Broken Fingers and Bruised Egos on the Chattooga River
Caipirinhas and Carnival
A cross-dressing, cross-cultural tale of an Alaskan gringa in Brazil
by Devin O'Brien
t’s just after 11:30 p.m in Florianópolis, Brazil and I’m squarely squished between four sweaty Brazilians, struggling to find some balance. This isn't exactly how I pictured the night going, but here I am, feet hardly grazing the ground, not even supporting my
own weight. Everyone is pushing forward trying to get even the tiniest bit closer and I am caught in the current of the crowd. Up on stage, Anitta, Brazil’s new funk sensation, is singing one of her hits and popping her hips alongside a troupe of backup dancers. As she sets the soundtrack for the night, the crowd sings along, smiles spread wide across their faces.
It’s the first night of Carnival in Brazil.
You could say that this isn’t exactly my first rodeo. I’ve been to Brazil before, as a foreign exchange student in 2011-2012. I was studying in the state of Minas Gerais then, a state located just above the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I spent my year there learning Portuguese, attending Brazilian high school, and traveling along the beautiful North Eastern coastline. For a high school student from a little Alaska town, it was an eye opening experience. Afterwards, I was hooked on Brazil, and hooked on travel. It was a no-brainer for me to register for another study abroad program in college. Now, I’m spending the spring semester studying in the southern island city of Florianópolis, Brazil. However, while I’ve been to Brazil before, I have never been to Carnival or a “bloco”. I know the basic information about Carnival, having been here before, but I’ve never seen or experienced any of it first hand. From what I’ve heard, I know that it’s a national festival/celebration that takes place just before Lent every year, and that the celebrations last for hours at a time. Beyond this basic information, I’ve come into this with zero expectations.
The Anitta show is the main event for the first “bloco” of the weeklong event. Much like a tailgate before a football game, “blocos” are organized street parties which take place before the parades of Carnival, and last long afterwards. Unbeknownst to many abroad, who may assume the true Carnival is some mega-samba parade in Rio, this is where much of the true soul of Carnival is - in the streets.
I am still stuck in the middle of this Brazilian human knot and look around to make sure I am not separated from my friends. We all came out tonight hoping to get a taste of Carnival and the fact this concert is free makes it delicious. When we arrived, we had eagerly run up into the crowd, trying to get as close to the front as possible. The further we got into the audience, the tighter it became. Now, there is not a single inch of my body that is not pressed tightly against someone else’s.
My face is being squashed between the faces of two Brazilian men trying to have a conversation around me. Awkwardly, I make eye contact with them and say a quick desculpa! (sorry!). Cranking my neck to look backwards, I see my friend Maddi looking just as uncomfortable as I feel. We look at each other, and exchange expressions that say something along the lines of “ok, that’s enough, let’s go!” I hulk-smash my way backwards and grab her hand and the hand of another exchange student who is with us and made a beeline to nearest open space. It took us a good ten minutes to work our way back out to a little opening.
Along the way we pass kissing couples, other students, parents with their children, and even groups of old ladies. I’ve been in Brazil for ten months, but being in this crowd for less than an hour I feel I am finally seeing the true Brazil. It is the most diverse crowd I have ever been in. People of every age, color, fashion and class were there. Everyone from Florianopolis is here. It is incredible.
Everywhere I look, people are moving, swaying, jumping, and dancing together. Sporadic sprays of shaving cream are being shot into the air landing on us like snow flurries as we pass by. The atmosphere is electric, and you can't stop yourself from joining in. Somewhere along the way, we decided to go looking for the nearest Caipirinha booths.
For those not familiar, the Caipirinha is Brazil's national drink. That's right, I live in a country with a national drink. It's made with lime juice, sugar, crushed ice, and Cachaça (a liquor made from sugarcane juice)... basically, the Caipirinha is the Mojito’s cooler, simpler cousin. It is a cheap, delicious way to cool off.
It’s also very strong.
Done with the concert, and happy to have chilled, tall Caipirinhas in hand, we head off in search of the next party. Again, we find ourselves caught up in various crowds of Brazilians. We try holding hands like kindergarteners on a class field trip so as not lose each other again. We slowly file our way through. Several times I trip, catching the tip of my flip flops on the uneven black and white cobblestone sidewalks which are characteristic to Brazil. The air is thick with humidity and cigarette smoke. Jorge Ben Jor lyrics spill out of almost every bar we passed, which are filled to capacity with people attempting (and succeeding) to keep the night going. Before long, we are far from the Anitta show and are walking by ourselves. Looking at the clock, it's now almost 2 am. We are getting a little tired, so we sit down on a street corner and chat up the people who passed by. Eventually, we figure out from these passersby that no more bloco parties are still going on, so we all head home to rest up for the next bloco.
he next day, I find myself at the bus stop with my friends standing next to a tall bearded man wearing a bright, short yellow dress and hot pink wig. Obviously this means
we are at the right bus stop. We are headed to the second bloco; the one most-heavily talked up by our Brazilian friends.
Unlike the first, this bloco has a theme. Named “Bloco de Sujos” or “Dirty Party”, people are supposed to attend this bloco in costume. Being forgetful gringas, my friends and I are dressed in normal clothes. For the Bloco de Sujos men traditionally dress as women and women typically dress up in cutesy and/or revealing Halloween costumes - think sexy cop or sexy puppy or slutty Hayacinth Macaw wearing a masquerade mask. As we wait for the bus, which will take us to centro (the downtown area), more and more men show up wearing dresses and makeup. Casually, they slapped each others’ butts, and flip their hair as they greet each other. Women driving in cars, honk and whistle out their windows appreciatively, yelling “eiii gatinhass!”(heyyy hottiess!), a gender reversal of what usually happens here on a daily basis here in Brazil. Unfortunately, catcalling in Brazil, is all too common. Chances are, if you’re a woman wearing a skirt (or really anything at all) and are walking down the street, you’ll have at least a few men honk or call out to you as they drive past. Some men, will even turn their heads all the way around while driving, completely ignoring the road, just to get a glimpse. It’s an occurrence that’s equally laughable and infuriating, but luckily is mostly harmless.
The Perfect Caipirinha
Muddle 2tsp of brown sugar and half a lime in a rocks glass
Fill glass with ice
Pour Cachaça all the way to the top
Garnish with a lime slice on the rim
"This kind of looks like a mix of spring break and The Fast and Furious."
The bus arrives and we all hop in. As we slowly approached centro, more and more costumed people get on carrying coolers full of drinks and chatting animatedly. Our seats in the back afford us the perfect people watching view. My friends and I look on excitedly catching the buzz that grows stronger by the kilometer. With all the different costumed people on the bus, we still aren't sure exactly what we are walking into, but we figure it has to be good.
We arrive and step out into the hot sun. Standing in the middle of the main walkway, we are flanked on either side by rows of souped up Fiat cars boasting massive speakers that are overflowing out of their trunks. Each car is blaring a different Brazilian funk song and is surrounded by its own crowd of pretty girls and muscular guys, some in costume others not.
My friend Maddi looks at me and says, "This kind of looks like a mix of spring break and The Fast and Furious." One glance at the scene, and that is exactly what it looks like. Like the last bloco, everyone is moving or dancing with drinks in hand. It's only 2pm and the people have clearly already been partying for a long time. Everyone is absorbed in the music.
We seek relief from the heat in the form of Caipirinhas, looking to catch-up and enjoy the party just as much as everyone else. Enveloped in the crowd, discover pockets of smaller parties within the larger party. Shoulder-to-shoulder filing through the park, we have a view of the whole avenue in the middle of Centro. For much of this stretch it impossible to hear anything over the fading sound of funk music and the growing sound of drums. Suddenly, in the middle of the street, a tall enormous man with a blue afro, metallic sunglasses, and a microphone appears leading a conga style line of people. Sporting bright colors and feathers, the line of people bounces up and down in unison as the man calls out into the microphone with a booming voice. A few drummers are playing off to the side and when that song was done the onlooking party goers rush into the small space previously occupied by the conga line and join the dancing as well. There it is. This is how I envisioned Carnival to look like.
e stumble into the next party. It is back down a little alleyway that leads to some other bars. In the middle of the street between the bars, a band is playing all the classic Carnival hits, like Taj Mahal. The band’s back is turned to us.
They are playing to a party where people evidently have to pay for tickets to get to, but tons of people are standing with us behind the band to enjoy the music anyways.
A group of men dressed in heels, bright red sequined dresses, and capes began to dance together. They must have choreographed it. The flash-mob of sequined male dancers call over to our small crowd and invite us to start dancing too. The earlier Caipirinhas are a blessing because I need the liquid confidence to keep up with all these Brazilians, who seem to be the world's most-naturally gifted dancers. Luckily, one of these sparkly dressed men, who I think noticed us struggling, comes over and offers some advice on how to do the basic Samba
steps. In a crowd of men dressed like Vegas showgirls who can dance like Michael Jackson, my friends and I stand out like sore thumbs.
The sun is just hitting the horizon, casting a golden glow over the city, as we climb back onto the bus to head back home. As we move farther away from centro, we chat happily about the events of the last two days; what we liked and what surprised us. We’ve only just seen the start of Carnival, but we’ve already seen so much. Between the diverse crowds, the colorful and lively parties, the past two days were everything I hoped Carnival would be. From the bartenders merrily making our Caipirinhas to the red-squined dancing men absorbing my friends and I into their party, the astondingly high level of inclusivity and kindness from absolutely everyone is completely overwhelming. Despite our being so obviously foreign and our varying proficiencies in Portuguese, during Carnival the entire city embraced us as their own and many times quite literally threw their arms around us. The entire affair is an affirmation to me that, at least for right now, this small-town Alaskan girl belongs in Brazil.
Devin is a former Rotary Youth Exchange student from Ketchikan, Alaska. After studying in Brazil in 2011-12, she went on to major in International Studies at Denison University, where she is currently a student. She is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, a Portuguese language tutor, an aspiring artist, and an ultimate frisbee player for her university's women's team. Greatly inspired by her first study abroad experience, Devin has since studied abroad in Norway and is now back studying in Brazil for the second semester of her junior year.