Mention Carnival and most people picture the world's most amazing party filling the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro. Carnival has become the biggest event in Brazil, probably even in South America, and enticed over 400,000 International visitors alone in 2011 as well as accounting for 70% of that year's alcohol consumption in Brazil. But a 2 hour plane ride north of the bustling streets of Rio lies a secret - an even greater Carnival, the Carnival I know and love, the Carnival of the people.
Salvador is the capital of the state of Bahia and the 3rd largest city in Brazil after Sao Paulo and Rio. Set on the beautiful coastline of Northern Brazil and heavily influenced by African-Brazilian culture, Carnival in Salvador is an altogether different beast. This Carnival belongs to the City. It's inhabitants and visitors alike create the magic and the energy of the fiesta, instead of watching the proceedings from afar. It had been recommended to us and so we rented a high rise apartment overlooking the ocean for 6 days.
At around 5pm each evening down at Barra Beach, the mood lightens considerably, the air starts to thicken, the crowd swells from nowhere, and the unmistakable beat and rhythm of uplifting samba-reggae music energises the masses. And then it begins - a raw, heaving mess of Brazilian chaos with us right in the thick of it. This is like the Sydney Mardi Gras times 1000 as the primeval procession snakes along the 10km beachfront Carnival route lasting well into the following morning's daylight when the last drip of possibility has been expended.
Our biggest decision each day is how to spend the night. Do we become Pipoca (street popcorn), the few foreign faces darting in between the drinking and dancing sea of Brazilian beauty, buying $1 beers and meat skewers from the street vendors, admiring the garish outfits, letting our bodies be taken over by the music? Do we pay to enjoy a Camarote, the viewing bars and restaurants set up along the Carnivale route where we can relax and watch the event unfold in a more serene setting? Or do we buy tickets and singlets to get on a Bloco, the ultimate party person destination in the world?
The Blocos are the emphatic enclaves of happiness. Huge diesel trucks covered with speakers, themed in decoration, and surrounded by rope-holding-locals for security, these beasts slowly proceed around the Carnival circuit, the writhing masses enclosed within singing and moving like it's their last night on Earth. We join the David Guetta and Pete Tong Bloco on the last night and dance around deliriously happy while the DJ gods spin their hits. Everyone nearby is your kin, your brother in arms for one magic night, a night that drifts into the surreal and dreamlike as we are swept along the Carnival route in a tidalwave of humanity.
As the sun rose slowly over the beach hours later, we were shells, wiped out of all energy and purpose. We could dance and drink no more. But Salvador had taught us a valuable lesson. Carnival is not merely a destination, not merely an event, not solely the world's ultimate street party. In Salvador, Carnival is something you can become!