I have witnessed all manner of costume, the likes of which put Halloween in the United States to shame. Men dressed as cows; THOUSANDS of crossdressers; naked women covered in body paint; full-body condoms; and of course, the classic image of carnaval, the nearly-naked-woman-with-so-many-feathers-a-species-probably-went-extinct.
I have purchased beer from 10 year old kids in a favela. I have witnessed my friend Patrick haggle with those same children and teach them basic math when they were unable to make change. I have seen 12 year old children drunk in the streets. I have seen toddlers, strapped to parents’ chests, being utilized as battering rams to maneuver through crowds. I have also seen people with fake toddlers strapped to their chests for the same purpose.
I have had a dance-off with a hairy man in a dress and high-heels in the middle of the street, him constantly shouting “Isso! Isso!” (that’s it! that’s it!) as we busted out our moves. I have had numerous gay men compliment me on my samba skills, but virtually no women.
I have witnessed probably the most bombastic, gaudy, amazing spectacle of my life: the carnaval parade in the Sambódromo. We went a few hours beforehand, and, after visiting a few scalpers (some of whom wanted R$320 per ticket-we told them to fuck off), were able to get tickets for R$30 a pop in the cheap section at the end of the parade. We saw a few of the floats as we walked the catwalk connecting Central Rio to the gated area around the Sambódromo, but nothing we saw could have prepared us. As we walked in the gates and through a metal detector (which I highly suspect didn’t actually work), I was handed two programs and eight condoms. The program itself was covered in PSA’s begging people to use condoms if they hook up during carnaval, including the very first page and the back cover.
Cue condoms being used to make condom balloons to bounce/float around the crowd in anticipation of the parade. After mastering the standard, one-condom blimp design our group moved up to the advanced four-condom dick-shaped design. Not particularly aerodynamic, but it was a definite crowd-pleaser. I can’t even fathom how many condom balloons were floated around our section that night; probably well into the triple digits. Paper airplanes, made from the condom ads in the programs, were also quite popular.
Around…ehhh, maybe 9ish?…the parade started. I suppose this is the place to note: I can IN NO WAY do justice to just how beautiful and incredible this parade is. The costumes, the floats, the colors, everything was so colorful and detailed it would take reams to describe how amazing it is. Just let me say that this put every parade I’ve ever seen or even imagined to absolute and utter shame, and that I’ll do my best to get a DVD of all 14 samba schools’ parades to bring back to the United States.
Since it’s so hard for me to go into any real detail about costumes and floats, I’ll describe some of the generalities/overall trends in the parade. At the beginning, I was under the impression that there would be 3-4 schools and that they had a total of 80 minutes to work their way down the nearly half-mile stretch of the Sambódromo. In fact, as the first school was about halfway through their routine and their second or third float was passing, I believed that each float represented the beginning of the next school.
Nope. EACH of the 7 schools that went on my night had 80 minutes for their parade, meaning the entire spectacle lasted all night, past sunrise (we left during the last school, as the sky was turning from black to gray). Each school starts off their parade with a 2-3 minute fireworks show and then they proceed to inch their way down the strip towards the finishline. Their parade must be between 65 and 83 minutes long, with most of them landing right around 80 minutes. Some of them fell a bit behind during the parade and basically had to sprint their last few hundred dancers past the finish line. My favorite groups had all of their dancers halt just past the finish line and continue to dance (and even shoot confetti cannons) once the music ended/their time was officially up. Generally it was around the 30 minute mark before I could even see the parade in real life (vs. on the jumbo-tron) because our seats, the cheap ones, were set back behind the rest of the bleachers closer to the starting line. Nearly every parade included at least one stray dog making its way into the parade path at some point, which I found funny.
Anyway, each school had 5-6 floats that were absolutely ASTOUNDING. The schools all had some kind of theme which was portrayed through the floats. Some were more obvious than others-I really struggled with one of the school’s “International Foods” theme, while Beija-Flor, the undisputed champions of the last decade with three 1st place finishes in the last five years, had a great “Inequality and Slavery in Brazil” theme. I still think my favorite float might have been the very first one we saw/one of the ones we noticed on our walk into the Sambódromo. It was basically this massive chrome monstrosity, featuring huge shiny deities, 30 foot high crystals, and gigantic rotating crystalline gears. Another highlight was Beija-Flor’s basilisk float: a large mound covered in spears with a snake/basilisk thing wearing a glowing war helmet protruding. The snake slowly extends further out of the mound, only to have its body burst apart, the midsection having been comprised of dancers holding shell fragments over themselves like Spartan shields. Cue interpretive dance as the snake head/neck roll along in front of the mound, then the dancers reform the body and (somewhat clumsily) retract back into the mound. Around the 80% mark of the parade, at the border between our section and the nicer seats, there is a little peninsula for photographers suspended perhaps 50 feet above the middle of the parade area. One of the schools in particular, Porto da Pedra, REALLY pushed the limits of their float height with this press box-one of the floats had a little feathery frill on top damaged as it was crushed under the cement overhang and one of the dancers on top of a float had to duck to avoid getting hit/knocked off. After this I was really excited for another accident when I noticed Beija-Flor’s ship float was too tall to clear it, but like the bosses they are, they had planned ahead and collapsed a mast to make room at the last possible second, to much cheering from the crowd.
Each school has, on average, 3,000-3,500 dancers participating in the parade. I asked my host mom and she says that the costumes, which the dancers pay for themselves, cost anywhere from R$50 for the simple ones up to R$4000 for the really nice feathery ones that the best (and hottest) dancers wear. As I learned from watching the second night on TV, the schools are initially led by their drum corps, perhaps 200-300 musicians, who duck into an alcove at the halfway point and then rejoin the parade at the very back, immediately in front of the truck bearing the school’s banner that marks the end of their parade. Each school has a song for their parade, and that same song is utilized throughout the entire 80-minute spectacle. This can be a good or a bad thing. The second school, Portela, had an extremely catchy song that practically all 75,000 people at the Sambódromo were singing by the end of their parade, which I think was a major factor in their victory this year (also, they did the “walk past the finish line but keep dancing once the music ends” thing, which earned them major crowd points). Other songs were less engaging and became tiresome after hearing like 50 repetitions.
There are 10 criteria upon which the schools are judged, ranging from overall dancing ability to costume and float design to theme cohesion to the abilities of the “flag couple”, the two best dancers in the school who wear incredibly elaborate costumes and dance a kind of ballroom dance while bearing the school’s flag. My two favorites were Portela and Porto da Pedra. I guess that means my tastes are somewhat validated, as Portela went on to win it all and will now spend the next year touring the world performing the parade in various countries.
Anyway, so that’s the Sambódromo. It was fucking amazing and definitely the highlight of my carnaval. To anyone who wants to come to Brazil for carnaval, I would highly recommend making a trip to see the parade during one of the two nights where the “special group” (ie. the good schools) performs-it is worth every penny.
And finally, my overall carnaval impressions: I know my initial post was rather negative, but what can I say, I had just had my phone stolen during the single most agoraphobic event of my life. The bloco, almost 100 years old, is called Bola Preta (“Black Ball”) and was comprised of 2.2 million people occupying just a few city blocks. It was too fucking big for its own good and almost nobody I know who went to it (and it seems like pretty much every gringo I know got sucked into that Charybdis at some point) seemed to enjoy themselves. However, if you find smaller blocos, the ones where you can actually move and dance and hear the music, carnaval is a ton of fun. There were assholes, sure, but overall it was good-spirited drinking and dancing and partying. I’m relatively introverted so 4 days of absolutely nonstop partying was utterly draining, but I’m glad I did it and I definitely plan on making the trip down again in the future. Basically what I learned is: planning, planning, planning. Take everything you need for the day with you when you go out in the morning and don’t plan on coming back until sunrise. You will be consuming inhuman quantities of beer all day and there will be moments when it gets uncomfortable or tiring. Don’t be afraid to retreat and recoup your strength for a couple hours by relaxing on the beach or just perusing the streets in between blocos. If you go to a bloco and it’s too crowded, don’t be afraid to just leave and find a better one. I was told by multiple Brazilians that the blocos in the downtown/central part of the city were the best, but in general I found them overcrowded and unpleasant and largely stuck to the more-relaxed, less-crowded, closer-to-home parties in Southern Rio. Carnaval, like any big event, has its ups and downs, but overall it was a great experience and one I will definitely take part in again.