A Gringo Goes to Salvador’s Carnival
When you hear ‘Ziriguidum‘, you’re required to put both hands on your knees and bend down like you’re addressing an imaginary, ground-borne squirrel. Once you’re in that position – knees bent 45 north, waist 45 south – you extend your right arm to full, then the fingers on your right hand totally, as if hand-gesturing to someone 25 metres behind the squirrel-figment to HALT!
Once you’ve made the stop sign, you spin your hand counter-clockwise in the same motion you’d employ to reverse-park a forklift on the left-hand side of the road, and gyrate your arse in the opposite – or same – direction. Ideally, you should have a bigger arse than average, because ‘round these parts, bigger arses are concurrently the norm, and the best. You keep this up for the duration of the song, your gyrations getting deeper and deeper and your pout getting filthier and filthier.
I didn’t mention the pout earlier, as it makes me feel dirty, but it’s the kind of pout you’d pull to yourself at the very moment it became apparent that you were about to do wonderful, disgusting things to a beautiful stranger’s undercarriage. Like the Macarena before it, ‘Ziriguidum’ comes with a preset set of dance moves that everyone does. Unlike the Macarena, there are no elaborate steps for memorising (palm up, palm up, palm down, palm down, hips, cross, something else, fuck me).
‘Ziriguidum’ is the best song of a six-track playlist that loops throughout the duration of Salvador’s Carnival. I’d arrived in Salvador via Rio de Janeiro, where I spent a couple of weeks bouncing between pure-cocaine-fuelled, film clip-esque beach parties and bed-bug-ridden, squat-house squalor – the Spartan nature of the latter freeing up the capital required for the former.
In Rio, I told my white-linen wearing Carioca pals of my intentions to head up to Salvador for Carnival and was informed that I would be raped and murdered, but they were unsure in which order it would take place. Salvador is, y’see, way up in the wild north of Brazil, a part of the country that is yet to be “pacified” by the police.
Pacification in Brazil is the process by which violently trained paramilitary police enter the favelas, where the poor people live, and flush out the drug-dealing gangs. This process usually results in zero arrests and few reported fatalities, but seems to work a treat. Rio was pacified in preparation for the World Cup of football (soccer) and the Olympic Games of sport (equestrian and shit). In Rio, a corpulent gringo like myself can now safely walk the streets of a night due to the pacification, but in other cities of Brazil, mainly in the north, this is still a borderline suicidal practice.
To wit, the 2012 annual murder rate in Salvador was 57 per 100 000 citizens, compared to Rio’s paltry 11. To double wit, Rio’s murder rate in 2006, years before the pacification, was 46; and to triple wit, the murder rate in Maceió, Salvador’s neighbour (300kms up the road), is a corpse-stacking 135 per 100 000, putting Maceió up there with places like Honduras and the Cartegena of five years ago, as far as lead-riddled bodices are concerned. It is, like, a pretty dangerous place to be.
The cops that do the pacifying are no better. I had the pleasure of dining with a few in a Central Brazilian restaurant, and they were decked out in full paramilitary garb — complete with big-arse boots, berets and sub-machine guns — in the restaurant. What really struck me, though, was their insignia: a skull with a dagger jammed through its lid and out of its jaw. To protect and serve, hardly.
I also had the pleasure of being on hand for a routine traffic stop, which was six fingers on six triggers attached to six serious machine guns, as well as lots and lots of screaming. The gangs in Brazil have a habit of responding to police stops with hails of bullets, as the police have a habit of shooting first and asking questions later, knowing the gangs often have weapons concealed and ready to fire; and so it goes, on and on.
Accompanying the predictions of my rape-murder in Salvador were reports of its Carnival being a whale of a time. In Rio, one watches the Carnival, whereas in Salvador, you are a part of it, and thus, the potential reward outweighed the apparent risk. The Carnival takes place in three different parts of the city, but I stuck to the Barra beach circuit, because being near the sea gave me a false sense of security. The Carnival is an all-day affair of trucks laden with Brazilian pop singers (and Psi, that Korean bobble-head guy of Gentleman fame) who drive along the circuit singing the same six songs over and over again for the approximately five hours it takes to complete.
Around the trucks are primarily white people wearing the same, very, expensive shirt dancing as a part of what is known as a bloco. Around the similarly-dressed white people are differently-dressed brown people who hold the rope that defines the boundary within which the white people should stand. The white people’s shirts cost around $350, and are the single-day passes to the roped area, which is deemed to be a “safe haven” from the heathens on the outside.
That the people who can afford the extortion are white, and those employed to hold the rope and become, essentially, a human fence are brown, is symptomatic of Brazil’s widening, and racially-definable discrepancy between the have-a-lots and the have-absolutely-nothings. It’s these have-absolutely-nothings that I was warned of down in Rio: the bad brown people who would skin me alive if they felt there was some kind of sexual, or financial, gratification to be found beneath my epidermis.
But of course, in spite of how filthy rich I am, I was never going to pay $350 bucks a day to feel “safe”. That would go against my principles of intrepidity – my insistence that when in other lands I have to get as close to the experience of the average people as possible, thus making the world for me a human zoo (or at least one of those aquarium starfish touchy-ponds), but with people poorer than me in it.
Outside of the ropes is an area known as the pipoca, which is Portuguese for popcorn. They call the brown people on the outside the popcorn, because from within the ropes their jumping looks like a bunch of corn kernels actualising. The pipoca was where I spent all of my days, bar the one I forked out the seven Unaipons for a bloco shirt (a helluva time, btw).
Outside of the safety rope, I found the Brazil I had been looking for. The brown people out there were of the friendliest calibre, and I made friends as well as I could with drunken affection, sign language and broken Spanish spoken with a Portuguese accent. It was safe, but it wasn’t sterile; the area where I stationed myself was controlled by a gang that took us under their protective wing (it didn’t hurt that I was with a bunch of blonde chicks, a prized commodity in this country — especially in the north).
The gangsters were kids, aged from about 10 to their very early 20s. The dance move de rigueur amongst these scamps was to jump up and down with fists clenched up by their faces in a classic hand-to-hand combat stance. This was handy, because when a rival gang would approach following a party truck and doing the same dance moves, they would both be ready to fight. There were plenty of pitched battles between the gangs, but the Salvadorians who weren’t involved would protect their gringos by hiding us behind them and swiping at the punks with rattan canes.
One of the fights involved the throwing of flares, and I saw a girl get pretty badly burned. I also saw a boy of pre-adolescence jump in the air and stomp on a grown man’s head. The cops that I mentioned before have a pretty heavy presence, but can only be in so many places at any given time. The gangs seem to know their movements and choose to raise hell when the po-po aren’t within baton-bashing range. Like I said, it was safe, but it wasn’t sterile.
Fucking is a big theme of the Carnival. Down Rio, I was told that I needn’t worry myself with courtship up north. Lust was so thick in the air up there, they told me, that alls I would need to do to have a buxom Brazzo-booty backing up on me was to make and maintain eye contact, approach, say not a word, grab the object of my intentions by the back of the head, and force her face into mine.
As much as I wanted to do this, I couldn’t bring myself to, so resorted to my tried-and-tested-and-true technique of introducing myself and trying to find something in common, cracking some jokes so they think I’m a harmless guy, then going in for the smooch. This failed miserably, while one by one my blondie compatriots were attacked and whisked off by Brazilian practitioners of the “rape kiss”.
Thing is, when you’re as drunk and high as I consistently was, silver linings are easy to come by. With each and every rejection I suffered (like, they were polite and nice, but it seemed like they were confused by my not molesting their face with my face), the amorous me died a little and the dancing-queen me became a little stronger. Instead of trying to fuck the locals, I started to dance with them, and in dancing with them learned the steps to the songs, and came to love ‘Ziriguidum’.
For me, now, hearing the word/noise “Ziriguidum” takes me back to a place and time where my dick was kept firmly, and retrospectively fortunately, in my pants, and for the briefest of moments I thought not about sex, even though I was encapsulated in one of the most sexually-charged environments on Earth. When I go back to Carnival, I’ll doubtlessly try and pass my second serving in a different manner, but I was quite happy that for my first time there I wasn’t ducking down back alleys and kneeling on my own shoes in portaloos and waking up confused in houses that house extended families. Instead, I was bending my knees and pouting like a pederast and swivelling my hands and gyrating my tush, and so on.
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Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.