On Friday, at 9:30 p.m., I was trying to master a new Brazilian trick—applying glitter. “It doesn’t stick, fuck!” Nope, glitter doesn’t stick well when you just took a shower. As we found out the following day, it’s best to be sweaty. Like, as I’m writing this, I have a bunch of stars the guys put around my belly button fourteen hours ago—more on that later…
On Friday, at 9:30 p.m., we were probably three of the many, many, many Cariocas and Brazilians getting ready for Carnival. Carnival isn’t just a holiday here—it’s the party of the year.
For us, it was starting at the Sambódromo.
Okay, here’s the backgrounder. There are two Carnivals in Rio de Janeiro. The one you saw on TV—floats, pretty dresses, women dancing the samba—takes place at the Sambódromo, a parade area built for the Carnival. Like I said, Carnival is serious business here, Cariocas had a “stadium” designed for it. The second Carnival is the Carnaval de rua, i.e. the street Carnival with hundreds of blocos, informally formal street bands, aka millions of people drinking cheap beer dressed in unicorns or Super Mario—again, more on that later.
While blocos are all about drinking, dressing up and partying, the Sambódromo event is actually a very serious samba school competition. For four consecutive nights, schools parade one after another for 75 minutes from 10 p.m. until dawn. The parades are televised nationally and are watched by large audiences, especially the Special Group. Schools are graded by a jury, and the competition is ferocious. On quarta-feira de cinzas, grades are gathered and one school is declared the winner. The Parade of Champions is held the following Saturday featuring the five winning samba schools in the Special Group category and the A Series division winner, which joins the Special Group come the next year.
Lost in samba school terminology? Don’t worry, so are we. This is how it works. First, you need tickets. We bought ours the day before from one of the resellers at Posto 3 on Copacabana, where the tourist info is. Total price after some bargaining was 330 reais ($90). Note that official (i.e. valid) tickets have a tear-out portion that you must not bend or damage. We were also told to bring Mark’s passport because kids must have ID. There’s a section designed for tourist but we opted for setor 7.
The Sambódromo was designed by Oscar Niemeyer upon his return to Brazil after exile during the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-1985—in doubt, just assume most main buildings in Brazil are the work of the prolific famous architect, it’s often the case. It’s a 700-metre stretch of Marquês de Sapucaí Street converted into a parade ground with bleachers built on either side for 90,000 spectators.
Carnival may looks like a lavish display of wealth but it’s not a rich-people “game.” The Sambódromo is located in Cidade Nova, a neighbourhood where you probably shouldn’t hang out if it’s not Carnival. But half of the fun is to see the crowd around the Sambódromo, so we took the subway to Centro and did the long walk to setor 7 among the many performers carrying garbage bags with their costume in it. Like I said, samba isn’t a rich kid pastime—there’s no limo service for the lower-class, who just walk to the stadium or takes the subway and do the job.
Once inside the Sambódromo, we took a deep breath. First, it was presumably safer with security around (and also, a sign expressly reminded people that guns weren’t allowed). Second, our tickets were indeed valid tickets. Third, Mark was waved inside after we showed his passport. Phew.
We took a seat on the concrete bench. It was past 10:30 p.m. and the parade hadn’t started yet.
There aren’t any numbered seats on the large concrete steps but the Sambódromo doesn’t feel too crowded because many people watch the parades like Americans go to a baseball game—there’s passion but you also eat, drink, chat with people around you (this involved shouting, the music is loud), go pee, come back, have a smoke and maybe drink some more. This is a long show. I mean, each school has 75 minutes to parade (i.e. walk) from one end of the stadium to the other, then in between, the ground is cleaned for quite a while. Basically, it never ends. We knew we wouldn’t last more than two of three schools.
In setor 7, the atmosphere was friendly. People were eyeing the ground below but showed sign of impatience—we all knew what we had signed up for, we would be there for a while.
Each school parade starts with fireworks for a few minutes, then comes the Carnival Queen, the Rainha. Floats decorated with the school’s theme are located in between each wing. The bateria group with 250-300 percussionists follows, led by a queen of the drummer. Each school has its own samba song, played very loudly over and over again for 75 minutes.
Frankly, to a foreign eye, the various elements are hard to understand and analyze but the display of colour and the energy is amazing. It’s loud, colourful, spontaneous yet choreographed.
It’s fucking amazing.
Mark loved it too and we lasted for three schools before leaving around 2 a.m.
I didn’t sleep until 6 a.m.
And this was only day 1 of the Carnival…