I tried to order a sandwich today, first in Spanish and then in English, only to end in perplexed eye contact with the waitress when we both released we had absolutely no way of effectively communicating. I cannot over emphasize how different spoken Portuguese is from spoken Argentine Spanish. Ten minutes later, the waitress brought me a cup of pudding with an entire banana in it. I ate it with a giant grin on my face.
I live for experiences like these. I was completely out of my element and subsequently absolutely everything became a learning experience. Be it trying to order a hamburger or just trying to introduce myself. It was all new.
I don’t pursue my bucket list to check off of the items it contains, instead I do it to put myself in experiences that I never could have planned. Rio carnival was an entire week of these unplanned blissful and happy moments.
First, let’s start with the city itself. Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is the most beautiful major city I have ever visited. It is a juxtaposition of dense jungle and steel sky scrapers. It has a population with an energy that I have never experienced before. They don’t just spontaneously dance in the streets, they gyrate uncontrollably.
Since I am training for a marathon, I have started getting into the habit of going for a long run after arriving in a new city. I do my best to match my running music to the city. Ten minutes into my run, I stopped, whipped out my iPod and put on the Thong Song. It seemed appropriate. Smiling with my whole face, I ran the entire length of both Copacabana and Ipanema Beach… down and back. For a city known for fashion, these people don’t wear a lot of clothes. Between the people and the landscape, the beauty was nearly overwhelming.
My first night out, I went to the first bar I could find and ordered the national cocktail, a Caipirinha. (For the record, what is the United States national cocktail? If we don’t have one, we need to fix this problem immediately.) The cachaca (similar to rum) based drink is made with sugar and an entire lime. Excitedly, I took a sip. It was like being electrocuted for the first time. The mixture of alcohol and lime had me feeling it after the first drink. I paid, walked out of the bar and immediately got felt up by a midget in a clown costume. A woman wearing only gold paint laughed at me and a mob of people in Obama masks stopped and pointed at me. By the end of my trip encounters like this would hardly phase me.
After the shock of the city wore in, the shock of the party started to take over. My previous benchmark on parties was Burning Man. That week-long event takes place in the middle of the desert and usually has about 50,000 attendees. Carnival in Rio is just as long, just as crazy and has over 2,000,000 people. To say it is insane, is an understatement.
When I was in Buenos Aires prior to leaving for Rio, I had randomly met a couple at a party and mentioned my bucket list. They gave me the usual response of wishing they could do something similar. Having known them for less than ten minutes, I invited them to Carnival with me. Daniel answered in the affirmative for both of them. They joined me after my third night in the city.
The couple was a joy to travel with. Daniel was a former US diplomate who spoke fluent English, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and most importantly, Portuguese. He had spent a considerable amount of time in Brazil and had most recently done a sprint in Washington DC working for the State Department. His wife, Atara, was an aspiring architecture and uncharacteristically wore the pants in the relationship. Together we made up an unlikely crew of American’s living in Buenos Aires visiting Rio.
Carnival in Rio is all about dancing. During the day, hundreds of thousands of people crowd the streets and partake in spontaneous drum circles. Food and beer is sold from various food carts and the energy is tangible in the air. About a third of the people I saw during the day were dressed in costumes. These ranched from less than swimwear to outfits that resembled Big Bird’s vomit.
At night the party moved downtown. Like liquid mayhem, the street parties continue between the high rises of downtown and fill into as many crevices as possible.
The main event of the party week is the parade that takes place at the specially constructed Sambadrome. It is 700 meters long and holds about 90,000 party people. Before entering the stadium, I considered the Macy’s Day Parade to be the pinnacle of parades. I later found out this was like thinking the Great Lakes in the United States were the pinnacle of water formations. (Oceans anyone?) The Sambadrome houses a week long competition between Samba Schools (no relation to educational establishments, more like very intense groups) who each have one hour to impress the audience and judges. Each School has multiple floats and thousands, if not tens of thousands of participants.
On the last night of Carnival, Daniel, Atara and I scalped some of the cheap seats in the Sambadome. We started at midnight and made it to the stadium around 1:00 AM. The audiences energy was both deafening and incredible. It was pouring down tropical rain and everyone was completely drenched. We stood in the massive crowd dancing and screaming with the Samba Schools for seven hours straight. Along with approximately 200,000 people we rode this tremendous energy wave through the sunrise.
It was like nothing I have ever experienced before. Everything was in Portuguese every where I looked I saw literally hundreds of thousands of people in costumes dancing and singing. There were helicopters, fireworks, Brazilian celebrities, fountains and incredible musical acts.
Carnival in Rio was one of the highlights of my life.
I have gone to massive concerts, raves and parties but this topped them all. As the rained poured down like a warm shower and my ears rang with the overwhelming sounds of explosions and music, my smile erupted. I was completely sober and on the edge of tears of joy.
I hope to experience Carnival in Rio again in my life but even if I don’t, I will know it already took me to a new level. Between the energy of the people, the beauty of landscape and the impressiveness of the scale, I was irreversibly changed.
It is life events like this that put everything into perspective. While work problems can be frustrating, relationships can be troublesome and foreign protests can downright frightening, it is celebrations of life like Carnival that keep us grounded. The human spirit can’t fight on indefinitely. At times it needs fuel.
Have you ever had that sneaking suspicion that there are just some events that are just so amazing that they are beyond your reach? Think again. The greatest party in the world is not at the Playboy Mansion or on Greek Row. It is in Rio de Janeiro and next year, you are invited to refuel.