Carnaval in Rio

Written in 2004 on Wednesday the 10th of March, my second month into my year-long trip overseas.

Carnaval is spelt so many different ways, I’m never quite sure which particular variation I should be using. If someone knows what the correct spelling is when writing in English, please forward the details. But regardless of all things orthographic, the festive happenings of this year’s Carnaval occurred during and surrounding the dates of the 21st to the 24th of February, or the Saturday before Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar. The Carnaval was originally a spring festival dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of booze and a good time, although these days, only in Brazil do the festivities ever come close to the heights of the debauched merry-making of ancient times, long before the Catholic church took over the pagan ritual and sanitised it. In Rio, most things shut down just to party, men walk around wearing dresses and the condom campaign, which even manages to get grandmothers wearing condoms around their necks, begins. This year, the slogan for the condom campaign has been “use it, trust it.” I found out later that the peculiar slogan is a result of the church in Brazil starting its own anti-condom campaign, claiming that they don’t work and don’t provide any protection against AIDS. So yet again, the church is meddling with people’s fun, but thankfully this time around, the government of Brazil is backing the free-love movement and handing out free condoms for the horny faithful.

A Carioca is anyone from Rio de Janeiro. The word comes from a Tupi Indian term meaning “house of whites” and was eventually adopted by the Portuguese from Rio de Janeiro who lived in the houses the aborigines of Brazil were referring to. These days, the word has taken on a life of its own and locals are able to spend hours on end debating what makes a definitive Carioca, and, most importantly, why and how Cariocas are far superior from their Paulista cousins from São Paulo.

During Carnaval, the feeling of superiority the Cariocas enjoy over their Paulista rivals is at its highest ebb as São Paulo is ignored whilst the pictures sent to TV screens throughout the world are beamed from the Sambódromo in Rio de Janeiro. At the Sambódromo, the best and most extravagant samba schools from around town shake their asses and compete for the Cariocan samba title. This year, I was there, far, far away from the action, squinting in the rain and eventually giving up on the spectacle behind wet spectacles after not much longer than an hour of samba hijinx. Unless you are willing to pay a decent amount to sit with gringos up nice and close, you can’t dance, you can’t really see, and you’d be better off watching it on TV.

But my big Sambódromo experience was fantastic even if it turned out to be a fizzer once I got there. The parade is done over two days, with seven or eight schools walking the length of the Sambódromo on a single night. Once upon a time, schools would perform a show for over three hours. Now each school has a more palatable ninety minutes of glory to parade, with point deductions if they go over time, meaning only a few thousand people samba down the runway for any one particular school. With seven or eight schools showing off their wares in a single night, that means about 25,000 people parading down the Sambódromo over ten or more hours. So whilst I found it a bore in the stands, it was way cool to be there, taking in the sheer scale of the event dedicated to the two-four samba beat.

Walking to the Sambódromo, you get a sense of how much of a nightmare the event must be to organise. On the nearby streets, floats are assembled with cranes, the participants get their costumes in order and rehearse their steps, and the poor teams of fuckers who push the floats into and through the arena limber up in preparation for their night of shoving (like you, I assumed the floats were motorised too.) People are all over the place, busily organising and scampering about to get things ready for their ninety minutes of fame. The night is the culmination of ten months of preparation beginning from the previous April when the schools choose the theme for their parade and begin financing their show with technically illegal betting games. And when the paraders have finished with their parading, having finally performed after so much build up, they fill the city with their natural highs and in many of the bars or restaurants throughout the city, you can take part in the singing, dancing and table thumping that the still half-costumed stars of the Sambódromo chock-a-block full of energy are still buzzing along to.

Yet the most surprising aspect of Carnaval in Rio is how family it all is. Looking about the place, you notice grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, their children and their grandchildren all together, wiggling their asses in time with the samba beat. Most often you see these families shaking their groove thing at any one of the street parties all over Rio during Carnaval. Anyone can take part in these dance parties, where people samba down the streets along with the drummers and singers and shit-hot costumed samba dancers that make up the less extravagant but friendlier parades throughout the city’s neighbourhoods. Thankfully for foreigners such as myself, there are Brazilians who can’t actually samba, so as you get swept up in the dancing fever, your buttocks don’t feel too guilty about not being able to shake to the rhythm as well as they should and you can relax and enjoy your time amongst the sumptuously free-wheeling asses that surround you. And with the streets alive with the sound of samba, the sin would be not to shake your booty and graciously applaud the finest groovers of the parade among the crowds of young and old who come to celebrate their own music and dance.

I luckily found myself being guided around Rio during Carnaval when, after some minor flirting leading up to the first night of the festival devoted to samba, I started getting it on with a local Carioca. But the overly amorous kissing on the streets of Rio was tragically cut short and the night’s momentum devastated when we encountered my paramour’s ex-boyfriend. She ran to him and I stood there looking completely out of place as I was trying to deflect some very nasty greasers coming my way from the boy. Sadly the night pretty much came to an end after that, but the affair continues and still continues to sporadically continue, albeit secretly. This means no more going out in public because, you see, this ex-boyfriend, who is not really all that ex, tends to pop up by surprise everywhere she goes and calls her incessantly. Some would call it coincidence, others harassment or even stalking, but the end result is that we continue clandestinely the great love affair that I am sure will be the story line of a Brazilian soap opera some time soon.

Members of my family read this, so I would never normally mention any of my affairs with the ladies. But this is Brazil, where people talk openly in broken English about private matters with foreigners who smile a lot, and right now in Rio, there’s a sizable slice of the population that knows all about the gringo messing about with the mulatta. And being that I am in Brazil, trying to be as authentically Brazilian as possible, I feel it’s only right that my secret love affair that started on the first night of Carnaval is known by as many people as possible.

Go spread the word.

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