by Jim Kane
Families pray in a packed church during Paucartambo's annual celebration in honor of the Virgin of Carmen. Photo: Jim Kane
Mangueira! The shout rose toward us through the dense crowd of Cariocas spilling over the sidewalk and into the street parade. My friend Michael and I were in the middle of it, being swept up by the tide of people in the Ipanema district of Rio, enjoying the city’s world-famous Carnival.
"Mangueira!" This time I spotted the Brazilian couple waving to us, calling us over to their sidewalk table outside the popular Sindicato do Chopp beer parlor. They had spotted our bright pink and green shirts, with the name of one of the city’s most beloved samba schools emblazoned prominently across the front.
Subtle the shirts were not, but then again neither is carnival. Plus, we wore them for a good reason. Before this trip, I had read Alma Guillermoprieto’s book Samba, which describes the devotion the city’s favela residents have for their beloved samba schools. Each favela will spend months of preparation on the theme and choreography and each participating resident will spend months of hard-earned wages constructing the elaborate costumes needed to compete in—and win—the samba school parade during the week-long fête. Reading Guillermoprieto’s book converted me into a fan of Mangueira, one of the perennial carnival samba school contenders.
On this night, our recognizable garb and knowledge of the Mangueira samba school served as our access pass to the local side of one of the world’s most passionate public events. We received invitations for beer and spontaneous samba lessons as a band of musicians passed through the street. It was the catalyst for a spirited conversation with a couple of friendly Cariocas, made all the more lively by our forced mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
Local festivals are a highlight of almost any trip abroad for those lucky enough to plan their visit around one, or just to stumble onto one by chance. These celebrations offer drama, beauty, energy, and, above all, open a doorway into the living culture of the place you’re visiting. With research and careful preparation, you can increase your odds of passing through that doorway, into the local side of the celebration.
The following ideas may help in making the transition from observer to participant, in a way that both you and your hosts will appreciate.
Know Before You Go
Before traveling to participate in a festival, you should research the customs, history and importance of the event in its current cultural context. This is critical if you are to understand the expectation for behavior and dress that guide the festival. Knowing the meaning and purpose of the celebration within the culture will also make it more personally enriching.
If you have time, arriving to town a few days before the celebration begins is a great way to acclimate to the rhythm of the place. It provides a unique perspective on the preparation process, which is often as important to local residents as the celebration itself.
For the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2003, I was able to arrive several days ahead of the main festival. As I walked through town each day, I felt the pulse of the city start to quicken.
One of my favorite memories of that special time was an invitation to visit my friend Pati’s mother as she prepared her famous mole, a labor of love made only for special occasions. As we talked in her cozy home and drank hot chocolate and ate pan de muertos she showed me the seven types of chilies that she had just fire-roasted to be hand ground before being combined them with charred bread, a handful of spices, and the dozen or so other ingredients that would be added over the course of two days to create a rich, black, and spicy edible magic.
Although there was a lot of work to be done, there was no hurry in her voice, only a real desire to invite me into their world, to help me understand that for the family, the most important part of the Day of the Dead tradition is indeed the love with which the ceremony is prepared. After all, the food, decoration, flowers, and cemetery visits are all acts that unite the family—both living and dead—for these two days of the year.
A dancer belonging to the Qhapaq Qolla comparsa pays an annual graveside homage to a deceased member of the group. Photo: Jim Kane
Photograph for Others
This works best in smaller settings where some rapport and trust has been established between you and a local resident or friend. It should be clear that this advice is only for those situations where photography is widely accepted in the first place.
Often, tourists photograph (or video) a festival in places where access to camera equipment is very limited. If you can form a rapport with a participant in the festival, offer to photograph it for them. This will allow you greater and closer access to the activities, it will be a wonderful contribution to their festival memories, and it will surely open the door to a friendship and connection for the following year.
Make it an Annual Event
Almost all aspects of experiencing a festival like a local become easier if you return for a second, third, or fourth time. You’ll find many advantages to in-depth, firsthand experiences—from building local friendships and trust, to knowing the best streets or balconies from which to watch the procession, to becoming comfortable with the social etiquette during the festival.
In October, I’ll return to Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration. This time, my small group and I will build and decorate our own alter, paying homage to our passed loved ones just as Oaxaca’s residents do. This year, returning to Oaxaca feels less like getting away and more like coming home.