British women, two male creepers from Argentina, an epically annoying older American who sometimes wore indigenous garb, two lovely couples from Toronto and an American living in South Korea with a fiancé he failed to mention until the final night.
“I hope he doesn’t ask us to connect on Facebook,” I whispered to my girlfriend as the older American described where he got his indigenous … dress? Then one of the British ladies dropped the first shocker.
“I’m not going to shower all week,” said an attractive London Brit of Italian heritage.
“Are you trying to keep the guys away?” I asked.
“Do you think I came all this way to keep guys away?” she asked with disbelief. No clarification or explanation followed.
Carnaval (Carnival in Spanish-speaking countries) traditionally starts six days before Ash Wednesday in either February or March (February 5 to 10 for 2016). The Rio Carnaval soundtrack primarily consists of different samba styles, but Salvador is more diverse with samba-reggae, frevo, maracatu and axé, among other genres. Bahia state is mostly Afro-Brazilian, arguably claiming the largest black population outside Nigeria, and the music, dress and dance reflect the rich multicultural heritage. The 2016 Carnaval theme for Pelourinho is 100 Years of Samba celebrating the centennial anniversary of Baiano’s “Pelo Telefone; the first-known samba recording and the smash hit of Rio Carnaval 1917. Samba is the best-known Brazilian music and dance style, and its name and influences come from West African countries like Angola via the slave trade.
Salvador is also the birthplace of the_ trios elétricos_, giant trucks and floats that transport music artists through the city streets. The first such trio rolled through Barra nearly 70 years ago, but the rolling parties, or blocos, are now a regular part of Bahian Carnaval. Blocos headline the Barra-Ondina and Campo Grande-Avenida Sete parade routes, and each truck features a roped-off section to keep the area isolated. To access the protected section, people must purchase an abadá—i.e., a colorful shirt with a specific bloco design—for between $50 and $500. In 2011, participating artists included Brazilian stars Timbalada, Daniela Mercury and Banda Eva and DJ sets by David Guetta and will.i.am. A few years back, K-pop phenom Psy even helmed a bloco. The abadá makes it easier to follow a particular bloco, but anyone on the street can participate outside the ropes as pipoca, or “popcorn.” To watch all the blocos in relative peace, many people pay up to $700 to party in a camarote, i.e., venues overlooking the main parade routes. The price usually includes alcohol, drinks and a DJ, but many venues have limited vantage points that early-arriving patrons tie up for the entire night.
Our routine was pretty much the same each day. We woke up late, ate açaí for lunch, hit an urban beach, sampled local dishes like feijoada stew, drank cachaça on the rooftop and headed into the streets to join the pipoca. Early the first night, my girlfriend pulled me through the crowd, and I watched one guy after another—both local and tourist—grab her butt and breasts. Each time, I struck the person’s hands, exchanged a few sharp words and nearly came to blows. Then we saw what happened to people who fight. Several dozen times over the week, we saw fisticuffs start, and the roaming police mobs did not stop and take statements. Instead, they proceeded to beat everyone involved with batons. Shortly after seeing the first police beating, I felt hands grab my body—two on my butt and one on my groin—and I fought to break free. I turned and saw several drunk European men giggling and blowing kisses. The sexual harassment apparently swung both ways.
“Baby!” my girlfriend snapped in a you-will-obey tone. “You need to stop pushing and smacking people. The police will hit you on the head with those sticks!”
“There is no…”
“Stop!” she countered. “You walk in front, and I’ll hide behind you when I see guys reaching for me. We cannot get into a fight here.”
Unwashed, smelly men continued to grab at her the entire time, and my girlfriend deflected the sweaty palms as best she could, but it tried our patience. Ironically, some of our hostel mates actually welcomed the attention.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said one of the Brits, who landed a handsome Afro-Brazilian who made up for socio-economic limitations with a model-worthy physique. “He doesn’t speak of a word of English, but I don’t care because he is just gorgeous. I don’t even know his name!” she exclaimed before passionately locking lips.
Her blonde buddy got stuck with the less-handsome friend, and she displayed pro running-back moves dodging his attempted liplocks.
The young women looked like business professionals, and it seemed unlikely they were so carefree back home. Despite strides in reducing gender bias, men are often praised for their sexual exploits, while women are stigmatized. It seemed the women at Carnaval finally felt free to misbehave like men, even if it meant crossing the Atlantic to do so, and these ladies proudly built boy-toy collections.
“It’s been four days!” yelled a voice behind us on the Barra streets a few days later. As I turned, I saw the Italian Brit being followed by a handsome local who also did not speak English.
“Oh, hey there,” I replied.
“Four days without a shower!” she continued. “I’m doing it!”
Several guys in the hostel commented on the Brit’s good looks, but after several showerless days, she looked more Monster Charlize Theron than Mad Max. Still, she had no shortage of suitors, and the current boy toy followed her around for hours as she flirted with other guys in front of him. We eventually broke off from the group, but we saw the fruits of his labor on one of our many bathroom runs. As we ascended the stairs to the hostel, we stumbled upon the Brit knees-to-the-ground performing fellatio on the young Brazilian. She stopped, wiped her mouth, smiled and let us pass before further rewarding his persistence.
For the final night, we splurged on an abadá for the David Guetta bloco through Barra. The shirts come in one size that was unfortunately not mine. Participants can—and usually do—make creative alterations, and precision cuts allowed my shirt to appear less snug. We then headed to the start of the circuit, and upon seeing our abadás, the locals manning the ropes let us pass. The mobs swarming the rope line made it clear how popular this bloco would be. In the previous two years, Guetta’s hits included “When Love Takes Over,” “Gettin’ Over You,” “Sexy Bitch,” “Memories,” “Sweat” and “Who’s That Chick?” Being a route with several different stops, Guetta repeated many of the hits several times throughout the night.
The bloco lasted about six hours, and despite the abadás, even the secured area was a madhouse. People constantly forced their way in or simply gave a few bucks to the rope handlers. Security roamed the abadá crowd to boot the rope jumpers, but the overall vibe was full mosh pit. Attempted thieving is a constant in Carnaval, and we had managed to avoid losses up until this point, but it did not last. As the crowd herded forward in the latter hours of the night, a few people fell to the ground, and to keep the masses from falling on top of them, I planted my feet firmly and briefly held back the crowd back. Almost immediately, I had hands in every single pocket, and my camera disappeared. I knew the second it was taken, but when I turned around, any of the many guilty faces could have been the thief. Adding to the frustration, all of the thieves were workers on the rope line.
Despite the loss, we finished on the far side of the route, and we made our way back to Barra as the morning sun slowly illuminated the litter-sprawled streets. A few hours later, we packed our bags and boarded a boat to Tinharé Island for the Ressaca after-party. The boat ride came with vomit bags, and many of them were put to good use.
Photo: nateClicks, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.