Spectacles don't come any bigger, brighter and hotter than Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnival. This week, more than 700,000 tourists will invade the city, crowding the beaches, literally dancing in the streets of Copacabana and Ipanema.
And at the heart of it all is the Sambadrome, where crowds cram into the 700 metre long stadium to watch samba schools compete.
Having been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I thought I knew what to expect. But this was something else entirely. Carnival is all about scale. Here, floats stretch 10 storeys high, with dancers - no ropes, no safety nets - shaking their booty on small platforms on top. Here, it's sequins and feathers by the millions. A veritable army of drummers. Giant animatronics, nine metre tall cartoon characters, a huge glowing robot shaking its head - each float outdoes the one before it, and they keep on coming, up to a dozen per school.
About 60,000 people will cram into the concrete stands and private booths. Some will be there for the show, some for the party, but as the fireworks explode into the early morning, nobody will go home disappointed.
The heat, crowds and music are exhausting, but this is the month every Brazilian lives for. Each samba school represents a community across the social and economic spectrum, with up to 4,000 members performing for each school. Participants pay a costume fee, with choice positions priced accordingly. It might cost $50 to walk on the floor or thousands for a marquee spot atop a float. Incredibly, the average school spends about $3.5-million each year on the parade. With 12 samba schools parading over two nights, I was ready to experience what $42-million could do.
We would watch the spectacle from a camarote, a private booth overlooking the parade street. Each of these booths accommodates dozens of revellers, comes equipped with food and drinks and special T-shirts and ID cards, and costs as much as $40,000 a night. As is the custom, we use scissors to redesign our shirts into something more fashionable. Even in uniform, everyone gets to be unique - and flash a lot of skin.
If a camarote is out of reach, six-seat open booths run about $2,500 a night, the average ticket price in the stands is about $60 and in the reserved, lower-income section, the cost is about $5 a seat.
Once we pass through multiple levels of security to get into our camarote, the atmosphere was one of a frenzied major sporting event. I look over to see Paris Hilton taking photos from the neighbouring booth, for once not the centre of attention. (She's wearing the appropriate camarote shirt - although hers looked professionally customized.)
Madonna is also in the attendance, as is actor Gerard Butler. (We bumped into Black Swan's Vincent Cassel at the prestigious Copacabana Black Tie Ball a few days before, one of several balls that take place throughout the city.) And dozens of Brazilian media celebrities appear on the floats. Everyone who is anyone is here.
On the parade street below, judges were at the ready, prepared to award points for themes, costumes, floats, music and performances. The final voting would be televised around the country, with the winning samba school receiving national acclaim and high-paying sponsorships and entering the pantheon of Carnival greats.
A massive round of fireworks signals the first school is entering the street. They have just 82 minutes to get to the end of the road and cross the iconic arches of the Sambadrome or face point penalties.
Providing the rhythm for each school are the batteria, the drum corps, pounding the signature samba beat with a chorus singing over the top. Each school's song is repeated until the very end, so that everyone learns the lyrics, and the crowd joins in.
All the while, the queens of the batterias - Brazilian goddesses - flash their muscular bodies, vibrating on stilettos, blowing kisses and smiles as the crowds cheer and the media fawn. In no time, I'm covered in sweat from dancing, exhausted from the eye candy, and amazed there are still 11 more schools to come.
Some of the schools are circuses, with trapeze acts and stunts. Some use floats and costumes to recount great moments in Brazilian history. Every year, the themes and costumes change, and this year, disaster strikes three top schools when a fire destroys their warehouses causing millions of dollars damage. Grande Rio lost 3,000 costumes alone. With the assistance of sponsors, government and other schools, Grande Sol will still compete. The heart of Carnival, with all its colour and excess, is still the gathering and support of its communities.
Forty-eight hours later, my nerve sockets have blown: too much stimulation, too much music. Later that week, I sat riveted to the TV as the judges' results were announced. The Sambadrome is as much spectacle as sport, in a nation where sport is religion. I can only imagine the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games here. Rio de
Janeiro knows how to stage a party.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.
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