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Essay: Rio's partying madness

Carnaval is not for the anti-social, the impatient or the insistently hygienic.

Revelers aboard one of Beija-Flor samba school's floats participate in the first night of the Carnival parade, Feb. 14, 2010. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — I’ve been studying Portuguese since 2003, visiting Brazil since 2004 and living here since 2008. Yet in all that time, I’d never uttered the phrase “Vai se f-der!”, the Portuguese equivalent to “F-ck you.” I’d never been so repeatedly overwhelmed by the stench of urine. And I’d certainly never seen anyone shot dead at point-blank range.

That all changed when last month, despite all my instincts as a part-time travel writer, I spent Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Following my try-anything-once-unless-it's-addictive philosophy, I rented an apartment just off Ipanema beach with two friends and braced myself.

Nothing against this gorgeous city or its beach-loving people — to the contrary, the common elsewhere-in-Brazil affliction of Rio Hatred should be a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis. But all year long, the joys of the city are tempered by too many heavy-drinking, sunburned foreign men seeking sex with semi-prostitutes. Adding another few million drunks to the mix and tossing in jacked-up hotel prices seemed a recipe for disaster.

And I’ve got to say: cursing, retching and watching people die notwithstanding, you should definitely check it out.

To be sure, it was a five-day mix of what Brazilians might describe as bombacao (partying madness) and bagunca (a chaotic mess). But the bombacao beat out the bagunca by a hair.

As expected, the madness was non-stop, and widely varied. It starts with the “blocos,” hundreds of street parties that revolve around a band positioned on a moving vehicle with a deafening sound system, leading the crowd slowly through a neighborhood teeming with unlicensed beer vendors. Crowds range from a few hundred (where actual fun is possible) to a million (where it’s all about taking in the spectacle). The best we found was Ultimo Gole, tucked away in the leafy Jardim Botanico neighborhood. Its combination of gorgeous people, beer-guzzling and group singing would only be replicated in the United States in the most unusual of circumstances — say, if Christmas carolers crashed a frat party on South Beach.

Some blocos start at 8 a.m. and others last into the evening. After that, the slack gets taken up by an overheated version of the city’s typical nightlife: casual local bars with outdoor seating, music clubs and street crowds in the Lapa neighborhood, and more exclusive parties like those at Londra in the Hotel Fasano, the only place we saw anyone in long sleeves the whole time we were in town.

And that is not even to speak of the spectacle that is the heart of Carnaval: the official, highly competitive samba school parades. The main event features the top twelve schools showing off a year’s worth of planning, marching over two very long nights through the Sambodrome. (That’s a long, narrow stadium created just for samba, and seemingly useless for anything else, although Rio’s clever Olympic planners figured out it would work for archery and the finish line of the marathon.)

The complexity of the parades, each lasting more than an hour, stretching the event past dawn, would impress anyone. But as a foreigner in Brazil, I was baffled at the mind-boggling logistics and the efficiency with which the schools operate — an efficiency otherwise almost entirely absent within Brazil’s borders. Thousands of dancers, almost all in impossibly complex, glittering, feathery costumes, sing in unison and they march through the stadium, accompanied by outrageously creative floats. The whole thing makes the Macy’s Thanksgiving spectacle look like a small town Memorial Day parade in the Midwest.