15 February 2010

Carnaval in Rio

I have to admit that my prior knowledge of Carnaval was extremely limited and, for the most part, incorrect. I thought it would be a wilder, crazier Mardi Gras. To be blunt, I thought there would be a lot more nudity and drunkenness...

 It seems that any US story about Carnaval is accompanied by photos of a scantily-clad female with elaborate jewelry, head dress and shoes, but not much more clothing. This type of dancer does exist and they know how to grab your attention. However, for every one of these dancers, there are probably 300 fully-dressed  dancers. Additionally, if you saw what people wear at the beach here, you'd actually think that the flashy dancing girls were actually more modest than the beach goers. (As a side note, while most girls where thongs to the beach here, it is actually against the law to go topless on the beach.)

At it's heart, Carnaval is about celebrating life through dance and music. Communities bond through their schools, which work for an entire year to prepare for their performances. The entire nation is on official holiday for the week, yet half of the population is working hard to make Carnaval the most glorious party in the world. Samba is not just a party, but it's a serious year-round industry.

Payam summed it up nicely when he was here a few years ago and told me that there are three ways to enjoy Carnaval: Going to the official samba competition,  watching it on TV, or enjoying the street parades that happen throughout the week. In addition to the official competitions (see shocking facts below), there are over 200 street parades/block parties in Rio alone. The parades are led by a community band and are very informal but tons of fun (if you don't mind getting squished). It would be like having a Dixie band on acid leading San Francisco's Bay to Breakers.

We've been able to take advantage of all three. Gabe's friend was able to get us tickets to the Samadrome to see the official all-night competitions. This was the most amazing spectacle that we've ever witnessed. Thank you Mickael! We've experienced the block parties every day, just by chance. It's hard to just watch, in the sense that you eventually get engulfed by the mass of people and become part of the parade itself. And tonight we're taking it easy at home with the TV programmed for the only show that's on.

To be sure, Carnaval is a week-long, nation-wide party that attracts millions of tourists. There is a lot of drinking and partying to go around. A good number of people are inebriated at the block parties and even more party hardy through the night. There are not a lot of clothes, for males or females. It's fairly common to kiss people you just met. But in the end,  Brazilians view our Mardi Gras as drunken binge-fest.

In a country with widely disparate income levels, Carnaval is a time for all classes to come together and celebrate their commonness. You can't imagine how much energy is packed into one stadium, one city, one country. At the Sambadrome, people stand all night and sing and dance. Carnavla surprised me and yet far surpassed any of my expectations. I can think of nothing in the US that comes within 1/10 of Carnaval.

Fun Facts About the Craziest Festival in the World:

  • It takes places in the Sambadrome - specifically built for Carnaval. It is one mile long and (officially) holds 90,000 people.
  • Each Samba school has 5,000 performers.
  • There are different leagues. The B League performs in Sao Paulo on Saturday and Sunday, while the A League competes in Rio on Sunday and Monday. The finalists compete for the championship on the following Saturday. Each night, the competition starts at 9pm and ends at 6am, with 5-6 schools performing for about 90 minutes each. I think they do have it at night because it would be deathly hot during the day.
  • Each school chooses a theme for their parade. Examples that we saw were: Don Quixote, Religions of Brazil, Mysteries of the World.
  • Performances are judged on timing, theme, costume, participation, and more. It is through this rating system that schools can move between leagues.
  • A new song is written for each samba school's parade. The songs are released before Christmas, so everybody knows the lyrics by the time Carnaval arrives.
  • Performances last about 90 minutes, during which time the song is repeated ad nasium. All performers must dance and sing during this entire time.
  • Schools get multi-million dollar sponsorships.
  • Other Brazilian cities have their own spin on how they celebrate Carnaval. Several cities in other South American countries are known for their own Carnaval traditions.
  • The Brazilian government distributed 55 MILLION free condoms this week.

Now, for a few photos of the floats at the Sambadrome. Realize that each samba school had at least a dozen of these floats.

For reference sake, the floats are about 15 meters high. The crowd is not on the ground, they are in the stands.

From Don Quixote.

Amazonian spiritual leaders.

The Lost City of Atlantis

The floats were so tall that cranes were used to offload the performers.

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