I have never been to a party like this. Gods and queens, saints and demons, priests and pagans were all there swaying to a samba beat. At first I was motionless, staring with a dropped jaw at the explosion of colors, sequins and costumes before me. It didn't take long, though, before I joined in the dance as the first parade of Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval swept by me.
Every year before Lent revelers around the world continue the celebration known by many names: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, and of course, Carnival. I learned long ago in a Latin class that Carnival (spelled Carnaval in Portuguese) is derived from carne vale meaning "goodbye to the meat," and has roots in the Roman Catholic holiday of having a feast before the season of Lent.
I hardly believe how Rio celebrates is what Rome had in mind.
Brazil has the largest population of Catholics in the world, but their Carnaval celebrations are a blend of the country's unique history and the evolving tastes in music. During the early 1800s the festivities were about the aristocrats parading around in luxurious clothing and dancing to music. Masquerade balls became popular during this century, but in the 1850s the focus of the celebrations began to change with street parades, military bands and horse-drawn floats marking the occasion. Towards the end of the century Carnaval became more of a working class holiday when locals wore costumes and joined in the musical parades. I saw evidence of this tradition, albeit in a more hedonistic fashion, at the block parties which I'll get to later in this post.
As the end of the 1800s gave way to a more working class Carnaval celebration, so too came the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888. The link between this historic moment for Brazil and today's Carnaval traditions is shown through the pulsating beat of samba. This genre of music is at the heart of it all, with schools dedicated solely to samba. These samba schools work on their music, dancing, parade costumes and floats all year for a chance to compete in various Carnaval samba competitions throughout Brazil. Rio is among the most popular to attend and the samba competition is held in the aptly named Sambódromo. This stadium has bleacher-style seating but instead of overlooking a round or oval field, it looks like a one-way street with the seats facing each other. This creates the area where Brazilians dance, sing and shake their samba parade to a hopeful victory (and serious bragging rights for the year). To say these parades are elaborate is an understatement. Every costume rivals the best you would see on Broadway, and they run the gamut from Biblical figures to the wildly fantastic. We were fortunate enough to have tickets for one of the big samba nights, and when the first samba school appeared my jaw literally dropped in amazement at the splendor of it all. Disney parades pale in comparison (sorry Disney lovers, it's true). The samba school dancers and singers spend about an hour shimmying down the lane to the judges' stand at the end of the Sambódromo. Twelve samba schools are in the top category for the competition, with six schools competing a night over two evenings. The competition usually begins at 9 or 10pm and can go well into the morning (think: nearly sunrise). We lasted for about four of the six samba schools set to compete that night, which was plenty of parading for me.
Another part of our Carnaval experience were the blocos, or street parties. These parties have a vague link to the working class celebrations I mentioned earlier. There's a band playing samba music and the general idea is to walk behind the music truck or float (carrying the band and singers). It's not exactly a parade. In fact, it's much more chaotic, but the way Rio pulls off such parties was astonishing.
There are at least a few bloco parties per day in different parts of the city. They have a loose time schedule and they often overlap, which leads to the continuous party cycle that leaves many people exhausted by Ash Wednesday. The blocos sometimes have themes, including a Beatles-themed bash that's pretty popular. And by pretty popular, I mean huge. That party, along with the other blocos, can draw up to 200,000 people. Most aren't that large, but still, any party that numbers in the thousands is impressive enough for me. We went to a few blocos and saw tons of revelers dressed in costume (Brazilian men are particularly fond of wearing dresses during Carnaval). The beer also flowed steadily, as the city grants extra permits to street vendors, who in turn make sure the party keeps going...and going...and going. During Carnaval people party before the party, and after the party, and after the after party. Despite this, the city does a pretty great job at cleaning up the mess on the streets, with extra sanitary teams essentially following right behind the parades. The almost organized chaos of it all is impressive, to say the least. One night, after a particularly raucous scene I said that Rio parties like the world is ending. It wouldn't be a bad way to go.