Having spent quite bit of time in Spain, amongst people who live to party and who love noise, colour, and razamatazz, we’ve seen plenty of firework displays. Indeed, we used to say that we’d seen enough pyrotechnic extravaganzas to last a lifetime. One of the country’s most spectacular demonstrations is the week-long Fiesta de San Juan, celebrated annually in Alicante. Essentially, it consists of around 80 huge bonfires, built in the streets, plus a week-long competition between the nation’s fireworks manufacturers. We once spent the festival moored in the heart of the city, within a stone’s throw of the place whence the nightly firework displays erupt. For seven nights in succession we sat beneath a continual shower of enormous red and gold explosions. After the pretty sky-works the town goes mad and the rest of the night is spent in letting off bangers. One night I woke from a dream in which we were living in a war zone… At the time, we thought that Alicante’s Fiesta de San Juan must be the greatest fireworks show on earth; but we were wrong. The title has now been transfered to Rio de Janeiro.
Arriving off the city in the wee small hours of Old Year’s Day, we were swept, by the tide, through the narrow entrance; we crept along beneath the sugar loaf, and we anchored right there, below the famous cable car. The town formed an ampitheatre all around us, and high above the town, looking down from the sky, we saw God. I checked with the glasses, and it really was Him, standing with his arms widespread as if He were trying to fly. Indeed, He must have succeeded in the venture, or so it seemed, for He was impossibly, ludicrously high up in the velvet black sky.
When daylight came Our Saviour was still hovering there, but there was a tall hill holding Him up. A continual stream of 737s, and the like, came thundering towards Him, turned at the last moment, and then roared over our masthead. The runway whither they were bound seems to float at the edge of the harbour, just before a huge bridge; but at first it looked as if the planes, banking again and making their final approach, were set to pass under the bridge. In this Wonderland city such a thing seemed barely improbable.
We were anchored off a small beach, which lies at the foot of the sugar loaf, and as we watched the sands became covered in people – but the people were not dressed to enjoy the sunshine which now poured down upon us; the women were all clad in long white dresses, the men in white pyjama suits. “Candomble,” said our Brazilian friend, Elias.
Half an hour later a succession of very small, rather soggy boats came drifting down upon us. The water around them was strewn with flowers, and at first we thought the vessels might contain the last remains of some dearly departed someone… but when we scooped a couple of them up (well, why not?) we found that each contained an image of the Candomble “Queen of the Sea”, Iemanja. One also carried two letters to the godess, requesting her blessing throughout the coming year. The other was equipped with a small plastic comb, a scrap of rather slimey soap, a cheap mirror, a phial of scent, and a small packet of talcum powder. “What would a mermaid want with talcum powder?” I wondered. “She is very vain, “Elias replied. “Yes, but talcum powder… in the sea…”
Apparently these New Year’s Eve offerings to the Brazilian sea goddess are traditional. If the boat washes back up on the beach then she has rejected the gift and ill luck will follow, but if it disappears… So I guess we helped the process along. Also traditional is the firework display with which the people of Rio greet the new year. As darkness fell over the city and the hill vanished beneath Jesus’ feet, two hundred yachts and motor boats went streaming out of the harbour – and we joined the flow. Just around the corner, pretty much opposite our anchorage, lies the world’s most famous beach – the Copacabana. It was already thronged by two million ant-like figures, and anchored off were no fewer than ten huge cruise ships, each one bejewelled with glittering lights. (You can see a cruise ship coming before it even crosses the horizon; it’s loom lights up the sky.) We took up station half way along the beach, inside the line of cruise ships and close by a pair of huge tugs. Half way between us and the shore was a string of eleven very large, low barges, and their cargo was of gunpowder, phosphorous, magnesium, sulphur… and a score of other chemicals, together with all the electronic bits and bobs which go together to make up a modern firework display. In total, those barges were carrying 25 tonnes of fireworks said to cost in the region of 17 million Reais (or about 5 million pounds, or 6 and a quarter million Euros)… so I guess we should have realised that something pretty big was in the offing.
At midnight the cruise ships all began blasting on their horns (excepting one comedian who got in a minute too early…) and right on cue we heard the screech of rockets and there burst forth, in the sky ahead of us, a score of golden chrysanthemums. They were lined up along the two mile stretch of beach, each one at the exact same altitude as its neighbour and all of perfectly uniform size and colour – but we hardly noticed that at the time because before those flowers had even begun to fade they were joined by red blooms and blue ones; by a silver rain of confetti; by flares so bright that they lit the entire beach; by corkscrewing spirals which went vrrripping excitedly through the air; by coloured rings and red hearts which burst out all along the strand; by thunder-claps and sun-bursts. All the usual stuff, indeed, but on a mega scale and issuing forth at a phenomenal rate and with precision timing.
Just when it seemed that the show must surely begin to get boring – after a full fifteen minutes of awesome illuminations – they hit us with a stunning crescendo; the pyrotechnic equivalent of a heavy tropical downpour. Awesome is the only word with which to describe the scene. The sky was on fire; the air was full of sparkling rain; the deck was trembling in time to the percussion. Oh – and the deck was also rolling quite wildly in the swells, which made any kind of meaningful photography impossible. I didn’t bother trying; I just waved the Nikon around without even bothering to look through the lens. No photo, in any case, could even begin to capture the exuberance, the power, the noise, and the scale of this fantastic event. If you happen to be passing this way next year, it’s highly recommended. The dog, who had been padding around amongst us before the display began, stopped in her tracks and watched – but whether in puzzlement or horror, I know not. After a couple of minutes she suddenly opted to go below. The quails, on the other hand, came out of their little hutch and stood in a line. Craning their necks up at the gaily coloured sky they said something like, “Vrrrrip!” Quite what that means, I don’t know either, but they definitely seemed to be enjoying the show.
Video by Roxanne