Every year, for the four days of carnival, Brazil goes crazy. Millions of people crowd the streets of every major city, tourists and locals alike. While costumes are not taken as seriously as I thought - you can pretty much wear anything, bonus points if it’s colorful and if you’re sporting a funny hat or mask - music definitely is. Every city has its favorite bands and carnival songs, and the blocos, as the parades are called, are known for the type of music they play. In Olinda, the “Hymn to the Elephant” makes the crowd goes wild. The bloco takes on a life of its own, pushing the drunken, sweaty bodies this way and that way until the beat changes or the alley opens up to a crossing. At times, walking with the parade feels like being in a giant moving mosh pit.
At night, when the blocos have run their course, everyone tries to make their way back to neighboring Recife to continue the party at one of the many concerts. On my first night of carnival, after a long day of parading through the streets, I was walking along the major road that leads out of Olinda’s old town with a couple of Brazilian friends. Hundreds of people were headed in the same direction, buying snacks from carts and refuelling on beer as they went along. Cars were trying to drive through the masses, and lit up the scene with their headlights. Drumming from one of the last blocos echoed off the buildings. Walking along the less crowded central reservation, we suddenly came across a young man, sitting on the ground in a contorted position. In one hand, he was holding a pair of red sneakers - with the other hand, he was clutching his naked foot, a 50cm long piece of thin rusty iron sticking out of the front. The guy was clearly in shock, unsure what to do and somewhat helpless sitting there his foot impaled on this huge piece of metal. We stopped to help, and some others joined. All in all, we were about seven people surrounding him. It turned out that Jefferson, who’s 18, had taken off his shoes after jumping in them for hours and walked barefoot into the rusty rebar supposed to reinforce the crumbling central reservation. Felipe, my friend Tati’s boyfriend, dialled 192 for an ambulance. Once. Twice. Three times. Nobody picked up. Other people started trying the number, without luck. After a few minutes, Felipe went back towards the old town to speak to police and ask them for help. While we were waiting, of people were passing us on both sides. Some stopped to look and offer advice, others continued.
Felipe returned, alone. “They say it’s not their job to help,” he reported, throwing up his hands in frustration. “What shall we do?” Jonathan clearly couldn’t walk anywhere. Removing the metal would have open up the wound even more, and and possibly cause severe bleeding. We needed to get him to a doctor. However, the vehicles that were passing us at walking speed clearly were not interested in stopping to help, even as we jumped in front of them. Finally, we managed to flag down a police pickup, with three burly looking dudes inside. Tati explained that we needed help to take Jefferson to hospital. However, after a quick heated debate, the police drove off. “They don’t want to take responsibility for loading him in the car. I can’t believe it!” Tati was close to tears. At that moment, I saw a white ambulance passing on the other side of the road. I ran over, thrusting my head though the open window. “Por favor, necessitamos ajuda! Emergencia!” I said, trying to make my bad Spanish sound like Portuguese and gesturing in the direction of the group of people gathered around the boy on the central reservation. The driver looked at me, shook his head, and hit the gas to overtake the cars in front of him.
Finally, minutes later, a pickup driver decided to take a pity. While cars beeping their horn in anger, he stopped and helped to get Jefferson onto the load area. Tati and Felipe jumped in, too, to make sure that he got the hospital safely. Later, Tati told me that they first took him to fire department, which was closer. “We held him in our arms, and they wouldn’t open the door. They claimed he was not their responsibility. I nearly cried. Finally, someone opened the door and said he would help. And they were totally insensitive. Jefferson was afraid for his foot, and they didn’t care.” The firemen cut off a length of rebar to lessen the pressure on the foot. A long time later, the ambulance arrived but didn’t want to let Tati and Felipe ride with the patient. Finally, all three made it to the hospital, where Jefferson’s aunt joined them and took over. The next day, Jefferson sent Tati a message. The rebar had had to be removed in an hour long operation. He also sent this picture of his x-ray via Whatsapp:
Jefferson‘s foot will heal completely, fortunately. However, all of us who were involved were totally shaken by the experience. Never have I experienced a situation where public services not only do not react to a call for help, but actively refuse to assist. First, there are the emergency services, choosing not to answer the phone on what must be one of the busiest nights of the year. Then there’s the police, saying it’s not their job and they can’t take responsibility. The ambulance, which is clearly on patrol since it was driving without lights or siren, and which chooses to ignore us altogether. Finally, the fire department, which doesn’t not want to take in an injured person and would prefered for Jefferson to be dropped off somewhere else.
I’ve heard a lot of Brazilians complain about the government, and about public services. While I understood that services here are maybe not what we would call world class, I thought that the grumbling was part of what people do, no matter where they live. But this episode changed my perspective. Carnival might be the biggest party in the world, but with all this love and laughter, nobody really gives a shit if you get hurt or injured. What if someone panicks, and you get crushed or trampled in one of the blocos? If you drink and dance too much in the sun, and go down with a heart attack? Or if you decide to stay at home and ignore all the craziness, and just happen to fall from a ladder while changing a light bulb? You might not survive. Not with these public services out to help you.