Essay: Rio's partying madness

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.

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.

And I felt pretty good about it, as if I were speaking up for all the other tourists who get ripped off every year without knowing it. Turns out I would be speaking up for them again shortly. As our cab took off. I soon saw that the meter was already running at 14 reais and asked the driver to reset it to zero. He mumbled something and kept driving. I insisted. He pulled over, we got out, as we crossed the street to hail a passing cab not involved in the scheme, I yelled you know what back at him.

The third time would come at the Sambodrome when my friend who doesn't speak Portuguese handed over a 20 real bill to a vendor for two four-real beers. The vendor not only refused to give him change, but asked for more money. As a bunch of gringo tourists looked on, I was called over to argue his case. You can guess where that led.

And then there was that murder. We had gone to see world-famous DJ Erik Morillo (whom we had not heard of, but no matter) perform at a huge venue known as the Gloria Marina. Sometime after 2 a.m., I was walking toward the bar when I saw, maybe 30 feet from me, one guy pull out a gun and shoot another guy four times, point-blank. The victim died instantly, the body removed quickly by paramedics, and the party continued. We didn’t find out until we got home and went online that both the victim and the shooter were federal police officers. Why it happened is still unclear.

The shooting was deeply disturbing, I’ll admit, but was something of a fluke. The rip-offs were in part the result of own poor choice of venues and in part the inevitable result of moneyed foreign tourists and a largely poor local population. The urine stench may improve next year, now that the city knows how many toilets to get and how often they need to clean them.

So on balance, the good beats the bad, and Rio in Carnival ekes out a pass. I’m glad I tried it once. But it’s certainly not addictive.