My friend Max and I met in the airport at Rio de Janeiro and took a taxi to Lapa and our home for the week: a small room with a double sofa-bed and a television, functioning as both our bedroom and the living room of Tati, the friend of a friend of Max’s friend. She turned out to be a spectacular host and we became good friends, to the extent that, on my last night, she invited to me to the wedding of her friend!
For the first couple of days, before the carnival began in earnest, Max and I wandered around the city. Near the centre, by Praça da Republica, we stumbled across a market spread through a labyrinth of streets so thin that to escape all the people we had to periodically dive into one of the open shop fronts. Here, feathered masks would stare at us, as if wondering why we would wear shorts and a t-shirt when we could wear multi-coloured tights, angel wings, and a headdress of flowers.
At another point we came across a Cathedral seemingly designed by a Doctor Who enthusiast – it resembled a giant Dalek. This Dalek Cathedral (actually called Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro) guarded an aqueduct. Originally built to bring fresh water down from the forested hills to the beachside houses, the aqueduct now carried a tram down from Santa Teresa to the business district of the city.
Unfortunately the tram had stopped working about a month before we arrived due to a couple of fatal accidents. My friend told me that if you weren’t inside the tram – that is, if you were hanging from it – then you wouldn’t be charged, which meant that there was a real incentive to hang. This sounded apocryphal, but for my friend it explained why a Frenchman fell tragically to his death while taking a photo, and it may even have explained why a tram careered off the rails and into a wall – it had too many people inside and far too many hanging off it. But the residents wanted it back: many of the walls in Santa Teresa were adorned with a picture of a tram crying. Underneath, it read “Chora Santa Teresa” (‘Santa Teresa is crying”).
We were living just below this neighbourhood, at the bottom of the hill in a place called Lapa. At night a significant part of the neighbourhood was pedestrianised and vendors selling all manner of pastries and barbecued meats swarmed out into the streets below the arches of the aqueduct. Tati took us to a famous – or rather, infamous – cachaça bar in this area and we tried the sickly spirit (the chief constituent of Caipirinha) with banana, with chocolate, and various other flavours, none of which managed to dilute the unpleasant burning sensation in the throat. Music was everywhere. Samba rhythms seemed to grow out of the cobbles of the streets and the cracks in the walls.
Brazil is a country in which the duty to play and sing music seems to have been written into the constitution. Everyone knows the words to every song. If a Brazilian is seen just mouthing the words to a carnival song instead of singing with full-bodied gumption then the secret police bag them and take them to a detention centre, in which they are forced to listen to the carnival songs again and again and again, all through the night, then the next night, and the next, until they can think of nothing else. On being released they wander the streets for days singing and dancing, overjoyed at their freedom but unable to articulate their joy except through those songs. Over time they learn to speak again, but even their speaking voice carries the lilting melodies of the songs.
What’s even more incredible is that everyone sings in tune! While Argentina wallows in the tortures of tango (one simply cannot smile when singing tango), Brazil rejoices in its music. Perhaps this has something to do with the inane lyrics of the Brazilian carnival songs:
Se você pensa que cachaça é água
Cachaça não é água não
Cachaça vem do alambique
E água vem do ribeiraõ
You think that cachaça is water
But cachaça isn’t water
Cachaça comes from a factory
And water comes from a stream.
I’d expected the songs to talk of the joy of living, of love, of dancing and of death. Instead they give you simple concise lessons about the nature of things. Water is not an alcoholic spirit because water comes from a stream. It’s rather wonderful when you think about it – it’s as if a grandmother were telling her grandson about the ways of the world.
Carnival is made up of ‘blocos’. These are areas – usually squares or parks or wide streets – where a small band plays, usually accompanied by a massive drum troupe. Once the music starts, the people arrive adorned in all manner of fancy dress and they sing ecstatically. With the singing people come the vendors, some of whom we recognised as the ones leaving the supermarket the day before with trolleys and trolleys full of the cheapest beer. At the bloco, they would find a clearing in the crowd, set up their umbrella to shield themselves from the sun, and sell the beers with a 500% mark-up.
We found that, at most, we could get to about 3 blocos in a day. The sun beat down mercilessly, and after a few hours of dancing and singing a deep tiredness would force us to the beach; the Brazilians, more resistant to the heat than us pale English types, kept on dancing into the night.
The well-known beaches are Ipanema and Copacabana. The former made famous by the song ‘Girl from Ipanema’ (the best version of which features Stan Getz playing huskily on the saxophone); and the latter by the Barry Manilow song, which is actually about a hotel in the U.S. I don’t know if it’s the case all year round, but while we were in Rio there were as many umbrellas on the beaches as there were grains of sand. If you were going to go the beach, you had to resign yourself to jostling for a spot with some guy who was probably a bodybuilder, and with the cigarette butts that stood out dirty and orange against the white sands.