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Essay: Rio's partying madness

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

We paid about $100 for a night’s entertainment (though it seems you could get a discount if you go late and take advantage of increasingly desperate scalpers) and made it through about three hours, lucking into seeing the Grande Rio school, featuring all the feathery, dancing madness plus a frightening float of larger-than-life but very life-like rats and a joyous percussion section dressed in the distinctive orange jumpsuits of Rio’s street cleaners. (That was in tribute to the same street cleaners who followed each parade in similar outfits, sweeping up the baubles and feathers and glitter that fell off each float.) Grande Rio ended up in second place, behind the winners, Unidos da Tijuca, which had gone the previous evening and wowed everyone with a sequence of rapid costume-changing that became the talk of the city.

Of course, no one could possibly party and revel until 6 a.m. every night and then make the early bloco the next day. And even if you could, you’d be missing out on Rio’s best feature: the crescent beaches that ring the city’s upscale Southern Zone.

They were packed with the usual crowds: a huge contingent of beautiful, gym-obsessed youth baring upwards of 97 percent of their gorgeous skin, and an equally huge contingent of the pallid, the plump, the graying and the teething, bearing almost as much skin and having just as great a time (though smoking less pot).

But there was plenty of bagunca.

For one, Carnaval is not for the anti-social, the impatient or the insistently hygienic. Wending your way through the larger street parties is a painfully claustrophobic process, and by the end you’ll be drenched in sweat, most of it not your own. Spilled beer and crumpled cans litter streets, because of the impressively ubiquitous, almost certainly unlicensed vendors lugging around coolers full of icy brew that go for under $2. (Supply and demand at work, should you be an economist seeking a way to apply for a grant to subsidize your Carnaval trip.)

The stench of stale beer competes only with the stench of urine. To its credit, Rio’s government made a big effort to prevent the problem this year. They installed a record 4,000 chemical toilets and some innovative European urinals, and arrested many who peed in the street. But it was to little avail. I went into one portable toilet once, found it literally full to the rim, and never used another. That was it for me; I won’t tell you exactly how I managed the rest of the time, but I’m just glad the police didn’t catch me.

Then there are the jacked-up prices. Some were above board: we paid about at least twice the regular nightly rate for our flat, and were required to keep it for at least 10 days, for example. Fair enough. Rio’s famous juice bars literally raised prices before our eyes: we saw employees taping up Carnaval rates over the regular prices the day before festivities began. Again, supply and demand at work, I figured. But price gouging by government-licensed taxi drivers irked me enough to lead to my first two uses of the f-word, and in quick succession.

They occurred as we left a truly awful event, the carnival “balls” at the Scala club in ritzy Leblon. The event, hyped for foreigners, was packed with tourists and the prostitutes who follow them, so we left pretty quickly. In front, a Scala employee was shepherding folks into metered cabs at pre-set prices. Sixty reais (about $35) for a 35-real trip to Lapa? No way, I said. We wanted to use the meter. We argued, until one of the drivers in line said he’d take us on the meter. Vai se fuder, I told the guy in black.