Kristin Farr was going to Rio de Janeiro, the carnival capital of the world, for 5 days of celebration that takes place 40 days before Easter every year. She would be in the Samba Parade, an elaborate competition of song and dance, quite a feat for a Canadian who doesn’t even speak the language.
It was 6:00 a.m. on a cold January morning and I was lying in bed waiting for my friend, Juliana, to Skype me from Vienna. I wasn’t in the best of spirits, feeling far from the crazy lifestyle I had enjoyed when living and travelling abroad. Juliana’s reaction, when we connected, was that I was in need of some kind of adventure and should join her in Brazil—her home—for Carnival.
I’m not a crazy partier, not a crowd person. Of everyone I know I am the least likely person to go to Carnival. So I told her that it would be fun but no.
I hung up and it was still dark and I had this moment of: “Why not, so what if it’s last moment, it’s my money, my holiday.” So I went on-line and found a great deal, a flight to Rio return for under $1000, and I booked it.
I soon found out that I was not only going to Carnival, I would be in it. Juliana’s best friend and her parents are active supporters of a local Samba School in Niteroi (a smaller city across the bay from Rio) and were able to reserve us a few last minute spots in Cubango’s official carnival parade at the Sambadrome. This was no small thing because each parade is highly orchestrated and planned months in advance. Costumes are elaborate and samba tunes specially written for it. For my Brazilian friends it was a privilege to be part of it; for me, a foreigner, a rare opportunity.
Rio’s Samba Parade goes on for 5 nights from sundown to sunrise. One Samba School after another puts on a one-hour show that they have worked on for a year. It all takes place in a specially built Sambadrome. Each parade or show involves hundreds of musicians and dancers and several elaborate floats. It is all coordinated under a particular theme. Each school has its supporters cheering in the stands and the entire event is broadcast live.
I went on-line to get an idea of what I’d be wearing and the images I found were of these scantily clad Brazilian women and men.
Juliana’s cousin lives in Copacabana so we stayed there by the beach. I had only three days to learn what everyone else had been practicing for months, and without knowing the language. I did get the chorus down and a couple of other sections of our song and learned some of the feet patterns of the samba.
I didn’t need to worry about being too exposed in my costume. We were Kenyan marathon runners, with black leotards (to look Kenyan), gold dress (to look like winners) and flags of Africa coming out of our back. I thought we’d be mistaken for Roman gladiators.
We were supposed to be on at 3 a.m. but they were really behind so our parade didn’t end up going through the Sambadrome until 6 a.m. and when we finished the sun was coming up. It was one hour of dancing my heart out and singing at the top of my lungs in a language I don’t speak nor understand.
It was the craziest workout that I’ve ever had. We were sweating so much that when we got to the end we just collapsed to the ground and started pulling off our costumes.
Carnival is for all Brazilians. It’s everyone’s party and the streets are wall-to-wall people. Everyone knows the words to the songs and everyone is dancing. The women from the favelas (slums) were such fantastic dancers that they were the stars of carnival and everyone knew their names.
People put on bunny ears, fake eyelashes and wigs and party for 5 days. Street parties are everywhere and you just happen upon many of the good ones. We would be out until 6 a.m., sleep until 11 a.m., eat something, spend the afternoon on the beach, and then start all over again. The atmosphere is electric and you’re running on adrenalin. I lost my voice completely for 24 hours.
It was an amazing environment to be in: the food, the weather, the beaches, everyone being in such a great mood. People drink but not too much if they plan to go the distance. It’s letting loose but in such a fun way. I could have sat for 5 days and just people-watched.
We party at home but not on this level where the entire population is involved. I’m going back and although I’m pretty conservative, I wouldn’t have a problem wearing a sexier costume next time because everyone does it and nobody is looking at you.
It was a privilege to be part of it.
This interview with Kristin Farr has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Luciana Viegas and Juliana Erthal
© Riding the buses 2014