A few years ago, close friends in my adopted hometown of Salvador, Bahia, rented a house for the summer in Imbassaí, a former fishing village located on the coconut palm-fringed northern coast of Bahia. Summer in Brazil spans the months of December, January, and February, so it was a no-brainer that my friends (and I, and a dozen other pals and hangers-on) would spend the year-end holidays in the house. Actually, not so much in the house itself, but on the hammock-strung verandas, in the yard shaded by twisting mangaba trees (the juice of their milk-oozing fruit numbing our lips), and along the gleaming sand beaches that stretched for miles in either direction.Beginning on December 29th, people started descending upon Imbassaí en masse, creating sudden traffic jams on the village’s sandy streets and erecting improvised tent and hammock squats in gardens and on porches.Christmas was a deliciously low-key affair, in which four of us promptly forgot about the Yuletide’s very existence by barbecuing scarlet-scaled vermelho fish and abacaxi (firm, white, local pineapple) and floating lazily in the warm, Coca-Cola-colored waters of the Rio Imbassaí.
New Year’s Eve—or Réveillon—was a completely different story.
Beginning on December 29th, people started descending upon Imbassaí en masse, creating sudden traffic jams on the village’s sandy streets and erecting improvised tent and hammock squats in gardens and on porches. Our humble two-bedroom casa was no exception to the rule. By December 31st, we were around 20 strong: me, my friend Edi, and 18 women.
As the day trickled by, more “guests” continued to arrive. Some came bearing food, others Chandon (Brazil’s aspirational version of French Moet & Chandon champagne), others six-packs of beer. On site, everybody pitched in—sweeping every last grain of sand from the house; fetching ice and candles; and cooking up small storms for a planned, yet improvised, feast later that night. (Brazilians are practiced at the seemingly antithetical arts of organization and winging it.) Vats of caiprininhas and a carefully curated soundtrack playing on someone’s car’s speakers ensured that all “laborers” had optimal working conditions.
At 4pm, with everything prepped (and everyone buzzed), our bikinied and sunga-ed tribe wound its way down to the beach for a final communal dip of the year before heading back to the house to assemble the feast—and ourselves. In Brazil, it’s customary on New Year’s to get decked out in immaculate white (or gleaming silver for the more flamboyant); it’s a symbol of peace and purity, of fresh slates and new beginnings, not to mention a new year. When, at 10pm, we finally sat (or, rather, sprawled—in hammocks, on the front steps, on the grass) down to our New Year’s feast, we resembled a flock of elegant storks.
I was having a great last day of the year until around 9pm when two (more) female friends arrived from Salvador bearing lentils (an edible symbol of good luck in the new year) and a Third Man. Apart from being fairly handsome, this male interloper was a Croatian doctoral student who had been doing research for a few months in the Bahian Interior. As a stranger—and a foreign, male one to boot—he quickly made an impression. But what really amazed us all was his flawless, fluid, accent-less Portuguese. People couldn’t get over the fact that, after only a few months in Brazil, this guy was talking like a potential candidate for the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Meanwhile, I, who had lived in Bahia for a full decade, still mixed up my genders, had a shaky grasp of the subjunctive, and wrapped my phrases in a heavy North American accent that shrieked “Just Got Off the Plane.”
“Listen to how amazing his Portuguese is compared to yours!”
“You could probably lose that accent if you really wanted to. You just don’t want to.”
“Maybe you need to see a speech therapist in the New Year.”
Although such comments came from a radical fringe minority (the more tolerant majority, while acknowledging my linguistic frailties, defended my accent as “charming”), I had to admit that the Croat was raining on my parade.
Speaking of parades, at 11:30pm the members of our white-clad tribe grabbed chilled bottles of Chandon and plastic cups, plucked white roses from the pile that someone had fortuitously supplied, and, once again, headed down to the sea. We were joined by throngs and throngs of other white-clad, champagne-and-flower-brandishing revelers, all of whom assembled on dunes to await the burst of fireworks and popping of champagne corks announcing midnight.
The white flowers (and some of the champagne) were meant as offerings to Iemanjá, Queen of the Seas, and one of the most important and beloved orixás belonging to the pantheon of Afro-Brazilian Candomblé divinities. Since Iemanjá loves beautiful things, it’s common on New Year’s Eve to wade into the ocean and toss perfume, jewels, and flowers into the sea when the clock strikes 12.
Before wading all the way into the sea, it’s also customary to jump over seven waves… yet another ritual intended to bring good luck in the New Year.
The results of my own wave-jumping kicked in almost immediately. At 1am, the Croatian announced that he and his Perfect Portuguese had to catch an early morning flight to São Paulo. He bid us a flawless farewell and an expertly articulated Feliz Ano Novo.