Our hopes were only half-fulfilled: the only girls who gave us any attention were the good ones from good families who were committed to post-marital sex. They gave dirty looks and we got into a lot of snogging, but the advances always ended short of the last stop. Kissing a stranger from the South was audacious enough and, if that alone required effort and patience, the rest was unthinkable.
There was one exception: a fake blond wearing no bra who we chatted up on the seaside promenade while a pre-carnival parade was passing by. We did the usual thing, flattering her as she walked by and waiting for the reaction. Unlike the others who smiled or frowned but continued on their way, she stopped to talk to us. Despite her being alone, she accepted coming behind a construction site and sitting between us. Her tight jeans revealed a slim and well-shaped body, and her perfume and her varnished toenails were a complete turn on. There was a lot of excitement in the air, but neither Edu nor I wanted to leave the other with the prize. She showed no preference and ended up not being able to cope with the attack of four adolescent hands, and got up and left.
Despite these frustrations, Recife’s carnival was fantastic. In Rio, the middle class ran away from the partying to relax, but there everyone made a point of taking part in the revelry. At night, there was the Mela-Mela (“smear-smear”) tradition where people went around the streets spreading a homemade paste of water, eggs and flour on everyone while groups paraded the emptied streets making music and dancing. Our hosts made a few bags of it for us, but it was predictable that two guys with out of town looks would be on the receiving end. We did respond but, when our ammunition finished, we had to go back home looking like two unbaked loaves of bread, happy to be exhausted from the fun.
During the day, people drove around in cars with no doors and in hired trucks throwing buckets of water on passersbys. On the pavement, the victims stood prepared to respond with three foot long wooden water jets defending themselves from onslaughts while attacking every car that passed by, with or without doors. The clashes happened with a lot of shouting and laughing. Edu’s aunt warned us to be careful with the things people could put in the water but we were never left with a strange smell.
The first proper carnival of that summer was in the rundown part of town by the old port. The area looked like the background of an old black and white film in the Middle East but with European looking buildings and populated by a Caribbean people.
Recife’s rhythm was not the samba but the frevo, a fast military-like beat with an African twist, performed by brass sections sounding intricate arrangements accompanied by a sizeable rhythm section. The traditional way to dance to it was to kneel up and down to the rhythm waving an umbrella, but the rabble at Praça do Marco Zero square was too drunk for acrobatics and the experience was closer to a punk rock concert, where no one was sure if they were in a fight or if they were having fun. The energy was intense and we had to hold our elbows high in that flood of musical insanity. At one point the organizers stopped the music and held up a bottle of Brazilian whiskey, announcing that was the prize for the best dancer. The band resumed and the crowd went even more berserk.
A couple of weeks later the Carnival officially started and we had two options: the first one was going to Olinda, a historic town where the authorities barred cars from circulating during the entire four days. On its streets and squares, there would be four or five big bands playing in different locations at any time. We could switch from one carnival to another and join crowds never smaller than a thousand people.
The other option was to go to the carnival balls in Recife. The biggest venues in town hired sizable frevo orchestras that made people dance wherever they could – on the dance floor, on the tables and on the chairs. On the first day we went to Olinda but as we were not successful with the girls we kept our energy for the bailes de Carnaval, where there seemed to be more feminine receptivity. The way to pull girls was to grab them by the waist, dance a bit around the rink and then take them to a corner outside and try to get as far as one could. After weeks of frustration, and a lot of beer, the qualifying standards fell and we were quite successful.
Edu stayed on with some other friends who had come up to Recife, and I went back on my own, in the dawn after the carnival ended. By coincidence, some of the members of the band that had played at the Spot Club Recife, where we had spent our carnival, took the same bus and the partying continued for the next forty something hours with a lot of booze, frevo and samba going on until we arrived in Rio.