Carnaval in Rio is an experience unlike any other. It is by far the biggest holiday in Brazil, and includes a week of activities, street parties, concerts, and samba shows, providing plenty of opportunities to get wasted and stay up all night. By far the most amazing part of it is the positivity and happiness that permeates everything about Carnaval.
With so many free, public street parties with plenty of cheap beer and an almost complete absence of uniformed police, I expected the occasional fight to break out, or the occasional drunk man to try and paw my white friends, but there was NONE of that. It was a celebration of happiness, hedonism, and fantasy. The kind of social experiment that would never work in Peru or the USA, for sure. It certainly helps that Rio de Janeiro is paradise, an urban, commercial city with beautiful beaches. Basically a supermetropolis full of beautiful people in bikinis and sungao (the Brazilian version of the Speedo).
My key observations:
The main Carnaval activity is the 2-day samba competition fought out among 14 samba schools in Rio. These spend all year designing incredible costumes, themed floats, a song, and practicing their samba skills. Each school presents their piece in the Sambodromo, a site specifically constructed for 3 days of use during the year. Bleachers and VIP boxes flank the pasarela - the central road down which parade the floats and dancers, and thousands upon thousands of spectators watch the spectacle of fantasy laid out before them. Rivalries between schools are fierce, and they have some diehard fans. Only in Brazil can dancing samba and dressing up reach the status of a professional sport...
Cariocas - people from Rio de Janeiro - are the happiest, most relaxed people in the world. Mornings are spent on the beach, recovering from a hangover or just starting the day off with some sea and sand, and it is not at all uncommon to see men in flip flops and sungao (remember, the Brazilian Speedo) carrying a briefcase on their way to work at 10:00 in the (late) morning. During Carnaval week, it is not at all uncommon to be squished into a packed metro car with samba dancers in full regalia on their way to the competitions. Only in Brazil does a metro ride at 6 in the morning involve neon feathers tickling you from all sides...
Rio is also the most open and accepting city I have seen outside the US. The gay community is large, visible, and fully integrated into city life. There is a section of the Ipanema beach, the "Gay Beach," as it were, that is presided over by a gigantic rainbow flag. I discovered the gay beach by accident, just walking along the surf with my friend Steph. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by hordes of tanned and muscular men wearing nothing but the tried-and-true sungao (by the way, for those of you wondering, I was never able to gather the courage to wear one - Peace Corps has taken 10 pounds from my already slender body and ruined my body image). It was just nice to see beautiful people hugging, kissing, whatever, just showing their love in public without fear of reprisal. I never expected to see that in South America.
AND THEY ARE SO DAMN HAPPY
Before Rio, I celebrated Carnaval in Brazil's 4th largest city, Florianopolis. The main surfing town in this country with so much coastline, Floripa is beautiful and relaxed, like a smaller, less touristy version of Rio. On my way to a samba party on one of the many amazing beaches in Floripa, I was stuck in a public bus in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 2 hours. No joke. But what would have been unbearable was turned into a party because, ... Carnaval is all about happiness. People sold us beers through the windows while a samba war broke out between the 2 groups of (mostly young) Brazilians in the front and back of the bus. The two sides exchanged sambas, Carnaval songs, and football chants, each trying to outdo the other with volume, bouncing the bus, and smiling. Only in Brazil will you find a bus full of tanned, beautiful Brazilians laughing and singing as they wait 2 hours in bumper to bumper traffic. No cell phones, no iPods, no Nalgenes. Just beer and laughter.
What you need to know is that Brazil is paradise. A vacation to Brazil is an embrace of pure happiness for a little while. It is extremely good for the soul, and I might be addicted.