Does glitter eventually washes off? Will I even be able to see Minnie as a cartoon character again and not a hairy thirtysomething Brazilian commuter? Will I forget I have a flower in my hair and shower with it again?
After the pre-Carnival weekend blocos, it was business as usual for a few days in Rio de Janeiro. We moved from touristic Copacabana and enjoyed the neighbourhoods between Botafogo and Centro. You couldn’t forget a mega-event was going to happen but it was still a normal workweek.
Yet, little by little, as the week progressed, Carnival started to take over the city. There were small blocos happening here and there in the evening. Any dysfonctionnement, failure or unusual moment—empty ATMs, long lineups at the supermarket, inflated prices, etc.—was shrugged off and excused by these three words: “é Carnival, ta!” It became completely normal to see people in costume at the supermarket, the bank or in the subway—here is a half-naked male bride buying cookies, here is a Roman Goddess withdrawing money, oh look, Batman is buying a coffee!
Anticipation built up all week. The atmosphere was electric, like before a storm.
It finally exploded Friday evening.
It started in the subway. Cars were packed, everyone in the city had a bloco to go to. People literally rock the cars. This is how it work: five or six twentysomethings in costume would chant and shout, “Sou praieiro / Sou guerreiro / Tô solteiro / Quero mais o quê?,” bang on the door and yell, “beija, BEIJA!” (“kiss, KISS!”) to any couple nearby, then run to the next car and repeat.
Yes, it was definitely Carnival. Brazilians are usually pretty quiet, shy even.
But during Carnival, anything goes.
I can’t compare Carnival to any Western celebration. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are one-night events usually spent with family or friends, eating and socializing at home. National days like Canada Day or the Fourth of July are also fairly low-key events, all things considered—just an excuse to enjoy a bank holiday, a barbecue and fireworks. Valentine’s Day, Easter and Halloween are commercial holidays in North America but people rarely take them that seriously.
Feng compares carnival to Chinese New Year and this is probably the most accurate analogy despite obvious cultural differences. Both holidays last several days and millions of people are looking forward to them. They are celebrated at home and in the street with firecrackers and music, with relatives and strangers. The entire country, usually very disciplined, goes nuts.
Rio was going crazy, for sure.
On Friday night, we took the subway to the Bloco Rola Preguiçosa in Ipanema. The trip itself was an adventure—cars were packed, everybody was wearing a costume, stations were closed, streets were crowded. While it was a fun and busy street party, Ipanema’s crowd wasn’t our kind of crowd. There wasn’t much going on but people drinking, drinking and … yes, drinking. The neighbourhood was a giant open bar (“three cans of beers for 10 reais!”) full of preppy-looking “kids” playing drinking games. It felt like a college party.
Fortunately, we felt like bloco veterans and this time, we did it right. No stroller—believe it or not, we took the stroller to the first pre-Carnival Ipanema bloco …—costumes, glitter and an experience navigating drunken crowd.
“Mommy, I have to bisou you.”
“Er … sure. But why?”
“Because people are kissing.”
Mark was right, there were couples kissing everywhere. There is a sexual aspect to the Carnival I rarely see mentioned explicitly. Sex is everywhere. Mix half-naked people, booze, drugs and a party atmosphere and you get palpable sexual tension.
Around 11 p.m., we decided to head back. But there was still a place I wanted to check out: the Sambódromo where the samba-school competition was starting.
We didn’t have tickets and we didn’t try to buy any. Feng and I attended the event twice and while it’s an amazing experience, it’s also an exhausting night. Parades only start between 11 p.m. and midnight and last until dawn. It takes forever—well, 75 minutes—for each school to move through the 700-meter-long stretch of the parade road and after three or four schools, frankly, you get bored … unless you truly support one of them, which most Cariocas do but foreigners don’t.
Even though we wouldn’t attend the opening night, I wanted to see the Sambódromo again—designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, who else!—and maybe catch a glimpse of the floats and the performers.
Once again, we took the subway.
“Which station it is, already?”
“Estação Praça Onze… or Central. I can’t remember. »
“Let’s get off when everybody does.”
“There are going to be performers in costumes taking the subway, anyway.”
The Sambódromo is located in the downtown area of Cidade Nova, not the best neighbourhood to be after dark. We were exhausted, so was Mark.
“Fuck it. I really wanna go.”
We got off at Praça Onze and followed the crowd. And once at the Sambódromo, somehow, we crossed a bridge to the other side of the parade ground and found ourselves “backstage,” where all the floats and performers were lining up, getting ready. It was awesome to see the event from behind the scene.
We walked along the Sambódromo, me carrying Mark who was really tired of walking by then. I may not recommend walking the same way we did—again, not the best area—but we made it just fine and Mark praised my “carrying” skills along the way: “good job mommy, very confomfortable carrying me!”
Eventually, we took the subway again at Central where more performers were getting off to join the parade. It was strange, they didn’t seem happy but rather stressed out as if the parade was a chore—maybe they needed more beer to feel the alegria do Carnaval?
We made “home,” to Botafogo. The night would be short…