Carnival is a Catholic tradition celebrated worldwide, from the lesser known events in Eastern Europe or Goa, to the all-out festivals in the Spanish-speaking world. The party is a chance to shake your booty and let out all your demons before Ash Wednesday and 40 days of austerity in Lent. I find it strange that I grew up Catholic in the US, never taking part in Carnival…anyway. As an American, the only celebration I knew is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but this year I found myself in the heart of Carnival: Brazil. Carnival is a big deal here. Most everything is on hold for the week. Rental prices triple, and half the country takes the time to travel, visit family, or find a party. The parties are everywhere. The samba schools in Rio spend the whole year preparing new costumes and choreography for the big event. From Rio to Salvador to Olinda, the streets are packed with millions of sweaty tourists and pickpockets eager to cash in.
This was my first year in Brazil during Carnival. I had planned to pass the week in peace, with my soul family here, planting trees and cleaning up around their piece of land. This all changed when my phone rang on Thursday afternoon. My brother here was heading south, toward a place known to all Brazilians. Chapada Diamantina is a region about 400km inland from the coast in the state of Bahia. The region is full of steep cliffs, waterfalls, and lush forests. Here was a chance to pass the week of parties in the quiet embrace of Mother Nature. The car was leaving in 4 hours. When these chances land in my lap, I usually jump.
We squeezed five people, plus camping gear, into my friend’s tiny 2-door Fiat, and headed south from Maceio at 3am. It’s about 500km to Salvador in a straight line down BR-101, but the roads here rarely continue in a straight line. They split and turn, often without signs. By 4:30 we were lost in an enormous sugar cane plantation. For almost an hour, we drove down dirt roads passing trucks with 3 trailers packed high with cana. No signs, no clues, just cana for miles and miles. At dawn, we passed a pair of guys walking to work at the sugar processing plant. Their directions got us back where we belonged.
A quick coffee and pastry at the gas station, and we were back on the road. And we stayed on the road til 9 that night. It’s hot in Brazil in March, and the roads are dusty. Driving with the windows down for 15 hours leaves you feeling a bit raw, but the smooth sounds of Reggae from Vini’s speakers somehow made it all good. I had a Bob Marley phase in the early 90s. I was a typical American cliché: dreadlocked kicking a hacky sack at the park between joints. At the time, Marley’s words lit a fire of idealistic dreams in my naïve mind. Today, after circling the globe a few times, and living applied philosophy abroad for almost 10 years, Marley’s words resonate even more strongly than in my youth. He said it all, and his work is still alive here. I am thankful that my Brazilian brothers reintroduced me to the message. They set the stage for the week to come.
Vale do Capao is a tiny town in the heart of Chapada. It sits about 1000m above sea level surrounded by peaks that tower another 1000m in any direction. The road in is typical in Brazil; perfect for a Jeep, but everyone’s driving compact cars on it. We only had to get out and push twice. We landed softly into a campground called Sempre Vive, paying 5$ a night to set up tents and hammocks in a quiet, shady space near the town’s center. It was late, but we headed into town to find our friend at her shop. This was our first taste of the week to come. Taty’s a musician, an artist, who lives here year round. When I met Taty, it was seamless, as if we’d known each other for years. She was our local link, and with her dreads and bright hippie flare, she looked the part. I’ve met her sister, brother, and mom in Maceio. They’re members of my extended family here. I’ve been fortunate to fall into a huge network of wonderful people all over this country. No matter where I go, I’m always taken care of. As a visitor in this country known for crime and chaos, this is a blessing that I treasure.
After an hour of talk and walking the streets of this sleepy town, I fell into my camping hammock for a well-deserved rest. The birds woke me at dawn. Emerging from my cocoon, I was greeted with my first daytime view of the park. Wow. Now I understand why all the Brazilians I’ve met talk about this place. I was looking forward to finding all the waterfalls hidden in the surrounding peaks. This quest, plus 4 days of Carnival would keep us all busy for a while. By mid-day, the campground was filling up with travelers from around Brazil and beyond. This is a magnetic point for people of a certain persuasion near and far. In fact, the region only became a National Park in the 80s in response to growing ecotourism.
In a town like Capao, the backpackers usually stick around a while. Tomas, the French Canadian has been here 2 months waiting for the bank at home to deliver his new bank card. Cecilia from Patagonia pays her way making bread and selling it to the visitors. The whole place has a similar vibe to the Grateful Dead family I knew back in the States. Of course, the family dispersed after Jerry Garcia died, but the gypsy spirit still lives in other venues. I remember the sense of brotherhood I felt at my first Dead show in the early 90s. It was something I’d never felt. Strangers hugging, people with little giving it away to others with less, live music and dance everywhere. The actual show was kind of boring for me. What was remarkable was the lot, and the family of thousands that followed the band for 30 years. The band came into town, and you saw hippies from god knows where all over town for a week… naked taking baths in the lake, smoking herb in the park, selling exotic jewelry on the sidewalks. The whole thing was always attractive to me, but I parted ways with it 15 years ago. I told this story to my Brazilian buddy on our second night in Chapada. Over the next few days, we both noticed the same sense of brotherhood all over town.
The actual celebration of Carnival had elements of Rio and Salvador. There was a ‘bloco’ one day, a walking band of colorfully dressed musicians followed by all the kids and guests in the town. There was a Capoeira circle, a beautiful mix of dance and martial arts found in any big Brazilian city. One night, the local circus put on a show full of fire and juggling. Live music each night ranged from Brazilian pop to Forro (‘for all’), and each night the town’s center was full of street vendors and travelers. For me, the most impressive act or event was from an Italian named Claudio Montouri; a man from Rome who calls himself the ‘One Tribal Bird Man’. His one-man show includes kalimba, accordion, horns, and all kinds of random noisemakers. His presentation for the town’s children endeared him to the whole community. All week, I would bump into him around town as he performed. This guy’s a genius. If you want to see a video, check it out here. As things go in Brazil, this was a mild Carnival. There was no crime that I know of. Most people went to bed before dawn. For me, it was perfect. I got a taste of the loud tradition, surrounded by people who appreciate the silence of nature.
On our last day in town, we hiked 2 hours up and in to the largest waterfall in the region. It is called Fumaca (smoke), and it falls almost 400m straight down into the valley below. To put things in perspective, the roof of the Empire State Building is just 1 meter higher than the Fumaca. There are no ropes or man-made barriers, just rocks covered with visitors trying to find a clear view of the entire fall into the narrow valley below. As I lay down to look over the edge, a Brazilian guide held my ankle, reminding me to remove my glasses. The view was amazing. It was a humbling reminder of how small I am.
After climbing the rocks to the other side of the valley, I found a perfect spot to watch the falls. As I sat, I heard a familiar story. The guys on the next rock were discussing the Grateful Dead… in English… here in heart of Brazil. It turns out that they are American students at the University in Salvador, here for some rest after the chaotic weekend on the coast. One guy from Boston described standing in the crowded streets of Salvador during Carnival. He felt a hand in each pocket, and raised his arms to push both men away. For this, he earned a quick punch to the face, then both men disappeared into the crowd. I’ve heard so many stories like this. Again, I’m happy I chose to come here and pass the week with the hippies. There is a sense of brotherhood from the market to the mountain in Chapada. Nobody wants to rip you off. No violence in the air, just peace-loving friends from everywhere.
The drive back took about 5 hours less than the way there. It was still messy at times, but we made it in one day. After 5 days of camping, it’s always nice to get home, wash away all the dirt, and sleep in a bed. In truth, I am ready for the 40 days of Lent. I enjoy the quiet times as much as the excitement, and I’m looking forward to watching Brazil’s frenetic festa wind down.