Friday, April 20, 2012


We rushed back from the airport to the Shearton Rio Hotel because time was a-wasting. It was after 10 P.M. on the eve of Fat Tuesday, and the Sambathon Parade was already in progress. We didn't realize there was no hurry. We quickly freshened up to catch the 10:30 shuttle from the hotel to the festivities. By the time we got there, through the traffic, it was approaching midnight. We had missed the first two Samba schools in the parade. We needn't have worried.

This thing goes on all night until daybreak. The Sambathon was a sensory over load we have never experienced before. It was N'awlins Mardi Gras on steroids! The parade consists of seven Samba schools performing. Each performance (parade) is alloted an hour and 20 minutes. For 9 hours total, the samba music blasting at about 115 decibels was loud enough to be heard in Sao Paulo. Each performer in the parade and much of the enthusiastic crowd sang along. The stadium lights were as bright as day. Between performances there is a 5-10 minute break, punctuated by fireworks, for people to go to the refreshment stands. Much of it is sponsored by Devassa, a Brazilian beer company.

The Brazilians built a permanent facility called the Sambadrome (officially Darcy Ribiero Avenue) with grandstands flanking both sides of the Avenida Marquis de Sapucai for almost a mile. We paid extra for a 6 person box with plastic chairs. A capacity crowd of 72,500 people were in attendance, and probably another 50,000 or so who couldn't afford grandstand seats were milling around outside the fenced in grandstand area. If you suffer from agoraphobia, you should probably avoid the place. We had been warned not to wear jewelry or carry valuables, but we found security there to be good. We sat with our Australian friends Lach and Regitze as well as our Long Island friends Mike and Dorothy. The latter had to leave early (3 A.M.) to catch a flight to Machu Picchu in the morning.

We hung around until about 4:30 A.M. The shuttle buses back to the hotel will only pick you up between parades, so we had to time it so we didn't leave at the start of an 80 minute performance. The Australians stayed to the bitter end after 5 A.M. Even at that time there were probably 70,000 men, women and children still in the area. These Brazilians never sleep--but they really know how to party! Some of the neighborhoods put on their own Carnaval parades. On the bus ride back to our hotel, we encountered crowds of revelers in the streets in Ipanema and Copacabana, miles from the main parade. Even little kids were still in the streets in the wee hours.

Outside the parade, the big news in town was the nearby police shootout with a drug gang which left 1 person dead, 4 wounded and a squad car in flames.

As far as I could tell, they hold the festivities at night for two reasons: (1) it's too hot in the daytime, and (2) most people have day jobs. They have held the competition since 1932, so they have a pretty good idea what works.

Each Samba school performance has a thousand or more custumed performers, many of whom live in the teeming favelas. In addition, each has perhaps 10 elaborately constructed floats, lavishly decorated. Each performer's costume can cost $1000 or more. No expense is spared in this parade. Brazil is famous for its beautiful, often multi-racial women, and I was not disappointed to see many gorgeous young ladies in revealing clothing, both as performers and in the audience.

The hillside favelas which often lack running water, sewers and electricity are home to many of the performers, many of whom are of African descent. These folks may be poor, but this is their opportunity to shine, and they exhibit their unmatched creativity in their colorful displays and costumes.

Each Carnaval parade tells a story. Unfortunately for me, the story is in Portuguese. We watched and enjoyed it, mostly for its unbounded energy. Later I read the parade guide and learned a little about the significance of each display. For example, the Unidos de Tijuca, the area where the massive Christ the Redeemer statue is located, paid homage to Luis Gonzaga, a singer and songwriter (king of ballads) for the 100th anniversary of his birth. As it turned out, the winner of the competition was Tijuca, so all those musical instruments they constructed on their floats impressed the judges, who are probably all deaf by now. ______________________________________________________________________________________ It was approaching 5 A.M. when we staggered out of the Sambadrome and waited for the shuttle. We met people from the States and even Europe who attend Carnaval annually. The shuttle stopped at several hotels to drop off people, and we get back to the Shearton around 6 A.M., just in time for our 7 A.M. tour of the city. No point in going to bed--we'd never wake up in time. So we went for breakfast in the hotel. ______________________________________________________________________________________ The tour bus arrived promptly and we headed for Rio's most iconic site-the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. This art deco treasure was built in 1931. The statue is 130 feet high and one can see it from anywhere in the city. They light it up at night with giant floodlights. The mountain towers 2300 feet above the city, and you go to the top on a tram. It gets you most of the way up, and you take an elevator to the top. Inside the statue is a small chapel. The Brazilians don't have the concerns of church vs. state as they do in the U.S.--about 80% of Rio is Catholic, and they are very proud of the statue. _______________________________________________________________________________________ The other major attraction in Rio is the famous beaches--Copacabana and Ipanema. Many high rise hotels and condominiums line the promenade in Copacabana. The magnificent Copacabana Palace Hotel is across the promenade from the beach. _______________________________________________________________________________________ Ipanema is more artsy. The word Ipanema comes from the Tupi language and means "stinky lake". I guess times have changed. The Travel Channel lists Ipanema as the sexiest beach in the world. It got its reputation when celebrities were photographed there, male and female, wearing thongs. Ipanema is known for its art galleries, theaters and cafes, and especially the sounds of the bossa nova played by the tanned and callipygous cariocas, as the natives of Rio are called. It is the second most expensive neighborhood in Rio, next to nearby LeBlon where our hotel is located. ________________________________________________________________________________________ To me, a beach is a beach. I grew up near Rainbow Beach in Chicago and spent almost every summer day there. I thought that one was the sexiest beach in the world, but I was much younger then. Rainbow Beach has a different meaning nowadays, and in fact, at Ipanema, I saw several rainbow color flags flying. Tourists flocked to both Rio beaches, renting colorful umbrellas. Beach volleyball is a popular sport on the Rio beaches. The most popular sport at Rainbow Beach when I was there was poker. Things change... ________________________________________________________________________________________ We had one other attraction on our bucket list, and that was the Carmen Miranda Museum. This is one of the lesser known sites in town. It was our third day in Rio, and Dianne had broken her glasses in a fall, and we needed to find an optician. The hotel found us one and gave us a driver to take us there. The optician wanted 1800 reals ($1000 U.S.) for a new frame and promised it would be ready in 3 weeks. Not good! We decided to forego the glasses. We instead conned the driver to take us across town to the Carmen Miranda Museum. We didn't get our Miranda warning, however, and wouldn't you know it--it was closed for the Ash Wednesday holiday. I got out of the car and walked around the somewhat shabby round building and took a few pictures. _________________________________________________________________________________________ The thing with Carmen Miranda is that most Americans don't remember who she is. I had mentioned her name in a speech I gave before the Bar Association and got very little reaction. Afterwards, I asked several lawyers if they knew who she was, and they didn't. ___________________________________________________________________________________________ For those who don't know her, she was a Portuguese born Brazilian samba singer and dancer who made 14 Hollywood films between 1940 and 1953 and was known as the Brazilian Bombshell. She was a Hollywood icon best known for wearing towering hats made of fruit salad. In 1946, she was Hollywood's highest paid entertainer and was the top female taxpayer in the U.S. She suffered a fatal heart attack on the live NBC Jimmy Durante Show on Auguat 4, 1955. After falling to her knees, she finished the show and died later that evening at her home. Her body was flown back to Rio de Janiero where the government declared a period of national mourning. More than 500,000 Brazilians attended her funeral ceremonies. _________________________________________________________________________________________ On our way back to the hotel, our driver took us back to Ipanema and Copacabana. The thermometer on the sign read 42 degrees which is somewhere North of 100F. We got back to our air conditioned hotel for much needed rest for our evening plane ride back to the states.



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