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As the war sirens howl throughout the US and the occupation of Iraq grinds to a bloody standoff, I take my annual trip south to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Can Carnival cure me of the painful reality of the old world rhetoric screaming from Washington? Instead of bullets and bully warnings “You are with us or against us,” I seek a culture of hope and inclusion, black and white, foreigner and local. Will Brazil´s magic work in the new world of fighting terror and fanning fear?
The first Brazilian I ask this looks me up and down like a suit that she might try on or eat up, then launches a provocative invitation to young US soldiers. “While you men prepare for war, ours are preparing for Carnival. Come here! Don´t be crazy, don´t be dumb! There are loads of beautiful girls black girls, white women. Come to Carnival, don´t go to war.”
Night after hormone packed night, I take up her offer and explore Rio´s multicultural soul. I dance with Norwegians who can´t dance. I kiss Brazilian women who can´t stop. Make friends with a drummer moonlighting as a taxi driver and an Austrian film director with a hotel safe stuffed full of cocaine.
And yes, Rio during Carnival is dangerous the principal danger being that you fall in love with the charismatic Cariocas (as locals are called and distinct from the Paulistinas from Sao Paulo.) This danger leads to an overwhelming temptation to trade life in the northern hemisphere for the free spirit of the South. After ten days, the Northern hemisphere seems so.last century. The energy is down South and Rio de Janeiro has legions of fans who argue that it is the cultural heart of Latin America if not the world. For anyone who has the time or the guts, Rio Carnival beckons.
“Just look at the floats here, they represent the diversity of topics, people and ideas that are part of Carnival. I have been to Mardi Gras for ten days and productions around the world, there is nothing like Carnival. It is just too good a party to miss,” crows tourist Gordon Clint, from Canada who had attended 13 straight Carnivals. “Participating in this is a common mania shared by all Cariocas. Just like every Muslim wants to go to Mecca once in his life, every Brazilian wants to be in Carnival at least once in their life.”
While the streets of Rio boom with open air parties, marches, parades and costume balls, the highlight of the show is the Samba parade epitomized by the televised images of the sweaty, flashing flesh of a mulata samba queen. For nearly a week, the schools compete, with an average of 28,000 dancers every night inside the Sambodromo, a customized dance theatre that looks like an airport runway with spectator seating and luxury boxes stacked along the whole route and 3 story floats slowly cruising the strip.
Built up on the back of flatbed trucks, the floats are so elaborate that construction cranes are used to deposit the festooned mulatas to their perch. But watching Carnival on TV is a poor substitute for the passion that fills Sambodromo with an ecstatic, sometimes orgiastic frenzy.
Few travelers recognize that with a little planning they can log onto a samba school website, buy a fabulous costume and then march, dance and act out like a superstar inside the Sambodromo.
“People say you have to go to Salvador or Olinda to participate in Carnival, that is the biggest load of Bullshit! You have to fucking come to Rio because you can participate no matter where you go,” said BJ Kelly, 26, from Derry, Ireland. “It is a fantastic buzz. But best of all is in Ipanema we met so many local people – I met an 16-year-old Brazilian girl and she knew how to dance Irish folk songs! It is all about the people you meet.
“We need to build a bigger stadium, this is not going to be large enough for all the tourists who come,” says Jose Mari, a Brazilian singer, snugly packing her curves inside a bikini in the VIP tent. “Every year Carnival gets better, now there are many more foreign people. When they go home, they talk about Carnival about how the Brazilians are so friendly, so hotCarnival is conquering the world.”
Marcos Prado from www.ipanema.com, the award winning travel website is an expert in organizing trips to Carnival and offers various safety tips, particularly about having sleeping pills slipped into your drink back at the hotel room by the cute stranger you just picked up. The ruse, known as “Goodnight Cinderella” is far more common than the more publicized assaults or violent crimes. Says Prado, “Rio is not Copenhagen, when you come here you have to know the dangers and the pitfalls.”
The dress code for Carnival is simple, no camera, no accessories just flip/flop sandals, shorts and tank top and in hand, a Skol beer (which at 75 cents and sold on every street corner makes public drinking not only legal but inevitable.)
Within 30 minutes of arriving inside Sambodromo, my eyes are devouring the secrets so scantily hidden under bikini bottoms so small they are called Filo Dental – meaning dental floss. The samba parade begins with a huge firework display at 9pm. A tremendous mulata gyrates in the front. Surrounding her is a brigade of festooned men. Each one wears Pompoms on his shoulders and plumage worthy of a queen. They are principally black men with glasses, gray beards. Each has a drum and the percussion is contagious.
In their midst hovers the drum tuner. Clad in a perfectly pressed blue seat he must be in his 60´s. He carries a hearing aid, a whistle and a stern look. Next to him a man pushes a small confetti machines powered by CO2 gas canisters, it looks homemade.
As the float starts to move, everyone is excited: the foreigners, the Brazilians, the recyclers, the cops and the spectators across the sewage filled rivers. Spotlights circle through the sky. Hundreds of drummers start a slow crescendo, the drums build up a call and response. The bass is like thunder. Following the drummers are rows of princesses with so much rhinestones they make Liberace look like a streaker.
While the festive dancing and singing appear to be impromptu dance parties, they are actually rigorously scripted and controlled. Only the very best samba schools are allowed into the sambodromo and the competition is fierce. Each school is rigorously judged on everything from singing to the costumes – and the rules are enforced with military precision. Each school must have a minimum of 2,500 members and a maximum of 4,500 dancers. The set must run no less than 65 minutes and no more than 80. Huge digital clocks line the dance way so that teams known as evolucao – or coordination – from the various dance wings can keep the teams lined up. Every school is allowed 250 coordinators who check head dresses, tune the drums and clear spectators from the oncoming madness.
This festival is all about splash, stars, glamour, and the lead truck with a dozen sweaty mulatas, the lead one grasping a solid staff to keep from falling 10 metres to the stage below. Her body is sprayed with glitter and as she gyrates her nearly naked perfect chocolate body, the crowd erupts. A huge Che Guevara flag swings with another that reads “My first love – PEACE.” Thousands of fans are now dancing in delirium. This is a forum to forget wars and problem, to join in a communal cheer and song. The repetition of song is hypnotic. So too the platoon of girls with silver shoes, black tights barely stretched to a garter belt which tucks under a blue and white miniskirt. Is there any doubt, I think, that a platoon of garter belted Brasilenas can melt the combat spirit of any army on earth?
“We don´t learn to dance, we don´t take classes, we don´t watch it on tv, we watch our fathers,” says Vladimir Coimtra, 23, who dances with the Portela Samba school. “Then we let our bodies move and the music carries us. It comes into us. It gets in through our heart, moves down to our hips, moves down to our knees and makes our feet move. And that is why Brazilians are good dancers. Because it is hope. Because we need to dance, to forget our problems.”
Coimtra is an eloquent defender of the Brazilian women. “They have the perfect body,” he argues with a conouissiers seriousness. “It is the mix, from Italy, from Ireland, the blacks, the whites. Everything, I think we took all the best parts and made the Brazilian woman.”
Asked whether the Brazilians are shy, Coimtra pauses, stunned by the stupidity of the question. Then answers, “They are very forward, they are feminist and feminine. They know what they want. When they want it, they go and get it. I am warning you, you better not run, they will chase you down.”
For the millions of American who feel that modern life is grinding them up and the thousands of GI´s facing ambush and torment in Iraq, it is soothing to visit Rio where geopolitics and “reality” are smothered by simple pleasures like love and the joyous feeling of being pursued by passion.
For the past 4 years, JONATHAN FRANKLIN, who writes for the Guardian and other publications, escapes real world problems by disappearing to Brazil for 10 day sojourns into the heart of pleasure and grace. Not only is Rio de Janeiro a classic place to watch Carnival, but with the low prices and the integration, foreigners can now dance and sing at the world´s best party.