The simple answer to the proposition in the title is – don’t have any expectations.
The more complex answer starts with our arrival in Rio de Janeiro and our taxi ride out of the airport. Lining up on the taxi queue, the Brazilian boy in front of us conveniently offers to join us in the taxi to cheapen our ride. He was heading to Copacabana, while we were heading to Leme, right next to the famous Brazilian suburb.
Our Portuñol conversation gets us excited for the upcoming days as explains he missed the Carnaval in Rio last year and couldn’t bare to do so again; he points out the Sambadromo that we drive through and mentally prepares us that these festivities are “hardcore”.
On our first official day as part of the Carnival, we head into a neighbouring suburb Lapa, to join the crazy hunt for appropriate costumes and accessories. Dee comes out with a prisoner’s costume – 171, and I buy a pair of black wings and halo.
(For the first time my trusty friend Google couldn’t help me in understanding the significance of 171. But with the help of a Brazilian friend, 171 is a common phrase in Brazil to refer to a swindler. Walking through the streets, people smiled and pointed out the numbers on Dee’s outfit.)
That night is our first night in the midst of Carnaval activity. Staying in an eight-people-room hostel we learn that there’s a Bloco just down the road in our suburb Leme. We dress up and head down.
The place is definitely lively! People are dressed up, talking, smiling, moving around. But to me it feels like kids have come out to play, without a playground to play in. Dee and I both thought a lot of the people in that particular area were quite young (perhaps hypocritical for us to state, being somewhat young travellers ourselves exploring South America) but at their age I think I was spending that time of the night with my parents. There is a bit of music going on and a bit of dance-like movement but most people are simply milling around and drinking.
I guess my expectations were more like constant Sambodrome parades with continuous dancing, music and festivity. I think the festival we bumped into in Salvador heightened my expectations of Rio as the festivities and available entertainment in Salvador were top notch. But don’t get me wrong, the Sambodrome in Rio definitely did not disappoint! It was the best thing about the Carnaval and exceeded my expectations of the Carnival magic. But the action in between didn’t quite hit the spot..
The second day we dress up and head to Lapa were we heard a lot of the action was going on the day before and was to continue that day. But it has the same sort of vibe. We arrive and catch the end of an outdoor concert, which I’m going to say was pretty good. There were food stalls surrounding the concert area and obviously excessive drink vendors offering beers, soft drinks and water. But once the concert had finished it was once again like an artist without his colours. There was another concert just down the road that required us to pay an entrance fee, but we decide instead to head back to our hostel.
Of the three remaining nights, we spent one at the Sambadrome, another one recovering from the long night at the Sambadrome and the last night in Ipanema.
Ipanema was quite interesting but once again it was like a party without the music. It was the most sexually open suburb we had been to. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with the fact that one of Brazil’s famous Brothels is located in Ipanema or just the crowd that happened to be there. Overall we noticed that we could see more homosexuals than usual, contraception was endorsed and we were offered condoms and people in general seemed more keen for a kiss. My best answer was : “Nao, eu tenho cartorze anos.” which sent them running.
Despite the lack of organised street entertainment at night, the best way to enjoy the carnival in Rio was to join the Blocos scattered throughout Rio during the day (which we didn’t manage to find very often) and to go to the Sambadrome.. twice if you have the energy. Also, I can’t deny that everyone seemed very happy and excited almost all the time. People in costumes were always walking through the streets and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company. The whole city was alive and we knew that this celebration was a shared experience across many other countries in the world. I would definitely love to celebrate the Carnival again, but I would check out the festivities in Salvador or Olinda, where I have heard it is a little more authentic.