The Greek and the Fairy

Author’s note:I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an improbable carioca(local term for a citizen of Rio de Janeiro). I can sunburn in 15 minutes flat, for one thing. But bear with me.I’m a junior at Princeton, studying Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American Studies and Brazilian Studies. Over the course of my first two years in college I fell in love with Rio from afar through scratchy samba recordings and in 2011, I finally found my way to the city for a semester abroad. It was hyperbolic – the city both was and wasn’t what I’d dreamed, and I spent a lot of my six months chasing after the ghosts of my favourite writers and musicians.I had to go home for Christmas, but on my way to study in Argentina, I managed to make a pit stop for Carnaval. The Carnaval of the tourist brochures – the samba schools – is only a tiny fraction of the carioca celebration; from January to March there are over 500 street parties (official and unofficial) called blocos. If you get the chance, come see for yourself: they prove that samba’s not a spectator sport.

I wrote something every day while I was in Rio, trying to leave a record of my time there. This is a kind of diary, so read with caution.

I’ll just fess up now.

On Friday, that was me. If you happened to be an upright carioca commuter on your way to Glória that morning, you were faced with the eternal Carnaval question: how to react. Do you stare? Do you comment? Do you look into the middle distance?

Personally, I found it horrifying. I had to go by the office on my way to a bloco, so I figured I’d cut out the clothes change and go in full regalia: a short white tunic with a gold sash, nothing particularly scandalous. But being the only reveler in sight will do strange things to your head. As the bus crawled along and I saw exactly zero costumed people block after block, I realized what was happening. Carnaval was the most elaborate prank in the history of mankind, all designed to make me dress up like an idiot for all the cariocas to laugh at me. Any minute then they were going to reveal the elaborate ruse. I maintained my dignity as best I could. It is absolutely normal for me to be dressed in a toga. I was the most stately Greek on the public transit system that day.

“I am the only costumed person in all of Rio de Janeiro,” I pronounced solemnly to my boss when I got into the Piauí office.

“No, you aren’t,” he said comfortingly. “I saw a six-year-old girl dressed up as a fairy on the way over here. It’s you and her.”

The larger parable here is that the carnavalesco contract only truly functions when everyone buys into it. Having been the only foliã on the Metro, I found myself in the opposite situation a day later when I was coming back from Centro (in business casual) on the bus. I flagged down the first one heading in the right direction, but made the fatal mistake of stepping on before I surveyed its occupants. I had just bought a ticket on the party bus.

For the next 40 minutes, my fellow passengers beat on the windows, ceiling and seats of the bus, screamed children’s songs, heckled gringos, fell over each other in the aisle, spilled their drinks, and were generally carnivalesque. A stubbly nun kept smacking the back of my seat in time with the songs. Eventually I turned around and asked him/her, in the most Christian possible terms, to cut it the fuck out. This was met with a blank stare and a brief respite before s/he got carried away by the music and resumed his/her faithful timekeeping once more. About 12 hours later, of course, I was on a bus headed in the opposite direction, spilling my drink all over the floor and yelling about how ridiculous it is that there are no blocos dedicated to Noel Rosa. (The hottest bloco of Carnaval 2013, we’ve decided: the band plays exclusively Noel Rosa and Carmen Miranda songs, and you have to come dressed as one of the two. We’re still working on a name.)

During the weeks (not days, people, let’s be real) of Carnaval, the city seems to take on this Janusian tilt. Over the course of the first few days I slipped queasily between the two worlds, glee and crankiness, a transformation directly related to my rising or abating sobriety. When you buy into the contract, take a swig from the bottle and put on a tiny hat, it’s all like the first hour of Orfeu Negro. When you don’t, it’s like the last half hour.

Flora's Rio diary was hosted by the Rio-based culture magazine Piauí, who has kindly allowed us to republish a selection of her posts here on Litro.

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