Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Carnaval. Epilogue

Before I start talking about Carnaval there are a couple of things I'd like to say about Rio that I should have put in my previous post but was too rushed to. One is about beauty in Brazil. Many people say that Brazilian women are the most beautiful in the world. Now even though this is a matter of taste, I believe these people are mistaken (don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they're all pig-ugly, but that they're nothing special) and I think I know why. You see most people visit Brazil/Rio for Carnaval and consequently get rather inebriated and thereby acquire major beer-goggles and so their impression of the local talent gets consequently affected. However that wasn't what I really wanted to say. For me, what was far more interesting was the fact that it is the only country I have visited in Latin America where the white ideal of beauty isn't the only one. Therefore it's possible to see black and m├ętisse women on magazine covers and billboards. This multiethnicity is also spread throughout the whole population, which I find heartening, especially after countries such as Peru where the whites look down on the mestizos, the mestizos look down on the indigenous, and the indigenous look down upon themselves. The other thing I want to quickly mention is the public transport system in Rio. It absolutely peerless. Not because it's technologically advanced, but because the buses are incredibly frequent and the bus drivers are absolute maniacs, driving like bats out of hell and getting you from A to B much faster than our local "let-the-granny-cross-the-road" drivers. So a big thumbs up to Rio's bus drivers.

Right. Finally. Onto Carnaval. There are 3 main "levels" of celebration: small street parties with live music, stalls and the like; large, organised street parades with sound systems mounted on trucks, winding their way through the streets, surrounded by throngs of people; and finally the gigantic parades of the samba schools in the Sambadrome, a specially constructed street with tribunes on either side.

The latter are undoubtedly the most famous and are the image many people have of Carnaval in Rio. They are definitely impressive, with each samba school comprising of up to 4000 paraders, each outfitted in the most extravagant and gaudy costumes, and up to 10 floats, each one trying to outbid the previous one for flashiness and intricacy, and the whole procession can take 90 minutes to make its way the roughly 750m down the Sambadrome. The tourist brochures declare that these parades are "Rio's street opera" because each school has a theme (from the monumental "The Balance Between Man And Nature", "Fire" to the odd, like "Chinese Influence On Brazilian Culture" (most notably rice)) and a song that is continually looped. I must agree that in some respects it is very much like opera because even when you know the theme it is very difficult to see the relationship between it and the floats and dresses of the people prancing about before you. Furthermore the music, because it keeps repeating itself, just melds into a formless, background grumbling, which isn't helped by the fact that the majority of the paraders are not dancing in time with the beat (if they are dancing at all). Hmmm, it doesn't sound like I enjoyed myself much, does it? But in actual fact I did find it entertaining, though mostly due to my wonderment at the amount of work and effort that must have gone into building the floats and making the costumes (far more than went into the dance moves, that's for sure), especially for something as ephemeral as a samba parade (on the way back to the hotel the streets were littered with discarded hats, shoulder pads and other glittering apparel). No, it was definitely worth it and I'm glad I witnessed such an incredible spectacle.

The other 2 levels of festivities are far more visceral and are where the true spirit of Carnaval resides; in fact many cariocas (for that's what people from Rio call themselves) have never been to the Sambadrome. The street parades are something to be experienced because when you're in the thick of it dancing is the last thing you're able to do and just standing up is the aim of the game. But the people all around you never cease to be friendly and good-humoured so you never feel at risk or anything. If you want to boogie on down it's probably best to stay on the fringes of the throng. The street parties are more chilled-out, with people spilling out of bars and multitudes of street vendors and a little bit of impromptu dancing flaring up here and there every now and again.

But Carnaval is over now and the group that I have been travelling with for the past 3 months has finally split up, each of us going our separate ways. So here's one final maack maack maaa! for you guys. Special thanks must also be given to Martin who, though the grandaddy of the group at 35 is still young (and cynical) at heart, allowed me to "borrow" many photos from his own trip website (there's also a permanent link to it in my links section). Thank you Martin. Oh, and also thanks to Catherine who is lugging a whole lot of stuff back to London for me, cheers you freaky Austrian girl!

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