Some Brazilians skip Carnival for spiritual retreats

Members of the Adventist Church participate in a spiritual retreat during the 2012 Carnival in Brazil.

 By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA – With the official Carnival parades of samba schools in full swing in Brazil, many Brazilians are opting to not participate in a celebration that they believe to be excessive and immoral.

“Many immoral and nearly naked people go to Carnival. They engage in excessive drinking. We like to travel during Carnival without participating in the street dancing. We follow the Bible,” Neusa Lacerda, a 50-year-old housekeeper who lives in Gama, a satellite city around 34 kilometers from Brasilia, told me in an interview.

Born into a Catholic family, Neusa says a Jehovah’s Witness family raised her. She and her husband are now members of the evangelical church, and like to participate in family barbecues on the weekends.

“I have danced in the streets during Carnival in the past,” she said. “But God forgives us. I suffered a lot as my father was an alcoholic, and my religion says that we cannot become drunk. It is a question of self-control.”

Neusa is part of a growing number of Brazilians who are leaving the Catholic Church, which is still the largest in Brazil, and joining evangelical Protestant churches. According to the Datafolha polling firm three in every ten Brazilians (29 percent) are now evangelicals. In 1994, 75 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic. In 2015 that number had fallen to 55 percent. The evangelical churches have been aggressive in recruiting new members, and use singing and other activities to attract Catholics bored by the relative traditionalism of the Catholic Church.

Carnival celebrations are big business in Brazil, with the 2016 one in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, generating R$400 million (US$129 million) in business sales, according to the mayor’s office. It estimates that for every R$1 spent, the city earns R$40 in return. This year in Salvador, Bahia, the local government estimates that R$50 million (US$16 million) will be spent on 197 attractions, with more than half of the expenses being sponsored by the private sector. In the colonial city of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, it was reported by the O Tempo newspaper that revelers consumed 1 million liters of beer in the 2012 Carnival.

With the whole country shutting down for four days during the peak of the Carnival, it can be hard for evangelical churches to compete with the large street celebrations all over the country. Just last weekend in pre-Carnival street celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, it was estimated that one million people took to the streets to dance behind “trio eletricos” or mobile bands that blast out happy music for hours on end.

Some evangelical churches have decided to join in the Carnival celebrations, but in squeaky-clean and religious versions. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper the Bola de Neve Church in Guarulhos held a Carnival party on Feb. 10 at its headquarters, with music and dancing. But instead of the sleazy lyrics common in Carnival songs, words praising Jesus were inserted.

But most evangelical churches stay well away from dancing during Carnival and instead promote spiritual retreats where followers can spend their time in reflection and prayers. That is what the Baptist Ebezener Church of Taguatinga, around 24 kilometers from Brasilia, is doing yet again this year. It started holding this annual retreat in 2002, and runs around 20 branches of the church in Brasilia and surrounding cities.

“We are holding a spiritual retreat from Feb. 24-28, and we are expecting 3,000 people to attend,” pastor J. Alves told me in a phone interview.  “We have invited several guest speakers to give lectures during the day, and we have separate activities for the children and teenagers. We will charge each attendee around R$50 (US$16) a day in order to participate.”

Pipocada, peeing and Beyoncé in Salvador’s Carnaval

A Carnaval parade in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, Bahia.

“TAKE OFF your shirt now!” yelled my partner Thiago over the sounds of revelers dancing and enjoying themselves to the music of the trio eléctricos passing by.

We were in the middle of Carnaval in Salvador, Bahia, last February, trying to make our way up through the crowds on the coastal road in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood of the city.

“Everyone is looking at our abadás, so take it off!” Thiago explained. He had already swiftly taken off his black and white tank top, otherwise known as an abadá in Portuguese. I struggled with my Mardi Gras beads, and when Thiago saw that I couldn’t extricate myself from them fast enough, he just yanked down on them sharply until they snapped. I quickly took my tank top off, and off we went up the hill, bare-chested but slightly less frightened of being jumped for our abadás.

Every trio eléctrico and camarote, or VIP lounge area, had a different abadá for every day of the seven days of Carnaval in Salvador. This was the easiest and fastest way to see who had paid the required hefty fees to dance behind the musical floats in the Carnaval parade or watch from the safety of the camarotes, where beer flowed freely. Those who could not afford to pay for either had to make do standing on the sidelines of the parade route, squeezed between thousands of people who were often rowdy and many times erupted into fights. These people are referred to in slang Portuguese as the pipocada, or the popcorn, a reference to how they look like corn being popped as they jump up and down to the sounds of axé music.

After twenty minutes of relentlessly pushing our way through the excited crowds of revelers, we finally arrived at our camarote, tired and slightly dazed at having survived the madding crowds.

****

LUCKILY, we arrived in Salvador from Brasilia a few days before the actual Carnaval parades kicked off, which meant we had some time to explore the city and get our bearings. It was my first time in Salvador, the first capital of Brazil and the old port where most of Brazil’s slaves arrived from Africa to work on sugar cane plantations here. For Thiago, this was to be his fourth Carnaval in Salvador, which comforted me by knowing that at least one of us knew the city already.

The historic neighborhood of Pelourinho, with its cobbled streets, historic buildings and colonial churches, was the most interesting for me. Guidebooks claim that there are 365 colonial churches in Salvador, one for every day of the year!

A ghoulish fact of the Pelourinho’s past came to my attention as I leafed through a lavish coffee-table book on Salvador in our hotel room. It said, in almost nonchalant terms, that slaves who misbehaved in colonial times were often strung up in public squares in the district and whipped as a warning to other to slaves not to misbehave.

Brazil was one of the last countries in the world to outlaw slavery in 1888. The fact that Salvador was the port of entry of so many African slaves into the country, means that the city to this day remains the most important center of Brazilian-African culture in the nation.

****

THE NIGHT before Thiago and I went to see the Beyoncé concert at the exhibition center out by the airport, we were eating dinner in the Pelourinho district when I noticed several strikingly beautiful black American women and men who were also eating in the same restaurant.

“Look Thiago,” I said. “Don’t you think these are musicians and backup singers for Beyoncé?”

And sure enough the next night at the concert, we recognized several of them on the stage with Beyoncé.

****

URINATING in public becomes a major issue during Carnaval in Salvador. Thousands of people dancing in the streets at the same time, while swilling down rivers of ice cold beer, leads to one insurmountable problem: Too much pee and not enough public bathrooms.

The city of Salvador tries to cope by putting up chemical toilets along the various parade routes, but this year they were never enough and many times were locked shut.

On one occasion, both Thiago and I had to pee at the same time when we were dancing with a trio eléctrico. In order to battle our way through the pipocada crowd to get to a bathroom and return in one piece, we asked one of the burly security guards if he would escort us on this mission. He readily agreed, and we followed him as he carved a path through the pulsating human river of people in front of us.

After walking through several blocks of side streets, and still not finding any chemical toilets, we finally stopped and just did as others were already doing and peed on the gate of a house on one of the side streets. Once relieved, we were escorted back to the parade, and we gave the guard a generous tip for his help. I can only imagine how horrifying it must be for women who find themselves in a similar predicament. If I were female and dancing in Carnaval, I would avoid drinking most any kind of liquid. The danger there, of course, with the heat and humidity, is keeling over from heat exhaustion and dehydration!


A colonial church on a square in the Pelourinho
district of Salvador, Bahia.
(Both photos by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh)
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