Carnaval with Training Wheels

Author’s note:I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an improbable carioca(local term for a citizen of Rio de Janeiro). I can sunburn in 15 minutes flat, for one thing. But bear with me.I’m a junior at Princeton, studying Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American Studies and Brazilian Studies. Over the course of my first two years in college I fell in love with Rio from afar through scratchy samba recordings and in 2011, I finally found my way to the city for a semester abroad. It was hyperbolic – the city both was and wasn’t what I’d dreamed, and I spent a lot of my six months chasing after the ghosts of my favourite writers and musicians.I had to go home for Christmas, but on my way to study in Argentina, I managed to make a pit stop for Carnaval. The Carnaval of the tourist brochures – the samba schools – is only a tiny fraction of the carioca celebration; from January to March there are over 500 street parties (official and unofficial) called blocos. If you get the chance, come see for yourself: they prove that samba’s not a spectator sport.

I wrote something every day while I was in Rio, trying to leave a record of my time there. This is a kind of diary, so read with caution.

Seeing as this is my first Carnaval, I decided to start small. Literally, small. With children, I mean.

I dragged myself out of bed bright and early to go over to Laranjeiras for the Gigantes da Lira, a bloco that’s managed to keep itself small and kid-friendly by scheduling for 9 a.m on the Sunday before Carnaval. But when I woke up – with exactly the same jolt that I used to have on Christmas mornings – I realized that it was raining.

“Raining on my first Carnaval!” I moaned as I staggered into the kitchen. I was told to suck it up, in effect, and consequently put myself on the bus to Cosme Velho.

First things first: breakfast. It didn’t seem appropriate to be drinking coffee before I went out onto the streets to me acabar no samba, but I would’ve hated to be a drunk adult scaring small children. Carnaval must be highly alarming for small children, when you think about it. I kind of wondered who Gigantes da Lira was really for, children or their parents. As I made my way up General Glicério I saw a couple of frankly terrifying clowns.

Costumes were another hurdle.

“What are you?” I asked skeptically as one friend donned a crown, a mask, and a lei.

“King of Hawaii? Rei Momo,” he said. “Carnaval costumes are all like this – the less coherence, the better.”

Now, that’s just cheating. Nevertheless, they dressed me up like a grega (toga, crown of laurels) and we headed out. After a while on the street, it became apparent that no matter how original or coherent the costume, someone will already have thought of it. I’d never really thought of Carnaval like Halloween, but it did feel that way. In the space of an hour or two my friends and I spotted four Amy Winehouses and two Frida Kahlos. “Ave Caesar!” yelled one clown, whipping off a Roman salute.

Let me just say that Carnaval may not be most user-friendly activity in the world. Bear with me on this: desfilando is kind of confusing, especially when you’re sober and trying not to trample adorable children dressed as superheroes. At first I couldn’t decide whether my main objective was dancing (people kept trying to make their way past) or just moving forward (seems like kind of a waste, when there’s a band right there). The dance-walk is a mesmerizing art, and it kept me busy for most of the next few hours.

I may end up loving Carnaval in spite of itself, and for perhaps predictable reasons. This was, I can say with confidence, the first time I had heard a Carmen Miranda song played in the streets of Rio. I am probably one of the very few people for whom Taí is first a Carmen Miranda song rather than “that marchinha de Carnaval“, and I can’t tell you how happy it made me. These are the songs – the 1930s-era hits – that I’ve been researching, listening to, and singing to myself in the shower for the past two years. I’d wanted to believe that people still sang them, but it seemed almost impossible. Then the band struck up Pastorinhas and the whole crowd joined in, and I could have cried. At the end of the desfile the band stopped, and of course, everyone lovingly bellowed Carinhoso up at Dona Elizabeth’s window. Having a crowd of superhero babies, scary clowns and Amy Winehouses sing one of your favorite songs along with you on a confetti-strewn street – well, that’s worth missing class in Argentina.

P.S. Carnaval challenge #8: not letting the shower drain get clogged with confetti.

Flora's Rio diary was hosted by the Rio-based culture magazine Piauí, who has kindly allowed us to republish a selection of her posts here on Litro.

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