Thursday, February 21, 2013


Am I prepared?

As I unpack my suitcase, filled with what you could likely consider "nightclub" material, my friend asks why I would have brought such nice clothing.  It's going to be dirty, he responds.  Clearly it was my first time.

I traded my Cole Haan loafers for a pair of ragged old sneakers and threw on a tank top instead.  Tightly buckling my money belt under my shorts, I whispered a quick prayer under my breath only guessing what I was going to get myself into.  I put the sunscreen on the desk corner next to the door to remind me that although I may feel invincible, the unforgiving Rio de Janeiro sun would fry me like a chicken.  Sunglasses...a toss up.  I should have brought a $1 pair from the gas station but decided to risk it on the street with the Ray Ban's I had.  I glance back at my friend with that look as if I might have forgot something.  Oblivious to my worry, he hurried me out the door asking "you ready for this?!" in that rhetorical no-turning-back-now voice.

The Blocos

We bolted for the door, walking just fast enough not to run...anticipating and equally prepping to endure some heavy traffic and a ferry ride across the bay.  I was finally on my way to the greatest show on earth...

As we approached the bloco, the sweet smell of hot sweaty people, stale beer, and fresh popcorn was easily overwhelmed by the sounds of samba baterias, drunken sailor songs, and street vendors.  My eyes widened as we neared the mob spanning the entire city block.  Thousands of people seemed unrecognizable.  The ridiculous costumes covered their identity but the joy emitting from them was equally disguising.  So palpable I will call it transformative...the first time in life I've seen true happiness penetrate thousands the way this celebration prompted.  It was also the first time I felt as if Brazil was host to an equal society.  Because this was not a celebration of societal rank; this celebration is synonymous with what it means to be Brazilian.

To my left a shirtless vendor convinces me to buy a black wig amongst a blanket full of silly accessories.  Of course, I comply.  To my right, I weave through the mile long line awaiting the porta-potties.  The stench permeates the much so that my only escape for a fresh breath comes from the clean pocket of air trapped between the cap of my can and the cold beer that's in it.  We pass the styrofoam cooler on my right where the vendor tries to convince us to buy the big cans for a promotional price.  I try to act like I know what I'm doing and pull out a $5...before my friend butts in and takes control...instructing the man to grab the smallest cans beneath the ice.

"It gets colder quicker and stays that way longer," my friend murmurs while he pays.  He cracks them open, smiling as if he's won the lottery.  We pump fists and subsequently cheers..."SAUDE".

I roam the party, dodging innocent clowns, sexy police officers, and hunched over transvestites.  I catch myself staring at all these crazy people.  My friend notices, laughs, then hits me on the shoulder.  "Act like you've been here before," he chuckles, likely saving me from petty crime.

We walk a little further into the mob attracted by the contagious energy of a percussion band jamming out to popular national songs.  One of the drummers holds up a sign <here...drunks don't enter...they just leave>.  I make myself comfortable.

It lasts all day and all night.  We rotate in water and food as needed.  As the night goes on, the people get crazier, the music gets louder, and the crowd grows larger.  Subconsciously you know its late, but everything around you is so stimulating that becoming tired is nearly impossible.  As 5 AM nears I wonder when we'll go home.  I imagine a long day of sleep before another night of Brazilian madness...but once again, I prove my naivety.  We return no later than 10 AM to the bloco with a vengeance, joining in on the civilian stroll through the streets.  Onlookers from apartment buildings above throw buckets of water on us as we march along in song.  This week is simply "rinse and repeat".

The Parade

The lone exception to this regiment occurs the day before the desfile - if you're one of the lucky ones who gets a ticket.  Sleeping in and an afternoon nap become necessary if you are to properly brave the 8-hour all night adventure in the sambodroma.  And we abided by the recommendation.

As we approached the mile long stadium, my heart began to race with excitement.  Wasn't this something you only see on TV?  How lucky am I to be going?

En route to our entrance, we push through crowds of onlookers.  The street is lined with food, beer, and booths selling apparel from their beloved samba schools.  Loaded with history, these schools are household names, practicing all year long for the big event.  Their operations and funding are complex.  Their membership is robust and prideful...their the world.  Closer to the stadium, I get a sneak peek at the ornate costumes, easily very expensive...I'm told the finest are in the realm of $100,000-$200,000 dollars.

We make our way to our seats, dragging along our bag full of snacks, and the free 1/2 inch butt cushion that came with the ticket.  We sit in the bleachers, above the suites and ground level have one of those, you must know "someone" or "the system".  As the stadium fills, the preparation for the most impressive parade on earth becomes obvious and the first words from the announcer become silent to the cries of thousands who have waited for this moment.

One-by-one, the six samba school champions from the year slowly march through the heart of the sambodroma.  The floats - massive.  The costumes - inconceivable.  The colors - exotic.  The first glimpse you have takes your breath away.  I imagine my eyes were wide, in complete shock and amazement by the beauty.  Yet, it didn't take long before I awoke from my trans realizing that the camera in my hands had to capture the creativity. 

So impressed by the first hour+ from the first school, I couldn't imagine what my reaction would be to the champion school...for I kept saying, all of them are so incredible, how could you judge?

The competition is stiff and the rivalries are heated.  Each float was an attack of imaginary prowess.  Each use of person was a ploy of innovative capability.  Each song, though, was a reaffirmation of love of life, affiliation to school, and commitment to nation.  The bone chilling beats and beauty of those songs moved us.  And when I wasn't samba-ing in the stands or snapping a picture, I was focused once again on the meaning behind this celebration.

This moment of pure bliss whisked me away to a place of deep affection and love for this utopia I temporarily call home.  But as the next float passes by, my gaze of wonder squints with a suspicious eye.  It is a landfill covered in oil...a mere mockery of the country's current struggles. 

The costumes worn by those that adorn it likely assembled with bloodshed, corruption, and poverty...funded by troubled youth, drugs, and violence.  Together, it all leaves a bittersweet realization...that this economic dichotomy has enabled a societal paradox: a nation of extreme inequalities oppressed with so much joy, color, and happiness that it forgets or simply jokes for one week that those very things are fundamental to its own existence.

This, my friends, is carnival.

Click on "carnival" in last sentence for a link to all parade pictures.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I'm back!

Greetings blog followers!

The time has come to return with a vengeance.  For most of you who are consistent followers, I'm sure it eats you alive inside to open my page and see "Near Death" time and I'm relieving you all today haha.

At the end of last semester, I took a much needed break and disconnected from nearly all things Brazil, blog included.  I flew back to the US for the Holidays and got to hug and kiss all the family members, I was able to keep my commitment of working for the Orange Bowl and was fortunate enough to also work the National Championship game pitting Notre Dame vs. Alabama.  From there, I made a quick adventure to the homeland of Cincinnati for some precious time with friend and of course, the awaited Skyline Chili (not to worry, I grabbed a can or two that returned with me to Brazil).

After my time in Cincinnati, I got to return a huge favor and hosted my Brazilian friend from my school who was paired up with me as my buddy and we did a mini-US tour!  We went straight tourist on our itinerary beginning in Chicago (Wilson tour, Magnificent Mile, Chicago Bulls game, Field Museum, Planetarium, Science & Industry, Aquarium, Portillos Italian Beef, Giordano's Chicago style pizza, and of course, my favorite...Rodity's Greek food!).

From Chicago, we jet-set east to the one and only New York City, where we were welcomed with below zero temperatures...a new experience for my South American friend!  We were outside walking the first day there and I was talking away and he finally didn't respond, to which I realized he was too cold to talk and his look reassured my realization haha.  It was even a greater joy to see his face at the first sight of snow!  While I have been to Chicago a number of times, despite not always being a tourist, NYC was mostly a first for me as well, which was quite a treat.  Although we mutually agreed that Chicago was much cleaner than New York, NYC had plenty of attractions for us and we took advantage of seeing them for the first time (Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern History, Central Park, Wall Street, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, Broadway Show, Carnegie Deli, Times Square, the list goes on!) Even funnier was that at nearly every turn, we were face-to-face with Brazilians...which was good Portuguese practice for me.

After our NYC tour, we headed to my parents in Buffalo where the snow actually held off until my last day and we were able to get a nice wintery view of Niagara Falls, get in some much needed shopping, and got some sports action in by seeing a Buffalo Sabres hockey game and a Buffalo Bulls basketball game.  On the shopping scene, you'll be happy to know that the Brazilians are pumping a bunch of $ into the US economy...mostly with electronics.  My friend had a field day at the Apple Store and Best Buy.  Taxes on electronics in Brazil are most cases, 50% of retail price or for was cheaper to buy a round trip fare, take a vacation, and purchase a MacBook in the US than it would have been for him to buy it in Brazil.  How about that?!  Fun Fact: over 6 million Brazilians visit the US each year and spend over 6 billion in the country.  Guess what's vise versa...just 150,000 Americans visit Brazil annually, and over 75% of those visitors are in the country for business purposes only.  I suspect that number will increase a little bit when the World Cup and Olympics come following.

While I had originally intended for my time home to be a complete break, I couldn't have been more happy to have hosted my Brazilian friend after all he and his family have done to make my time in Sao Paulo as comfortable as possible.  Plus it was fun to introduce him to my family and allow for a healthy level of Engligh-Portuguese language confusion provide for some very humorous moments.  I think his new favorite English phrase is...HOLY COW!

I was also able to do some deep reflection about my experience while I was back home.  For me, it energized and motivated me to come back to Brazil even more so than if I would have stayed through the holidays.  Too, I return feeling more confident in my Portuguese skills and much more cool, calm, and collected about my next semester.  Sometimes you just need a break to get back at things 100%...and this case was no different.  I was able to share my experiences with my classmates, University, advisers, friends, family, and employers.  I was able to get a hold of a few more opportunities for my future and most excitingly, was able to put together an impressive presentation about all the things I've learned and got to deliver it to over 100 people in an auditorium-like setting that struck a chord with all who watched.

Nevertheless, the time passed quickly and I made it back to Sao Paulo safely.  I got unpacked and then made my way to the biggest and best show on earth.....BRAZILIAN CARNAVAL!  As you can imagine, my next post will be well worth the wait!

Happy to be back and excited to share round 2 of this incredible adventure.