As I prepared to enter the Rio Sambadrome for the very first time – my heart beating wildly in anticipation at the realization of a decade-long dream – I was suddenly overcome with emotion…not from the unbelievable excitement of this world-famous spectacle I was finally about to be a part of, but from the unexpected stench of urine and sewerage invading my nostrils and involuntarily making me gag.
Oh Rio, what a beautiful paradox you are!
Hand-in-hand with the unrivalled glamour of Carnival – the colourful feathers, sparkly costumes and beautiful bodies – comes the utter chaos and disorganization of a city that can’t even handle the needs of its own population during the year, let alone the influx of approximately 3 million tourists annually at Carnival time.
I wish someone had prepared me in advance so as to protect my childlike wonder from being shattered into pieces as soon I arrived at the chaotic, stressful, and at times dangerous marshalling area in the back streets of the Sambadrome.
It still amazes me that despite all of the madness behind the scenes, the Samba schools continue to put on spectacular performances as soon as they enter the avenue each year.
Like most foreign dancers who have never performed in Carnival before, I had the naive dream of looking like an Amazonian goddess and being the star of the parade for the whole word to witness in awe.
When I finally received my actual costume at the very last moment (with my nerves already frayed after waiting half-naked on the street for hours amongst thousands of other participants with no bathrooms, no water and nowhere to sit), it was all I could do not to sob.
I had dreamt of this moment for over a decade, had travelled over 30 hours to be here in Rio and had spent years learning to Samba and saving my money to make my Carnival debut as… a Roman Gladiator.
My over-sized ‘ala’ (general aisle) costume, complete with sword, helmet, shield, body armour and Roman sandals, covered my entire body and was so heavy that I could hardly move, let alone dance.
With tears welling in my eyes (partly due to the hideous smells surrounding me and the blinding stadium lights), I looked at my Carioca boyfriend in despair.
Amor! Carnival is much more than wearing a bikini and shaking your bunda! It’s about coming together as a community and representing your school with passion! It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing – everyone will be able to see how much you love to Samba!
But I couldn’t Samba. All I could do was waddle. Like a duck. A big Samba-Gladiator Duck.
What an embarrassment! What would I say to all my friends back home who will of course be wanting to see pictures of my magnificent Carnival costume?
At that moment I looked around at everyone getting ready – both foreigners and locals – their faces alight with excitement and glee, and reminded myself that it was already a privilege to be able to afford to travel overseas, an honour to be able to represent another culture’s Samba school and a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the world’s biggest parade.
Taking a deep breath, I put on my Gladiator helmet, adjusted my armour and held my head high as I entered the Sambadrome, chanting the anthem of my school at the top of my lungs.
The thunderous sound of the 500-strong bateria (drum squad) behind me, together with the electrifying energy of thousands of onlookers cheering us on from the grandstands was what kept me going, despite the 40C heat and the unexpected feeling of claustrophobia due to being totally surrounded by an army of revellers.
When I finally reached the end of the avenue, my chest was burning and my feet were throbbing, but I was on such a high that I didn’t want it to end. One hour of parading had felt like only a few minutes and as the adrenalin kicked in, I wanted to do it all over again!
Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion thinking about all the years I had fantasized about this moment and how hard I’d had to work to fulfil a lifelong dream of being in Rio Carnival.
The tears started to stream down my face and as I looked around, I could see many people in the same state – dripping in perspiration, physically fatigued and eyes misty with tears, but not wanting it to be over.
What an incredible experience to be here, right now, with a bunch of complete strangers coming together to celebrate the global joy of music, dance, culture and community!
Unfortunately we were quickly snapped out of our magical trance with furious shouts and brutal shoves by the harmonia (the parade’s time marshals) to ensure we hastily got out of the way of the next wave of dancers, drummers and floats approaching the end of the avenue.
As we were herded to the exit like a bunch of cattle, cups of water were thrust into our hands and people everywhere were suddenly removing their costumes and throwing them into garbage trucks that were chomping them up with no regard for the hours of work that had gone into designing and making them by the local community! I turned to my boyfriend in horror.
Amor what is happening? Why are people throwing away their beautiful costumes?
Carnival costumes are only made to last the night – people save their money all year round to be a part of the parade, but once its over, they don’t need the costumes anymore. Sometimes schools will recycle them for the following year, but most of the time we just throw them away!
I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t want to keep them! However, thinking about how enormous, heavy and uncomfortable mine was, how far away the metro was to walk to (my feet by now were raw with blisters) and how I would need to buy another suitcase to bring it home with me (when was I ever going to wear a Roman Gladiator costume again?), with a heavy heart I too also placed mine in the trash.
As I did so, I made myself a promise.
The next time I parade in Rio, I will be in the most magnificent costume, performing as a Carnival Muse, showcasing my Samba skills for the world to see.
Little did I know how hard that journey ahead was going to be….