I want you to imagine your most exciting New Years Eve or Chinese New Year. What about a birthday party, or a 4th of July? Try now to think about that crazy Halloween party you attended last year, the year before, 20 years ago. Now, put all of those experiences together and you just might be able to visualize my Carnaval in Florianopolis, Brazil.

I was exposed to Brazilian Carnaval through films, TV shows, books and the Internet. From these pieces of mass media, I created my own expectations of what Carnaval would be like, just like I’m sure many of you have done as well. Huge floats, sparkly dancers wearing practically nothing, and crowds of people drinking more than the Irish during St. Patrick’s Day. In some ways, many of my expectations did not stray from the reality, however the fact that I am in a smaller city meant that my Carnaval would be mellower. However, my “mellow” Carnaval was full of the most “out of this world” festivities and events. A vibe of complete alegria (happiness) emanated from every person you met on the street because this week was full of “frees”. Free of stress and responsibilities, and most importantly, free to step outside of your constricting personality box. You could explore the world outside of your daily routine, and be whomever you wanted without the risk of being judged by society, because everyone is allowed to go a little crazy when Carnaval comes to town.

The first thing I noticed when I entered a block parade was the crowd. The amount of people that invaded the streets was so unreal that it took me a couple of minutes to actually comprehend what I had gotten myself into (this is coming from someone who spent seven years in Beijing where people are not lacking). The music was blasting from the huge trucks rumbling down the middle of the street, filling my head with vibrations and an expected future headache. To be honest, I was overwhelmed, and confused about how this could possibly be the enjoyable Carnaval everyone was raving about. Then, I looked at the expressions of the people around me wondering if they were experiencing the same disappointment. To my surprise, everyone was smiling and laughing, their faces emitting pure joy. In the end it was the emotions of the people around me that brought tranquility to a hostile atmosphere. I started to enjoy the blasting music and the elbows of people digging into my kidneys. It was the beauty of the chaos that made Carnaval so memorable.

As I glanced to my right, I saw a woman wearing barely anything except some blinking devil horns on her head. She was dancing provocatively to the beat of the music blasting from afar with her fellow mini-skirted friends laughing by her side. Then, I looked to my left and saw a middle-aged man with his five-year-old daughter locked onto his shoulders happily devouring the mound of cotton candy she so carefully clung to. She was wearing sparkly devil horns too, and I laughed to myself at the irony. This is what I loved the most about my Carnaval in Brazil. Everyone comes together regardless of age, class, race, or gender.

If you travel back to the reality of Brazil, however, this atmosphere of unity and equality is non-existent. The gap between races and classes is striking. The same streets are lined with wooden shacks and marble mansions that reflect the large gap between rich and poor. There is still oppression and discrimination of the black population due to the slave trade that ended not so long ago. During Carnaval, all of these problems are silently shoved under a mattress until the week is over and the mattress is eventually turned over again.

The difficult social problems facing Brazilians may help to explain why, during this short period, there is a sense of relief in the crowds as their differences do not cause them to push each other away, but instead give them reason to embrace one another. During this week you could be a high school student and run into your math teacher wearing a tube top, beer in hand, shaking her hips to the music. You could be a bank teller and see your uptight boss walk down the parade with a drum in hand. As he notices you and waves, you could wave right back and maybe even hug him or give him a shot of your mystery drink, because, why not!? It’s Carnaval!