Rio de Janeiro: Samba some more

By Josie Dale

London's Games are done, now all eyes are on Rio, writes Josie Dale.

Rio de Janeiro brings out the hedonist in tourists during Carnival. Photo / Josie Dale
Rio de Janeiro brings out the hedonist in tourists during Carnival. Photo / Josie Dale

Travel warning: visitors to this country leave their inhibitions at the border.

My normally conservative husband did. We're waiting to order dinner at a streetside restaurant. To my amazement, he volunteers to partner a young woman at an adjacent table. The onlookers are transfixed, not by the ensuing quasi-samba shuffle, but the precarious position of her jiggling bra-less breasts in, or almost in, a skimpy singlet top.

Eventually, gravity wins. Unfazed, she attempts to equalise matters by removing her partner's shirt. His bravado disintegrates and he scuttles back to his seat. The spectators enthusiastically applaud. Table service resumes.

The highly successful London Olympic Games will be hard to top, but Rio will grasp the baton for 2016 with fervour and pride.

Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro), like most Brazilians, are passionate about sport and partying. They're so crazy about soccer nearly everyone skips work on big game days, and from the Friday to the Tuesday before Lent, the notoriously hedonistic Carnival in Rio brings the city to a near standstill.

Transferring from Galeao Airport to the city, Alistair and I witness life in the fast lane. Children risk their lives darting between lanes of speeding freeway traffic.

"They're from favela [slum]," says our driver, Marco.

"Sell drinks, sweets and drugs."

He points to basic shacks packed tight on the hillside. They may live in squalor without running water but they enjoy the views millionaires covet.

Brazil's Rio de Janeiro is a stunning sight. White beaches and eye-wateringly azure sea. Craggy jungle-clad peaks jut haphazardly forming a rain-forested backdrop to the buzzing metropolis.

Surprisingly, given its population of more than 6.3 million, it's blessed with extensive green parklands - surely a top contender for the world's most beautiful city.

Our beachfront Copacabana hotel is perfect for people watching. Three lanes of the six-lane thoroughfare separating hotels from the beach are closed for Carnival. Even the dogs are dressed for the occasion.

We're captivated by the exotic rhythms of samba and the popular samba/jazz fusion, bossa nova. This is the best jetlag cure yet. Noisy flamboyant parades jam the streets, dancing and winding around stalls, buskers and pavement restaurants. So many perfectly toned, scantily clad bodies - gyms in Rio must do a roaring trade.

We have tickets for one of the main samba parades. Friends back home wouldn't recognise us in trendy carnival masks topped off with long blue and silver tinsel wigs.

Our Sambadrome bus is two hours late because of the gridlocked roads. A vociferous passenger harangues the poor driver.

Finally, a young European tourist stands: "Driver cannot go faster. We wanting to enjoy but you spoil for us. Sit down. Shut up."

Red-faced, the whinger sits. We clap, feeling a little shamefaced that we hadn't taken the initiative.

The Sambadrome is a strip approximately 700m, or five rugby fields end-to-end, long. The stadiums and bleachers (high, open, concrete-stepped stands) on each side hold 90,000 people -officially. Sadly, ticket prices are now out of reach of many locals.

Thousands mill around outside the fenced parade area creating a logistical nightmare for those of us trying to reach the complex. They seem good-natured, but the crush of people is intimidating. I grasp Alistair's arm tightly, afraid of being consumed by the crowd.

Inside the Sambadrome, we discover we're not in the seated tourist section, but in a bleacher packed with locals. They cheerfully make way for us to climb to the top row. "Obrigada" we repeat ("thank you" is the extent of our Portuguese).

We've a perfect view along the length of the parade strip, and there's a welcome cooling breeze.

Seven of Rio's best samba schools are parading in their allotted 50 minutes. The pageant will run all night, and a spectacular fireworks display opens each show.

The locals barrack loudly for their favourites. Singing the appropriate theme song, they sway from side to side with arms raised, like an odd Mexican wave. Elaborately costumed dancers and beautiful ethereally colourful floats are unforgettable. Farmers' Santa Parade will never be the same again.

Alistair hands his tinsel wig and mask to a boy below us. He promptly dons them, thanking us with a delighted grin. For us, he's the spirit of Carnival. His father and sister turn, smiling broadly, and clasp our hands. The language barrier is seldom an issue for travellers.

Early morning brings bad weather. There's no shelter and warm rain pours down in eye-closing torrents.

The parade continues. I wonder just how the judges can fairly rate the drenched participants against the more fortunate schools preceding them.

We push through the crush and flag down a taxi. We're unsure if the driver understands our destination. It's a terrifying ride because many of the roads are flooded.

The car bounces alarmingly across the median strip and turns into oncoming traffic to escape the water. Surprisingly, the cabby delivers us to the correct hotel.

We head for the bar and a strong drink to celebrate our survival.

Look forward to the next Olympic Games because it's sure to be an excitingly vibrant event. Not interested in sport? Go for the party then. You'll never forget it.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN flies daily from Auckland to Santiago and on to Rio.

Further information: Rio's four-day Carnival celebration traditionally starts around 40 days before Easter. In 2013 it begins on February 8.

Josie Dale paid for her own travel in Brazil.

- NZ Herald

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