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Parintins: A City Divided into Blue and Red
Parintins: A City Divided into Blue and Red

The Marquis Des Roys, a distinguished aristocrat in his mid-fifties, can't believe it. Why in the world had he allowed himself to be persuaded to leave his fifty room castle on the edge of Paris to come to this humid place at the end of the world. His colorful baseball cap, given to him in the plane and by now dripping with sweat, stands in sharp contrast to his respectable Burlington socks.

He has just arrived in Parintins, a small city in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Every year at the end of June Parintins hosts one of the world's most unusual spectacles, the "Bumba meu Boi" festival, which many consider the jungle equivalent of Rio's Carnival. The two may be distant cousins, but the authenticity of the Bumba meu Boi has nothing in common with the grandiosity and luxury of the world famous "Carnival do Rio".

Hans Donner, celebrated computer designer for TV Globo (Brazil's largest TV network and the fifth largest in the world), shakes his head: "They call me a genius, but I'm humbled by the unbelievable creativity here."

It really is unbelievable how a city of 50,000 inhabitants-once an insignificant Indian settlement on an island in the middle of the Amazon river, 420 km from Manaus-could develop such a dramatic spectacle. Parintins, which today is the focus of the entire north of Brazil during this folklore festival, is only reachable by boat or plane.

Everything revolves around the ox, the "Boi-Bumba". An ancient fairy-tale from the Amazon tells the story of the pregnant Catirina who suddenly feels the desire to eat beef tongue. Her husband Francisco kills his master's best ox and is thrown in jail for the crime. After a long imprisonment Francisco is finally freed because Paje, a kind of medicine-man and witch, brings the ox back to life.

Again and again this jungle legend, and only this one, is acted out. And each year's presentation surpasses the previous one. Brave warriors stomp out of giant snake heads, wild animals and jungle spirits as tall as buildings spit fire and shoot fireworks. Even mountains are even moved. Poor Hans Donner!

"A jungle opera!", exclaims Rafael Graeca, Minister of Sports and Tourism, who has traveled all over the world. "This is the most grandiose spectacle I have ever seen. The "Scala" in Milan or the MET has nothing on this jungle show." Apparently the 40,000 spectators in the "Bumbo-Drom", agree with him. The Bumbo-Drom is the name of the stadium which is, of course, built in the shape of an ox head. It's impossible to stay seated when 400 drummers beat out their irresistible and seductive rhythm.

These unbelievable dimensions can only be explained by the 86 year old rivalry between the two Boi groups, the Garantido club, which uses the color red, and the Caprichoso club, which uses blue. This peaceful and very creative rivalry between the two Bois (Oxen) is contagious and has divided the entire north of Brazil into two camps. The houses of Parintins are all painted red or blue. The public telephones, the tickets, the clothes, everything is either red or blue. Even the main sponsor of the event, Coca Cola, had to invent a new logo for Parintins. Imagine the how the Blues would feel. A real fan would never speak the name of the other club. People refer to the rival club simply as the "others".

Even visitors must quickly choose between the two Bois. The stadium where the mega-show takes place, is therefore divided into a red and a blue zone. When the spectacle begins only the half of the stadium whose Boi happens to be parading at that moment, screams, sings and dances. The other half remains completely silent. (According to the strict rules of the "Boi-Bumba", the "others" are not allowed to make a sound.) Each club, Caprichoso and Garantido, has up to 3,500 actors that parade for exactly two hours and thirty minutes on three nights in order to celebrate the Boi-Bumba.

Eighty thousand visitors make the pilgrimage to the jungle festival every year. This is an amazing number if you consider that the village has no infrastructure. Most visitors come on ships from Manaus and many of them travel for up to 45 hours. They sleep in hammocks by the hundreds on the various decks. Its an unforgettable experience for young backpack travelers. A small contingent of the high society from Manaus, and VIPs from Rio and Sao Paulo, attend in extreme luxury on their yachts stationed at private docks. It almost reminds one of the Formula One race at Monte Carlo.

"There is nothing in between," says Richard Lengsfeld, director of Brazilian Incentives & Tourism in Rio. "We don't want to create mass tourism here because the cultural and folklore aspects of the spectacle would suffer. What we can offer for a few select people knows no comparison," he beams. He has good connections, including important contacts with the mayor and the governor. He knows his product like no one else and therefore has a virtual monopoly on the luxury segment. A newcomer in this business would have a very hard time.

The spectacle is over and the stage is empty. Garantido maneuvered all its people out of the stadium on time to the minute. Far away, beyond the stadium gates, you can still hear the people singing and laughing. Only the Marquis still sits completely paralyzed in his box. Without taking his eyes from the cleaning crew down below in the arena he says with shaking lips, "Richaaard: next year I'm coming back with all my friends. I want the biggest boat.".

Text by Richard Lengsfeld

Parintins: A City Divided into Blue and Red

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