Carnaval Popcorn Experience poster

Photo © Michael Sommers.

I just returned from Escaping Carnaval in Salvador.

Together, with a group of friends – all of them Bahians; none of them up to dealing with 6 days and 7 nights of body-crushing, ear-blasting, eye-popping, sweat/urine/perfume/beer-scented hedonism that characterizes the longest and biggest street party on the planet – I hightailed it out of town to a house in the country where we soaked in waterfalls, ate vast quantities of barbecued everything, and reveled in our tranquility-soaked status as Carnaval refugees.

And yet, although one can succeed in getting away from Carnaval the Event, one never quite escapes Carnaval the Social/Cultural/Economic/Political Phenomenon, which, from time to time, infiltrated our thoughts and peppered our conversations.

The fact is that while the streets are thronged during Carnaval, they are also segregated.

Salvador’s Carnaval likes to bill itself as the most democratic of all Carnavals, a frenzied feast of fraternalism in which rich and poor, black and white, gringos and locals take to the streets and surrender their senses (and brain cells) to the sway of Bacchus. Although it’s true that the Carnaval events that invade the streets of Salvador – essentially shutting down the city center for an entire week – are free and open to all, the idea that classes and races mingle freely is pure myth.

The fact is that while the streets are thronged during Carnaval, they are also segregated. Weeks before Carnaval kicks off, construction begins on camarotes, the bleachers of which invade various public sidewalks throughout the Centro and beach neighborhoods of Barra and Ondina.

When completed, these improvised clubhouses – which offer luxuries ranging from open bars, buffets, and cybercafés to lounges and spas – shelter media, sponsors, politicians, and corporate tycoons. They also play host to celebrities and members of the paying public who want to see (from above) and be seen (from below), but not mingle with the public. At the same time, camarotes’ viewing platforms are at eye-level with artists who perform atop trios elétricos, giant trucks with mega sound systems, upon whose stage-like tops stars such as Carlinhos Brown, Ivete Sangalo, and Daniela Mercury whip the crowds into a frenzy.

In Salvador, every Carnaval musical group, or bloco, has its own trio elétrico. The most traditional blocos parade through the Centro and are thronged by masses. However, the biggest and most commercial blocos occupy the avenues of the beach neighborhoods. They are followed by revelers who, in return for purchasing outfits known as abadás, earn the right to dance in the center of the avenue, behind the trios. Known as associados (members) do bloco, they are literally cordoned off from the masses by cordeiros, muscular young men and women whose job it is to man the ropes that physically separate the (wealthier, whiter) associados from the (poorer, blacker) masses known generically as the “pipoca” (popcorn).

The pipoca is thus literally (and unceremoniously) sandwiched in between the blocos and their associados, who occupy the center of the street, and the camarotes, which take over the sidewalks. And yet, it’s believed by many – including myself, a devout pipoca participant on the occasions I’ve chosen to indulge in Carnaval instead of escape from it – that, despite the crush of bodies and security issues (pickpocketing is fairly rampant), the place to experience Carnaval at its most authentic and vibrant is among the pipoca.

Indeed the acknowledgment of the seemingly obvious fact that it’s more fun to dive into Carnaval than to watch it from the sidelines explains one of the most surreal new novelties to crop up during this year’s Carnaval: the “Popcorn Experience.”

The brainchild of a camarote operated by a bloco called Harém, the “Popcorn Experience” was created for associados who long to “feel the popcorn vibe,” but didn’t dare to sally forth into the pipoca on their own. The solution was to create an opportunity whereby small groups of revelers, accompanied by the bloco’s security guards could get into the groove without leaving the “comfort and security” of their camarote.

The “exclusive novelty” of the “Popcorn Experience” – (the exclusivity, or the absurdity, being underscored by its name being in English instead of Portuguese) – reflects many of the paradoxes and contradictions that characterize Carnaval, not to mention Brazilian society as a whole, and was the topic of much discussion between my friends and me at our getaway house in the country. It was also the source of a great many jokes – and since Carnaval is all about merriment, ultimately, if unintentionally, the “Popcorn Experience” served its purpose.