from Sandy Needham

Friday, March 6, 2009

Brazil Dispatch 24 - Carnaval

Carnaval in Brazil begins long before “Fat Tuesday.” The official holiday goes from Friday night to midday on Ash Wednesday, though in Bahia, for instance – the folkloric capital of Brazil – a version of Carnaval starts in January.

The weekend ahead of Carnaval we went to our beloved Hellenus restaurant on the cliff by the sea for a masked Carnaval ball. Even though our masks ended up on top of our heads for comfort and safety, we loved the exquisite decorations, the three bands playing traditional Carnaval “marchinhas” (samba songs made famous over the years at the elaborate Carnaval parades in Rio and São Paulo), traditional samba, and traditional Bahian axé (very fast, festive dance music), not to mention the marvelous paella made by a visiting Spanish chef.

Our stay in São Paulo state over Carnaval weekend began with a drive down to the coast from the teeming, clogged city. The tropical countryside was a green haven of gigantic bamboo bushes, reforestation trees in bargello needlepoint patterns on the hillsides, unlikely evergreens along the highway, and endless configurations of luscious growth. One of my father’s ‘poems’ came to mind: “I’m glad it’s not my duty/ To identify the beauty.” Shots of color from yellow and purple flowering bushes and garlands of laundry at small settlements accented the sweep of green. (I actually read that there’s a local law somewhere in the US that prohibits laundry being hung out on a line. Laundry hanging on lines provides the art galleries of residencia! It is seldom not beautiful, not to mention that it is ecologically sound. Sad.) And some generous person up on a hill had lovingly painted the small pillars of a balcony balustrade in all different colors as an offering to us highway travelers. We stopped to pick up Newton’s aunt at a FREE health facility, where she rooms and boards during her chemotherapy sessions during the week. (I know – free.) After spending some time with her at her home in the beach town of Caraquatatuba, we wound up and down another mountain along the coast to the beach town of Bertioga. Here is the “vacation colony” where Newton’s parents met, where our children have visited every year since in the womb, and where my mother accompanied us in 1990. This place is run by one of several such organizations in Brazil, SESC (pronounced “seskee”), which takes a small pittance from each paycheck of employees of merchants and services in order to provide not only vacation colonies all over the country that offer cheap-yet-elaborate vacations, but wide-ranging educational facilities in most cities and towns, as well.

The SESC ‘colonia’ in Bertioga has continued to change and improve since my first visit there in 1983. The organization became very ecologically-minded in the ‘90’s, so the educational aspect of the colony focuses on the exotic flora and fauna of the site, good health and nutrition, excellent fresh food, sports, classes in yoga, shiatsu, doen, tai chi, etc. and endless live entertainment and educational presentations. The place seems to always have a surplus of money with which they continually add activities, renovate spaces, and consider just what would make the acres and acres of beauty more conducive to enjoyment and knowledge. I am in awe.

The days begin at the beach. This beach is flat and shallow for a ways, so the water is warm. While the beach area has morning aerobics, beach tennis, volley ball, fresco ball, bocci ball, and all normal beach digging, castle-making and wave-catching, it is possible to do my morning yoga away from the crowds under a coconut tree, drink beer and caipirinhas at the same little mobile beach bar and grill we’ve frequented for years, run by Pedrão (“Big Pedro”), and discuss the universe with Newton’s sister Lilian and her husband, David, a Carióca (citizen of Rio). Sometimes we go to lunch by way of the pool for some pool volley ball for Newt, crab appetizer, and more beer. After lunch, rest…though there are many classes, workshops, hikes, trips, and massages available. After dinner, entertainment begins in the big ‘social’ space. We usually pass this phase with espresso and philosophy outside the coffee bar. At 10:00pm the main entertainment begins. For Carnaval, the live entertainment included traditional Carnaval marchinhas (I am so proud that the one time I attended the famous Carnaval parade in Rio in ’82, I actually learned the chorus of a song that became one of the classics: “Tell me, my mirror, is there anyone on the avenue happier than I?”); traditional samba one night with all sorts of streamers and confetti provided; another night, traditional music of the coconut and forró from our Northeast (but performed in-key and in the classic style, which I prefer to much of what we hear up here); and - a definite highlight – a great reggae band the last night starting at 12:30am on the beach. Lilian, David, Newton and I strolled beyond the crowd and danced nearer the ocean, under the stars! But I cannot fail to point out the other BIG highlight of Carnaval, and that was playing percussion in a “samba bateria” organized at the colony. A workshop was held for several days, for which we only managed to show up for five minutes the last two days. Newton played the tambourine, which is not a tambourine in Brazil, (what we call a tambourine is called a pandeiro here), but is a small round drum played with a stick, and I played my favorite for years – a gonzá – usually a cylinder of metal filled with rice and shaken. (Sometimes they are made out of sealed beer cans at Carnaval events in NY.) I bought a metal one in Rio years ago, watched Brazilian musicians in Manhattan closely, practiced, and now play it in a gringa sort of way. This particular gonzá had metal tambourine disks attached to a piece of wood, which meant a tighter, more painful grip! Newton and I had to be very aware of our fellow players to know when to play and when to stop, not having received instruction regarding the whistle signals. Even though we were marching around the big ‘social’ room and not going down a street in Rio or Bahia, and even though my hand was falling off by the end, I wouldn’t have traded this heavenly march through a funnel of samba rhythm for the world! Can you spot us on the video?

Enjoy three minutes of Carnaval:

Newton’s parents - Alfredo and Jannice, Lilian and David, and Newton and I shared the two sets of bunk beds and a blow-up mattress on the floor in the one SESC room available this time. It was too hot to sleep sometimes, so afternoon naps saved me. We all managed the tandem bathroom routine beautifully, with only one wandering near-accident!

A few days in São Paulo afterwards afforded us a great dance performance by a modern ballet troupe, Stagium (such fantastic male dancers they have here!), ever elusive Mexican food in the trendy, rowdy Vila Madalena neighborhood, and a sweltering-but-beautiful photography exhibit at the Afro-Brazilian Museum at Ibirapuera Park (São Paulo's 'Central Park'). And we got to see our adorable nieces and nephews, ages 17 -24.

Our return to Natal, arriving in the middle of the night, was plagued by continuing Carnaval rain that persisted intermittently for the next two days. Our bed had that one - and it only takes one - pesky mosquito, and smelled moldy like a cheap motel, so I took any break in the rain the next day as a chance to briefly air out pillows and will the sheets to dry on the line. There was a short in the overhead light in our bedroom, and, despite the recent roof work, a new leak in our storage closet. Wet suitcases were hanging to dry off on doorknobs and chairs. The maid got mixed up and sprayed the water and vinegar solution on the living room woodwork instead of cleaning the bathroom with it. My trip to the supermarket followed a stop at the bank. One thousand reais do not fit easily into my small wallet, so the bills were folded over in my purse. As I reached towards the top shelf at the supermarket to put plastic bottles of ‘agua com gás’ into my shopping cart, a woman pretended to be reaching up beside me and put her hand in my purse instead. Suddenly bills were spilling out all over the floor, I was yelling at her and yelling “thief” in English generally, soon replaced by the more effective Portuguese for “her hand was in my purse!” As I grabbed at the bills on the floor, she strolled casually around the corner and apparently made a B-line for the door. The workers nearby who witnessed this summoned the security guy, who walked through the store with me looking for her, to no avail. I finished my shopping in a ‘ruffled’ state. Finally back home, I counted the money and was missing R$30 – only about US$12. But DAMN.

Nevertheless, the sun came out with a perfect breeze the next day, the field across the road is green, the marezia has been rained off my happy plants; and as I hung a load of colorful laundry luxuriously on the line – because I have time to do so – I felt as content as ever in my life. My home.

And just when we thought Elise’s job was ending, a bunch of work came in. Since receiving notice, she has videotaped the Jonas Brothers at the wax museum in NY, the CBS morning show, an MTV show in the Rainbow Room, and then off to LA for their movie premiere. She seems to be good at fighting her way through paparazzi for some great shots! Immediately after LA she went off to Detroit (“kinda ghetto”) to videotape Nickleback. She is in her third week without a day off as she edits and edits the footage. Tired, yet grateful.
Happy belated Carnaval, everyone!



  1. Wow, cool video- who was filming you all? - Sara Wilder

  2. Wow- sounds like you had a lot of fun! I'm a little jealous ... but at least I have been doing some interesting stuff and visiting new places!
    I miss you...its always good to see what you are doing (and of course the photos...)
    XOXO - Elise

  3. Oh - and the video! How cute and fun...

  4. Sandra, I love reading your blog and envisioning you in that tropical paradise. The pictures and your descriptions are wonderful, and yes, I could spot both you and Newton in the "band".


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