“Welcome my friends! Welcome to Riiiiiiio, and welcome most of all, welcome to CARNAVAL!”. Meet Max. Max is a portly, cross dressing carioca barman with a smile as wide as his outstretched arms. Before him is the main square of Lapa which right now is a seething mass of noise and movement, all overlooked by the iconic shape of Lapa’s aqueduct. Multiple sound systems throb from an open top bus parked underneath its arches, the roof crammed with MCs yelling into loudspeakers, while beneath the din of crackling fireworks, bands of drummers dotted around the square pound out ferocious beats to the commands of manically, wide eyed conductors. Between all of these, plus the hundreds of stalls selling cerveja and espetinhos, 10’000 people dance – from the quick step samba of the locals to the unmistakably awkward sway of tourists – all that anyone seems to be here for is a knees up. Max grinned at us as he topped up our plastic cups with vodka across the bar; “This is the most fun you’ll ever have my friends“. As we glanced out of the doorway at what awaited us, we were ridiculously excited to find out.
That was day one of Carnaval and I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday – the annual date which the five day extravaganza precedes – and to be honest, it all seems like a bit of a blur right now. In reality however, the festival started long before last Friday. Little gets done between christmas and this week – the parties started months ago – but for an outsider the eruption of revelry that meets the official beginning of Carnaval is impossible to avoid. The city pretty much shuts down; shops stay closed, normal clothing is abandoned for tutus, coconut themed underwear and comedy wigs and the entire population takes to the streets. It’s an occasion that transcends colour, creed and class, and there is no better example of this than the hundreds of blocos which make their way through the streets of Rio. Varying from the 1.5 million strong singalong at Centro, to the Liverpudlian Samba sounds of Sargento Pimenta – a wickedly clever take on Beatles hits – or a few hundred souls following a band of drummers through the late afternoon sun on the slopes of Santa Teresa, the blocas all seem to vary in size, style and atmosphere. In Barra da Tijuca we danced along the beachfront with an open top bus spewing confetti and streamers, while at Ipenema we were swept along by the Ipanema Brass Band and around 80’000 others too. Above you, people watch on from balconies and hang from lamp posts and trees, while below, you can’t help but breathlessly let the crowd sweep you along in an adrenalin fuelled delirium. As a result of this, there’s really no need for alcohol to enjoy it – normally I’d need to be half cut to even consider dancing but here, well, you look like the idiot if you’re not dancing. It does get a bit much for some, brawls seem to start from nothing and are not uncommon, while the occasional roving hand can be felt on your pockets, but what can you do? Shirk the party and look on from afar? Or don a stupid costume like everyone else, dive in headfirst and see where it takes you?
One place we definitely made sure we ended up was the Sambódromo for one of its famous parades. Spread over Carnaval weekend these are probably what the festival is best known for, particularly the two nights covering ‘The Special Groups’ which consist of Rio de Janeiro’s twelve best samba schools. We made it to the second night of these, where along with 90’000 others we witnessed, with jaws hung in awe, what must surely be one of the greatest man made spectacles on earth. With each samba school given about 90 minutes to parade, we watched for over seven hours as tens of thousands of costumed dancers came and went with marching bands setting the beat, winged carnival queens leading the way and floats of such extravagance that a written description barely do them justice.
With each parade having a theme – ours ranged from the late Ayrton Senna to Brazilian folklore, and from Rio’s decadent past to the works of carnival designer Fernando Pinto – the floats are the centrepiece for each school and lead the various sectors and chapters of each parade. Huge, flapping eagles screamed through the stands, skeleton clad slave ships swept along, there were life-size table football pitches, grotesquely sized dolls, palaces from Japan – each more impressive than the last. We had Brazilian footballing legend Zico waving cheerily from his own float, masses of rubiks cubes and Pinnochios, hummingbirds and roosters, Amazon warriors and thousands of whirling ladies – the list is endless – as well as our hero of the night, a cleaner who couldn’t help but abandon his broom while clearing up between parades and samba danced his way down the main thoroughfare to the delighted roars of the crowd. Alas, we didn’t see him again for the next round of cleaning. With the ending of the final parade came the first hints of dawn. Giddy with what we’d seen over the last few hours, we picked our way through the costume littered streets and found our way home, to bed for a few precious hours sleep and then, guess what? Another party beckoned. It was the best fun we’d ever had.