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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.
The Carmelitas carnival Rio is a rather irreverent parade that is held on the slopes of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. The carnival gets its name from the Carmelite Convent of Santa Teresa, where the nuns of the order cloister themselves and spend their lives in prayer and service. The Banda Carmelitas was established in 1991 and became a regular feature thereafter. Legend has it that one of nuns, unable to resist the temptation of participating in the carnival, jumped over the walls of the convent and went missing for a whole five days, during which time she had her fill of the pleasures that the Carmelitas carnival Rio had to offer. In her “honor” several of the participants of the Banda Carmelitas dress up as nuns in a full habit and veil. The veil of the order was presumably what prevented the identification of the nun.
–Bookers International Carnival Channel
I know, I know, they warned me not to go to the blocos alone. And I didn’t exactly; I thought I’d meet up with some friends midway through the Carmelitas. It was in Santa Teresa, all narrow little streets, and a traditional bloco to boot! How bad could it be? Very, very bad, is the answer.
Carnaval is no joke if you’re a lone girl. At first I dodged the grabbing and the “Oi, gatas” and everything else, but things got worse as the bloco went on. I have never wanted a Y chromosome so badly. Making eye contact apparently is the same thing as singing, “Voulez–vous coucher avec moi?” Soon, I felt as though my mouth were under siege. The low point was probably when a freckled guy in a Wando wig started diving at my face and insisted amorously that I’d been looking at him – while I was trying to give directions to a friend over the phone. That’s what you call persistence. As I shielded my lips from Wando, I pondered wearing a Jason mask in all the next blocos.
But Don Juans aside, something seemed off about the bloco. As I walked up the slope, I looked around to see if anyone seemed as though they were having fun. At the front of the bloco, people walked aimlessly, squinting into the sun. On the sidewalks, people watched the masses go by with about the same excitement that I reserve for watching dough rise. I figured that I was in the wrong part of the bloco – I couldn’t hear the music at all, for one thing – so I waited on the side until the sound car got within striking distance before sidestepping my way into the crowd.
An uninformed tourist at Carnaval might be forgiven for thinking that samba is danced by shoving. At least, at the Carmelitas, I didn’t see anyone, least of all me, managing to samba. It was all pushing. As I was jostled from side to side, arms ramming into my back, I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was going in such a hurry. Carnaval’s not a race, is it? Or maybe it is and nobody told me.
I allowed myself to be pushed to the sidelines and tried to get closer to the sound car. As soon as I managed to, I wished I hadn’t. The crowd was so hellishly packed and pushing so aggressively (Repito: para onde?) that I was struggling constantly to stay on my feet. The saddest sight was a tourist couple, sunglasses perched on their heads, clutching a map of the city, trying to make their way against the crowd without being separated. The woman’s face was a mask of terror. What is the point? I kept thinking. Nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves. Not even Wando.
Eventually I gave up and started walking at a normal pace, soon outstripping the mass of the bloco and going down a side street to get a breath of fresh air. On the way I saw a group of sem-camisas trying to start a fight with a guy for pushing them (which, under the circumstances, is kind of like getting angry at a plant for photosynthesizing).
“Pega ele!” a bystander in a Botafogo jersey started chanting. He had a mean glint in his eyes. I went skipped into a double-step, not wanting to get in the way of a stray fist.
“I give up, I give up, I give up,” I said as I stumbled back into the Piauí office. “You can’t hear the music at all, nobody dances, fortões keep trying to make out with you, and when you can hear the music it’s just the same damn song.”
This wasn’t met with much surprise.
“Is Carnaval always this awful?”
They talked me down, chided me for going alone and helped me redo my bloco itinerary.
“There’s Carnaval for the people who actually like samba, and Carnaval for the people who want to have an experience,” said one writer sagely.
I was exhausted. I was tempted to curl up on the floor of the office in a pile of piauís and sleep there until Ash Wednesday.
I do hold onto one thing, however. As I was fleeing Santa Teresa, I caught sight of something that gave me hope for Carnaval. A truck was parked on a side street blaring sambas-enredo, and an old lady dressed all in pink was out on her terrace, sambaing blissfully and alone. She was the happiest person I had seen all day.
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.