No other country in Latin America captures your imagination, ignites steamy fantasies, and makes those feet itch as much as Brazil.
Only marginally smaller than the continental United States, and encompassing almost ½ of South America, a comprehensive exploration of Brazil will always be an overwhelming and unrealistic undertaking. Instead choose a destination and just go; whether it be a sweltering tropical adventure deep in the bowels of a lush jungle riddled with inquisitive monkeys; gently cruising the Amazon, fishing for Piranhas and spotting sun-bathing Crocodile; or lazing on the many perfect stretches of pristine beaches, fringed by turquoise waters, where the prospect of beautiful people watching is as inviting as the shores itself.
Like most travelers’ Brazilian adventures, I started and ended mine in the breath-taking city of Rio de Janeiro, where the towering mountains meet the sea with striking juxtaposition, and the waves and the locals are said to be equally as stunning. Brazilians are a sensual and passionate, spontaneous and free-spirited people with an insatiable national pride, who come in almost as many shades as there are varieties of brilliantly colored bird in the vastness of Amazonia.
But of course one cannot mention Brazil without thinking of, apart from football, the outrageously hedonistic, week-long, around-the-clock party that is Carnaval, when thousands of beautiful people dance semi-naked through the streets of one of the worlds most spectacular cities. Immerse yourself in a cacophony of wonderful sights and sounds with literally millions of likeminded partygoers, in what has come to be known as the most famous, and exotic spectacle on the planet.
Music and dance are an integral part of the Brazilian culture year round – Carnaval is simply an accumulation of this unquenchable celebratory spirit. A veneration of life and rejuvenation, the Carnaval in Rio dates back to 1723, when some believe, its origins touch on Pagan tradition. Today Carnavals vibrant flamboyance proceeds the days before Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent: a time of somber fasting and prayer. Every man, woman, boy and girl from the richest neighborhoods to the poorest favelas (slums), embrace the spirit of Carnaval, celebrating their own way, free of inhabitations, shamelessly, remorselessly, unaccountably, asking no questions, and telling no lies.
While Brazilians take it to the streets, in a seemingly non-stop succession of extravagant festivities that stretch around the clock in every form and fashion, Rio’s irrepressible beaches too swam with a concord of locals and tourists, packing into every last square inch of golden sand. The world’s most famous beach runs for 4.5 km along one of the world’s most densely populated residential areas, making Copacabana, and its neighbor Ipanema, pulse with an energy like no other. Both attract a wide range of people, and Cariocas (Citizens of Rio), have a deep passion for – like many other things – the beach. Lifestyles centre around spending all available time beneath the tropical rays, often squeezing in some quality beach time before, during and after work; people mixing over games of volleyball or football on the sand, or simple lazing in the tropical heat where people watching is at its finest.
Exercise caution however when visiting any inner-city beach in Rio, traveling on any public transport, or joining in the wild celebrations, especially at night, taking only what is necessary and using common sense as pick pockets and crime is rife during Carnaval. Nothing is sacred: thieves often getting into the spirit of things by robbing you in full fancy dress costume.
Carnaval seems to offer unlimited options for having the time of your life. Nightclubs and bars throw massive fancy dress parties for huge crowds of revelers; impromptu live concerts crop up in Parks and Plazas across the city; spontaneously parties sprout on every street corner; and ostentatious Masquerade Balls cater to the decadent whims of the high rollers, where apparently one is likely to see more skin than flashy costumes. Fueled by the zealous dancing, the omnipresent burning Samba beat, and generous portions of the Brazilian National drink – Caipirinhas, the masses abandon their inhabitations for the four days of Carnaval and chalk up a few sins before the sobriety of Ash Wednesday wakes everyone back to their common senses.
Amongst the fervent non-stop revelry beating in every corner of the country for the 4 days of Carnaval, undoubtedly the most popular, and most memorable event is the Sambodromo Parade, often called Mardi Gras, literally translates as “Fat Tuesday”. From dusk till dawn on the last two nights of the official festivities, flanked by thousands of spectator stands and luxury boxes, Rio’s 14 finest Samba Schools (which are in fact not schools at all, but groups typically from the poorest neighborhoods organized to produce the lavish Carnaval processions) are invited to compete for the prestige of being Rio’s preeminent. And competition is fierce.
Up to 5000 people participate in each schools procession, stretching like a river of animated colour for over half a mile. Six to eight enormous, intricately ornamented mechanized floats are adorned with sensuous painted bodies, vibrating to the hypnotic rhythms of the marching Samba band. The 300 strong musicians drum out a ceaseless Samba beat that gets under your skin and into every pore; no one is safe from its pulsating grasp, as the crowd sways and throbs like an extension of the giant party below. Striking scantily clad singers and dancers wearing towering feather headdresses and glittering G-strings surround the center pieces, as do hundreds dressed in the most elaborate and richly decorated costumes imaginable. Everywhere there is effervescent color and vivacious movement carefully designed down to the finest detail to catch the crowds’ eye.
For the past year preparation for their hour in the spotlight has consumed a good portion of the districts time and money. Each costume and float has to be painstakingly produced from scratch every year, and each performer choreographed to perfection to dramatize one cohesive overall theme. The cost can be as high as $300,000US, and it all comes from local pockets. Everybody from the neighborhood plays a part, from the smallest children, coming full circle to the elderly women who have danced in every Carnaval since they themselves were kids. The esteem of being invited to Sambodromo is the greatest honor, unifying and uniting the community’s pride, with each school supported as avidly as any football team.
While the definitive party of parties is broadcast on TV throughout Brazil, and to many parts of the world live, nothing can match the excitement, intensity, and atmosphere of actually being there. Tickets for Sambodromo are expensive but be quick, because the 60,000 or so spots sell out fast. There are cheaper options for those who choose to, or miss out on, the Sambodromo Parade. Many Samba Schools who don’t make the cut for the grand parade, take their own version to the streets of Rio in a free-for-all of dance, music, and mayhem called Blocos. The Samba beat follows you wherever you go in the city, any time of day or night. Many people prefer this to the Parade, where you are restricted to a mere spectator role, because it allows a complete hands-on sensation as you walk and dance amongst the performers, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Carnaval up close and personal.
2005’s festivities kick off on February 5th and rock around the clock until climaxing with Mardi Gras on the 8th, when Sambodromo’s winning Samba School makes its final victory dance. Prices throughout Brazil can double during Carnaval week, and accommodation is often booked out months in advance. Kiwis and Australians require a 90-day visa, obtainable from the Brazilian embassy before departure.
Brazil is as varied as it is ridiculously large. This is a diversity not just in terms of flora and forna, where it exceeds most other countries in the world; or in terms of its breath taking landscapes, only matched by the variety of people inhabiting it; or in the gap between rich and poor where the Hollywood style mansions are separated from the poorest ramshackle slums by little less than a highway. Carnaval is an illustration of this passionate and assorted Nation, partying together at one place and time, concentrated and fused in a melting pot-harmony of colours and cultures for one chaotic week.
Brazil has something to offer everyone, wherever you go within it vast borders. What ever you go looking for, you’ll never leave Brazil disappointed – if you want to leave at all.
By: Gerard Parke