“You want me to dress up like a girl?” I asked incredulously.
I was sitting in the front room of a house that I was staying in with 40 other for the duration of Carnaval, in an old colonial town called Diamantina.
“Yeah dude, everyone dresses up like a girl during Carnaval. Its tradition.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“You have to do it man!”
And just like that, I found myself dressing up like a girl and walking on the cobblestone streets of Diamantina in high heels. If you had told me a few weeks prior that this was a part of the Brazilian Carnaval tradition I wouldn’t have believed you.
I didn’t know very much about Carnaval before I experienced it. I thought it was just a parade that happened in Rio where tall mulatta women wearing little clothing and fruit baskets on their head dance around the city wearing high heels. In reality, Carnaval is a weeklong celebration that anyone can take part in.
If this is your first Carnaval in Brazil, here are five simple steps you can take to ensure that you will have a memorable experience.
Step 1: Learn the Words to Popular Songs
For the duration of Carnaval, no matter which city you go to, and no matter where in the city you are, you are going to be hearing music playing non stop. There are a handful of songs that will be played throughout Carnaval, no matter where in Brazil you go.
Its important to learn the words to these songs in order to feel like you’re actually a part of the celebration. You might feel strange if thousands of people all around you are singing these songs and you’re the only one who isn’t. Spend a few hours now learning the words to these songs and you will greatly increase the joy you feel during carnival. Knowing this songs will also be helpful for improving your Portuguese.
Step 2: Plan for Rain
Carnival occurs every year in February during summer. Its probably going to rain at some point during Carnival, so be sure to pack an umbrella, an extra pair of clothes or goggles if its raining really hard, or even if its not raining at all (see point #3).
Step 3: Wear Clothes You Don’t Mind Getting Dirty
If it rains, you’re going to get dirty. With rain come puddles of water. With thousands of people, those puddles of water are going to get very dirty, and they are going to be splashed up on you. Your shoes are going to be unrecognizable by the end of the celebration. You definitely don’t want to wear your good English teaching clothes out to Carnaval.
You’ll also have to be on the lookout for aerial attacks. If you’re taking part in a bloco that meanders around the city, you’ll have to be on the lookout for people in apartments with buckets of water. People who live on parade routes wait all year so that they can fill up buckets during Carnival and throw them into the crowds that pass by beneath them.
Alcohol is a big part of the Carnival celebration, and where there are drunk people, there are drunk people who spill their drinks. You’ll not only have to be mindful of people innocently spilling beer on you, but you’ll have to be careful of overzealous youngsters who like to throw their beer cans in the air as well.
The bottom line is that you’re going to get dirty, so plan appropriately. Wear old shoes you don’t mind getting dirty, as well as a shirt that you don’t mind losing in a water fight.
Step 4: Wear a Costume or Have a Prop
Carnaval is a lot like Halloween in that people dress up in costumes and get really drunk, but the Brazilian version is more intense because it lasts for a week..
If you don’t know anyone in the city where you are celebrating Carnival, or you don’t know as many people as you would like, the best thing you can do to meet people is to have some kind of gimmick that makes people want to talk to you. Having a unique costume or a cool prop like a water gun filled with alcohol, snorkel set or lasso are some ways that you can accomplish this.
The more thought you put into your costume before Carnaval, the more fun you and everyone around you will have.
Step 5: Act Like Everyone is Your Friend
At the end of the day Carnaval is about having fun, and fun increases exponentially as more people are involved. You came to Brazil to make friends, and you will have no easier time to do that than during Carnaval. Carnaval is the most anticipated event of the Brazilian calendar and spirits are especially high this time of year.
In order to make friends all you have to do is act like everyone is your friend. If you follow the advice in step 4, this will be easier for you to do. If you have a cool costume, people are constantly going to be commenting on it. You’ll get a feel for the Carnaval vibe, and you’ll start to understand the friendliness that is so deeply embedded into Brazilian culture.
If you don’t know anyone and you don’t speak any Portuguese, you just need to open your mouth in order to make friends. Brazilians love sharing their culture with foreigners, and once they discover you’re a Gringo they’re going to make sure you have a good time.
So that’s my advice for Carnaval. Learn the words to popular songs, be mindful of the rain, wear clothes you don’t care about, wear a costume and make friends with everyone. If you follow those steps your Carnaval experience will transform from awesome to muito irado!