Recife, Brazil – Day 1 – Carnaval !



Recife is the easternmost city in Brazil and was the center of the slave business when the Portuguese brought African slaves to Brazil to work in the sugar plantations.  It is unique in Brazil in that geographically it’s closer to Senegal in Africa than to the southernmost tip of Brazil itself. Recife is also the city where the Trans-Amazon Highway begins, an incredibly ambitious project undertaken by the Brazilian Government to build a highway from Recife in the East and across the Amazon region to the western border of Brazil and eventually to the west coast of South America.  The project was begun in the 1960’s and has still not been completed, as each year sections of the highway are washed away by the Amazon River. (What’s wrong with that picture?)

Be that as it may, Recife also held a special interest for us, and especially for Kal. Last year on our trip to South America we had been scheduled to visit Recife, but at the last moment the visit was cancelled because, we were told, there were “some technical difficulties involving port officials”, and the ship’s captain made the decision to skip the port. Kal was especially disappointed because he had wanted to visit the Recife Synagogue Kahal Zur Israel, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1624.

Unfortunately Kal was destined to be disappointed in that regard again this year because, as it turned out, the Synagogue and Jewish Archives in the same building were closed – FOR CARNAVAL ! !   However, it was possible to visit the site of the Synagogue and see it decorated (by the municipality) for Carnaval:


In order to understand the madness of Carnaval, some explanation is necessary. Think of Carnaval as a gigantic street fair with dancing groups, musicians and merry-makers in the tens or hundreds of thousands, most in at least masks or other costumes, eating drinking, partying, carousing and just “letting loose and letting go” for a solid week. Think of a non-stop Purim celebration, complete with food and hard liquor, for grown-ups as well as for kids.  In most places the partying starts in the late afternoon and continues through the early hours of the morning.  Then people go to sleep, or get over their hang-overs until the following afternoon – and do it all over again the next night, and this goes on for an entire week (and in some places, like Recife, for even longer). All stores, businesses, government offices – virtually EVERYTHING – is closed during Carnaval season, and except for a few mom-and-pop grocery and fruit/vegetable stores, and stores selling Carnaval masks, costumes and paraphernalia, nobody transacts business.  Most food is purchased ready-to-eat from street vendors who are set up all over the cities in every city specifically to cater to the needs of revelers.

But what does Carnaval mean?  What does it stand for?

Carnaval is a relatively recent comer on the stage of Christianity, and it is specifically related to Christianity, to Christian theology and to Christian practice (which is the reason Kal found it so weird that the synagogue would be closed for Carnaval).   Carnaval is a “celebration of release or letting oneself go wild” in the week immediately preceding Lent, which begins 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter and always on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian tradition Lent is a period of introspection and penitence, leading up to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, the day marking the start of Lent, Catholics mark their foreheads with crosses formed from ashes as symbols of penitence.  But before they “repent”, they have a week to “raise hell” and “let go”, and that week is the week of Carnaval.  The last day of the week before Ash Wednesday is a Tuesday known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday (from the English shrive, shrove, shriven – look it up….).  The French for “Fat Tuesday” is Mardi Gras.  So now you know…. This Tuesday is referred to as FAT Tuesday not in the physical sense of being fat but in the sense of doing something in an enhanced or “kicked up a notch” way to end the week of partying.  A priest once told me that he doesn’t eat much meat during most of the year, but on Fat Tuesday he always makes sure he eats a filet mignon as a way of celebrating the day. Other merrymakers undoubtedly have a different standard by which they celebrate Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Whatever partying you are doing, on Fat Tuesday you party even more and heavier…..and on the next day you begin 40 days of penitence before Easter. That’s my understanding of the matter, and I think it’s pretty right on……

And so with that background, you are now able to better appreciate the wild partying of Carnaval that we’re going to share with you in photos.

We were in Recife for two full days of Carnaval, one of which was Fat Tuesday.  We actually saw two different Carnaval celebrations, the first one in a suburb of Recife called Olinda, and the second one in Recife itself. Recife and Olinda are about 10 miles apart, and the people from each town go to the other’s Carnaval. The two Carnavals are a little different in that the Carnaval in Olinda starts in the morning and pretty much peters out by sunset, by which time most of the revelers in Olinda have taken their cars or buses into Recife to party at the Recife Carnaval, which begins around mid-afternoon and ends around 5 AM.  If you can stand it, it’s a 24/7 party for Carnaval week.  There’s always a party somewhere….Also, the Carnaval in Olinda, because it takes place in the daytime, is more family-oriented and less rowdy than the Carnaval in Recife, which is also family oriented until around 9:30 p.m., when parents begin to take their kids home and the heavy partiers come out.

And so…..we began our first Carnaval day in Recife by first taking a short look at – and a few photos of – the “Carnaval  landscape” in Recife in the morning, when it was quiet and pretty empty, knowing that we would returning there later that evening. We’ll show you a few “before” and “after” photos of the Recife Carnaval  later in this posting and the next – when the streets are empty and when the streets are filled with partiers.

OLINDA, Brazil

We then headed out to Olinda for their daytime Carnaval.

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Olinda is a lovely Portuguese colonial city, but it is flooded with people from the area during Carnaval.

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All the main streets in every city where Carnaval is held, are packed with people elbow to elbow. Young and old are in costume.

               The Pom Pom Girls                                                  Fred Flintstone

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                  The CD Lady                                                          Michael – he lives !

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The triplets !      Carmen Miranda X 3 !                        

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                   The Bandito and the Nun….                     The……who-the-hell-knows-what ?????

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                                                 The Grim Reaper and other cavorters…….

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And another group…….

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And yet another……..

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They come in all sizes, shapes and hair colors……

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and they include tourists as well as locals.

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And they all take Carnaval seriously.  Many of them spend A LOT of money on costumes and parade get-ups. 

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Here are a few crowd shots to give you an idea of the masses of people.

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Carnival in Olinda (800x600)

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Olinda also was originally a Portuguese colonial city and as such has many churches dating from the 17th-18th centuries. Because of Carnaval, all of them were officially closed to visitors.  However, we were fortunate to be able to convince a caretaker to open one of them so we could have a quick look inside.  This Church of Sao Francisco, constructed in the typical Portuguese Colonial style,

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also had a painted ceiling

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and a golden altar, that is, an altar covered entirely in gold leaf.

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But while this was interesting to both of us as art and architecture, Kal came across something that turned out to be a real surprise for him. To understand the meaning of the surprise, a little historical background is necessary.

For most of the centuries between 1500 and  nearly1900, Brazil belonged to Portugal and was therefore a Catholic country.  However, between the years 1624 and 1654 portions of Brazil, at least, came under the control of the Dutch, who were Protestants.  The Dutch originally came to  Portugal not as explorers or conquerors but as merchant suppliers and chandlers.  Initially they merely supplied goods and some services to many coastal cities in Brazil, where their ships could get into.

However, as time went on, the Dutch decided that things were good here and that they wanted a larger piece of the pie.  So they fought the Portuguese in many places and took over a number of coastal cities from the Portuguese.  Recife was one of those cities that the Dutch held, and the Dutch controlled it between 1636 and 1654. As soon as Recife fell into the hands of the Dutch, a number of Jews from Amsterdam, whose families had fled to Amsterdam following their expulsions from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1498 respectively, decided to try their fortunes in the New World.  The first of these came to Recife, where they were very successful in trading and in the sugar cane industry.,  In fact, of the 120 functioning sugar mills in Recife during that period, 6 were owned by Jews.

One of these Jews’ first acts was to set up a synagogue in Recife, named Kahal Zur Israel (the Congregation of the Rock of Israel).  Thus the Jewish synagogue in Recife became the first Jewish house of worship in the New World and continued until 1654, when the Portuguese decided to fight to regain their lost portions of Brazil from the Dutch.  In the war between Holland and Portugal over Recife, the Jews supported the Dutch, but the Dutch eventually lost.  Under the Articles of Surrender between Holland and Portugal, Jews were given 3 months to get out of Recife but were allowed to liquidate all their assets and take everything with them.  It is estimated that at that time there were just under 2,000 Jews living in Recife.  Some of them returned to Holland, while others migrated to another colony in North America called New Amsterdam (which later became known as New York City), where in 1654 they founded the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in what is today Manhattan, the oldest synagogue in the United States, and one that is still in regular use today.

But back to the point of all this:  just as some of those Jews lived in Recife, some of them also lived in Olinda, where we are for our first Carnaval. I was told by a local Brazilian guide that if it were not Carnaval, it would be possible to see in Olinda in some homes still in existence today, signs and remnants of. those Jews who had lived in Olinda. Wasn’t that a surprise !

Well, this is Brazil, and near the equator, and the weather now (it’s summer here) is hot, humid and steamy – time for an ice cream…..So we stopped at a quaint little gift shop (just go through the canopy to the left of the building)

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to get some fruit popsicles from their snack bar and to sit and rest in the shade for a few minutes

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while we admired how they had decorated the place for Carnaval

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and we were admiring the various kinds of gifts they had for sale in this particular place

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when we came upon this in the courtyard:

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What this looked like, and what I later had confirmed, was the remains of a mikveh or Jewish ritual bath.  Because of the history it could only have come from the 30-year window in the 1600’s that the Dutch controlled Recife and nearby environs. In the intervening years it had been converted to something resembling a backyard pond, but it had started out several hundred years ago as a ritual bath.  The ritual bath, still used to this day by Orthodox Jews (primarily women) was considered so important by the Jewish community that it when a new Jewish community was established, building the mikveh or ritual bath took precedence over building a synagogue.   What a surprise find !  And Carnaval or not, for Kal it was the perfect end to a delightful visit in Olinda. As someone else local expressed it in wet cement,

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Viva Olinda!

Now back to Recife to get ready for tonight’s Carnaval !


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