Where do we begin? We got to Rio days before the famous carnival would start. Thinking the entire city would transform, we quickly started doing some research. Our guide from the day before had mentioned that there were well over 2000 different block parties scattered over various parts of the city. Exciting! We went in search of some glitter, headgear and tutus.
The waiting game
We had to move into our Airbnb at the start of the carnival, so we decided we would do that first before venturing off into the madness. Well that didn’t happen, as our overexcited Airbnb host decided to give us a speech for two hours about all the things we should and shouldn’t do in Rio. ‘Femke, you mustn’t kiss any boys, Ben you must watch out for Fem as the boys will kiss her, and she’ll get mouth herpes. And if she does get mouth Herpes, you’ll have to get cream’. Ah, okay Fem doesn’t have a choice in the matter? As this whole affair took longer than we anticipated, we thought it would be best to pick up our tickets to the Sambadrome (a rather archaic way of distributing tickets, you buy a voucher online and then you still have to pick them up at a physical location).
We made our way to the Israeli centre (insert shrugging emoji) and were met with a long snaking line. Turned out more people were going to the Sambadrome and thought this day was the best one to pick up tickets. We stood in the queue for well over an hour, and after finally getting in we were met with yet another queue. Looked like this day was being dedicated to waiting. We did, however, meet a rather lovely local lady, who had lived in New York for 35 years, and had been one of the dancers in the Sambadrome many years ago. She gave us her card, and said we should call her if there were any problems. Oh, forgot to mention, Goldfish were hooking us up with tickets to their performance. Pretty cool, but we had no idea where or what this party would be and they failed to give us much info, just that we had tickets. We searched all over the internet, even trying Yahoo and Bing. Fem, with her excellent search engine abilities, was able to find something about a ‘camarote’. We asked our new friend from the queue what on earth these parties are all about. She didn’t seem none to pleased that we were going, but said to us if we had free tickets, we might as well try it out. And so, we waited for confirmation of our tickets.
Ready for carnival!
The next day, still without confirmation, we decided it was time to get our dancing shoes on for carnival. Now, some of these ‘blocos’ start at 7AM, and end, well, they don’t really end. Our new besties, Rasmus and Matilda from Sweden, mentioned there was a bloco party happening in Santa Teresa (Céu na Terra). All dressed in our glitter and garb, we made our way up the hill to a plethora of people. As we arrived late, we had to do a bit of catching up. Gradually making our way to the front we pushed through the crowd. The atmosphere was electric, with people from all sorts of life singing at the top of their lungs in Portuguese and Samba music drumming away. We had no idea what we’re saying, but we soon found ourselves singing along after a few beers.
We soon got hungry, and so made our way back to the town centre. We grabbed a bite to eat and made our way to the next bloco, ending up in front of Fundição Progresso, the place we had learnt to do a bit of forro. It had completely transformed with thousands of people and caipirinha stands! Five reals (1 euro) for 500mls! We drank and danced the night away. Or so we thought. After a long day we were exhausted from all the activities and looked at our clocks. Only 8PM! Oh well, guess we are getting old (but we did start partying at 9AM)!
We decided to pace ourselves a bit the next day and do a bit of beach exploration. We walked the length of the gorgeous Rio beaches and got caught in a torrential downpour. Rain season yay! We got back absolutely drenched and frantically checked our phones. Goldfish: ‘Hi Ben, we’re confirming your attendance tonight, if you have any questions please call Fabi’. Questions? Of course we had questions! I phoned Fabi (whoever that was). ‘Hi Ben, how can I help?‘ ‘Yes, hi Fabi, uhm what are we doing tonight?’ ‘Well you’ll be going to the Sambadrome and you’ll be in the first sector. All you have to wear is shorts and shoes, we’ll be giving you a t-shirt. Don’t worry about bringing anything else. Come around 12PM’. Nothing could have quite prepared us for what followed.
Rich & famous
We got to the Prodigy hotel, as that was where our shuttle to the party would go. We had to show our passports, confirming we were who we were saying we were. Next we had photos taken, then our fingerprints taken. Then we had stool samples and blood taken (that never happened, but the level of security was uncanny). ‘What on earth are we going to’, we thought. We were given our shirts and goodiebags and made our way out of the security area. Met with fridges full of free drinks, we decided we didn’t want to pass up on this opportunity, and stuffed a few cans of beer into our bags.
As we got to the bus, Fem was escorted to the bus with security and an umbrella (as the rain tends to mess with hair and makeup, you know). We looked around, and there seemed to be a lot of people straight out of Panem (the capital of the Hunger Games universe). Done up with tons of makeup, pristinely gelled hair, tight designer outfits, high heels, plumped up lips and other bits, these people looked… alien. Yup, this was straight out of science fiction. We felt a bit out of place with our dirty running shoes and casual outfits.
Next we arrived at the Camerote N1. Shuffled in by security, we made our way down a red carpet. We felt like we had ended up at the Oscars. We got to spend the night rubbing shoulders with the ‘rich’ and ‘famous’ of Rio, catching glimpses of the Sambadrome floats as they made their way down the avenue, stopping every once in a while to show off their moves to the judges. Inside the camerote (a sort of VIP lounge) we were given all sorts of free stuff, free Havaianas flip flops (which we gave to our new Swedish friends), free food, free drinks on tap, free everything. I was somewhat bewildered by the whole experience. All this fakeness really got to me. We left at 3:30PM, not even getting to see Goldfish (they were playing at 4:30PM). Oh well, no doubt we’ll see them in Cape Town again.
We awoke to a flurry of messages from our friends, the carnival party we really wanted to go to, the Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts bloco party, was starting at 10AM (instead of 2PM, as previously thought). We hurriedly got dressed, slapped some glitter on and made our way down. This famous bloco, Sargento Pimiento, hosts 40.000 people and the band exclusively plays Beatles music. LEUK! We got our sailor hats and danced away to ‘Hey Jude’, ‘All you need is love’, ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’, and ‘Come together’. A rather odd experience was seeing girls twerk to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. A mating dance (Some David Attenborough commentary on the act) of sorts, as guys would soon flock, and the one that was most worthy would get to play tongue hockey with the twerkery. Strange but seemingly normal for the locals, and very entertaining for us.
We soon got tired of the twerking and made our way back for some coffee, for it was time for us to get ready for the greatest spectacle the world has ever seen. Rio carnival at the Sambadrome! Every year, samba schools compete for a prestige prize of a million US dollars and bragging rights. In total there are roughly 100 samba schools and, based on various criteria, are ranked accordingly. The event runs for a total of 10 days, with 7 schools parading every night. Only the very best tiers get to perform during carnival, and the best of the best parade on the Sunday and Monday evenings. We were lucky to see both!
We got there nice and early to grab the best seats in the house. As we were seated in sector 8, we would be able to see the band easily. Excited, we settled in with our butt pillows (the Sambadrome isn’t designed with ergonomics in mind, as each section is just one concrete block). Various announcements were made, and we all stood for the national anthem. Next, the first samba school appeared. São Clemente with a fabulous song that is still stuck in our heads… ‘É fantástico’! This school, we heard, was controversial as they were protesting against corruption and private interests. Each school is given 80 minutes to tell their story. And tell their story they did! From Hollywood sets to film stars and fake boobs, the floats were mocking the way samba had become corrupted by the elites. And what better way to end it? A modest bloco party, a nod to the original carnival. Their message was clear: this festival was meant for everyone, not just the elite. It was our favourite school by far of the evening, but then again we only managed to see four, as it went on all night.
All in all the experiences of Rio were truly special, from favelas, to hiking, to carnival and the Sambadrome, Rio has left a special place in our hearts forever, and we have about 5000 photos to prove it. And the best part, we got to share it with some truly great people! We had spent everyday with our Swedish power couple, and sadly they had to return home for their trip to Rome. No doubt we’ll be seeing them in the near future!
Onto the next chapter, to the Switzerland of South America, Uruguay!