Some snippets from my time at the craziest party in the world...
Rio De Janiero. Carnaval. Rio Carnaval. If I say it over and over then perhaps I will start to believe that that I was actually there. That it wasnt just an elaborate dream that in reality never really occured. That I could possibly be that fortunate to have been in the city that never sleeps and witnessed the magic and pizazz of the biggest, loudest and most colourful party on Earth. It´s just starting to sink in now and this entry documents mine and Sallys epic entrance into Brazil and the South American leg of my adventure.
We arrived in Sao Paulo late on Friday night after what seemed like days of travelling. We emerged from the cool airport, still shaking off snow-specced memories of McLeod and collided bang smack into a wall of humid thick air and incomprehensible signs and sounds to our English eyes and ears. Yes, from the word Ir we found the Portuguese language barrier insurmountable. We realised just how indulged we had been as English speakers over our Indian experience and our inability to speak another language suddenly crashed at our feet as we lamely tried to ask questions about buses whilst regularly mopping the moisture from our sweating brows! Money talks (another valuable lesson learnt) and so the conclusion to plonk our exhausted bodies into a taxi was definitely money well spent!
We arrived in Rio the next evening after a day of attempting to memorise the Lonely Planets phrase suggestions whilst waiting for a bus to Rio in Sao Paulo - the busiest, hottest, most Carnaval-chaotic station I´ve ever seen! Along with language barriers, money has also acted as a smack round the face in terms of culture shock. I will never take for granted or forget the gloriously cheap living in India...a forty quid bus ride to Rio sent a few tears flying from my purse! On arrival in Rio, again very late at night, we found Santa Teresa and sweated our way up up up the hill to our place of rest - a church with annexed accommodation. Random? Extremely! A guy who we had met in India had put us in contact with a friend of a friend who lives in Santa Teresa (incredibly tenuous travelling links coming into their own here!). Axel, the friend of a friend, is mad about Carnaval and has the extremely altruistic attitude of wanting to help anyone he can who wants to enjoy the event with him. He amazingly found us a room at the only place in the whole city that wasn´t upping their rates by 2000%, and not only that it had the most beautiful panoramic view of the city. I awoke on our first morning in Rio to the delicate rays of sunshine drifting through the half-open curtain and clambered out of bed to gaze at the awesome spectacle I found in my posession. Tall rock formation covered in lush greenery jutted from the crystalline pools of water, including the enormous Sugar Loaf Mountain directly infront of our room; the rich and famous yacht play-things bobbed on the lakes like small toys in bath water; the glowing orange sun bathing the scene pink and golden as the sleepy haze gradually lifted, giving way to the permanent clean blue sky. What a welcome to the most stunning city I have ever visited!
Axel had also assisted us in purchasing highly sought after tickets to the Sambodromo on Sunday evening. This spectacular event is the glamourous centrepiece of Rio Carnaval and basically consists of ten samba schools, half a mile of parade strip, a handful of glitzy shimmying samba queens, a generous helping of enormous, elaborate, mechanised floats on all themes imaginable, a sprinkling of singers and musicians belting out the samba school anthem over and over and over, lashings of dancers dressed in huge, colourful, dazzling costumes, a dash of patriotism, a squeeze of Brazilian flare and hundreds and thousands of screaming, dancing, singing, bouncing spectators on top. A feast for the eyes, and for the soul! Axel and his friends from France, Holland and Brazil had really got into the Carnaval spirit and had joined in with a samba school, paying 400 reals (around 150 pounds) for the privelege of participating in the world famous event (which Madonna and family were attending, don´t you know!!!) and donning remarkable black, white and silver Carnaval outfits which were incredibly heavy and incredibly hot in the sweaty, thick Rio air. The group of fifteen of them looked brilliant and really demonstrated to me the dedication of people when is comes to Carnaval. So, while Axel and his friends strutted their stuff, me and Sally and our new-found Dutch friends settled into the stands for hours of standing, sitting, drinking cerveza, sweating, clapping, dancing, gawping and eventual, fatigue! The most impressive school, and the one who actually won the entire competition, were called Unidas Da Tijuca. They had a contagiously catchy theme tune (which played for an hour and a half, so for me to praise it after all that ear bashing, it must have been really good!) and they started the procession with an amazing magic box of tricks! This consisted of a huge moving black box with lights lining the edges, men in white suits, top hats and tails with canes dashing about Fred Astaire style and from the box a bevvy of dazzling female dancers emerged in beautiful dresses. The couples pranced and flew about the Sambodromo and over the course of their routine the women magically transformed from one outfit into another...about six times! Such a crowd pleaser! Later in the procession they flaunted thirty-foot, moving, burning buildings with flames and smoke protruding out and people inside emerging, dancing and then disappearing. They had around fifteen floats altogether, including one with Michael Jackson rising mysteriously from a silver space pod and moonwalking across a platform. But my favourite one, without a shadow of a doubt, was a float that consisted of a mechanised platform that moved from flat to sloping at different times during the routine. When it was sloping downwards a huge, fluttering batman sign appeared under the platform and three people in batman costumes skiied down the slope in unison! Random! After that three spidermen would climb back up the slope that the batmen had just descended...superheroes working together! It was hilarious and the 'eeks' and 'aahs' from the crowd were diffcult to not participate in (I'm almost certain I was the one leading the chorus!).
After the Sambodromo, our little group bumbled off to Lapa to enjoy the steamy Carnaval eve further. Lapa is where to find the real nightlife in Rio. The nineteenth century mansions in Lapa fell into disarray with the exodus of the Carioca (residents of Rio) elite to the beaches. In the 1920s it had the reputation of being Rio's cultural mélange, bohemians and artists mixing with hookers and hard men. Today it's being revitalised as a nightlife draw. Yet the buildings remain shabby and the clientele a mixed bag. Needless to say I would not be caught walking around the Lapa streets on my own after dark, even in daylight I felt a little vulnerable. But alas, this is as real as we were ever going to get for a night out at Rio Carnaval! We partied to samba beats, rap, reggae, funk, ska, trance and everything inbetween until 5am. We headed home as the sun rose on the orders from Axel that we had to be up ready and raring to go in our "best Carnaval outifts" (we didn't have any!?!) for 8am Monday (i.e. 3 hours after we left Lapa!) for a street party. Riiiiight!
Like the good little Carnaval goers we are we did as we were told and dragged our weary, aching bodies up and out of bed into the stinking heat to meet Axel and friends who were not only dressed as Indians (full face paint and matching outfits to boot!) but had perfomed and partied at the Sambodromo the night before and hadn't slept! Sally and I well and truly silenced any sleepy utterings that may have escaped our mouths on seeing their bounding, vibrantly attired forms skip down to the Santa Teresa Bloco. This Bloco, or free street party, was one of hundreds of blocos that happened before, during and after Carnaval, in Rio and across Brazil. Carnaval = Blocos! This particular one in Santa Teresa was famed as the one of the most extravagant, vivacious, colourful and well attended blocos in Rio. People as far as the eye could see were dressed to the nines, drinking beer, whooping, screaming and sweating it out in the intense heat. Santa Teresa is a perfectly idyllic little area of Rio, with rickety trams (or bondinho's) trundling along the tumbling cobbled streets full of fading colonial mansions, amongst the most stunning backdrop of Rio imaginable. I felt privileged to be staying in such a vibrant, picturesque and bohemian area, and not some brash hotel in the tourist trappings of Copacabana or Ipanema, and this bloco was our time to embrace Santa Teresa and celebrate our good fortune! The narrow, uneven, stone streets made for an intimate and precarious bloco, as hundreds of hot, heaving, squeezing, shuffling bodies slowly but gradually shimmied and stumbled their way around, following the samba band that lead the stream of people. Like the Brazilian, drum and brass-bearing pied pipers of Carnaval, they commanded the pace, the volume and the excitement of the surging, bubbling crowds. The oppressive heat and streaming sweat was temporarily but regularly abated by residents of the area leaning from their windows or gardens, calling "Oi!" and then hosing down the masses of noisy, fancy-dressed freaks! What a way to spend a Monday morning!
Towards the end of the Carnaval weekend we met up with a group of English guys who are friends of friends and we spent the latter part of our Rio stay with them. Two of the lads had been living in Brazil for a year or more and so were fluent in Portuguese. One night they decided to head to one of the safe favelas in Rio to see some of their friends there. Favelas are monumental, automatically identifiable townships that tumble down the hills towards the sea and completely reverse the normal logic that prime real estate gets the best views. A favela is fundamentally different from a slum or tenement, primarily in terms of its origin and location. While slum quarters in other Latin American countries generally form when poorer residents from the countryside come to larger cities in search of work, and while this also occurs to some extent with favelas, the latter are unique in that they were chiefly created as large populations became displaced. Many favelas now have electricity, a situation that twenty years ago was unheard of. Favelas differ from ghettos such as those in the United States in that they are racially mixed, even though blacks make up the majority of the population - that is, in Brazil it is chiefly economic forces, rather than ethnic or cultural issues, that drive people there. A group of six of us headed there, obviously feeling a little apprehensive as favelas are renound for being dangerous and hostile, especially for Gringos! However we are assured by our compadres that this favela was more than safe and that they would look after us. And it was. It was absolutely fine. We spent a few hours drinking and dancing salsa outside a small bar, improving our Portuguese and embracing the odd stares we received from the locals passing by. At the end of night we caught motorbike taxis up to the top of the favela hill and were greeted with the most amazing night city scape. Some guys were playing Brazilian hip hop out into the balmy atmosphere and as the lights twinkled below and the lapping sea smiled through the breeze I knew that Rio had made its' mark, had left its' stamp, had irreversibly imprinted its' glorious, radiant, glamorous signature on my memory. Never to be forgotten.
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Arriving in Rio and soaking up the Carnaval vibes
- Wearing what I want for the first time in months! Showing some flesh finally!
- Dancing to loud music amongst hundreds of other adoring movers!