Rio de Janeiro before, during and after Carnival

I had high expectations of Rio and it did deliver. I wanted to experience the city before, during and after Carnival as I heard it tends to be a different city during Carnival. I met a guy from Rio, a carioca while still in the Amazon and who told me that I shouldn’t expect much of the city as I might get disappointed. He did assure me that the atmosphere was great though. Well, now that I have seen it for myself, I can confidently say that Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city. Something Brazil can be proud of. It has beautiful beaches, the centre is beautiful with its skyscrapers and scattered churches, it has remnants of its colonial past, and not to mention the nature surrounding the city. Beautiful mountains, great views, and tons of green. The streets of the city are covered in palm trees, flowers, bushes and other exotic vegetation, making for excellent shaded strolls around the city. And the people! So friendly, always polite and helpful. Ask a Brazilian for directions and they will take you to the place. Ask them for help and they will do it for you. They have their beer, their samba, their parties. It is beautiful.

I am staying with Andreh, another CoushSurfing host. I had arranged to stay with him for four nights before Carnival but ended up staying a lot longer. Firstly because he offered and secondly because the guy I was supposed to stay with during Carnival is nowhere to be seen. Andreh’s flat is beautiful and well maintained, situated in a good neighborhood away from the center, the tourists and the favelas. It is in fact the only neighborhood in Rio that doesn’t have a favela. This means increased safety and piece of mind. Yes, it does take ages to get places but I am willing to put up with the long bus rides for safety’s sake. The bus rides take a minimum of 40min. They are hot, often crowded and bumpy. It takes more than 2h to get back home during rush hour. There is no other way, you just sit there (if you are lucky) and sweat it away. By the time you get back home, your clothes are wet and you are desperate for a shower. Luckily, it just takes one bus to get to most places. Enough of this though. It could be worse, I could be in São Paulo (worst traffic in Brazil).

The first place I visited was Ipanema. I was amazed by the beach – white sand and crystalline water and all that in the middle of the city. It is one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen. And unfortunately the only one in Rio. The rest of them, including Copacabana are less then desirable. Yes! Copacabana, the most famous beach in the world is not worth the time. The sand is yellow, the water is brownish, and not even the great views of Sugar Loaf can compensate for it. It is only good for walking in the evenings.

Ipanema and Leblon are very green, and the streets are lined with fancy shops, cafes, and restaurants. Tourists are abundant. I enjoyed walking there – it is lively and great for people watching.

I also went to Sugar Loaf. I took the electric car up and then down. You have to take two electric cars each way actually. The views from both platforms are stunning. Picture perfect. I am afraid my pictures are not so perfect though as my camera started acting up just when I needed it the most. You know I had it repaired (supposedly!) in Recife as the sand from windy Jericoacoara got into the lens and rather messed it up. I paid $75 dollars to have it cleaned up and it is not working properly. They took 5 days to repair it, and it still wasn’t ready when I went to pick it up. They quickly cleaned it up, charged me a fortune and didn’t even put the original screws in place. It did work fine that day, but then I left the city and soon I found out that it wasn’t working properly. Now I can’t rely on it. It works whenever it wants. Luckily, it didn’t give up on me during the Sambodromo parade. Phew! Such a relief.

I am standing on top of Sugar Loaf, one of the most famous stones in the world and yes! the views from above are nice. I can see Niteroi, it’s space museum and UFO platform, I can see Copacabana, and Christ the Redeemer, perched on top of the Corcovado. I can see Guanabara Bay, one of the airports, boats, yachts, ships, skyscrapers, traffic. I see the surrounding hills and the sun is shining mercilessly on top of it all making it impossible to take good pictures. But let`s not get carried away – it is just a stone.

There is helicopter platform and everybody can take a ride over the city. R$150 ($75) will buy you 6-7mins in the air. It is for the rich and beautiful. And there is plenty of them in Rio. The beaches and the streets are packed with tanned men with fit bodies. Six-packs are the norm here. The face might not be that great, but the bodies compensate for it. Or is it the big ego…? Let me tell you about the beautiful people in Brazil, and in Rio in particular. Yes, they exist. But so do they in any other country. They are not more or less then those in Europe, the US, Australia or Tanganaika. The people you see on TV are the Crème de La Crème ofthe population. But you don’t see the millions of ordinary people who are not on TV. It is true though that here you seem to see a lot more men with amazing bodies compared to anywhere in the world. As for women I have only seen one that had a truly amazing body and the samba queens of course. I don’t know whether it is because people here are genuinely more beautiful or it is just because it is more obvious since they often don’t have their shirts on due to the heat. You decide…

I have been too busy partying and going out to see anything else. Carnival started on Friday, Feb 12 with an official opening ceremony which I missed, because I couldn’t find its location. Ever since there have been street parties or blocos with live music throughout the city. The first one we went to was a relatively small one in Sandra’s (my Austrian friend and buddy in Carnival) neighbourhood. That is where I nearly got my camera stolen as someone tried to unzip the case and take it out. Luckily I saw it on time and nothing happened. I am now going to crash you fantasies about Carnival, at least a little bit. I didn’t enjoy it. That night trying to make my way through the sweaty, drunken crowd at a constant risk of being robbed while pushed about was not fun. I didn’t like it.

– Isn’t there a way to have Carnival without all the people? – I asked Sandra’s boyfriend.
– Yes, there is – he said – just stay at home.

Luckily the night was saved. Sandra’s pandeiro (‘daire’in Bulgarian) school was on that same street and they were holding a private party for stuff and friends. We were able to enjoy Carnival behind the safety of the iron bars. It was great. That’s when I started enjoying myself. There was the beer, the live music, the people on the other side of the bars, the noise – all that you need for an excellent Carnival party!

We then headed to Lapa, where a guy from the school was performing along with his 50 or so drumming buddies. It was great – a massive club, and samba beats, a constant flow of people on the streets, drinks, food, cars, buses, lights. All there.

The following day I went to the bloco of the dancing school where I had taken one samba class. I bought a T-Shirt guaranteeing me a place behind the ropes surrounded by security guards and exclusivity. I then realised that Carnival shouldn’t be experienced alone. Everybody having a friend or a few, family, or partners, singling along the Carnival songs just made me feel really lonely. It is just not fun when you are alone. If you don’t know the songs, which I didn’t obviously, you are left with the same beat, tons of people, heat, sweat, dirt and guards pushing you into the secure area. Is this why I got the T-shirt? To be pushed around like a ship? If that what exclusivity means, the hell with it. I am out of here. I left the ropes and joined the people on the other side where I could walk and breathe. After a while I got bored, and left the parade all together. I didn’t enjoy that day and though Carnival sucked. It wasn’t what I expected.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone the day after and went to a street party in Flamengo. It was held in a small park and I really enjoyed it as the music varied and the people were fun. I was with Sandra and Marcos (another guy staying at Andreh’s flat) and when Sandra left we moved to a different spot where we started talking to the guys selling drinks and had a blast. Later we met Abdreh and two German girls also staying in his flat and went to the Sambodromo for the first time. We got into the free stalls along the gathering areas and watched a school parade. We couldn’t hear the music, and the light was very poor but still we got a taste of what it was like. I was looking forward to the real thing.

My legs were tired from standing all night but I was wide awake and wanted to go out partying in Lapa (party neighborhood of Rio). The other were tired though and we decided to go back to the flat. Party poopers!

Yesterday was Monday and the day I went into the Sambodromo. I was an hour late for my meeting with Sandra, rushing through the crowds, hoping she`d still be there. I was on the metro and it was packed when a girl in a costume got in on her way to the Sambodromo. She held her elaborate hat and it`s plastics bits were poking me in the tummy. She looked up in an apologetic way, I looked back and smiled. They were precious, we had to protect them. I was happy to be poked by a Carnival costume. Parading cariocas and their costumes were everywhere during the two days of the parades – walking on the streets, on the metro, adding to the atmosphere. Although Carnival could not be felt in my neighborhood prior to Feb 12, once it started you could see people in costumes, beer bottle in hand taking the bus. I finally met Sandra a few hours before the parade for yet another bloco but we didn’t make it there as we came across another parade and got carried away taking photos of the clowns. It was a competition for clown groups. Not sure what it was exactly but it was great to watch. At about 9pm we made our way to the Sambodromo. We bought tickets, after some bargaining and went in. It was 10pm and we had only missed the first school. Five more were to come, three of which were in the top 6 of Rio’s best samba schools. We watched and watched and watched, fascinated by the beautiful costumes, the samba queens, the music, and the thousands of people parading (a minimum of 3,800, mostly about 5,000 per school). We thought about all the hard work that went into making all the costumes (hand-made) as they were extremely sophisticated, detailed and sewn to perfection. The designs, the organisation, the orchestration, the training, the rehearsals, the sound, the light. Amazing! The show ended at 6am with the best school in Rio, namely Mangueira. After the parade I decided I wanted a photo with a samba queen, but one was nowhere to be seen. I was tired, exhausted and could hardly stand on my feet, but decided to head down to the exit area hoping to bump into a queen. Well, I didn’t but I did find many pieces of costumes left behind. The dancers were just throwing them away after the parade. I fought with myself and fought hard. I knew I shouldn’t take anything as I can’t carry it but I couldn’t resist. They were so beautiful and Rio Carnival 2010 original! I got a bunch of feathers, a belt and a ball that was part of a much larger costume piece. So were the feathers as a matter of fact before I plucked them out. I was then off to the bus stop for the 2h ride back home. I didn’t actually realised how much I liked it until I got up this afternoon. I missed the buzz, the energy, the spirit. I kept singing the Mangueira song. I wanted to be out, partying.

It was truly amazing! The buzz, the energy, the life that is Carnival – this is the magic of it. This is why I missed it so much when it was over. People can argue about which Brazilian city holds the best Carnival but I am pretty sure it is Rio de Janeiro. There are the street parties, the live music, the trucks, and there is the Sambodromo on top of that. Rio has it all!

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