We sat in front of the TV in Rio de Janeiro, watching the 3rd night of Sao Paolo’s Carnaval parade. The theme of this Samba school was ‘South Korean Immigration’ and a collection of questionably racist floats rolled by, almost certainly not intending any offense. Black men dressed as geisha’s twirled and blew kisses. It would have been less awkward if we hadn’t been sitting with Mr. Satoh, our host’s Japanese boss. Mr. Satoh has been doing business in Brazil for many years, and has come to know the country well. Fabio, the father of the Ruiz family with whom we were staying, had decided the last piece of the puzzle, to really know Brazil, was to take his boss to dance in Carnaval. They were going later that evening. We asked Mr. Satoh if he was excited.
“A little ashamed” was his honest answer.
He wasn’t alone, I’d like to think he meant ’embarrassed’ though, which to my American ears has a slightly different meaning. We were a little embarrassed too to be dressing up as plates of seafood, wearing chef’s hats and wielding giant cutlery, samba-ing our way in front of millions of people on the final night of the parade. We were dancing with ‘Grande Rio’, one of the biggest, most well respected Samba schools. Not that they had actually taught us to Samba, mainly they just collected our money online and told us where to pick up our outrageous costumes. What we were watching on television was just a taste of what was to come. A chorusline of men, or women, their eyes painted to approximate the Asian stereotype, samba’d past. Mr. Sato and I exchanged a look. We both still had so much to learn.
Rio de Janeiro is the most beautiful city in the world, inhabited by its most beautiful people, surrounded by lush green jungle and sparkling blue sea. Rio is drab, monochromatic and blighted, overrun with the desperate poverty. Nowhere apart from Mumbai or Cape Town is the disparity between rich and poor more on display. Seen from above, Rio spreads across the valleys between a half dozen towering, verdant hills, pouring like slowly spreading lava onto a half dozen beaches of golden sand. The landscape by itself would be an eye-popping attraction, but that a metropolis has been dropped in the middle of it makes it all the more unbelievable. Where the high-rise apartments stop climbing at the foot of the hills, the infamous favelas begin. Built on faces of rock too precarious to safely build on, millions of migrants to the city have built illegally, unsafely, majestically, straight up nearly vertical slopes. When the houses stay, they are wonders of engineering, when they crumble in a landslide, a terror. Technically illegal, the city has long looked the other way at the favela’s rapid expansion. The transit system isn’t up to the task of bringing thousands of poor workers daily into the urban furnace, so they’ve been tacitly allowed to live on the shoulders of the rich and middle class. In theory, this has all stopped. The Lula de Silva government made great strides in bringing the favela’s under government control. By giving the citizens of these cities within a city basic necessities like water, electricity and plumbing, the favela’s ceded control to the police. The drug empires which once flourished and essentially ruled the neighborhoods like fiefdoms, are no more. In theory.
Like many poor areas in the world, the favelas are the most interesting part of Rio. They are a cauldron of activity, culture, and ideas. It is from the favelas that came Samba and the Samba schools. It is the Samba schools who produce Carnaval, which is without hyperbole, the most incredible, stupendous, ridiculous, extravagant show on earth. Naturally Magda figured out a way for us to be right in the middle of it.
When Magda learned we could buy costumes from one of the Samba schools and participate in the party, she started checking for available costumes. The ones we liked most had already sold out, what was left was looking a little boring – a jester, a policeman, something horrifying called a ‘Wandering Negro’. Occasionally a costume appeared like ‘typography*’ that was so odd we tried to grab it, but they were snatched up as quickly as they appeared. Finally the ‘Seafood Appetizers’ appeared, and we grabbed them before we could think too much about what wearing a plate, a tablecloth, a lobster, a fish, and a chef’s hat and a big fringe of french fries might entail. Given that Carnaval is at the height of Rio’s muggy summer, we might have thought twice.
By the time we picked up the costumes, it was far too late. They had been tailored them to our measurements and our money was long gone. On the day of our parade, we were some of the last people to arrive at a non-descript hotel in the center of the city, wander up a flight of fire exit stairs and enter a room that used to be full of costumes for Grande Rio. Two giant lonely bags of seafood waited for us. When we picked them up, the plastic bag tore from the weight. We were told when and where to meet (9:45pm for a 2:00 am start time… 2 am!!) The staff was still laughing at us as we pulled the bags back down the stairs and back out into the heat. We wrestled them home by subway. Back at the Ruiz’s we tried them on. It didn’t take long before we were dripping with sweat, looking completely idiotic. We cursed the costumes, they were ingeniously designed and constructed, but it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to move in them at all. Magda’s plan all along was to try and take pictures during the parade, and the giant plates offered plenty of room to hide things like giant SLR cameras, but it was looking like it would be impossible to do anything except wave our forks and knives around. The costume even came with shoes and white chef’s pants, both made of the cheapest and least comfortable materials possible. When I put my shoes on I realized they’d achieved an impossibility: they were both too big and too small at the same time. I tried a sweet dance move; a shoe fell off. There was a lot of complaining that evening. If you’ve ever seen two gringos dressed as plates of seafood less happy, I’d like to hear about it. But there was no helping it, Grande Rio was waiting. The world was waiting. So very ashamed.
Each Samba school has a theme, a story that their part in the parade with tell. Beija-Flor’s was ‘Our Great Friend, the Horse’. Grande Rio’s was similarily opaque, it was ‘Brazilian Oil Resources’. The song we ostensibly had to learn argued for both limiting oil drilling, and keeping the profits from oil drilling in Brazil. A major discussion in Brazil right now concerns drilling miles off of Brazil’s pristine beaches, diving thousands of meters in search of oil. The danger to the environment, to tourism and to the rich bounty of Atlantic sea-life will have been made obvious by our own disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. So the theme was timely, and in this context, a lovely plate of lobster and fish maybe makes sense. That they are wearing chef’s hats and apparently about to devour themselves, less so.
We were told to meet “in front of the post office” near the Sambadrome (Yes, its called the Sambadrome). Like a lot of buildings, the post office by the Sambadrome has four sides. It is a giant block of brutalist concrete and no side is obviously the front. As we approached the post office in the dark, we walked by all manner of creatures, some half dressed, most drinking beer. Fairies in hoop skirts hung out under lampposts, lighting each other’s cigarettes beneath an orange spotlight. Giant babies dragged their cribs behind them, looking for the place to meet other giant babies. A trio of oil-blackend storks stalked past. We approached the street where dozens of elaborate floats were being tended to, the finishing touches added at the last moments. An enormous multicolored lizard was having its lights tested. Pipes representing industry belched fake smoke. Hundreds of confused, half costumed participants mingled with leggy showgirls and super-buff men in speedos. A dozen hospital patients shambled by. We found a few other plates of seafood and set up camp with them. There would ultimately be around a hundred of us, but so far we numbered about six. Nobody from the Samba school announced anything. Hours passed quickly while the crowds of bizarrely dressed people grew thicker. When 1 o’clock came and went without word, we sent out scouts to find others like us. Eventually ours became one of the larger fish-camps, piles of giant knives and forks stacked up like a silverware campfire. Then there were explosions, fireworks sparkling in the sky, and the floats began to move. Still no one had any idea where we were supposed to be. Some of us wore only chef hats and pants, standing there chugging cold cans of Antarctica beer while the parade appeared to be underway. It was so chaotic and confused I couldn’t fathom how in a few minutes we’d all be dancing in perfect unison, each costumed group neatly stationed behind another. Then the shouting started.
A woman wearing a purposefully grimy jumpsuit from an oil rig yelled in our direction through hands cupped like a megaphone. She pointed to the rear of one of the floats and the whole crowd started to move. Giant knives clattered against forks. Tubular white hats with big shrimps on either side were knocked to the ground. We disappeared beneath red checkered table cloths and reappeared as both chef and the night’s special. Tables of seafood and fries ran past a crowd of walking haciendas, then gladiators armed with tailpipes. Gradually we were organized into platoons, the floats moving ever closer to the Sambadrome. We could hear the roaring crowd and the pulsing Samba beat of the school before us. Another man in an oil riggers uniform shouted at us in Portuguese, asking if we knew the song. It was a little late for that I felt, but I nodded yes with the rest of the appetizers. The haciendas in front of us were having trouble organizing. Their tiled roofs swayed back and forth as the oil riggers pushed them into position and barked orders to stay in line. One plate of lobster was screamed at for having lost his fork and knife. In one hand instead was a can of beer.
Then we stood and waited. Sweat ran down my back in little streams. Magda turned this way and that, unable to keep still, the antennae from her lobster whipping my face. Suddenly we were running to catch up with the float ahead of us. I almost lost my shoe. then we crashed into the haciendas. More screaming and pushing and we were back in line. Then, our fireworks. Our song.
I should insert here a quote from the AP, concerning our part in the parade:
“The Grande Rio school riffed on the theme of petroleum in an apparent homage to the discovery of massive offshore oil deposits off Rio’s coast. The school sent out dancers dressed in deep sea diving equipment complete with oversized fins, and others in black sequined dresses meant to look like an oil slick. Another group of dancers with the same school puzzled spectators when they danced by wearing giant plates of lobster and brandished oversized cutlery.”
It may have been a problem to someone that we made no sense, but not to us. The stadium lighting was as bright as the sun, the crowd’s roar crashing over us like waves. Grande Rio’s song, and its refrain “…its our black gold carnaval” played over and over. We mouthed the words and danced. Magda sambad, I shuffled, trying desperately to keep my shoes on. We waved our cutlery at the crowd and they cheered in response. The line of haciendas broke, their oilrigger going apoplectic as they stumbled into each other. We mugged for the hundreds of cameras flashing at us, we danced and drowned in the manic energy. At one point a plate of seafood broke through our ranks, she’d lost her hat, her fork and knife, and her mind. She was spinning like a top. She crashed into the haciendas before the oil rigger yanked her out of the parade. I’ve never seen someone so violently and abruptly vanish from their point they were previously occupying. Security escorted the banished entrée from the stadium. Near the end of the parade, more plates broke ranks and shoved their way to the front. Someone stepped on one of their tablecloths and they stumbled. When they spun around, angry, I threatened to eat them with my knife and fork.
Too soon it was over. We reached the end of the parade route and were ushered off into several directions, crowds still cheering and waving. Magda broke free in the commotion, and having tossed aside her utensils, she whipped out her camera from beneath a big piece of lettuce. I swam against the crowd to reach her, spilling fries and casting aside red onions. We spent the next half an hour photographing the end of our school’s parade. Grande Rio came in third, a disappointing finish. In preparation for the next school, we e were ushered out of the Sambadrome, firmly but gently. Uniformed men with giant brooms swept cast aside costumes towards a brightly colored pile of trash. Garbage trucks were eating the remnants of the parade, mouthfuls at a time. More fireworks as the next school began, but we were outside of the Sambadrome now, the fences closing gently in our faces. We turned to wade through the piles of seafood, baby cribs, stork legs, to look for a taxi home. The Samba beat continued to pulse long after we were gone.