Rio, or the cidade maravilhosa (the marvellous city) as it’s called by the locals, is home to one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth, with the spectacular sweeping beaches of Ipanema and Leblon in the Zona Sul (south Zone), framed by the grandiose Dois Irmaoes (Two Brothers) Mountains, the stunning Lagoa (lake) which lies directly in front of the ancient Jardim Botanico (Botanical Gardens), all of which are watched over by the mighty Cristo (Statue of Christ) on Corcovado (hunchback) mountain.

The magnificent view from Christ overlooking Rio

On my 10th trip back to Rio this year, I would gleefully wake up early each morning (which goes totally against my night owl instincts!) just to go for a walk along the soothing sands, through the enchanted gardens or around the scenic lake, despite the soaring heat of mid-summer.

My love affair for Rio had taken many twists and turns over the years. Along with the stress of performing at the highest levels of Carnival, I also had an annual tour group (with up to 40 girls) to take care of and ensure they experienced the best version of the city.

I’d touch down in Rio each summer bursting with excitement and saudade (longing) for the city, but I would eventually get so frustrated with “Brazilian time”, the “jeito Carioca” (the expression locals used to try to explain why they were at times so unreliable), the transito (traffic), the lixo (rubbish) and the malandros (con artists), that by the end of each trip I would forget how much I truly loved this city.

With the sunshine on my skin, fresh salty or botanical aromas in the air and the sweet sounds of Portuguese on the breeze, my morning walks were a moving meditation and instant reminder of why, despite her faults, Rio continued to capture my heart after all these years.

Parque Lage, just next to Jardim Botanico, is one of my favourite parks in Rio

Being in nature first thing in the morning was also an amazing primer for the unpredictable day ahead, and was usually the only thing that I could control before the craziness of my Carnival preparations would set in. I would leave my phone at home, only take enough money for an agua de coco (coconut water) and head out to explore the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Interestingly, despite the breathtaking scenery and the increased endorphins from exercising outdoors, being in Rio triggered memories and deep wounds from my past that I thought had healed long ago.

Some days I’d suddenly find myself in tears, unexpectedly remembering some of the toughest moments that I had experienced in this unforgiving city, where I was such a small fish in a very big pond of 10 million people. Coming from Brisbane, with its population of 1.4 million, the city felt like another planet, and I don’t think I’ve ever truly felt the gut-wrenching sense of loneliness until I lived here alone.

On other days I’d feel incredibly nostalgic after hearing a beautiful Samba song on the radio about a long lost ‘grande amor’ (great love), and I’d remember the moments I first fell in love with the diverse culture, the charming Brazilian men, and the magical world of Samba.

Overall on this trip though, I mostly felt an increasing anxiety about being a Muse again, and whether this time was going to be the fulfilling experience I so yearned for, or another disappointment in the long list of moments I’d experienced here that hadn’t gone the way I had expected.

But I guess that was life right?

Rio’s beautiful Jardim Botanico (Botanical Gardens), created for the Portuguese Royal Court in 1808

I knew for a fact that I was much better prepared this time around, both physically and emotionally. I had trained hard, knew the avenue and what was expected of me by the Samba school and the media, and had prepared for everything that could possibly go wrong.

Or so I thought.

In my times of reflection about my previous performance and preparation for my upcoming one, the only two things I hadn’t considered were the possibility of a drastic weather event, and of getting so violently ill that I would be bedridden for a week.

Surely the Orixas were on my side by now and would protect me? I had travelled all the way from the other side of the world (for over 15 years now) and it was definitely time for them to cut me a break! It WILL NOT storm and I WILL NOT get sick. Period.

Unfortunately my prayers fell on deaf ears this year, as one of the worst weather events in Rio’s history arrived. In the week before Carnival, the most intense thunderstorms I’d ever seen in my life hit the city so suddenly and unexpectedly that the entire population went into crisis mode.

Lightning strikes over the Statue of Christ

Roads flooded, ancient sewerage systems overflowed and entire suburbs were inaccessible, many of which housed the headquarters of Samba schools, which made attending rehearsals almost impossible.

One particularly stormy night, in an Uber attempting to make my way to the final street rehearsal for Imperio Serrano, the thunder and lightning was so intense that my driver freaked out and refused to go any further, worried that he’d get flooded in. It was mandatory that I attend, so I had no choice but to jump out of the car in peak hour traffic and make the remaining journey on foot in the pouring rain.

As we rehearsed out in the open street, the lightning was so intense that it lit up the night sky, and with every clap of thunder I felt like the earth was shaking beneath my heels.

By the end of the evening, I was drenched to my core and ravenously hungry, but so relieved that I had made it all the way out there, and had had the chance to rehearse one last time before the upcoming technical rehearsal at the Sambadrome in only a few days times.

A typical Samba school street rehearsal in Rio

It was already midnight by the time we wrapped up, so most shops were closed and the only available food was street food, unless I wanted to wait another hour and a half until I got home.

I knew the dangers of eating street food in the suburbs, but I’d spent so much time here that I felt my system was used to the bugs and would handle it. When you’re soaking wet and hungry, the only thing you can think of is a dry place to sit and warm, hearty food.

I asked the passistas where the best barraca (food stall) was, and bought a big plate of churrasco (BBQ meat) with queijo coalho (haloumi cheese), farofa (fried manioc flour), feijao and arroz (black beans and rice) and salsa verde (chopped onion, tomato and capsicum in a vinaigrette) – a typical Brazilian dish, which tasted even more delicious after dancing in the rain for hours.

As I ate with gusto, I listened to a local pagode band play Samba anthems for my fellow paraders, who were also grabbing a bite to eat after rehearsal and even having a final few dances before heading home. This is what I love about Rio – at midnight on a weeknight, I can have a tasty, inexpensive meal with live music and dancing, out in the middle of nowhere.

Feeling content but suddenly exhausted (most likely in a food coma!), I called an Uber and made my way home, happy that I’d persevered and shown my commitment to my Muse position, despite the terrible weather conditions and treacherous journey to get to and from my samba school.

The long journey from Ipanema to my samba school

I got home around 2am, had a wonderfully hot shower and fell into bed, looking forward to a much-needed sleep in the next day, especially since it was my only day off before the weekend’s technical rehearsal.

The technical rehearsal at the Sambadrome is only open for schools in the top division, and is extremely important as it gives each school the opportunity to time their parade (going under or over time can mean the difference between winning/losing). For Muses, it gives us the chance to practice in front of an enthusiastic audience (as the entry is free to the public so it’s usually jam-packed and full of people from the local community supporting their schools), feel the asphalt and sense how much space we need to take up, and is yet another moment to showcase a new outfit and generate more media exposure.

At the tech rehearsal for Estacio de Sa in 2017

I had had a beautiful green and silver dress (the colours of Imperio) designed especially for the tech rehearsal (as you can’t possibly repeat a dress!) and a stunning pair of silver glitter heels to match. I had booked my hair/make up artist, had studied the layout of the avenue and where all the cameras and media would be, and was finally feeling confident with the lyrics of our theme song (which at times were extremely fast and had me tongue-tied!).

At street rehearsals, we are all bunched together and Muses usually only have a few metres around them to dance, due to the nature of practicing on uneven asphalt and winding streets. However, once in the avenue for the tech rehearsal, we had our dedicated space to ourselves (usually around 10 x 15 metres for each Muse), so there was plenty of space to dance, but nowhere to hide. You had no choice but to rock it, as all eyes were on you.

The space I had to fill as a Muse at the tech rehearsal for Estacio

I am ready and I will kill it! I have done this before so there will be no surprises. All I need to do is show up and give it my best. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths and visualised myself performing from start to finish on the avenue, sent out a few prayers to my Orixas, and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Unfortunately only a few hours later, I woke up with the most horrific stabbing pains in my stomach, and spent the entire next day running to the bathroom and lying flat on my back on the tiled floor of my apartment to try to cool down my body from a raging fever.

Had someone performed a Macumba (voodoo) on me? Surely this must be what has happened, because in all my years of both visiting and living in Rio, I have never been so ill.

With the tech rehearsal only a day away, I reassured myself that this was only a 24 hour bug, and that if I spent the day/night resting, I’d be fine for tomorrow’s main event. I had done all of the training, had rested and eaten well (except for last night!) and would be good to go in no time.

Isn’t it funny how we think of ourselves as invincible?

To my horror and distress, the food poisoning and subsequent pain continued well into the night and the following morning. But midday on Saturday, with the tech rehearsal that very evening, I was still so unwell and only able to drink some herbal tea.

I called my publicist, who had lined up a bunch of media interviews for me on the avenue pre-rehearsal, and told her the news.

Oh my god darling! Why didn’t you phone me sooner? I could have taken you to a doctor! Are you ok? Do you think you’ll be able to dance?”

I’m not sure. Right now all I can do is sit up, but give me an hour and I’ll try to get some chicken soup into me, and see if it gives me some strength to stand. I’ll call you soon!

It seems that Lady Luck was not on my side that day though, and as soon as I managed to get some soup down, it came straight back up. I tried with all my force (and my Taurean stubbornness!) to stand up, but my head was spinning and my legs shaking so violently that it took all of my strength just to not fall to my knees.

Why God? Why Orixas? Why Universe? Why are you doing this to me on one of the most important days of my career? Why have you have completely immobilized me, when all I need to do is dance?

You could have chosen any other day, but why today?

One of my favourite photoshoots in Parque Lage