- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

SALVADOR, Brazil
Thick, pulsing beats throb rhythmically in the cool night air, charged with an aura of exuberance unparalleled by any celebration the world over. Here in Salvador, the country's best Carnaval has reached a fever pitch. With two nights left until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, celebrants are squeezing in as much drinking and debauchery as possible before the long period of repentance.
It is a spectacle without rival. Thousands of celebrants line the city's main thoroughfare to watch trailer-size floats known as trio eletricos carrying multipiece bands that blare tunes from two-story-tall speakers.
While many Brazilian Carnavals are spectator events, Salvador's festival is a hands-on affair for those who can pay the price to join a bloco, or parade group, that follows the trio eletrico dancing and boozing all the way.
Participants gyrate though the night to the amusement of onlookers known as pipoca (popcorn) for the way they bounce around trying to catch a better look.
The drinks flow freely. The behavior becomes bawdier. Carnaval may be a pseudo-religious holiday, but the party is anything but chaste.
Revelers find that their sexual inhibitions seem to melt away as the night wears on. The clothing becomes less covering, the company of strangers more inviting.
Teenagers jam rags soaked with ether into their mouths, taking deep, deliberate breaths that make them weak-kneed and giddy. As the night wears on, some turn sloppy, stumbling and falling to the pavement with a thud.
The night draws out all types.
Drag queens blow kisses to the crowd from a nearby hillside, flashing hairy chests to the sick amusement of all. A group of middle-aged men adorned in burqas worn by women during the Afghan Taliban regime dance clumsily, lifting their cumbersome veils to sip another drink.
A trio of men painted silver from head to toe cast a surreal alien shadow on a smaller celebration through the cobblestone streets of Salvador's historical district.
The nightly celebrations also are inviting scenes for the city's hustlers and thieves, who jam sticky fingers into unsuspecting tourists' pockets.
A hand finding its way into my pocket gets a surprise admonishment when I grab it and bend back a finger. The perpetrator, an unknown among thousands of pipoca, whacks me in the back of the head in return.
After the last trio eletrico finishes its parade, the party goes on until a thin wisp of pre-dawn funk forces even the hardiest partygoers inside for a few hours' rest.
Another day is done. Time to ready yourself again.

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