Carnival and the Ephemeral Identity

It is incredibly hard to decide what to write about from Rio. The days have been blue, the sun has never left the sky, and carnival has been carnival. I have reencountered friends I met when studying in Brasil 12 years ago, in NY 11 years ago, in England a few years ago, and even travellers I crossed Kashmir with last year. I have made a great new friend. A gorgeous Iraqi English woman. Of the strange things that happen to me. In one day I am partying with a broken foot in the street carnival with a Bahraini girl, and of the other I meet an Iraqi in Brazil.


There is something that makes me feel at ease with these gorgeous and complex women of the Orient. They have identities that are so complex. I myself feel a little bit divided in this mosaic of identities. So I lay in Bikini in Ipanema, admiring the gorgeous people around but hoping for Sara to arrive since I know she will understand this multiplicity I have inside.


We will inevitably talk about the world. About emotions. About our experiences in Israel and Palestine. We will laugh and be intrigued by it all. Like foreigners who have crossed too many borders we will feel no belonging to a specific identity, while at the same time feeling a bit of them all. We will feel just like human beings, we will find familiar and strange things here together. Oh yes, it is true, I forgot, but this my country, I should somehow be an expert on it. I am not. In fact, I am not at all.


I walk around the Carnival in the street with my broken foot. The street is packed. There is music, there is joy. I have no phone. I search the purple hat of yet another friend. People are surprised I am alone. Boys and men offer kisses, marriage proposals, unforgettable nights, smiles, and when I explain I have just come back from another world that I do not want to waste their time of Carnival to my surprise they offer help.


The thing is that Carnival is a time, an ephemeral possibility of it all. It is a time in Brasil where people party in spite of it all. And in Brasil partying is incredibly related to sexuality. The Bahraini girl is shocked and marvelled by some gorgeous Carioca ( native of Rio) who just out of the blue kisses her. I am Brazilian and I am shocked too. So I explain as I walk around to these beautiful guys that they should not waste their breath on me, I am here on a mission, I am searching for a friend.


To my surprise my apparent lack of desire to engage sexually, but still engage humanly puzzles these boys. They then want to know where I come from, who am I, about Buddhism, and the East, do I need help? It is almost like once I just talk plain normally they feel they must take care of me in a non sexual way. It is funny. I have many conversations which are not typical at all. It somehow feels like anywhere else in the world.


There is one part of me that loves this joy, this easiness of it all. People look at my broken foot and congratulate me on not letting it stop me from partying. I love the fact that everybody talks to everybody. Another part of me feels incredibly lonely. I have yet another conversation with yet another stranger and he tells me of a poetry book called ” distracted we will win”. I who always feel we can either in life use things to distract ourselves from ourselves, or encounter ourselves and the others feel very puzzled.


I just can’t, and do not know how to do it. I love the joy. But if I am distracted I am not fully present I therefore cannot feel it. The stranger then explains to me that he sees “distraction” as a way of stopping the mind. A way of just being in the body. I am completely puzzled. That sounds Buddhist to me. Stop the mind, being present. But how can he call this being distracted? I walk a bit more till some other stranger seats next to me.


I am tired I seat on the stairs. I need a rest and I decide to just look at the parade in front of me. This new stranger has melancholic eyes. She offers me a smile, candy, and many words.


I seat observing this human manifestation. I feel happy. I feel puzzled. I feel intrigued by how much Brazilians touch each other. Sara is Iraqi and having spent one carnival night  in rio while the rest in Bahia feels this carnival is quite moderate. Almost European.


As she says that I laugh. I remember meeting in Rome my Italian friend who lives in Palestine and who in Rome was now shocked at the clothes of Italian girls.


This multiplicity of identities is woven in such an intricate way that I need as much touch as a Brazilian when I am in Europe, I need to feel it viscerally like they feel in the middle east when I am in South East Asia, and I need to be present in a Buddhist way in the Middle East. In Brasil now, I feel I need space like they have in Thailand. I suddenly realise that the fabric of a traveller’s identity is not only complex but it is circumstantial. I am suddenly in Brasil and I feel home with a Middle Eastern. But certainly in the Middle East I would be listening to samba.

Kitchen Tales in Brasil

In Brazil it is said that nothing starts before Carnival. It actually means that when millions of people go down to the coastline of Brazil to celebrate New Year’s eve dressed in white and jumping waves (it is summer in Brazil)  in a celebration of Brazilian syncretism that mixes African and European traditions we do not really celebrate the new year. We celebrate this interim period we know will last until the year really starts after Carnival. Everything between the 1st of January and Ash Wednesday is not really that serious. Well, one could argue nothing is ever that serious in Brazil. In some corners the preparation for carnival starts as soon as carnival is over.

It has been 11 years I have not been in Brazil for carnival. And had I not broken a foot I would not be here this year either. But I am and in a broken foot I decided to behave in a Carnival way. I decided to live my fantasies for a brief period when all is possible. I decided to go back to Rio, which is known by the Carioca ( people born in Rio), as the cidade maravilhosa ( the wonderful city).
Rio is without a question beautiful to the point of taking your breath away. Every single time I go to Rio I am flabergasted. I do understand every single time why it is that Cariocas have a tougher time living abroad then we Paulistas ( people who come from Sao Paulo) do. In all inequality that Brasil is, Rio’s beaches are democratic spaces, the bars where the traditional Samba is played is a democratic place where young and old, rich and poor gather to sing and play music. Yes I love Rio. It is usually there, in this little bars, with owners who tell the clients to shut up to hear the music that I feel more Brazilian. Usually I feel adrift wherever it is that I am.
Oh, the contradictions of me and Brasil. I live in a huge house. There are people here who work on making my life, and my family’s lives easier. Much easier. We don’t cook, nor wash, nor clean. Yet it is not that these work is made invisbly. No, as I wrote in my last e-mail, Claudia, one of the ladies who works here, even without knowing me as I arrived to say Hello flung her arms wide open around me and hugged me. Ever since that day whatever it is I am doing she shows up to tell me about her day, and nights, and life.
She, like million other northeastern Brazilians, came to the south east region to  search for a better life. People in the south usually make fun of them. They laugh of their accents. An accent that is even more melodic than the portuguese foreigners already feel is music. She told me her story. In pieces. Every piece amounts to one more tragedy which in her mouth comes out in laughter
Claudia is 34. She got pregnant as a teenager. Her mother had 8 children. She lost one to drugs. Claudia with a baby in her arms left her house after a fight and found a job as a maid. In the northeast, in some house where she had to work doing it all, she considered the boss a mother. The boss indeed helped her a lot while exploiting her at the same time. How can it be that these relationships are so mixed in Brasil? She speaks of her with love. Eventually she went back to her mother’s house. And her life ever since has been like that. Looking for jobs, leaving her children behind, and bringing them close whenever she was more stable.
Yes. she got pregnant again. She entered a relationship with a man she did not love to have her daughter close. He was nice at first, then he beat her. And then she beat him back. And he used her. And she left. To find temporary solace in the arms of other men. No she never lost her smile. Everyday when I hear a little more she has both tears in her eyes and a smile in her face. Every day she works incredibly hard, every night she goes out. Oh the contradictions of Brasil…
Nininha, a gorgeous northeastern girl, also works here. She is really beautiful. She also has a child who now cannot go to school because there is no place in the public school of the neighbourhood. Private school is unthinkable for those who do all the jobs that people in my social class do not. As I am here writing she shows up to ask me whether  I have seen a cd with the pictures of her daughter. Apparently my aunt had borrowed it. I had not. But I had seen the whole album of pictures of Claudia’s family and so had my cousin, my aunt, my grandmother.
They love my grandmother who is according to them the best boss they had ever had. They would never leave her even if she wanted them to go. They even bought her a gift the other day. My grandmother who is 87 and still goes to the gym, and drives, travels, and goes to museums told them “she needed nothing and that  they should not waste the money they had worked so hard for with her”. But they wanted to. Hearing them tell me that story I remembered my own wedding when Terezinha, who is my age, and works for my parents for almost two decades gave me a huge amount of money compared to her salary as a gift for my wedding. I told her I could not possibly take it. She insisted it was her way of helping me to start a new life. With my eyes full of tears, I took it, and then told my mom to give it back as complimentary bonus after. Oh, the contradictions of Brazil.
I am going to Rio this weekend. Searching in these brief illusions of carnival solace for my contradicted body and soul. Claudia is happy beyond belief. It is not so much because of Carnival. It is because now she is stable enough to bring her children from the north to live with her here.
“I have never abandoned my children. They know. When I organise myself I go get them.”
That is a bit of Brasil. A world of inequality where in one place people are shot because of it, and in others people share laughter, stories, and warmth in spite of it.
Let’s see what happens when the year finally begins. Happy Carnival.

Chico Buarque

“Nao existe pecado do lado debaixo do equador”. Literally means that sins do not exist below the equator. This lyrics are part of one of Chico Buarque’s song. The singer and composer Chico Buarque is the nephew Brazilian Portuguese dictionary author, and the son of one of Brasil´s most important historian. Chico, as he is known, has composed love songs, carnival songs, passionate songs, political songs, stories and songs about so many other topics.  He has giving voice to men and women of so many different brazilian worlds. There are many many worlds within Brasil. He is considered by many our greatest composer. I include myself in this list that considers him as such.

I usually say that as soon as I land in Brasil I feel 3 things in the air : the violence, the sensuality and the joy. This time in a broken foot I did not stop to observe anything. Now I feel it all around me again. I just came back from a concert/play of Chico Buarque´s songs. It was a presentation on love. And in Brazil love is passionate. There are fights, and jealousy, and betrayals and forginviness, and passion, and fights and forgiveness and passion and figths and forgiveness and passion….

I looked around me and I saw women and men who sat around touched viscerally by those songs. They all knew them. They had all loved in that way. They had all once loved  “slowly but desperately” because there was no time,  they had all made ” samba and love” ,  they had all “mixed their legs through the nights not knowing which ones to use when they had to depart”. They all knew these lyrics.  So their eyes carried tears. It came from inside, from within, from the guts.
On stage a woman and a man enacted a couple ( did they enacted or were they really the thing ?) that went through an almodovarian vicious cycle of passion.  They loved and cried, fought and laughed. They sang, danced, recited poetry from all over the world…. the painted with neruda the night. In my poor translation it goes.

I only want 5 things
The first is love without an end
The second is to see autumn
The third is the grave winter
Fourthly comes the summer
The fith thing are your eyes
I dont want to sleep without your eyes
I dont want to be without you looking at me
I give up on spring so that you keep looking at me

I looked around and I could feel all of this violence, and passion, and joy in the air. It suddenly striked me what a world apart I was from spiritual chaotic India, Buddhist reserved and warm Thailand. Oddly enough Chico reminded me of different moments in Asia. It reminded of me floating in the Gaia listening to two older musicians play Dylan. I never liked Dylan but that night I learned to like. Mark, my friend from my PhD who came to visit me was there seating next to me. We were observing the small details of the night.

Mark is American but like me he left his country too long ago to actually feel connected to the culture. That night he connected to something. He connected to the music that came from his home country. Tonight I connected to mine. I remembered being in a vipassana meditation retreat and learning that passion was as much of a negativity as anger. Through meditaiton we were practicing to erradicate this. I remember thinking to myself that a cure to passion would not sell that well in Brasil.

I sat throught the night not as moved as everybody around. I heard the music. The craving for passion. The feelings floating around me and thought I was somehow less brazilian in that I was not sure that that was such a great way to go about love. But then came the last song where Chico used the tenses of verbs to create and atemporal notion of love. A love that is not bounded by time. And then he talked about the “time of gentleness” that comes after the chaotic time. And then somehow the music walked within me in places that other songs do not reach. I shed a tear. I somehow knew in my body that my soul was finally arriving here.