The Rio Carnaval is truly amazing! It’s worth every expensive Real and is an experience of a lifetime. The Carnaval takes place over a period of a week with street parades and grand performances at the Sambadrome (like the Tafewa Balewa Square in Lagos). 12 groups (called schools, though they are not academic schools) compete over 2 days (6 schools on Saturday and 6 schools on Sunday), and then the champions from each day do a Champions Parade the weekend after that. The best time to go is the 2nd day of the first round (on Sunday), where the best schools perform. You can buy tickets online or through your hotel or licensed tour company. There are tickets for numbered seats or you can decide to sit in the bleachers and arrive early to get a good seat. Being a cheapskate, I chose to buy the bleachers ticket but my hosts chose a great area – Sector 5 with a great view.
The show begins at 8.30pm. I arrived about 7pm, got a good seat and settled in. The entrance is quite organised and the officials are efficient. There’s little rush. You simply look for the entrance to your sector and hand over your ticket to be swiped. There are also corporate box seats (with accompanying bars) for sponsors and their guests. As you can imagine, they are in prime positions where you can see and be seen (and envied).
Each school has 80minutes to perform, and the performances include accompanying live music, grand costumed parades, drummers and very ELABORATE floats. One thing I noted was that perhaps instead of singing one song from the beginning of each performance to the end, the schools could have varied it a bit. But I guess they rehearse and time their performance to such exactitude that it may help to use just one song. Each school has about 8 groups in its routine and sometimes a school may have as many as 6,000 participants! They try to tell stories so the performances are a blend of march past, dance and dance drama. Different cultures are expressed during performances. I could readily identify the following: African, Amazonian, Asian, Spanish, Japanese, Indian, Dutch, German, Islamic, Jewish, Oriental…you name it.
I must say that the story about topless women at the Carnaval is overrated. I did spy a boob or two but they were largely costumed and were in no way sensual or garish. They were more cultural and part of the overall costume or tribal dress being portrayed. Brazil is not a very sexual culture. From what I’ve seen, the daily skimpy dressing is matter-of-fact because of the heat and beach culture and it has lost whatever sexual appeal it may have once held. Bum shorts and tank tops aren’t immodest, they’re essential if you don’t want to die of heat stroke. It’s amazing that Brazilians walk their dogs (mostly cute little things) in the heat of the late morning or early afternoon.
I was able to visit two of the main beaches in Rio – Copacabana and Ipanema. Ipanema is smaller, more popular and hence crowded. I preferred Copacobana. You can get to either beach by tube or bus. If you can, avoid the tube…it’s filled with half naked bodies pressed together in a not-so-nice way. And anyway on the bus, you can take in the sights along the way. When going to the beach simply wear a bikini, if you’re a girl, with a wrap or light dress. You really don’t need to take anything along as you can rent a folding chair and umbrella when you get there. But on a truly hot day when there are bound to be many tourists, you may bring your own. Avoid carrying a camera or bag unless you’re in a group and someone will be watching your stuff at all times. All you really need is a bit of money stuck in a waterproof arm band/wallet.
Everyone wears a bikini (could be a thong or shorts); you’ll rarely see a one-piece. No one goes topless – that’s for the French:) Anyway, Rio is more of a ladies’ market. The women are not very well endowed, but the men look gorgeous. Sisquo would be right at home here as there are some nice ebony skinned brothers with hair dyed blond and incredible tattoos. Apparently, if you wish to see Giselle types, you have to go to another city in Brazil entirely. And the sand is scorching hot! You can’t walk on it barefoot, but the water is quite cold, almost freezing in contrast to the sand. The bus stops/metro are a block away from the beach. Simply follow the crowd till you see the water. If you choose a hotel by the beach, ask for a room on the upper floors facing the beach. The views are incredible. That’s one thing about Rio, the spectacular views. You can see The Christ or Sugarloaf Mountain from just about anywhere. Just look up and about.
When I got to the beach I was struck by the wonder of a black Nigerian executive standing in the middle of a crowded beach in a foreign land. And I was grateful for the privilege.
For shopping, the RioSul is good or try the Praie De Botafogo. Both have cinemas and as a bonus there’s an additional cinema just down the road from the Praie De Botafogo called the Arteplex. At the Arteplex, you’re guaranteed to find movies in English. Brazilian food is quite aromatic. I didn’t try many dishes because I couldn’t understand what was written in Portuguese, but just like Nigerian food has a distinctive smell of Maggi, and Indian, curry, Brazilian food has its own distinctive smell. Unfortunately I didn’t ask what the primary spice was.
More on the language challenges: Brazil is set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. I imagine that they will need an English language intervention, much like China required one just before the Beijing Olympics. The language barrier is really significant unless you speak Portuguese or Spanish. This was confusing to me, as you cannot be a truly world class tourist location without making an accommodation for English speaking tourists. Malaysia and the UAE (Dubai) understand this and in Malaysia for instance, the street signs are in 3 languages: Malay, Hindi and ENGLISH. In Brazil, I wouldn’t eat in some street-side cafes because I couldn’t decipher the menus. In the more upscale cafes or restaurants, you can ask for an English menu. Many of them have one. If you happen to make friends with other tourists for whom English is not a first language, remember to speak proper textbook English. Idiomatic expressions and slang go over their heads.
Tourism is a significant business proposition and there is money to be made in providing advice to English speaking tourists who wish to travel to exotic locales. This space isn’t being properly filled and right now the major resource for this category of travellers is guide books. Lonely Planet makes some of the best, but a book is simply not as interactive or as helpful as a human being.
If you’re visiting a country for the first time and you can afford to spend a bit of time, I advise that you visit 2 or more cities within the country, so you get a full sense of the country and what it has to offer. For example, were a tourist to visit Nigeria, I would advise that they visit during a major festival say the Argungu Fishing Festival or the Kano Durbar. Their itinerary should begin in Lagos where they should take in both the Mainland & Island, proceed to Cross Rivers (Calabar) to visit Tinapa and Obudu Cattle Ranch, then take a side trip to Abuja before proceeding on to Sokoto or Kano for the festival of their choice. To really experience the culture and joy of a city, a festival is a great (though very expensive) time to visit. All you really need to turn a city into a tourist location is a very distinctive festival that takes place at a definite time every year. But the city must have 3 structures: a good, trustworthy English speaking tourist agency (like Arabian Adventures in Dubai), good transportation and good hotels.
I have one more Brazil Note to post, but I’ll leave you with this for now.