Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival conjures a kaleidoscope of images: a sea of bare flesh, feathered beauty queens, samba dancing and theatrical floats carrying thousands of dancers. Outside the parades that fill the sambodromo, the streets of Brazil also come to life. For two magical weeks locals don a costume (often self-made constructions) and flock to the streets of Rio to participate in street processions known as 'blocos' or 'bandas'.
During my first day in Rio De Janeiro, my friends and I headed to the famous Ipanema and Copacabana Beach. I didn’t know where to look. It was the height of summer and beautiful, shirtless Brazilians lined the streets. I was incredulous. How could so many attractive people be concentrated in the one small circular radius? If their perfectly sculptured abs weren’t displayed, glistening in the sun against the crystal white sand, they were looking especially magnificent playing footvolley - a crazed version of volleyball utilising a football and no hands – which is ridiculously difficult and impressive. I think I gave myself whiplash looking rapidly from left to right, eyeing these attractive specimens … mouth open, slack jawed, astonished.
I’m lucky I have a complexion that allows me to assimilate into most countries or cultures. Fellow pedestrians would ask for directions in Portuguese. Luckily, I had prepared and knew how to say “Noun foula Portuguese, (Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese) which proved handy. I found, at least for the purpose of Carnival, looking like a Brazilian had its perks. Locals assumed I was one of them. A result of that was Brazilians would approach me during the parades, grab me and kiss me, passionately. Often with very little pre-discussion or courting prior. It sounds shameless but I was very much a willing participant in this engagement.
Carnival is a free for all, of sorts. It’s a party, and boy do Brazilians know how to party. You can wander the streets from around seven in the morning, booze readily available and constantly supplied by individuals selling their wares. The dehydration and effects of the South American sun hit you by about midday, leaving you parched and delirious. As the effects of alcohol mount throughout the day, inhibitions disappear.
Carnival originated as a sort of pre-cursor to Lent. Alcoholic beverages, meat and other hedonistic vices are consumed in abundance, prior to abstinence during Lent. Carnival events occur throughout Catholic parts of the world but Rio de Janeiro takes the record for the largest Carnival in the world, with two million people taking to the streets every day.
There can be up to 300 parties throughout Rio at any given time. During Carnival, street parties often start early in the morning and go on late into the night. While technically Carnival falls just over a week, the street parades and pre-carnival blocos start a number of weeks prior fondly thought of as warming up or rehearsing for the real deal.
Post-Carnival celebrations continue for the weeks following the main event. Brass bands and percussionists gather during the blocos and play an array of Latino and samba music, known as marchinhas. The beats are impossible to stay still to, leaving the masses swaying their hips and jauntily shaking what their mumma’ gave them. Hundreds of vendors line the streets ready to fuel the participants with more alcoholic beverages and energy drinks to combat the heat.
The costumes worn are often DIY creations, many of which feature a hint of humour. At times the costumes consisted of tongue in-cheek comments on gender or politics. Others openly expressed their sexuality and adorned themselves with their constructions, often revealing their divinely chiselled bodies.
For the duration of the parades we stayed in a beautiful Airbnb penthouse apartment in Rio, right in the middle of the carnival processions. One night, perhaps frustrated by our feeble attempts to mix our own drinks, our host shared his recipe for the perfect caipirinha. It involved heavy-handed muddling and an almost blissful balance of cachaça, lime and copious amounts of sugar. I was hooked. When I left for a Bloco party one night, he handed me a little bottle of Jägermeister to aid me on my travels. This was a first for my history of Airbnb stays. It almost felt like everyone was in on the Carnival festivities despite age, gender or socio-economic differences.
Hedonism runs rife for these few weeks, could you blame locals for wanting an opportunity to let go, forget their current political climate and bathe in the colour and lively festivities that carnival brings? Life is a celebration worth celebrating after all.