John Malathronas dances on the wild side of Salvador Carnival

So here I am, drinking beer happily from my Skol can and enjoying the deep drum sounds and startling sights of Salvador Carnival, when I feel a hand behind me frisking my shorts.  Frankly, I don’t mind being touched up, but I would like to consent as to who’s doing it, so I turn back quickly to challenge my Bermudas intruder. I freeze. It is the Brazilian Policia Militar. “Don’t resist,” whispers my Brazilian friend, André.


How did I get myself into this?


I arrived in Salvador specifically for Carnival. Like many others who’d either had their fix of the Rio variant – like me – or who’d decided that it’s become overhyped and overexpensive, I opted for the full-on participatory experience of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil’s most African of states. It helped that it was a city where I had local friends to show me around.

It was easy to get into the Bahian groove upon arrival. I did my sightseeing in the morning. I soaked the sun on an urban beach later, Porto da Barra being a personal favourite. And then I returned home to lie down, waiting for some marching percussion band to wake me up, as they do.

I knew my way around: there are guide posts all over the tourist areas that distribute  the timetable and locations of the various acts. In the Salvador Carnival, bands appear on top of a lorry armed with a sound system tough enough to smatter the Hoover dam, and they’re driven through specific circuits in the city. It’s like Reading Festival on wheels: except that the average performance  of the acts-on-lorries tends towards the three-hour set. 

If you want to follow a particular band and dance within a roped-in area around the lorry, you need to buy a special, identifying T-shirt from Shopping  Iguatemi  in the east of the city; the price varies with the artist’s popularity. If you want comfort, you can buy space in a camarote, a balcony that faces the procession. Or you can simply just stand back on the pavement, watch the lorries pass by and boogie on the spot  – which is what we did.

But watch out. The crowds that follow the lorries are drunk, high on energy and invariably contain a criminal element. Ryan, an American student I teamed up with, suddenly found himself ‘steamed’ by a gang who’d marked him out and swept him away from us. Yet, Ryan did the right thing: he started shouting  and pushing back. He therefore scared the robbers, afraid of the ever-present Military Police.

Oh, yes, the Military Police…


I didn’t fully follow Andre’s advice. I knew that in a confrontation with Brazilian police you do two things: firstly, yes, you obey but you also make sure they know you are a gringo. So, although I let the police frisk me, I proclaimed my innocence in English with eyes as wide as pasta plates. 


It was over in a few seconds.