The big party for carnival, in downtown Rio, is quite expensive to watch and attend, from stands overlooking the parade and floats but is the one popular with tourists. Though it's here that the big samba schools show off their moves and inspiration, Cariocas go apeshit, for weeks in advance, at blocos, somewhat informal street parties, if informal means that huge trucks with banks of speakers, called 'trio electronico', blasting everyone's favourite tunes can actually be informal.
In the run up to carnival, there are days with many dozens of blocos all over town.
Before the celebrations in the Sambodromo, the parade ground designed by Oscar Niemeyer, specifically for the yearly carnival, making my way to the far side of town, the part where the pretty people live, I was ready to attend the bi-weekly Rio hash. No one showed, except for the hare, who had gotten lost setting the trail and came in 30 minutes late. So, instead of running, we went to a bloco, where I learned of what probably is now my favourite local drink, batidas, consisting of vodka, condensed milk and your fruit juice or lemonade of choice. The limao and coconut flavoured ones are deadly. Literally.
The hare, in announcing the hash, had added that Oswaldo, at Bar do Oswaldo, was going to run along if he could pull himself away from managing the bar. Knowing Oswaldo must then be a hasher, I asked staff if Oswaldo was in. He wasn't. The hare later told me that Oswaldo had been dead for 10 years.
Bar do Oswaldo is famous for its feijoada and samba. Feijoada, originally a slave's dish, are the leftover pork bits, cooked together with beans, like a stew,and served with rice and manioc flower.
The origin of these street parties seems a bit hazy. One person told me that ten years ago, these blocos barely existed, implying that they're something of a reaction to the extortionist prices of the main carnival celebrations where, in addition, you can only be a spectator, as opposed to a participant. However, someone else claimed that the big parade is actually the culmination of a long history of blocos.
On my first Sunday, I was set to attend a huge bloco, but last minute we refrained from doing so, the Brazilians amongst us, related to my hostel, not feeling comfortable with the huge crowds and, what they felt, were aggressive undertones. Instead, we ended up at a tiny nearby bloco where, in stead of the earlier projected 100000 people, we were part of a group of perhaps 500. Quite a bit of fun, but, more interestingly, also a surprising ethnic break from both our earlier choice and the ethnic makeup of the favela I'm staying in.
Here, all participants where of obvious European stock and, indeed, also mostly good looking. Almost annoyingly so.
But, the main event, if pricey, is worth attending. Tickets go for as little as 42 USD, though do go up to over 2000 USD. My ticket was on the low end, though not on the big night, but was one of the best seats in the house. I was seated right next to the parades, so close that I could physically touch the participants.
During the main event, different samba schools compete with each other for having the best floats and overall show. Typically, a show consists of four elaborate floats, with as many as 40 different 'waves' of participants, dressed in outlandish outfits. The whole show, for each school, embodies a particular theme, which can be something more straightforward like 'mysteries', or something more abstract like 'the history of Lapa' (a district in Rio).
Only one school takes to the field at a time, being given 45 minutes to move through the parade grounds. The minor schools compete early on, on the first two days, fighting for a place in the group of top schools, which fight to 'win' carnival on the last day.
The biggest challenge with the main parades is that they start around 9pm and can last until 7am the next morning.
Later, in Lencois, I spent a day on a tour with, amongst others, a German-Hungarian couple, also on holiday in Brazil. Through an aunt living in Rio, they had managed to get a costume and be part of one of the parades in the Sambadrome, on the same night I attended. Turned out I actually shot a picture of one of them.