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A Guide to Brazilian Carnaval

Ah Carnaval, that magical time of the year that makes Rio one of the top destinations in the world. I’ve been so excited to return for this special event and experience the energy that sparks throughout the whole city!

The “official” start date of carnaval is on the Friday before Lent begins, when the mayor hands over the city keys to the King of Carnaval and the city [basically] shuts down. Carnaval originally started in Europe and was a food festival to gorge yourself before the 40 days of lent began. The word Carnaval apparently originates from the Latin words “carne vale” meaning “farewell to the meat”. This festival has morphed over time and has not only spread all over the world, but has been elongated and changed into a time of full on frivolity and indulgence as people become whatever they want to be for the season.

Celebrations in Brazil today consist of street parties called blocos and samba can be heard almost at every turn. People are all in costume wearing funny hats, face makeup, tutus, and lots and lots of glitter. Blocos happen in every major neighborhood of Rio and bleed out into things like stores, buses, and the metro. At any point of time throughout the days of carnaval, blocos can be found somewhere in the city, and some popular locations continue to host well before and after the official dates as well. Besides blocos, which are the biggest and most popular way to celebrate, there is also the giant samba competition called Sambodromo that lasts five days! A very special stadium has been constructed specifically for this event that is essentially a wide avenue about a block long that has grandstand seating on both sides. The first two days of the competition are the lesser 12 samba schools, the second two are for the premier 12 samba schools, and the final day is the winner’s parade where the schools just get to relish in all the hard work and effort they have put into the year’s parade.

It is a great honor to be able to compete in Sambodromo because Rio has over 200 samba schools! After the competition completes, the top school of the first two days will march as a premier school the next year, and likewise, the lowest scoring school of the second two days will be moved back down to the lower class competition which is a major reputation blow. The night’s competition literally lasts 8 hours seeing as each school’s performance is 75 minutes with a break between each. The event starts at 10 pm to ensure the weather has cooled off enough, and often schools samba until dawn! Each school’s program has a theme that’s displayed throughout costumes, floats, videos, and of course the music! Each display is an incredible production of at least 3,000 people in costumes worth hundreds of dollars. An incredible sense of pride is put into each school’s production and people cheer for samba schools like they do football teams (which in Brazil, means a lot)!

I was fortunate enough to see one night of the premier competitions while I was there this February and it was one of the best highlights out of my entire Brazilian experience! My top three schools were incredibly creative, engaging, and beautiful in their themes of Chinese culture, futuristic innovation, and African influence in Brazil. The detailed floats incorporated flying people, lights, confetti, water elements, giant moving structures,  and many, many people! Crew members and dancers were so well matched to the décor that sometimes it took a few minutes for me to realize they were there! For example, in the picture above, the three-part float had at least 60 people on it, moving feathers, beads, and ribbons to help portray their message! Teams were also equipped with a mass of at least 250 drummers that marched and played live samba throughout the hour long parade. From taking a percussion lesson a few months ago, I know there are 11 different kinds of instruments in samba, and each instrument is lead by a conductor. There is then a Grand Drum Master who leads the whole team in pace and tempo. Finally, masses and masses of people walk in groups between each float in utterly fabulous costumes and are mostly composed of the samba school diehards strutting their stuff. Each school has a feature dancer who they deem “queen”, and the premier couple who carries the samba school’s colors. Samba elders are also invited to walk and are honored for their many years of participation and support. It’s a massive effort of planning and organization to put on such a production, but what a production it was! I arrived home at 5 am (I just couldn’t last to the end), but it was well worth the effort to see a truly incredible show!

One of the biggest things I’m appreciating about the Carnaval season is the fact that people are not ashamed about taking time off to just celebrate life! It seems as though joy and excitement are what run through the veins of Cariocas and when they have the opportunity to show that, they don’t hesitate! I feel that no party like this could ever exist in the US because people would feel too guilty or ashamed to be taking so much time off for themselves. They would be so concerned with their To-do lists and the work of tomorrow that they would never fully appreciate the meaning of the celebration! The thought of shutting business down for a week to just have fun together would be too much for most people. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning here is that having a fun and full life does not have to end after your twenties. I’ve seen 70 year old women in full glitter and costume, dancing at 3:30am along with everyone else and I think that is a picture I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

If you find yourself here for Carnaval time, which I highly suggest you do, here are some things to expect and plan for.

-Streets are packed and public transportation takes infinitely longer, so if you’re going anywhere far, have lots of patience and extra time.

-Lots of normal stores and even grocery stores are closed so plan ahead of things you need to buy before the festivities start

-Due to the high volume of people at blocos, chance of theft is high. Don’t bother with a purse, invest in a fun fanny pack and keep your stuff attached to you at all times.

-Quick tips on things to put in that fanny pack are sunscreen, chapstick, hand sanitizer, tissues, extra glitter, and some extra cash

-Wear sturdy shoes, but ones you don’t mind getting dirty. Blocos usually involve walking and lots of spilled drinks

-If you’re going to Sombodromo, buy your tickets in advance and expect to pay a lot. Also, bring snacks because its a long night and they don’t check if you’re bringing extra food inside.

Most of all, pace yourself, but have tons of fun! Carnaval was one of the most uniquely crazy events of my life, so take advantage of it while you’re there!

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