Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Biggest Party in the World

I wasn't originally planning on doing this. I thought I´d be in Asia by now. I didn't think Brazil would be accessible, with the two weeks waiting for a visa and the hefty fee and everything that went with it. But that was before finding the consulate that can do visas in hours instead of days (Puerto Iguazu) and being invited over specifically to stay in Rio by some great friends, after meeting them in a certain episode involving stuffing my fleece in a speaker of a Bolivian bus.

And that's how I got to see this: a chunk of the Sambodromo-- the headline event of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Where all the local samba schools come out and compete in the parade all other parades I had ever seen wish they could hope to be half of when they grew up. Ranks up ranks of singing, dancing costumes of amazing colors and huge feathers, wire, paint, and who knows what else pouring out of giant opening pyramids, spinning on moving forests with fairies, and floating by giant seahorses on Segways. But if you had come to Carnaval and only bought tickets and come to the Sambodromo, you'd have missed the point. The rest of the city had been itching for this party all year. The bloco street parades were all over the city, all day and all night for days and days leading up to the official start on Friday.

The blocos surprised me. Mostly what they consisted of was a group of drummers and a car with speakers, having someone singing what sounded to me like various Portuguese versions of "this is the song that never ends" and playing a ukulele. But they had hundreds upon thousands of people following them, wearing all the costumes you'd expect at a college costume party, singing along at the top of their lungs and packing the entire street for blocks upon blocks, dancing the fast-foot samba shuffle and inching their way forwards. People from all over the world came to this city to see it do what it does best.

The sights of the city itself are breathtaking. My guidebooks often try to spruce up the image of a city by describing it as "set spectacularly" among a surrounding of mountains and sea. But this place really is. There are green spires shooting up out of the ground at random intervals and ridiculous heights for their base size, opposite sandy beaches and blue seas with islands dotting the view. Just taking the highway up from the western neighborhoods downtown is a treat. A very very fast, slightly gut-wrenching treat, as the buses are the most reckless city buses I've ever seen, but a treat nonetheless.

The smells are not a highlight. Picture any of the parties you had back in college and how they smelled and what the apartment looked like the next morning. Now invite the 7+ million population of a major city, plus roughly 700,000 visitors, and have them go at that for about a month straight. There are admirable attempts to clean the place up each night, but that is one of the hardest cleanup jobs in the world. One of the smart moves was to pay people refunds for empty beer cans, leading to lots and lots of people running around with giant plastic bags picking up all the cans they can find. But don't touch the walls below waist level-- the men aren't keen on waiting in line for urinals.

Crime is also a bit of an issue. This is why I have relatively few pictures, I wanted to make sure my camera didn't get stolen (don't worry, there are a tone online, just search "Carnaval Rio 2009"). I emptied out my wallet of all cash and essentials just in case it was pickpocketed out of the zippered pocket of my shorts. Sure enough, it was. I lost my International Student ID and Hostelling International Membership card, plus a paper card that a friend of mine gave me in college, which I was sort of attached to. But then again, it led to what might be my favorite facebook status update: "Joel just lost his Get Out of Hell Free card in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval."

Everything is no-holds barred. At first glance, you'll see the parties on the streets are filled with couples. They're not couples. The guy just grabbed the girl (or in some rare cases, the other way around) and now they are making out with more tongue than you've ever seen in your life. I was given strict instructions by my host in Rio: "If you see a girl you like, smile, and kiss her. No talking." (A word of warning for the single gentlemen at home who just got very excited-- the guys generally outnumber the girls at least three to one, and a good number of those are actually taken. Look for hand holding. Keep in mind who won't be taken already and why).

So, as you can tell, it's one of the most intense experiences you can find. Whatever you think about whether it's the best party you've ever been to, you can't deny that it's the biggest. If you are at all into samba, this will be the ultimate samba experience for you. Otherwise, just ask yourself if you like partying. If you do, you will love it out here. A huge Thank you to Antonio and co. for hosting me in Rio and showing me around your town. It wouldn't have worked without you-- once again let me know the next time you're on the road.

So, you might notice my latest location isn't Rio. I stayed up the last night through the sunrise, and then spent a collective sixteen hours on planes (including a 13 hour nonstop flight across the pacific from Buenos Aires) sleeping it off. I woke up in Auckland, New Zealand.

And that's how we're starting the adventures of continent number four: with a two-island nation slightly bigger than the UK, with 4.3 million citizens and an estimated 40 million sheep. Expect glowworm caves, Tasman beaches, mountains, forests, and maybe a shot at something I wouldn't advise you to try at home (not sure what yet, but after inventing the bungee jump, this is billed as the extreme sport capital of the world).

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  1. I've heard one of the most extreme things one can do is endure working in sheep sheering time. But this might not be the season....

  2. err....anonymom who can't spell.....shearing that is.

  3. Could you stop finding ways to make me EVEN MORE jealous? Honestly, how selfish ;).

    I'm so glad you're enjoying yourself so much.

  4. I just watched "Black Orpheus" (or Orphee Negro) for research for my thesis production... it takes place in Rio during Carnival... sooooo jealous.

  5. Wow...this all sounds entirely too amazing! (I haven't commented here much but I have been following this, & it ALL sounds amazing--in fact superlatives are pretty much hard to come up with at this point). Echoes to Anna--Black Orpheus is pretty much the only knowledge I have of Carneval, but just that little bit--plus your posts--make it sound terrifying & absolutely fantastic. I'm sorry to hear you lost that Get out of Hell free card, although I suppose if it had to go, getting it pickpocketed at Carneval is pretty much the best way. :)
    I'm looking forward to hearing about New Zealand. I was just talking with someone the other day about how gorgeous it looks, actually, so I hope it turns out to be fantastic for you. :)

  6. Ananymom- Actually, I'm not sure that I'll see this, but rumor has it there's a sheapshearing competition or two running while I'm here. If I find it, I might have to try a hand at shearing one myself. Rumor has it they let you do that.

    By the way, for anyone who's complained about my spelling online in IMs and such, now you can see where I get it from. ; )

    Count C.- No, I know, and me too. In that order.

    Anna- Still need to watch that myself- and what's this about a thesis production? Does it relate to Black Orpheus?

    Ren Girl- Looking pretty gorgeous so far! I'll have a proper report on it within a couple days I think...