from Sandy Needham

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brazil Dispatch 32: Summer & Carnaval

The advantage in/advantage out of the condominium development project across the road continued to define our days after we returned from the USA. Quite elaborate weekends were set up for people inquiring about the future condos, including live music all day in an outdoor bar with hors d‘oeuvres, cold draught beer and caipifrutas, as well as massages, a children’s entertainment center, and a live concert in the evening on the lovely bamboo stage they built by the water. To our horror, they needed a second generator to sustain these activities and placed it precisely in the path of the wind off the ocean that blows into our windows and transoms. We woke up around 9:00 that Saturday morning to the perfect sound system delivering the live guitar and bossa nova singer from the bar. By 9:12 we had headaches and nausea from the generator fumes pouring through our windows.

We had an invitation from a realtor, so after returning from the beach, we went over to see the two elaborately furnished models and spend the afternoon and evening being served and entertained. It was really lovely. They spared no expense for the best musicians, elegant setting, food, drinks and service.

in mare 1

in mare 2












The following weekend we went to beaches and points south, knowing we’d be sick if we ate at home with that generator spewing away. We watched dolphins playing in the ocean from a little spot atop the falesias – cliffs of sand – while eating shrimp. Realizing that we could not stay away from our house the entire weekend to avoid the generator, we walked over to the development, asked for our nice realtor and explained to him that we had to hang out there to avoid being ill. That was another evening of entertainment and service. To our tremendous relief, the low turnout never justified such expenditures, so by the third weekend, the 2nd generator did not materialize. caipifrutaWe had an invitation to watch a soccer match televised at the bar, so returned for the afternoon with our friend Cleveland from San Diego, who lives part of the year in Pium. The caipifrutas (like caipirinhas, but usually made with vodka rather than cachaça and with fruits other than lime) were just beautiful. Here is one made with kiwi:





After this, only live bossa nova and draught beer were offered on the weekend. We woke up for the fourth Saturday in a row to yet another duo on guitar and vocals, realizing that all duos had the exact same repertoire of the most popular songs we had always loved…and were now beginning to find torturous. These people sang for HOURS both Saturdays and Sundays; we were contemplating violence. Latest report: this weekend there was silence. The turn-out just wasn’t happening, so they dispensed with all measures. Silence.

Here is what the coconut field used to look like (that’s our house on the left, second-from-the-beach); and here is a rendering of the condominium plan from the ocean side, which clobbers the field from side-to-side, as you can see:

foto corais












Interspersed with the daily drama of the development, summer also brought neighbors and their parties to the beach houses on the other three sides of us. Loud, bad music is usually the norm, with a blinding spotlight some nights through our bedroom window that precludes TV or reading in bed. The bass speaker from one neighbor was so out-of-balance that we were quaking to the thump in our office, despite having shut every window that direction. The music and voices usually persisted till the wee hours during January; February continues the festivities only on weekends, though there were occasional silences that we duly praised!

Our beach is always very animated through the summer, an up-side to the neighborhood coming alive. We particularly enjoy watching dogs and children negotiate the surf with even doses of exhilaration and hesitancy. Newton took some intermittent kite surfing lessons; we broke in a new maid – Marcos’ new tiny 26-year-old wife, who is perky and energetic, if not able to retain any information! We like her and her cooking and cleaning, so the two days a week of illogical foibles are not making me crazy. We hung out at favorite restaurants and music venues with our local American friends, Cleveland and Larry from Los Angeles, also a serial resident of Pium. Our friend Maurizio from Sardinia who owns the lovely local Zen Bar had a wonderful birthday celebration with lots of jamming musicians. Here are Maurizio and Cleveland, and Larry and I cutting the rug à la American Bandstand:

maurizio & cleveland













Carnaval festivities started the weekend prior to Carnaval at many bars that would be closed during actual Carnaval. I found the hot night, the airless interior and the pulsing, dancing crowd inside one of our favorite places, Buraca da Catita, just too much for me. By the third time a stranger had came up and draped a sweat-soaked body over me and tried to pull me into the dense crowd to dance, I just lost it and started screaming. This last one said she understood completely and covered my hands in slobbery kisses. Newton stayed on inside, loving the great live “frevo” and marchés do Carnaval , and I survived my Americana curse by stepping outside and maintaining a couple of feet of air around me, while also loving the music from the great 9-piece band. I’ll chalk my coping challenge up to claustrophobia that is particularly sensitive to a lack of air and obviously, a plethora of body fluids.

Directly ahead of actual Carnaval, we went to a new Blues club and to a dinner party the following night, so this would add up to seven nights out in a row…I’m just saying. I made Newton the “Carnaval Chairman,” as he is the one who knows what feels like real Carnaval to him. Besides hanging out at the beach everyday and cooking very little, our Carnaval evenings looked like this:

-Friday: We went downtown in Natal to a beautiful wrought-iron-fenced courtyard surrounded by three colonial buildings that are dedicated to the arts. One of our favorite singers, Crystal, was performing Carnaval music onstage with a band, and the crowd, while enthusiastic about celebrating, was just the right size to allow for dancing space and air. A strolling brass band followed with Marchés do Carnanval, and a teenage girl with a tiny umbrella (a classic Carnaval prop) was added to my list of favorite dancers. She moved like a feather and was a vision of rhythm, loop-de-loops and frevo footwork.botequim

- Saturday: We started with feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, accompanied by a samba band at our Singaporean friend Hian’s new botequim near Ponta Negra beach. Both Cleveland and Larry came along. Here we are with our friend Ana Paula, Hian’s Brazilian wife:

We ventured on to Gringo’s bar where many of our friends had gathered to watch the live music & giant puppet parade in that neighborhood. This was also a homecoming for our friend Tom who had been pirate-hunting in the Indian Ocean.

-Sunday: There was a chance that we would have stayed in this night if it weren’t for a power black-out in our neighborhood. We headed to the bowels of the city for the transvestite competition. Though the crowd was the poorer inner-city population - which means we stood out rather conspicuously - the Potiguars are gentle folk and we never felt that anyone was targeting our pockets. The ridiculously funny competition ended early and we returned home to lights and power.


pirangi 4- Monday: This was Men-in-Drag Day in Pirangi, the next beach town south. I was the only female in a wig; I had just bought it at the beach.

This was definitely the best people-watching imaginable, with 90% of the males in drag…some of them outrageous, some of them extremely pretty, some just funny. All the guys enjoyed being in make-up and bikini tops and dresses, flirting shamelessly with any man who did not come dressed for the occasion (Newton), some dancing up a storm in high heels…hilarious!

pirangi 1

pirangi 2

pirangi 3












pirangi 5

pirangi 6












pirangi 7The music was on top of large trucks doing their best to pass through the crowds in the street. While this was already beyond loud, parked cars with gigantic speakers in their open trunks were often situated near each other playing competing ear-splitting music. Little crowds danced around the car of choice. The deafening din became overwhelming. Don’t miss the spectator wearing the wedding veil in the background of the photo to the right:

We escaped after some hours to a serene Italian restaurant, wig removed, for wine & pizza on a quiet balcony. We were surrounded by very tall palm trees and NO MUSIC!



- Tuesday: Our last night of Carnaval was spent in Ribeira (downtown by the port) on a closed-off street with a huge stage at each end. Real Carnaval music was playing on one end with our friend Gilberto on trombone and lots of dancing, beer venders, and the university crowd we often see in that neighborhood. This gave way to horrid heavy metal rock at the opposite end (NOT very Carnaval-like), during which we took a walk on deserted streets; next was a rockabilly group from Rio – very fun.

On the way home we stopped at Pastel Paulista (meaning from São Paulo) – Newton’s favorite place for his favorite Brazilian snack – meat or cheese, etc. inside a fried thin pastry. This ‘establishment’ is a van that pulls up in front of the Bridgestone Tire store every evening, converts into a kitchen, puts out plastic tables & chairs in the small parking area in front of the store, and stays open till 3:00am, nourishing late revelers every week, not just during Carnaval.

We went home to bed, though the music from the town plaza in Pirangi thumped across the beach and into our bedroom till 4:00am.

The following week would have shifted into the start of my Portuguese for Foreigners classes at the university, but shifted instead into my first illness since moving to Brazil more than four years ago. It was basically just a cold, but I thought a truck had hit me. I just rested and let my immune system have its workout.

I’ll interject here a catch-up on some of my favorite recent reading:

·The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies of the SETI Institute (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is a remarkably satisfying, thin volume of surmises, imaginings, observations, projections, theories and hard facts from a real scientist who dreams of SETI finding success, but cannot attest to any success yet. There is a real elegance to this scientific search and to this man’s explanation of it.

·Angle of Repose by William Stegner was on a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Even though it was written in 1970, it is timeless – an historical account of the 19th century settling of the West, based on the diaries of an actual New York illustrator who married a mine engineer and roughed it out West for the rest of her life. I was actually in Colorado for part of this read, so had the appropriate backdrop.

·Just Kids by Patti Smith. I don’t know how to adequately describe this elegy to Patti Smith’s soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and to their era. This book is so poetic, so moving, so riveting in its depiction of artists’ sensibilities, such a portrait of ‘70’s bohemian life at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, etc., that when I finished it and stopped weeping, I couldn’t open a new book for a week…so enveloped was I in the little spell it cast.

·Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann was recommended by my Nyack friend, Lucia, in time to buy it live before returning from the USA. It is an astounding, haunting modern novel inspired by two World Trade Center events.

·Blow-up and Other Stories by the Argentine, Julio Cortázar, in excellent translation, gets me back to the short story form, a favorite of mine. This was recommended by my friend Marie Arana, the Peruvian/American author, whose novel, Lima Nights, I also loved. Cortázar was a genius and a master of the magical realism for which Latin American writing is known. He spent his adult life in Paris, so many stories take place there. The ‘70’s film ‘Blow-up” was inspired by the short story. I’m partial to the story where the apartment guest continues to vomit a bunny between two floors on the elevator up. He is writing a letter to the absent apartment owner, describing his attempts to hide the bunnies from the housekeeper and documenting the increasing signs of damage from the now twelve bunnies…as funny as absurd gets! Better still are simply Cortázar’s words…his amazing use of language.

cotoveloBy the end of the week I was feeling well. The week had been an unusual one without much wind, so while Newton had no chance of taking up his kite-surfing lessons again, the sky was clear and the colors extremely vibrant. The waves came in at an odd diagonal, and I noticed the hummingbird and the yellow butterfly were happy to chase each other around the hibiscus blossoms – a new one. The exaggerated beauty culminated in the ‘Super Moon’ party organized by our friends on the small beach beyond the falesias at the end of our beach. We hiked down from the highway under a strange blue vortex defined by the lighting and the clouds. The moon rose around 5:30pm. We were perched on a rise near some rocks, but as the evening pulled the high tide back out, we could not resist running down to the flat expanse of sand and dancing and spinning in the other-worldly moonlight. It was a heavenly event, with all present sharing a sort of giddy happiness and sense of well-being, induced as much by the children’s sense of freedom to run around and write their names in giant letters in the sand as by the dramatically lit, black and white seascape in front of us.


mooon up

black & white















  1. Wow! I'm glad you've been having SO much fun! The carnival festivities sound like a blast - I wish I could have been there...and I still can't get over how awesome the super-moon looks in those photos! Must have been way better than what I saw in NYC, which was really just a bright full moon above all the crazy reflections in the ocean or anything!
    PS. Love the green wig LOL

  2. Wow, I'm not sure I could have survived carnival festivities with you two. I have often wondered why carnival is such a celebration in Brazil, but is so much less in other countries. Is there a history of this season that makes it such a party there? New Orlean is the only city in the U.S. that even notices even though there are many cities that have large Catholic populations.

    Max and I did go outside to look at the rising full moon last week, but since we had our grand daughter in bed asleep, we couldn't do much but look in our front yard. It was a bright full moon, and maybe a bit larger than a harvest moon.

    Maybe because of the lack of interest in the new condos, the project will fizzle and retain your peace and quiet. It would be a shame to destroy your little piece of peace.


  3. I loved the story of Carnaval- though certainly like Don I could never have kept up with the celebrations. I understand that Carnaval is the BIGGEST HOLIDAY in Brazil- and the whole country stops to celebrate! And I do believe that you and Newton made the best of it. It was so much fun to read about all the traditions. I spent one winter in New Orleans over Marde Gras- and loved how involved the whole city became- and all ages out for the parades and music and food and dancing.

    And I do admire your talent for your optimistic approach to making the best out of the new condo development. Hopefully it will bring mostly the good- and leave the breezes intact.

    And I'm with Elise- I do believe your super moon was larger than the one we saw in Florida. Gorgeous pictures.

    As always- loved your Dispatch- again and again.

    Your friend,


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