Recife, Brazil – Day 1 Evening and Day 2 – Carnaval






Having spent the morning and afternoon at the Carnaval in the neighboring town of Olinda, about 10 miles away, we returned to the ship to freshen up and get ready for the Carnaval of Recife. We had been in Recife in the morning, before traveling to Olinda, to locate the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Kahal Zur Israel  (Rock of Israel Congregation) in that part of the city known as  Old Recife. We tried knocking on the doors of the synagogue but as we had been forewarned, the synagogue was closed for Carnaval.  To be honest, It was strange to see a synagogue decked out and decorated for Carnaval, something that not only has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism but even more so, celebrates in a manner that is so antithetical to Jewish belief and practice. Carnaval is not Purim…. 

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The small sign in front of the synagogue tells passers-by the “short story”:

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Between two of the main entry doors to the synagogue is a tile street plaque indicating the current name of the street (Rua Do Bom Jesus – Good Jesus Street) and the former name of the street (Rua Dos Judeus – Jew Street), dating from the Dutch control of Recife between 1636 and 1654.

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The story of the Dutch in Brazil is short but significant, particularly for Jews. For historical reasons that are too long to go into here and which were the result of explorations in South America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, Spain ended up controlling virtually all of South America except for Brazil, which was owned by the Portuguese Crown. The Dutch originally came to Brazil, therefore, not as explorers or conquerors, but as merchant suppliers and chandlers, whose function was to supply goods to this Portuguese colony.

Jews had been expelled from Spain (in 1492) under an Edict of Expulsion that was a result of the Spanish Inquisition and a few years later from Portugal (in 1498). Many of those expelled sought new homelands in Muslim Turkey, which welcomed the Jews, and in far more tolerant Holland. Jews in Holland soon found a place in the prosperous trading business, for which the Dutch were well known. When Dutch traders came to do business in Brazil, Dutch Jews were among them.

Although Brazil was a Portuguese colony, the Inquisition had not yet crossed the Atlantic into Brazil.  So in 1524, by which time there was an active Dutch trade with Brazil that included Dutch Jews, a group of Dutch Jews were able to establish in Recife, the easternmost part of Brazil,  the first Jewish community and synagogue in the Western hemisphere. Jews were not only tolerated in Recife but got on well with their Christian neighbors, and some Jews even took up residency in the nearest town, Olinda, although the community’s center remained in Recife.

Portuguese slave traders imported slaves from Africa to work in Brazil’s sugar cane plantations, and as the plantations grew, so did the prosperity of those regions around the plantations. Recife was one of those areas, and Jewish merchants prospered along with their Dutch countrymen. As the Dutch traders saw Recife’s prosperity increase, their appetites grew, and they wanted a larger slice of the “prosperity pie.”  In fact, the sugar cane industry was so important and prosperous that of the 120 sugar mills in Recife, 6 of them were owned by Jews. Reports back to Amsterdam about the prosperity of Recife prompted Dutch military excursions to the area to try to seize portions of Brazil, including Recife, where Dutch traders were active and could be relied upon for support by the Dutch Crown. Military confrontations between the Dutch and the Portuguese eventually resulted in the Dutch gaining control of Recife in 1536.

The Portuguese, as could be expected, were not prepared to take this situation lying down, and over the next two decades launched numerous attempts to regain control of Recife and other areas in Brazil from the Dutch. During this time, the Jews, loyal citizens of Holland, offered support to their government’s efforts to maintain control of Recife. Finally, however, in 1654 the Portuguese succeeded in defeating the Dutch and regained control of Recife. Under the Protocol of Surrender, which now made reference to the Edict of Expulsion, all Jews had three months to liquidate their assets and leave Recife.

At its zenith the Jewish population of Recife was estimated to be around 1,800 souls. Many of those Dutch Jews in Recife returned to Amsterdam, but a contingent decided to relocate to a small Dutch settlement in North America called New Amsterdam.  Arriving in New Amsterdam in 1654, they established a new religious community and built the first synagogue in North America, known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue (so named because the ancestors of those Dutch Jews had originally come from Spain and Portugal and followed the religious rite of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula). The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, which has been in continuous daily use since its establishment nearly 360 years ago, is located in mid-town Manhattan.

So it appears that the Dutch Jews from Recife were responsible for founding what would become, several centuries later, American Jewry, the largest Jewish community in the world.

But enough of history…..let’s get back to Carnaval !

As you can see from the pictures below, a large part of the Carnaval celebrations happened along the street on which the synagogue is located, and many of the samba school parades went along this street because it is located in Old Recife and is just a couple of blocks from the water, near something called Marco Zero,  which marks the town square of Old Recife.

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After (800x600)

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Looking directly up and down the street where the synagogue is located,  the Carnival crowds looked like this around 7:30 pm.

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It only got more crowded (it you can imagine it possible) as the evening went on…..

Many people participate in Carnaval not as private participants but as members of samba schools. Samba schools might be thought of a large social clubs set up specifically to enable its members to participate as part of a group in the Carnaval festivities. During Carnaval the samba schools set up special sites in the Carnaval area for its members to take a rest from partying, so they can gather the strength to go back out on the street and parade in the samba school costume and party some more. We accidentally bumped into one of these samba school rest sites, and here’s what a typical one looks like.  From the size of the rest site you can imagine that this samba school has hundreds of members.

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By the way, the miniature, multicolored umbrellas are a “trademark” of Olinda’s Carnaval, so this must be the rest site of an Olinda-based samba school that is also taking part in the Recife Carnaval.

Every year each samba school chooses a theme for Carnaval and designs its costumes around that theme. Although most of the people in samba schools are just working folks, the costumes play such a prominent role that the people will save their money to be able to spend several hundred (and sometimes over a thousand) dollars each year on their costumes. Here are just a few of the dozens of samba schools we bumped into during Carnaval. 

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As we expected, some of the costumes of the private partiers were outlandish….

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Others, especially those from the samba schools, were just plain drop-dead gorgeous !

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At Carnaval, young and old alike are equal-opportunity partiers….

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…and one of the neat things about Carnaval is that here, people who you have never seen before – and will never meet again – couldn’t care less if you take your picture with them.  It’s all good……

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One of the kinds of items conspicuously absent from Carnaval  is T-shirts for sale to the public that say on them CARNAVAL 2012 or something similar. (Note to entrepreneurs: there is a HUGE opportunity being missed here!)  The only T-shirts available at Carnaval are part of the dress or costumes of the samba schools, and they are not for sale to the general public.  Believe me, we tried to beg, borrow and steal such a T-shirt, but there were none to be had.  The closest thing we could come up with was a PHOTO of a T-shirt for Carnaval that reflected the general costume design of its samba school.  The T-shirt is on the left, the costume of the samba school is on the right and below (front and back views).

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The back of the head dress, by the way, is HAND-MADE lace.

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And more costumes:

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Family style:

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Faeries or flutter-bys?

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Tinsel, Technicolor wookies?

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The Smurfs were in Recife this season……

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…and so was contra-ceptive but pro-phylactic Willy Wanker, freely distributing condoms to the crowd…..

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No stores or restaurants were open during Carnaval, but not to worry….street food booths and vendors abounded, and all of the food offerings looked dee-lish…..

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This is how millions of people eat lunch and dinner out in Brazil during Carnaval..

And there were plenty of hard liquor drinks available openly to keep partiers in high “spirits” – high-octane alcohol content and high-level singing, dancing and merry- making.

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One interesting side-note: while we can’t confirm it didn’t happen at all, none of us saw anyone using drugs to get high, not even hash or marijuana. 

Many food areas of Brazil were represent at Carnaval.  The photos below show people from the Brazilian state of Bahia offering from their food traditions for sale.  Bahia is the most “Africanized” of all the Brazilian states.  It’s capital, Salvador de Bahia, was a center of the Portuguese slave trade in Brazil, when African slaves were brought to Salvador and sold to work in the cane sugar plantations.  Bahia culture and religious practice (even their brand of Catholicism) incorporates elements of animism and voodoo, practices originally brought from Africa 300 years ago and more, and which have been “repurposed” or “repositioned” but are still around today. 

[ NOTE:  Salvador de Bahia was the one stop on our voyage this year that was cancelled due to US State Department alerts of civil unrest there; we were supposed to spend one day of Carnaval in Salvador de Bahia and one day in Recife, bit since Salvador was cancelled, we ended up spending two Carnaval days in Recife (which allowed us to go  to the Carnaval at Olinda as well).  Still, we consider ourselves lucky to have had the opportunity to visit Salvador last year when there was no Carnaval, and we were able to visit beautiful sites and see some amazing things in that fascinating city.]

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The menus here are shrimp, okra, black beans and rice. Looks real good….

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….but not for us……

Nina and I decided to throw ourselves into the party atmosphere and to spring for a few masks and headgear. Nina decided to go for a glittery face mask and

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a Carmen Miranda head piece  (Carmen is deceased but still “lives on” in Brazil)….

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…while I got a punk rocker hair wig….

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(here I am with an anonymous young friend who had the same kind of doo that I did).  And therein lies a story…… 

I had actually seen this wig wear a few days earlier in Vitoria, and when I saw it there it gave me a big belly laugh because it reminded me of a joke. So when I saw the same wig wear in Recife, I decided  that was going to be my chapeau for Carnaval.

What was the joke I had remembered?

Well, it seems there was this drunk who was riding the New  York City subway late one night, and he was seated directly across from a young punk rocker with a multi-colored, spiked mohawk. And the drunk keeps staring at the young punk rocker and simply can’t take his eyes off the guy’s doo. 

Finally, the punk rocker can’t take the staring any more and shouts out to the drunk,  “Stop staring at me.  Why the hell do you keep staring at me?”

And the drunk replies, “Well it’s like this…..once, about 25 years ago, I went on a real bender, and because I was so drunk I ended up havin’ sex with a peacock.”

“So what?”, asks the punk rocker.

“And I was lookin’ at you,” replies the drunk, “and jus wonderin’ if you could be my son…..”

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We partied until about 10 PM, when we decided to call it a day, and returned to the ship for a good night’s sleep.  After all, tomorrow was Carnaval all over again, and we needed to regain our strength…..

The next morning we returned to the area of the Recife Carnaval to get some photos of the Carnaval decorations without all the people in the street.  Recife consists of three islands linked by a series of seven bridges and is known as “the Venice of Brazil”.  This is typical of the bridge decorations.  The “threads” hanging down from the top of the photo are tinsel strips strung across the bridge, blowing in the breeze…..

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SKOL is the name of a brand of Brazilian beer, but from the decorations here, it looks like the Chinese are taking over.  They are certainly trying to buy as much as they can of Brazil’s natural resources…..

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While we were out walking and photographing, it began to rain.  Here are Nina and friend Susan reprising Gene Kelley, “Singin’ in the Rain”.

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In a town square by one of the rivers running through Old Recife lies a marker planted in the ground.  The marker is called MARCO ZERO or the Zero Kilometer Marker.

Here is the marker on the grounds of the town square.  The sound stage has been set up for Carnaval, and the river is directly behind the stage.

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Marco Zero in Recife marks the beginning of the Trans-Amazon Highway.  The Trans-Amazon Highway is an ambitious project by the Government of Brazil to build an East-West Highway that would run from Recife, Brazil, on the Atlantic Ocean at Brazil’s most easterly point, all the way west through Brazil’s Amazon jungle and eventually  connecting with a road to be constructed by Peru that would run through the Peruvian Amazon and end up on Peru’s Pacific coast and connect to the Pan-American Highway.  This project has been “in progress” for over a decade and is nowhere near completion.  One of the problems yet to be overcome is that the Amazon River rises and falls every year, sometimes by as much as 100 feet or more, and the rising, raging waters of the Amazon continually wash away roads that have been built.  It seems like a never-ending story…..

By the way, from the marker you can see that Recife is located about 8 degrees south of the equator.  Most of  the Amazon River (the parts that are not on the equator) are within 2-3 degrees north or south of it, which is why the area is so hot and is also a tropical environment.

From MARCO ZERO we returned to the area of the synagogue, on the way back to the ship.  We found an open gift shop directly across from the synagogue and looked at some of the things inside.  Nina tried on some hats and masks

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we looked at some Carnaval costumes

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and some gifts, like this musical instrument that makes the music when the gourd is shaken,

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a Carnaval marching band

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and a proctologist conducting an exam and recording results in his computer ….(is this totally weird or what?)

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As we headed back to the ship it turned out that some water hyacinths were creating some problems with the ship’s propellers, so a diver turned up in a boat marked “RABI” (everyone that day said this was the Rabbi’s boat) and went underwater to fix the problem.

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Later that night I escorted a nighttime catamaran tour during Carnaval through the river canals of Old Recife (“the Venice of Brazil”, remember?)


for another perspective….Of course the city was all lit up, especially along its bridges….



including the world’s largest chicken, poised on one of Recife’s bridges.


After the Catamaran tour it was back to the ship and time to say goodbye to Carnaval and to Recife. 

Tomorrow a new day and a new adventure await…..

















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