Olinda: the hidden jem of the Northeast

(pre-Carnival madness)

They say Brazilians live for Carnival. It is certainly true in Olinda where pre-Carnival celebrations begin in early December – more than two months before Carnival. There are also post-Carnival celebrations (of course!) totaling the number of party months to three. That is 1/4 of a year or 90 days. In the last couple of weeks before Carnival people talk only about the big party. The biggest of all.

My first taste of Olinda’s party frenzy was a frevo band rehearsal held at a local bar. We got there half way through and just in time for the dancers. Frevo bands are similar to marching bands and the dance resembles gymnastics. A signature mark is the little, colorful umbrella they dance with as well as the clown like costumes.

Me and Lynn (my CouchSurfing host) had a couple of beers over a great conversation and a local taught me a few frevo moves. On the way home we had a tapioca (a manioc flower pancake stuffed with various fillings) – the best on the East coast! I had previously tried a plain, chewy one and didn’t like it (no surprise there!). I decided to give it a second chance after some not-so-gentle urging and raving on Lynn’s behalf. I didn’t regret it. For the next couple of night that is all I ate. I would have a salty one (shrimp/cheese/oregano) and a Romeo & Juliet (cheese/goiaba jam/coco). Delicious!

On Thursday we went to a local bar where a woman-only samba band was rehearsing. It is amazing how such simple instrument such as the drum can have such a powerful effect. The best part about going to these rehearsals is the people. The people playing the instruments during Carnival are not famous or schooled musicians, they are the ‘dona’ next door, the kids running on the streets, or the guy behind the shop counter. They grow up with music and dance, carry it through their life until it is time to hand it to the younger generation. It is amazing to see people of all ages dancing together to the same beat. There is nothing like a life performance, the atmosphere is electrifying.

On Friday Lynn and I headed to Porto do Galinhas, a beach town recommended by locals and tourists alike. The beach was indeed beautiful, stretching for miles along a palm-fringed coast. Clear water and a great wave attracted surfers and those looking for peace and tranquility. We spent a couple of days surfing, and body-boarding but mainly whip-lashed by the mighty waves.

Sunday was an important day. It was big-street-party day and we rushed to get back to town on time. Every week since December a mini Carnival is held on the streets of the old town. Imagine the vibe and atmosphere – hundreds of people on the streets, drinking, shouting, singling along with the performing bands. Frevo, samba, maracatu, axe music spilling through the cobbled streets! That was a night to remember.

We first got hit on by policemen in drags. They were rather persistent (surprise, surprise!) and wouldn’t stop with the compliments and niceties but when it came to buying drinks they became quite all of a sudden and looked the other way. So, it’s like this: maximum making out at a minimum cost. Got it!

– What do you want from me? – I asked the annoying drag queen.
– I want you – he responded, looking sheepishly into my eyes.
– I don’t want you! – I shouted back above the drum noise. Everybody laughed and that was the last we saw of them.

We followed the maracatu band up the street to the square, trotting to the beat and drinking beer. We stood listening to the last beats when two innocent looking guys approached us in a very innocent manner. One of them was British, visiting family in Brazil and the other was local. We talked and laughed and Lynn even said how nice it was to finally meet someone who wasn’t trying to make out. And that’s when it happened.

– So, have you kissed anybody tonight? – asked the British guy turning towards me. At first I didn’t think much of it.
– No – I responded.
– Well, how about I am your first one? – he grinned at me. I explained as elegantly as possible the difference in cultures and my personal opinion about random kissing. At the same time a similar conversation was going on between Lynn and the Brazilian guy.
– We came out here tonight to make out – he told Lynn. Since Lynn was engaged and I unwilling to snog random guys we had to part. We took our goodbyes and wished them good luck.
– I don’t need luck! – shouted English guy. I am British, I will just wave my passport!
Cocky bastard!

We were shocked but neither of us was annoyed with the guys. We were utterly surprised and amused but not annoyed. They had made a civilized effort at courting us and have behaved properly. It was just that our interest didn’t match.

We then slowly made our home. On the way we bumped into (or rather he bumped into us) a rather drunken guy who grabbed my arm as soon as he heard us speak English. I tried to leave but he wouldn’t let go.

– I luuuve yoouuu! – he slumbered.
– I luuuve yoouuu! – he persisted while balancing himself on the slippery hill.
– I luuuve yoouuu! – he yelled in desperation a meter or so behind us before we sent him back and walked up the hill. The situation was hilarious. We were dying to laugh but didn’t want to encourage him. You should have heard him! After such an emotional night we had to re-charge and headed to the tapioca stands for a late night snack.

The next couple of days were quiet. Lynn went to work and I stayed home watching ‘City of men’, Brazilian TV series which gave me an incredible insight into favela life. I will never again look the same way at street boys.

On Monday evening Lynn had a capoeira lesson and I went along to watch. I had a great time swinging in a hammock watching them sweat. Watching a capoeira performance/fight is great but seeing what;s behind the scenes is even better. The hard work that goes into every move, the complexity, the stamina and strength required. Who knew there were different types of capoeira. It was an excellent lesson!

On my last night in Olinda we took the bus to Recife and went to an open-air concert in the colonial part of the city. We listened to samba, axe and maracatu. In short- a lot of drumming and African voices. A good ending to my week-long stay.

Staying with Lynn in Olinda was an amazing experience as it allowed me to get a taste of the Brazilian vibe and soul. It changed my opinion of the Northeast which I thought was rather unimpressive until then. I am glad I went to Olinda.

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