Carnival came down to Town today

Trip Start Oct 06, 2008
Trip End Apr 03, 2009

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Monday, March 2, 2009

What can I say about Carnival - was always going to be one of the highlights of my trip and it was something which I looked forward to from the very start. Had this picture of the streets being full of  hedionistic party people, with loads of scantily clad, full figured, Brazilian babes dancing and shaking their thang. I know where I got this impression - this is how the Rio carnival is sold around the world.
   Unfortunately Rio Carnival is nothing like that really - there are none of those females dancing in the street. There are a very small number leading the parades through the Sambodromo alright - thatīs a stadium where the principal parade takes place. Thatīs not to say you wonīt enjoy Carnival, you will but provided you enter into the spirit of things.

It didnīt start too well for me - bus from the falls to Rio usually takes 24 hours. My bus (expensive Cama bus ie Sleeping bus) took 30 hours. Was looking forward to the legendary Argentinian hospitality on these buses - food, champagne and luxury comfort. All I got was one bloody croissant and the bus broke down outside of Sao Paulo for 9 hours. Ended up getting into Rio very late and by the time I settled into my hotel (I paid way too much money for it like everything else in Rio that week but in fairness the breakfasts were cracking and like any good backpacker, you could grab enough stuff at breakie to cover lunch as well) it was so late that I could only cruise around the area around Copacabana (where the Hotel was).
  The next day, after a ridiculously big breakfast, I headed for Copacabana beach, prob the most famous in the world. In Carnival though, the crowds on it are unbelieveable - almost like a Full Moon party in Koa Phang Ngan. It is a nice beach though and just watching the people play soccer volleyball or real volleyball itself is reason enough to go there. They are fantastic. Beware though, ridic looking figures everywhere sporting their speedos. Never seen so many wearing them. They cruise around the streets in nothing but them (itīs so hot here though that no matter what time it is, if you are wearing a top, you are sweating) and the beaches here take the beautiful body thing to the extreme (mostly men - neighbouring Ipanema beach is a gay friendly beach). After sufficiently burning my still incredibly white pigeon chest, I get dolled up for a big night on the town and meet a buddy from outside of London called Tim. A little intro for Tim is necessary- prob about 25 years old, from Oxford, Tim was to get married a little under a year ago when it fell apart close to the time. He decided to take the three week honeymoon in Australia as some recuperation time and has been traveling ever since. Along the way the car has been sold and the house followed shortly after. He is a self proclaimed hedionist with an abnormal talent for ingesting toxic substances into his body. Hence, his rather expensive lifestyle. For those of you who may have read ĻOn the RoadĻ, Tim is a Dean Moriarty type character sure to burn out early. Suffering from chronic stomach spasms in BA, it didnīt seem to slow him down too much.
    Tim was on night no. 5 in Rio and the effects were starting to show. After we meet he says that he wants to take it easy tomight (we start drinking beer at 5 o choc on the beach - fat chance). So we have a couple of beers on Ipanema beach even taking in sunset with the beginnings of a bloco in the background. This is basically a float blasting out the tunes Rio style and everybody follows it down the street dancing and drinking and generally having a good time. After a few beers we are loosening up nicely and decide to join in on the fun with the bloco blasting out Afro-American type beats which are actually quite good (Smba here gets a bit monotonous after a while - very little variation in it and the songs drag on far too long). Now Rio is stinking hot - 36 or so during the day and about 30 at night - very little difference when the sun goes down. So we start sweating pretty quickly (Timīs got 5 days worth of abuse built up) but that just makes us more thirsty. So we gotta keep the beer flowing to replace all the beer we are sweating out. And itīs friggin great fun - just dancing away with the locals. Unless you join in - most tourists donīt, then you will lose interest pretty quickly. And because in Rio, not many people speak English and most donīt understand Spanish enough to have a conversation, itīs not like you can go chatting with the locals. That option is almost totally absent so if you want to enjoy Carnival, you just gotta get stuck into the dancing. Tim and I are having a ball, the dancing moves arenīt that complicated, itīs just that the Brazilians can shake their thang at a speed that we canīt possibly replicate but they do appreciate a gringo trying and not just snapping pics at the side.
      Tim and I make a quest to get to the front and try and get onto the float - that would have been class. After about 2 1/2 hours we finally make it. Worth it though, some air up there not present in the great throng behind - no chance of getting up on the float though - not even for a couple of gringos pleading in broken spanish or should I say especially not for a couple of gringos. We do make some friends up there - Tim with a native who speaks English and I with one who is cute but doesnīt. She doesnīt understand my Spanish either - this is going to be hard work.
  After about 3 hours of dancing (and dying to use the bathroom for the last 2 - canīt leave though as you will automatically lose everybody if you do. That is one thing you will remember about Rio - you have to pay to use a toilet so everybody goes in the street and in this heat by word can you smell it) the Bloco ends and the local guy takes us to the next location which is kicking. Itīs the gay area of Ipanema - takes us a while to figure it out as we are shatted from all the dancing. But there is a big party on so were not leaving. Iīm too busy trying to chat up Nathalia in broken English, Spanish and some mixture with a couple of words in Portuguese (I thought Portuguese would be more similar to Spanish but while they may write in some ways similar, trying to understand the spoken word from basic Spanish is a nightmare) to take much notice anyway. I eventually lose Tim in the melee and the locals with English leave for another venue, leaving me with Nathalia. We are getting on super at this stage, almost fully communicating - my Spanish improves after a few beers I think and she is beginning to understand a bit better. Its bloody good fun to boot. I end up back in my hotel scratcher at one in the morning chewing on some form of a hamburger. An absolutely cracking night - my favourite night of the Carnival. If you let your proverbial hair down and jump in with the locals, itīs really good fun.

The next evening I went to the Sambodromo (a stadium constructed entirely for carnival - basically a street with stands on either side) where the touristy TV parade is held. This is what you see back home but its not what Caarnival is really about (Nowhere else in Brazil but Rio - its why Rioīs carnival is so famous but it in itself is not that interesting). You just sit and watch which is fun for a while and the costumes and work gone into are impressive. Expensive though - ticket available in the Hotel costs US$415 - I decide to skip that opportunity and head down about 12:30. Pay about $20 to a tout for a ticket - crap seat but Iīm in and thatīs all that matters. Lasts for about 8 hours a night - thatīs far too long for me. Its good fun for a few hours though. I meet some Dubs in the stand close to me and we start up some dancing with a Rio native. They never stop dancing here ,and actually Brazilians generally will always start dancing when they hear music. Its mad, you could be in a store talking to one and the radio is turned up and off they go. They are oblivious to it as well which is funny.  
The following night is the last official night of carnival so Iīm all set for a big one. Head into town to see what a street parade is like. Interesting, its a mixture of a fancy dress and a Bloco. The last night in Rio is traditionally Gay Parade night and the place is thronged with the local men dressed up. Kind of like Timeoleague Harvest festival for those of you in the know. One float with the babes on it - wish I had taken my camera but if you take a camera out in the streets here with you, you had better not be too sentimemtal about it. After a few hours and more than enough Samba beats, we head up to Lapa which is the trendy nightspot in Rio now. Just a street with dozens of pubs, restaurants and clubs where people spill out on to the street. Impossible to keep up with people in the crowds here and soon enough I am on my own, gang lost in the melee. Decide to sample some of the local cocktail, Caipirinhna -something like a Mojito but made from Sugar Cane and all the more tasty for it. Absolutely gorgeous and one is never going to be enough with these. I slip down another few and the rest of the night passes in a bit of a haze trying to talk to localsbut with the language barrier making it generally impossible. Wake up the following morning with a shocking hangover and have to move from my cushy hotel back to a dorm bed with no a/c. Not good with a hangover in this heat.

And that was carnival. Itīs not at all like I expected but itīs still great fun if you are prepared to jump in and just go with it. Many of the other backpackers I met were a little disappointed with it. I enjoyed it though - Sambodromo not really my thing but I loved the dancing around in the Blocoīs. The locals seem to have incredible amounts of energy and can dance for hours on end. There is a buzz about the place and thatīs what makes it so special and internationally famous. As for the scantily clad Rio babes, I canconfirm they donīt really exist beyond a handful in the Sambodromo. Actually Rio is not really fullof beautiful people at all - nothing like BA in that respect and a bit of a disappointment. 

After Carnival I stayed in Rio for another 3 nights for some recuperation, some more partying to ruin the recuperation amd some sight-seeing. It does have some fantastic sights including the Sugar Loaf, Christo-Redemptor (very impressive and I was sceptical on the way to it) and of course the beaches (a bit more manageable after the carnival crowds). It has the Maracana stadium where I caught a local derby game which was far more impressive that its Argentinian counterpart (prob because the defending was so bad) and it has the favelaīs. Had to go to one of them for a look (only option is a tour - not a smart idea to wander in to one of these) even if it is a little morally wrong to look at other peoplesī misfortune I think. Its not what you think though (Rio rarely is) - these people are not as poor as you think and playstations are nearly as common here as at home. Itīs the hygiene here (or lack of it) that really sticks out and this is something they are working on improving through education (Brazilians are by nature shocking in what they do with their garbage).Otherwise, very few people are starving and they are real communities. What defines them though is the violence which breaks out periodically, when they become warzones for the drug gangs. Often lasting for a week or more people are trapped terrified in their homes. If it hasnīt stopped by then, the Special Police move in and pretty much kill everyhting that moves. No prisoners are ever taken in Brazil I think. Order is restored and normality breaks out again. The Special Police are serious here - no normal police in the Favelas generally - they are run by the Drug gangs - they killed 12 people the last time violence broke out in the Favela we visit (Biggest in SA with about 200k residents). But the place itself, bizarrely enough, has a certain charm to it with multi-coloured houses and small winding streets. Itīs not what I expected anyways. At the top of the hill (the Favelaīs in Rio are generally built on the side of hills), the people drive cars and work in the city. Its their home, where they are born and where they are accustomed to. They donīt consider living elsewhere despite the violence and gangs. It does get much poorer as you work your way down the hill and the hygiene is terrible but they could solve that pretty easily if there was enough willpower to do it.  But the peopleare not starving orliving in the street. This is just the way they are accustomed to living.

As a special treat, I did a paraglide here as well. Cost a few pound but seen from the air, Rio is undoubtably one of the most, if not the most, beautiful cities in the world. Sydney is the only city that comes close that Iīve seen. It has itīs problems though. Crime is rampant in parts, the night before I left, a big gang of us went back to Lapa and I saw alot of negative stuff. Caught a guy trying to pickpocket me, narrowly avoided a scuffle, seen a kid running down the street with a Gringo in flip-flops after him giving chase (found out after that the kid grabbed money straight out of the guys hand when he went to pay for a beer - needless to say he didnīt catch him - funny watching him try though), a girl getting into a cab balling her eyes out with her friends consoling her (not sure what happened there but my guess was a mugging) and a couple of guys getting busted by cops in a setup - cost them 350 Reas ($175 US) to pay their way out of trouble. Thatīs alot of bad shite for one night. I had a pretty good night though - Back on the caiparinhaīs again with the same effect - ended up in a church at 6 in the morning mistaking it for a club such was the passion of the audience and my capacity for misjudgement in the small hours of the morning. Religion is funny here I can tell you.

Rio is a mad place, hot as hell, dangerous in parts, expensive by SA standards, with a staggering difference between the have and have nots (The street sleepers in the city are the worst I have ever seen - most look like they wont make it through the day and many are kids).If you are born on the wrong side of the tracks here, you have absolutley no chance. Itīs an absolute must see for both sides though on any trip to SA and make sure to try the caipirinhaīs.
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Marcelo on

How to walking by urban bus and metro in Rio de Janeiro city - Zona Sul (south zone) who have the beaches(Copacabana,Ipanema,etc.) and turist points (Corcovado;Sugar Loaf)and Centro da Cidade (Downtown) who have the hystoric places,popular commerce and various culture movements. Go the fotolog and see the ideal line bus for the desire place in Rio.


PS. I don't speak english.

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