Carnivale is a pagan celebration that happens forty days before Easter in which the Portuguese dress up in costumes, devour copious amounts of meat, drink, and dance before fasting – nothing like a hung-over meat coma to ring in the death of Jesus.
Jason and I arrive in Porto just as Carnivale is waking up from its year long nap. We are beleaguered, sleep deprived, and suffering the momentary depression travelers get after passing through three airports in a day and ending up in a country they will nver fully understand. We hop on train from Lisbon to Porto and manage to find our stop where Catarina is waiting for us. I’ve never felt so relieved from the pressures of survivalist thinking – of where we are, where we are going, and how we plan to continue so blindly into a foreign continent. Catarina drives us a few blocks to her apartment where a traditional Portuguese dinner is already set. It’s cod and rice (along with a vegetarian dish of rice and mushrooms) with green wine. The white wine has a green hue, is sweet in flavor, and exclusive to the northern region of Portugal. Over dinner we get to know Catarina, her mother Carla, and her friend Win. With food and a bit of wine in our bellies, Catarina takes us to a nearby cafe for local coffee. She has been visiting the Cafe Rio do Fonte since she was just a little girl. The locals inside greet her like a daughter, kiss her on both cheeks, and inquire in Portuguese about the two out-of-place Americans looking lost and scared, hugging the exit. A few ladies dressed as fortune-tellers call Win over to read his palm as Catarina translates.
“You will have three sons,” she says in Portuguese, “And they will all die poor.”
Everyone laughs at a deeper meaning I’ve yet to grasp and then invite us to their table and order five glasses of port wine. We toast, drink, and fall right into the alien ambience with diminishing reluctance. I finish my drink and Jason trades me his glass for my empty one. Catarina tells us that this is a working class neighborhood and that twenty-five percent of Porto is unemployed. The locals stay here all day socializing with friends, making new ones, and ordering an occasional beverage. The owner appologizes for the regulars who, by this time of night, are quite intoxicated. Apparently though, eleven in the evening is still too early to be drunk in Portugal.
After coffee and wine we head back to Catarina’s home to apply mustaches from a costume shop. It’s almost midnight when we hail a taxi to the center of downtown Porto. The crowds are just starting to come out and almost everyone is wearing costumes. I see several people dressed as popes, a few superheroes, the bargain bin collection of “sexy” this-and-that, and a myriad of cross dressers all waiting to get into a club. It’s the kind of nightlife you can see in any city on Halloween.
“Look at all those high schoolers,” Catarina says as we pass by.
We go through the doors of a seemingly upscale bar where a few older couples sit at clothed tables finishing their dinner and drinks. A well dressed bartender barely acknowledges us as we head downstairs to a seperate bar. There’s a few young people dancing to a mash-up of American pop music and traditional Portuguese songs. Catarina informs us that DJ Discossauro and DJ Rubalinho have, for this special holiday, set aside their long time feud. In the vein of a Spanish soap opera, these two excentric performers have formed a precarious turntable alliance of old meets new. The joke is that Discossauro still uses vinyl while Rubalinho prefers modern technology. I’m told that the music scene in Portugal is twelve years behind the United States, which means that the hipster invasion is still a decade away.
Catarina introduces us to the DJs and several of her leftist friends. We share some drinks, dance to some songs, and watch as the sparcely populated dance floor fills up with a myriad of costumed locals and tourists who twirl, flemenco, and salsa inexhaustibly for the next four hours. We forget our heavy eyelids, sore bodies, and timidity, giving ourselves to the spirit of Carnivale; which as I’m coming to understand it, embodies the indomitable spirit of Kerouac’s “manana”.