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.
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 air...so 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 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 followership...is 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 boxes...to 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.