A parrot as tall as a four story house, a serpent big enough to swallow an SUV and a pink half man-half dolphin hover in the air. Sounds like a world out of Hieronymus Bosch.
If you make the 15-hour riverboat journey from the Brazilian city Manaus or you fly an hour -- there is no highway -- you will come to the Connecticut-size Amazon island of Tupinambarana. And there in a sleepy, former rubber boomtown called Parintins (par-in-cheenz), you will witness one of the most improbable and otherworldly spectacles of your life.
Part jungle opera, part burlesque show, the three-night Boi Bumbá Festival unleashes thousands of dancers, drummers and singers who duke it out for their team in telling a tale infused with heroes and bad guys, sex and violence, indigenous rituals and a dose of Christian lore. Indian maidens wearing 10-foot-tall feathered headdresses sing and shimmy in front of -- and at times literally dangle from -- massive animal puppets. For hours on end, the vibrantly-appliqued beasts are wheeled with military synchronization in and out of the Bumbódromo, a purpose-built, open-air arena packed with 35,000 crazed fans, known as the galera.
The extravaganza all revolves around the Boi, an ox, or rather a dancer in a bull costume. Altogether baffling to outsiders, the gist of the Amazonian folktale goes like this: Pregnant Catarina craves ox tongue; her husband Francisco, a slave ranch hand, kills the ranch owner Amo's prize ox and faces death; ultimately the Pajé, a shaman, dances and chants the animal back to life; Francisco gets a reprieve, and everyone is happy.
Like Southern Hemisphere Hatfields and McCoys, the residents of Parintins show a fierce allegiance to either one of two camps. With its adherents swathed in red, Garantido represents the common man. Caprichoso, considered more refined, decks its devotees out in blue. The name of your contrário, or your opposition, shall not be uttered, nor their colors borrowed, and some families with divided loyalties paint their houses down the middle.
At the risk of losing points during the competition, the galera must remain deadly silent and sit in their darkened-half of the arena when the other Boi team is performing. For all its rival intensity, Boi Bumbá is above all a family affair, from grandparents to small kids filling the Bumbódromo.
The action kicks off as the apresentador, the MC, starts working the crowd. As the night goes on one song recounting the ox folktale morphs into another; at moments you might catch a touch of hip hop or Jamaican dancehall rhythms, which might give way to incongruous sax or violin solos. And again and again samba whistles screech and the powerful percussion of hundreds of samba drummers echoes through the arena (the word Bumbá is onomatopoeic after all).
With fireworks booming overhead, male cheerleaders stand on high platforms and whip their pompom-and flag-wielding galera into a frenzy. Among the hundreds of buff dancing warriors and cowboys and other Broadway-like stock characters, the Cunhã Poranga, an Indian maiden, always looks like a Maxim cover girl. She might be swinging from a giant jaguar as if in a tropical Folies Bergère or jumping out of the belly of a giant pregnant Catarina. It's psychedelia time in the Amazon.
The roots of Boi Bumba go back a century, but as a full-blown spectacle the festival really got going in the mid-'60s -- and only reached a national TV audience a few years ago. Supporters are proud to claim that Parintins' costume design and choreography are now getting copied by Rio carnival producers. Despite the show's homage to indigenous cultures, few if any Indian groups survive in this part of Brazil. This is the land of caboclos, as Brazilians of Indian and European descent are called, which explains why last year Garantido's sub-theme was "Miscegenation," spelled out in huge letters on top of the stadium. By American standards some of the depictions are also politically incorrect, as in, yes, blackface.
At the run-up to the festival, yachts and multi-deck ferries turn the shore into an aquatic parking lot. They deliver 90,000 visitors, doubling Parintins in size. Everyone tootles about on tricycle-taxis, while some tour their favorite Boi's curral, the warehouse, where festival prep and practice takes place. The streets fill with vendors selling everything from t-shirts and toys to medicinal teas (anyone for a bottle of banho afrodisíaco?). Families nibble on grilled meats and popular Amazonian fish like the jaraqui. They slurp frothy shakes made from exotic fruits whose multisyllabic local names you could never pronounce.
By 2 a.m., Sunday morning the action comes to a halt. The champion is proclaimed later that day -- last year Garantido squeeked out a victory with 1,258.8 points to Caprichoso's 1,258.6. (No word on hanging chads.) The winner gets no prize, just a year of glory. And then Parintins goes back to sleep for the next 362 days.
If you go:
This year Boi Bumbá (officially known as the Festival Folclórico de Parintins) takes place June 29-July 1, 2012. Lodging is a crunch, and thousands of visitors sleep on the boats that brought them, ranging from hammocks on ferries to rooms on luxury yachts. The Amazon River Resort Hotel is one of the better hotels in town. An hour north of Manaus, the Amazônia Golf Resort was once a ranch; now it's a comfy conference hotel where you can golf and play spot the caiman peering at you from the ponds.
With bungalows built on stilts right over the Juma river and monkeys in the trees, the Juma Amazon Lodge is a true ecolodge. From Manaus, guests boat across the Meeting of the Waters where the dark current of the Rio Negra and lighter Rio Simões flow together to form the Amazon proper. Then it's a four-hour ride via overland van and river launch past caboclo river communities. An hour boat ride from Manaus, the Amazon Jungle Lodge is a well-appointed floating hotel.
All photos by John Oseid