Part 8: Carnaval!!
The longest bus journey of the trip whisked us from Puerto Iguazu (rainforest outskirts in Argentina) to the epic Rio de Janeiro: 24 hours of near 180° seat reclination, watching average films and drifting in and out of dozey sleep. We actually were unfortunate enough to hit mega traffic (perhaps due to Carnaval?) from about 20km outside Rio, so it became 26 hours, but by that point you don’t really care or notice! I coped extremely well and didn’t feel sick once!
Our hostel, Samba Green, in the Botafogo area was great fun. We had a small room to ourselves without AC, which Andy was initially somewhat pissed off with, due to paying 500 Reais for (or over £100 per night). The hostel more than made up for the lack-lustre ‘habitacion’ with their wonderful staff. It seemed that their main aim was to share as much of Carnaval with their ‘Gringo’ visitors as possible. They were constantly directing, leading, accompanying and advising us on the ‘where’ and ‘when’ to go, and when they weren’t, they were making Caiprinhas for all to share! Hindsight recommends: Use AirBnB if ever visiting Rio for Carnaval- hostel prices are like fairly high-end hotel prices and hotel prices go up slightly (but wouldn’t have much atmosphere).
Since we are returning to Rio at the end of our trip we decided to dedicate our first visit to ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’, or ‘the Marvelous City’, to soaking up every ounce of Carnaval atmosphere and experience, rather than sight-seeing and touristy visits. (Who the Redeemer??).
We did, however, have one day in Rio prior to day 1 of Carnaval, which we spent sunbathing, sipping coconut water through straws direct from coconuts and body surfing on Copacabana beach (tough life). We saw sneaky hints of the coming flamboyance in the banners and sequins going up in the area… not as many as we’d expected though. It turns out that the spectacle of Carnaval is more about the people decorating themselves in amazing ways, rather than dressing up the, already rather attractive, city streets.
We attended a ‘blocko’ per day- a street party, often parading along behind a truck with live singers on top and several booming tardis-sized speakers blasting samba music out of the sides. The samba band- a 200 piece group ambling along, with drums of every kind, follows immediately behind the truck, often in a moving roped off area contained by an 80m-or-so closed loop of rope held in a square shape around the band by maybe 6 blokes ‘pegging’ out the edges.
These guys had to lean back on their section of rope for all they were worth to prevent too much mingling of the street-side crowds and the musicians. The issue with this set up, though, was if one side of the rope was suddenly lurched in one direction, the other side of the rope would catapult the people ‘support posts’ with minor force into the band. Generally such catapults were minimised but only at the expense of the guy having to bear all his weight on the rope at a Michael Jackson Thriller-esque angle.
Andy and I were just outside the back corner of this rope for about 25 minutes before Andy took pity on the fairly scrawny guy frantically trying to lean as hard as possible on his corner of rope to maintain the moving rectangle. Andy jumped in to help. Soon afterwards the scrawny rope man disappeared for a time and Andy was left enjoying (seriously- he loved it!) sitting back against the rope, pushing with all his might (like an inverse tug of war, with your backside), and occasionally being jolted along with a ‘twang’ of the rope.
That was a night-time blocko, but we were reliably informed that all the best blockos actually start around 9am and almost all the other ones we joined were in the daytime. We got up early(ish) for one which paraded from Botafogo to Copacabana (2 of the nicest areas in Rio), which happened to go through the major traffic tunnel linking central Rio to Copacabana beach (through one of the many lush, green and steep-sided hills the Rio landscape is famous for). This was a highly sweaty and loud experience for us and would have been banned in England on Health and Safety grounds for a million reasons (vehicle fumes and massive moving crowd slowly stampeding through enclosed space- less than ideal- but very fun!).
Favourite costume- beer on a drip
There he is!!
Selfie in a tunnel
Daytime blocko with some of the hostel gang and the lads that work there.
The last and best one (in my opinion) that we went to was a ‘static’ blocko in a park where the band only played Beatles songs (to a samba drumbeat). It was the first time we’d been able to sing along to the Carnaval songs and we loved it- Hey Jude (as always) was particularly epic.
The highpoint of our visit was our Sunday night outing to the Sambadromo- the custom built parade street, with steep tiered seating down either side, where the 20 best samba schools of Brazil parade over 2 weekend nights. Ten schools per night strut their stuff down this amazing avenue, from around 7pm- 6am the next morning, in a giant caterpillar-like procession of slow moving multi-coloured flamboyant dancing, creeping along at snail’s pace. We were less than impressed with the dance moves, which are solely comprised of walking forwards at roughly the same pace as the person next to you, but the spectacle as a whole was amazing!
The day before we’d been on a tour of the biggest favela in Rio (Rocinha). We took a motorbike taxi up the steep and winding streets of the hillside from which sprouts and spreads this hugely impressive housing development and the bustling community that inhabits it. The colourful buildings themselves grow fairly swiftly, as the only place to build now is upwards and so people are continuously selling their only available real estate (or roof tops), for quite a lot of money, to allow for more accommodation. The overhead tangle of wires that powers these buildings is tapped illegally from the national grid, something that, thus far, the Brazilian government had been unable to prevent from happening.
The favelas have been pacified by the police in the last few years (I.e. the drug lords and gangs that used to ‘run’ them have been kicked out). The atmosphere is one of a friendly and high-spirited community and, even as blatant tourists, we never felt threatened (except when a pair of rogue chihuahuas launched themselves at Andy). The best thing of the visit was that, cast aside, next to a hilltop bin, we found a discarded costume from the previous night’s sambadromo parade. It was still in perfect condition and spotless (despite it’s location). Here was the result:
Andy in costume
Andy donned the 2ft high headdress to the sambadromo parade. Little did we know that it turns out that almost every audience member at the sambadromo just wears normal clothes, maybe with odd accessories, and saves the extravagant outfits for those in the parade. We didn’t care- he looked like an awesome green fairy nymph king!
Some of the floats were incredible- I was well impressed by the dragon below, who actually had blinking eyes! There was also a huge human cannonball float, which got fired immediately in front of us… Not just luck, we hadn’t opted for the cheap seats, and were positioned directly opposite the judges.
The whole thing was like Disneyland on speed… I’m assured by Andy, as I wouldn’t know what Disneyland, or speed for that matter, were like. Disclaimer from Andy: I’ll leave it for you to decide which of the aforementioned qualities it is that I know about.