A sea of people in white abuts a sea of floating white flowers.
That’s the view from above Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach during the last hours of 2010 and the first ones of 2011. The view from within the crowd was a little more colorful: Thousands of people throwing flowers into the sea, thousands more peeing into the sea, fireworks, champagne, live samba, barefoot dancing, sunrise, beer, live samba, barefoot dancing… Of the two million people saturating the beach, not one seemed to think it suspicious that the Portuguese word for “New Years” is the French word for “awakening.”
Réveillon in Brazil not only represents the awakening of a new year but also the beginning of the summer season (read: tourist season), which won’t end until the two-week-long, lent-preceding, parade-costume-samba extravaganza that is Carnival. Réveillon’s also the second biggest Brazilian holiday after Carnival. The two-million-people-deep Copacabana Beach crowd was made up of Cariocas, visitors from every Brazilian state, and tourists from all over the world. Rio’s Réveillon featured some classic, worldwide New Years traditions. Fireworks (which exploded from many boats covering the length of the coastline) and copious champagne are global. But in more ways, Rio’s Réveillon is entirely unique.
What most makes the holiday unlike any other in the world is its religious aspect: Unlike any other Brazilian religious holiday (there are so many!), on Réveillon people worship neither Catholic saints nor Christian traditions. Attention is directed toward Iemanjá on Réveillon. Iemanjá is an Orixá, a deity, who is the protector of the ocean. Her counterparts represent other elements of nature: fire, wind, thunder, stones, rivers, etc. Worship of Iemanjá is a tradition brought to the south Atlantic coast and to the Caribbean by slaves from Africa. Until the 1950s, worship of any Orixá was illegal. Today, the 30 million or so Brazilian worshipers of Iemanjá belong to either the Umbanda or Candomblé religion. (The former does draw from spiritual aspects of Native Brazilian tradition, but both have their main roots on the west coast of Africa.)
It seems that to what religion one belongs isn’t so important on Réveillon. Serious and casual followers alike partake in the tradition of dressing in white, lining the seashore, and tossing white roses and gladioli into the oncoming surf throughout December 31. In exchange for the flowers (and shrines composed of candles in the sand, bottles of champagne, shiny jewelry and sweets), Iemanjá grants good fortune and blessings for the New Year.
Another kind of worship had a louder presence along Copacabana Beach. Four music stages (perhaps one for every kilometer) lined the beach. Barefoot Brazilians danced the New Year’s morning away to Rio’s most classic Samba tunes, drummed out by famous musicians well through sunrise. That it was an uncharacteristically chilly night (around 85°F) after a week of scattered showers didn’t stop the crowds, but it kept the beach pleasantly navigable.
A zoom out of Copacabana and Rio also shows the political side to this Réveillon. December 31 was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s last day in office after eight years. The most popular president in Brazilian history (he left office with an 80 percent approval rating) left the responsibility to Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel and Brazil’s first female president. In Brazil it’s not just a new year – it’s the dawn of a new (female) presidency.
Departure from Rio; Return to Santa Barbara: Rio’s Réveillon meant a lot more than a new year for me. Midnight saw my mental crossing off of a big shiny 3 in the go-back-to-the-states countdown in my head. It’s the end of my year abroad; the conclusion of the longest uninterrupted period I’ve spent away from where I grew up; the culmination of my journey to conquer the Brazilian Portuguese language. It’s the beginning of the end of my undergrad experience; I’ll theoretically be a graduated person six months from now.
But more than all this profound epic transition junk, I’m thinking about everyday life. The weather. Food. My bike. Davidson library. Ask me what a year in Brazil has taught me, and I instantly think: The basis of America’s awesomeness lies in its diversity. I feel so privileged to be returning to a land where I’ll be able to choose from cuisine from all over the world for every meal. A hummus-slathered lemon-pepper-decorated bagel, a veggie burrito, a pile of saag-covered rice with naan, a sandwich bursting with pepper jack cheese and avocado, a bowl of pho, a mountain of pad Thai, a falafel-stuffed pita smothered in tahini-based goo, spicy wonton noodle soup… (Writing this makes my mouth water.)
Of course I’ll miss some things. Here’s a list. The heat-induced quasi-nakedness of everybody and the rarity of needing a sweater. Indeed, the transition back to non-Brazilian bikinis (aka diapers) will be tough. Definitely the funny shwooshing sound produced when you walk on the finest sand in the world. I’ll miss Rio’s lack of sharks, the warmth of the sea, the army of beach vendors. The lax drinking rules are something I imagine missing once back on the oh-so-sober beaches and open-container-free streets of Isla Vista. I think that most of all I’ll miss Portuguese, and speaking in secret code (whether in English around Brazilians or in Portuguese around tourists). The beautifully colorful ambience that ordinary posters, signs, and shop fronts take on when remixed in Portuguese. Rio’s transformations—especially the pacification of Rocinha (the favela where I’ve been living) and preparations for 2014’s World Cup and 2016’s Olympics—are phenomenon I’ll wish I were experiencing first hand as they happen.
Then I’ve got another list, of things I’m supposed to miss but honestly probably won’t. These include abundant fresh tropical fruit, lack of responsibility, cachaça, and people who never seem to be in a rush and always seem to crave small talk. I’m more of a veggie person, am bored without obligations, usually prefer vodka to cachaça, and prefer walking quickly with headphones. Still, I can imagine the appeal.
The easiness of school and consequent disintegration of my brain over the last year is something to which I’ve got to put an immediate end I’m (at least for now) anticipating excitedly a return to challenging classes, days at the library. A life balanced between studying (a privilege) and work (to pay for studying) is extremely rare in Rio. The lack of a middle class in Rio has also been a little awkward: Being treated unreasonably well by workers is something I’m not used to. I’m looking forward to riding my bike, getting the bus for free, filling my water bottle in the sink. And finally, I miss big cups of coffee. How am I supposed to pass a couple of aimless hours over a tiny espresso shot?
This will all be irrelevant tomorrow. Tchau, Rio!