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Rio Carnival: Watching

My experience as a spectator at Rio’s 2012 Carnaval

While I’m big on parties and dancing, I’m not usually game for big crowds and chaos. That’s why I never had the desire to attend Rio de Janeiro’s carnival. But when the opportunity to go as both a spectator and a participant presented itself, there was no way I was going to miss it. What greeted me in Rio was surprising–considering the hoards of travelers who descend upon the city from Brazil and the rest of the world for Carnaval, Rio manages to remain fairly organized and relaxed. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; it’s a beach city, after all: how can anyone remain high-strung with beach waves and fresh coconuts a few minutes away? I ended up attending the 2012 carnival parade at Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome over the course of two nights: on Sunday night as part of the parade in one of the wings of samba school Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel, and on Monday night as a spectator. This blog post describes the experience of being a carnival spectator; photos and explanations below are grouped by samba school (Unfortunately, my camera died halfway through the night). The experience will stay fresh in my mind for a lifetime.

I watched four schools on the Monday: União da Ilha, Salgueiro, Mangueira, and Unidos da Tijuca. It was great viewing from my frisa (open box seats down in the front). Frisa seats are pricey, but they’re worth it– you’re practically on top of the action, you’re close enough to make eye contact with people in the parade, and the restroom situation is very manageable as there are restrooms for your section a few steps away (maybe some people wouldn’t care about #3, but it’s a major plus in my book!). I must confess, however, that while my seat was awesome, I didn’t use it once during the night — I danced the entire time that I was there.

Elation and awe — these are the two words I would use to describe the experience of watching Carnaval unfold. When you watch the samba schools parade down “the Avenue” in the Sambadrome, you are watching true artistry. But you are also watching the culmination of efforts by regular people from the samba schools’ neighborhoods who have volunteered their time over the course of a year to pull off this event.

Celebrating in the stands

The samba schools illustrate their themes through their allegorical floats, costumes, dancers & revelers, and song. Some themes are fairly straightforward while others are more convoluted. Rio’s Special Group samba schools (the top 13 schools who compete for first place) have a maximum of eighty-two minutes to tell their stories and get their entire procession down the 700-meter “avenue” of the Sambadrome. During this time, the school’s samba-enredo (theme song) plays continuously, performed live on-site by the singer. Every school has five to eight floats populated with destaques (awesomely costumed people who dance in VIP positions on the floats or in front of certain wings or floats), wings of revelers in costume, a bateria (drum and percussion section) consisting of 200 to 300 musicians, a queen of the drums, a godmother, standard-bearers who carry the school’s flag, muses (really beautiful, charismatic women!), passistas (a samba school’s most skilled dancers capable of rapid,  intricate footwork), Baianas (generally older women of the samba school who are dressed as traditional aunts from the northeastern state of Bahia and are easily recognizable with their big hoop skirts that twirl so nicely while the ladies spin down the Avenue), a Velha Guarda (Old Guard) composed of older samba dancers who danced with the school long ago, and the singer who not only sings the samba-enredo, but displays great showmanship in rallying the spectators and the participants.

União da Ilha‘s procession was themed From London to Rio: Once upon a Time, There Was an Island… Ilha’s official colors are red, white, and blue, like the Union Jack. One major element of the plot was the symbolic passing of the Olympic torch from England to Brazil. The school featured references to the history, legends, and culture of the British Isles. Ilha is a school noted for its joyously irreverent nature, and much of its procession was very comical. Many of the song’s lyrics were funny: “I’m gonna put Worcestershire sauce in the Feijoada (Brazil’s national bean stew dish)/ I’m gonna mix tea with Cachaça (Brazil’s national liquor, similar to rum)… My island is gold and silver, and has the bronze of the Mulatta…” Floats and revelers portrayed the country’s military and naval might, and its history of exploration and conquest; literary and musical contributions were also the subject of certain floats. See pictures below for examples.

Buckingham Palace gates bearing União da Ilha's name approach!
Brazilian Buckingham Palace guards
Ilha's opening float: a representation of Celtic warriors
Brits soldiering on
Ilha muse Jessica Pimentinha parading alongside Kiko Alves, a well known Carnival producer and designer of costumes

Ilha representing native peoples the British found upon arriving in Australia, New Zealand, & nearby islands (Note the koala bears on the revelers' shoulders!)

Elton, Freddie, and Amy...
A wing of the parade devoted to Alice in Wonderland

Samba school Salgueiro‘s theme, Cordel Branco e Encarnado (“Red & White Cordel”) was a celebration of northeastern Brazil’s traditional cordel genre of literature, which translates literally as “string literature.” This folk literature was very poetic, and usually centered around fairy tales, legends, popular traditions, and current events of the northeastern region. It was written in poetic verse by poets and troubadours, and printed as small booklets. The authors would set up a stand at the local markets and squares, and hang their booklets on string so that passersby could get a look at them, hence the term “string literature.” Salgueiro’s procession illustrated many elements of northeastern Brazilian culture, as well as certain well known Cordel classics. It had a strong “Wild West” feel to it, and a mood of adventure, as much focus was given to the bandit culture of the northeastern semi-arid backlands.

Salgueiro's opening float, which represents "O Reino do Cordel," Kingdom of the Cordel, portraying various elements of northeastern Brazilian culture
Salgueiro: a float representing northeastern outlaw Virgulino Ferreira da Silva and his bandits. Virgulino, nicknamed "Lampiao," is a real-life figure, and a common subject in Cordel literature and legends.
Salgueiro float: "Hauntings from the Hinterlands," meant to illustrate ghost tales and frightening legends.
Salgueiro revelers
Salgueiro float; "The Boat of Enchantment," which celebrates European medieval tales and legends.

Salgueiro: "O Boi Mandingueiro." A revered ox-- an element of northeastern Brazilian folk culture

Mangueira— unarguably Brazil’s most popular samba school, and an old, established school that is strongly rooted in classic Carnival traditions– chose to honor the 50th anniversary of the beloved samba Carnival band, Cacique de Ramos. Cacique de Ramos is a traditional street carnival block, or bloco. Street festivities are still the most common way to celebrate Carnival. Through their theme, titled Vou festejar! Sou Cacique, sou Mangueira (“I will celebrate! I am Chief! I am Mangueira!”), Mangueira portrayed the festivities of a quintessential Rio-style street carnival.

Mangueira's opening float, portraying a Cacique (a chieftan)
A Mangueira float
Mangueira passistas

One of Mangueira's muses
Mangueira's Old Guard

Scheila Carvalho, a Brazilian celebrity, parading as one of Mangueira's muses

Sadly, my camera died before samba school Unidos da Tijuca even started down the Avenue, but they were truly a spectacle to behold. Their theme, The Day Royalty Landed on the Avenue to Crown Luiz King of the Wilderness, was a tribute to northeastern Brazilian folk singer and composer Luiz Gonzaga. Various kings and queens from our modern times were represented, recognizable monarchs like Queen Elizabeth II, as well as figures who are thought of as kings of their respective spheres, like Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, Elvis, and Pelé, the King of Soccer, just to name a few. In a plot that reminded me a bit of the Three Kings’ Visit to Jesus, these royal figures were portrayed as descending upon the Sambadrome to crown Luiz Gonzaga as King of the Sertão (a word that refers to Brazil’s northeastern wilderness and hinterlands). Gonzaga, who died in 1989, was a prolific folk singer and accordion player, but he was born of the humblest origins in northeastern Brazil; this imagined coronation was a touching story. Tijuca took first place this year for their homage to Luiz Gonzaga, and it was very well deserved.

I enjoyed every single performance that I watched, but I think Tijuca affected me the most deeply that night. My favorite theme, however, was that of Salgueiro; their theme speaks to the literature fanatic, the history buff, and the dreamer in me. Interestingly, both of these schools’ songs this year strongly showcased the accordion, which is one of my absolute favorite instruments. It should be noted however, that these were my favorites of the schools that I watched, but my allegiance goes wholeheartedly to Mocidade Indepedente de Padre Miguel, the school with whom I paraded down the Avenue!

Watching Rio’s Carnival is exciting and emotional because it’s so joyous, and everyone in the venue seems to be on the same happy page. But as grandiose as the spectacle is, it still feels like a community event. Your eyes might focus on the incredible engineering of a larger-than-life intricate float, but move your eyes downward towards the ground, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the dedicated samba school members pushing the float forward; none of this happens by magic. The other element of Carnaval that I find so moving is that element of tribute. There are artists, legends, historical figures, and pieces of history that are dusted off and brought to light, and they are celebrated and given their dues. In that process, they are constantly re-born and brought to mind.

An Impromptu Carnival

I hadn’t intended to be a part of Rio’s famed carnival celebration. Though I’ve always been blown away by photographs and video footage of the celebration, I honestly thought of the whole thing as one big celebratory ball of insanity–crowds, crowds, and more crowds. But I was in Brazil in Fall of 2011 visiting my sister, and one night at the tail end of my trip, conversation with friends there turned towards travel planning for Carnaval. See, they were all residents of Brazil, and they were headed to the world’s biggest party come February 2012. I had  plans to return to Brazil sometime in the future, but not for this upcoming group trip of theirs. As they hatched out plans about apartment rental in Rio for their trip,  ticket and costume costs, general dos and don’ts, dates of travel etc, some of them asked me, “You’re coming back for Carnaval, right?” My sad, regretful response: “Well…. I don’t think I can, since I wasn’t planning to. I’m already here now, and Carnaval’s just a couple of months away and it’s a big expense, and I don’t know if I can travel back here so soon…” None of them accepted my answer, and at the end of the evening, they all bid me fond farewells with kisses, hugs, and plenty of “See you in February” well wishes.

After a few weeks of “Will I or won’t I” self-questioning and some in-depth discussion with my husband (who would not be able to join me), I decided that I would bite the bullet and try to make the trip back. So began a frantic search for decently priced flights down to Brazil at the height of Brazil’s busiest summer travel season. Along the way, I hammered myself with nonstop guilty thoughts about how this wonderful trip that I would be taking was a rather unreasonable move on my part, considering that I’d just had a nice long stay in Brazil (I finally stopped feeling guilty about my trip roughly a week before heading down).

Everything was lining up beautifully: I had my ticket for Brazil; a friend in the group had secured a well situated apartment in Copacabana for the group; another had lined up arrangements for us to dance in the parade with Rio samba school Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel; tickets for our frisa (open box seats) had been bought; and transportation to and from the Sambadrome had been reserved. I felt blessed that I’d be participating in this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Well, fast forward a bit to late February 2012. I learned and memorized my samba school’s incredible song. I went to Rio with my sister and friends, and found “the Marvelous City” to be as beautiful and spirited as people have made it out to be. We drank, sunbathed, drank, ate, napped, strolled, and drank. We paraded down the legendary Sambadrome in full costume under Mocidade Independente’s flags before tens of thousands of people. It was a transformative experience, one of pure elation– Rio de Janeiro is most certainly operating at a higher frequency during this celebration. I no longer think of Rio’s Carnaval as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’m just trying to figure out when I’ll do it again.

Details to follow!


One day, I'm just a Floridian at Copacabana Beach.
Another day, I'm one of Mocidade's birds of prey.