Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We want to let the photographs do most (okay, some) of the talking for this blog, except to maybe tell you a little about our time in Rio de Janeiro last month with our host Ulysses (and we honestly don't know how to pronounce Ulysses properly). Once again, we had been invited to stay in the home of someone completely new to couchsurfing. Ulysses has a great house in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro, with quite a bit of spare room for travelers to throw a mattress down (which plenty of people did whilst we were there). We arrived one sweaty Tuesday evening, and were met first by his friend Raphael, a long time couchsurfing host (and the person accredited with introducing Ulysses to the concept of allowing strangers into his home), then by his dog, Jolie, a beautiful but quite mad golden retriever; and then by Ulysses himself, who made it immediately clear that the current and imminent mission was to party, it being Carnaval, and so offered to mix us up some caipirinhas. He did this by mixing a whole chopped lemon with its weight in sugar, bashing them together with the blunt end of a spatula, and then adding a quarter bottle (about nine whole seconds of pouring) of sugar cane spirit (or any old white spirit you get your hands on), an equal amount of ice, and shaking it all up in a jar. You can't go wrong making this drink. During the process he enquired after our plans for Carnaval, which happened to be another ten days away or so, and upon hearing our muttered ,

"Well, dunno… waiting to see what comes up... s'pose,"

he told us that the room he had just ushered us into, with a wardrobe and sofa-bed - luxury for free - was ours for the whole of the coming Carnaval, and that nobody else had been or would be promised that space. Okay, we thought, looks like our plans have been made for us – if ever in doubt look for the signs to show the way. In this case, the path of least resistance. Sweet. The prices of hostels in and around Carnaval in this part of the world are simply astounding, and we could likely have not afforded to stay in Rio for that long (the longest amount of time we've spent in one place in the last six months - about three weeks in total) without Ulysses’ amazing offer. His next question was to whether or not we liked samba. “Yeah, we just saw some in Sao Paulo,” we reply. “Love it.”

“What?! Are you f***ing kidding me?”

Have we offended?

“What do you mean?”

“We-ell, that’s not really samba man. Only Carioca [from Rio] samba is real samba. Here, I’ll play you some.”

He then played us one piece of music I will never forget until my dying day. Not necessarily because of its brilliance, but because once he’d played it for us, and established that we did indeed like this multi-voiced, many-instrumented, good-time, singalong, foot-stamping piece of samba (we really did like it), he played it immediately again. Then after listening to it again, he played it again. And then again. I’m not sure a day went by during that first week in Ulysses’ home that we didn’t hear that song at least three times. And I think the record might have been about nine times back to back. He must really like this song, we think to ourselves. He seems to like it the way a four-year-old likes Finding Nemo. Admittedly, it is an excellent song. When we find a link for this song, we will post it for your listening pleasure. It is the theme song of Ulysses’ favourite samba school. A samba school is basically a team of musicians and dancers performing in the Carnaval parade. Each neighborhood has its own school.The two-day parade is the highlight of Carnaval in Rio. These parades are actually very fierce competitions, taking a year’s worth of practice, thousands of people and probably a truckload of cash. The winners receive a great deal of glory, as well as sponsorship for the next year. The best samba schools have generally come from poorer areas of the city, neighborhoods known as favellas, and so of course have lots of reasons to aim for perfection.

The school who's song we had been intensely listening to in Ulysses' living room is called Villa Isabel (We saw their parade - they were the last of the show at about 5am on Monday night’s Tuesday morning - they were good, but not our favourite).  

Suffice to say that we spent most of our time leading up to Carnaval checking out Rio in the usual touristy way. When we weren’t visiting well-famous statues and taking in world-class views and that, we would hop on the subway, and only one short journey away was our choice of a handful of beautiful beaches. We spent a good portion of our time just laying on the sands, building up a tough sweat, then drinking cold sweet matte (a kind of tea) sold by passing vendors; or strolling into the blissfully cool and joyfully churning waves to refresh.  I personally am sporting the best tan I’ve ever had in my life. Not showing off, just thought it was worth a mention. The sun, when it comes out on Copacabana Beach could scorch the sting off a scorpion’s tail. I don't like to blaspheme, but criminy crackers it was hot! When the beach got too tiresome, we would venture into the nearby avenues to hunt for shade and find street parties taking place.

Carnaval in Rio is also partly a series of street parties, known as bloccos, taking place over an innumerable amount of times and locations. The most popular can attract over 2,000,000 people, who just hang around on the streets in costumes, drinking beers that come conveniently sold from cooler-boxes being wheeled or carried around. At no point during these events would you have to walk further than a few metres to buy yourself a nice cold can of Antarctica beer (which when drunk cold can be the perfect tonic for any sweltering Saturday, but at anything less than freezing temperature tastes of a Sunday morning hangover). Cheap and sweet cocktails sold in long and colourful plastic tubes can help these parties swim past the memory banks through warped and distorted windows like a whirl of crowds, costumes, colours, and often some music. The centre point of any blocco is the sound car. This is basically a bus/speaker system, with an open top deck for musicians or dancers to be driven slowly through the streets while the crowds and their alcohol-selling entourage jostle to follow.
The best of these free street parties was undoubtedly a blocco group called 'Sargento Pimenta’. There’s a prize for the first person who can guess correctly which band these guys play covers of. It’s a good prize, so answers in quick. They mixed guitars, a bunch of brass instruments, and at least twenty samba percussionists to beautiful effect to entertain an enormous crowd in a park by Flamengo beach on a hot Monday afternoon. I realise you don't know where Flamengo Beach is in relation to anything at all, but I'm just showing off.  Unfortunately we were only able to stay for half an hour with Sargento Pimenta, as we had tickets for the Sambodromo (Samba-drome) that evening to see six of the best twelve samba schools compete for first place.

There are probably about thirty samba schools in Rio competing in the samba-drome, but there seems to be roughly the same twelve or so best ones each year, and these are the ones that perform on the two main nights of Carnaval. The winners are judged by how many mistakes they don’t make, and so the decisions don’t always correspond with public opinion. The one we thought was best by far came about third, so the judges were obviously looking for something different to us. Our favourite school, Grande Rio, had massive jellyfish flying through the air, and lighting up in pulses, and a giant neon lizard of some kind. Unfortunately we were so mesmerised by the sight of these things that we took no pictures, and so have left you with a bunch of parade pictures from throughout the night just to give you an idea of the kind of display on offer. We did manage to get some video footage, so there'll be that for you to look forward to watching, haha. Definitely the most colourful spectacle I think we ever saw.

It was of course amazing; if not a little tiring, sitting on hard bleachers from Monday evening sundown through to about 6am Tuesday as the sky started to lighten, and the large jug of hastily made caipirinha began to wear off. Ulysses had promised us that his door would be locked until an hour after the last school had paraded, trying to ensure that we would not quit of exhaustion half way through or anything.The actual winning team turned out to be the one who closed the show, the very one that Ulysses had picked, and featuring the song that we had in fact been listening to for the last few weeks, yay! And so we sang along as best we could in our embarrassingly pathetic Portuguese (we had a lyrics sheet), then sleepily clapped our hands and whistled for the whole show as it all came to a close, and walked exhaustedly through the throng and towards the nearest subway station to make our way home with a certain tune bouncing round in our heads. Thereupon we were not so surprised to find Ulysses jumping around his living room, listening to you'll never guess which song again, at a volume that seemed intended to alert all nearby neighborhoods to his team’s win. We crawled under our covers with fingers in our ears, looking forward to getting some sleep and then hitting some nearby beaches where - we anticipated - sunshine, sand and surf would soothe our charged up bodies and minds. Rio de Janeiro is kind of a crazy place.

The next day then (Wednesday) we hopped on a bus for a couple of hours to a nearby town called Arraial de Cabo. We had been advised to go here by Fernanda, our sister in Argentina, and for that, we must thank her profusely. It was exactly what we wanted after Carnaval. Arraial de Cabo is a town that can be walked across in ten minutes, with a beach at one side, a beach at the other side, one around a corner, and another one just over a hill. Being summer it was pretty busy, but the beaches were some of the best we’ve ever seen, with sand like castor sugar and sea of the clearest blue I have ever swam in, and so we spent three days gorging on yet more holiday activities (laying down, swimming and eating, pretty much). Here we had our first taste of the famous Brazilian cuisine known as churrasco. This word basically means braai or barbecue, and I think we can report that it beats Argentinean barbecue into the ground (not by being better quality meat, but by being prepared in some kind of dark magic ritual - good things just don’t taste this good). At a churrascaria, the waiters bring skewered barbecue meat to your table, and if you fancy the look of it they slice a large chunk off for you. We gorged like meat was going extinct. It seemed we couldn’t get over dribbling one mouthful’s juices down our sticky chins before they were offering us something else, each morsel tastier than the last. Churrasco is also served with my own personal favourite food in Brazil, feijao (the second syllable is pronounced like the sound of a racing car speeding past). Feijao is simply a kind of bean simply cooked in a kind of way; but there must be some kind of drug in them, because there are times I wake up craving them, and others when I go to sleep remembering the taste.  Brazilian food has trumped pretty much every other country’s cuisine we have tried in South America.  A whole-hearted round of applause for it please, clapclapclap.

The photographs really do portray more than we can describe here. Yeah you've read enough already, but there's a lot of photographs of small things that we loved about Rio, so we hope you enjoy them…

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Christian Brookes on

Wow. : )

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