“Vôce vai ficar para Carnaval?” Are you staying for Carnival?
When I first arrived in Rio de Janeiro over a month ago this was always the second or third question people would ask me. Cariocas (people originally from Rio de Janeiro) would ask because they are used to having foreigners, both from other countries or other parts of Brazil, ambush their city during this pre-lent festivity. In fact, I learned a lot of cariocas try to leave their own city during the season, opting for calmer places nearby like Teresopolis or Ilha Grande.
Beyond watching the movie Orfeu Negro, looking up some videos of past years’ sambódromo champions, and appreciating Rihanna’s Crop Over costumes I really had no idea what to expect of Carnaval in Rio. Everyone I talked to made it sound like a chaotic, even dangerous, time to be in the city, but they also assured me that I would love it.
After a couple of weeks of waking up at 6:30 am to attend my Portuguese class for five hours a day and orienting myself around the Zona Sul (south side) of the city, the magical glimmers of Carnaval began to appear. The street vendors who usually sell bikinis and keychains began selling fantasias (costumes) like colorful tutus, pirate hats, and bunny ears.
One day while running after class, I quite literally ran into a samba school rehearsal. Music was blasting from a giant truck (trio eléctrico), and people dressed in matching shirts were practicing their choreography. I remember feeling bewildered by the performers on top of that truck. They were urging everyone on the street to join them in expressing joy—here I was, trying to be an ultra-efficient human by running immediately after class only to be stopped in her tracks by an impassable crowd of people who demanded that I take a moment to just feel joy. It was incredible.
A week later my host’s granddaughter, who is my age, invited me to a carnaval bloco (think street party or parade). When we hopped off at our metro stop it was clear we were at the right destination. A mob of young people dressed in bikinis and tutus and other fantasias flooded the station, singing and clapping on their way out. In the Ipanema plaza, a band was practicing their set; people were drinking, dancing, and just hanging out. I remember thinking it was slightly anticlimactic based on my preconception of carnival, but definitely not like any other summer day I had ever experienced. I bought some body glitter, I drank some beer, and I danced until I got tired. When I decided to go home, something very unexpected happened to me: a man grabbed my wrist and tried to kiss me! I repeatedly muttered não obrigada, feeling slightly angry that a stranger would act towards me in such a way. The guy was determined, and I remember feeling completely lost as to why no one in the crowd seemed to think this was unusual behavior. With the help of my host’s granddaughter I managed to escape the situation with a friendly goodbye.
No one told me that kisses become trite during Rio’s Carnaval. When I perplexedly asked what the deal was with everyone kissing each other, one person explained Carnaval in terms of carpe diem: “it’s about not letting any opportunity escape; if you want to kiss someone then do it.” In theory, this attitude seemed like a spectacular idea; rigid social norms could unravel for a brief period of time, with the guarantee that society would still remain intact.
However, my opportunity to seize the moment in hedonistic celebration (which I did, believe me) also exacerbated the machismo, social inequality, and constant paranoia that is always present in Rio. Men who did ask for a kiss almost always obnoxiously persisted after I politely said no thank you. There were a few men who did not even bother to ask if I wanted to be kissed, and just assumed that eye contact was an open invitation to smoosh their face into mine. Peeing in the street, and littering became completely acceptable. Seeing the crews of garis (persons who are employed to clean the public roads) working hard to recover the streets’ dignity after people dressed in tutus desecrated them was a reminder of the stark class differences that exist here. Finally, the news was constantly covering violent acts and robberies taking place across the city. Everyone, locals especially, wore lightweight fanny packs to avoid getting robbed, and people were always on the lookout for potentially hostile situations in a crowd.
Given my (limited) experience, it was no surprise to me that the winning samba school, Beija-Flor’s, Caranval display was saturated in critical political themes. The school’s display portrayed the current Brazilian reality as a “monster”, calling attention to the rise in violence, religious intolerance, homophobia, political corruption, femicide, discrimination, and a slew of other social ills facing the country. I was stunned with the beauty and truth in the display while watching it on T.V. with my host mother.
Just like Beija-Flor’s winning performance, my experience during my first couple months here in Rio de Janeiro has been one filled with stunning cultural beauty, but also filled with the symptoms of a society that is struggling to remain socially and politically intact. When all the glitter in my clothes washed off, and the fantasias were put away, I found myself wondering about a couple things: First, when cariocas flee during Carnaval, what is their escape like? This last week I made a trip to Teresopolis to find out, and I am excited to write about that experience in another post. Second, tomorrow is my first day of school, so I am excited to meet my classmates and see what their second or third questions for me will be.