With the drama of the recent evening now behind me (running across the city in the pouring rain in search of my Samba heels), I am both mentally and physically drained.
Tomorrow is the day I will make my debut at the Sambadrome as the Musa de abre alas (Muse of the opening float) for Rio’s oldest Samba school, Estacio de Sa.
To say that I am nervous is a huge understatement.
I have been actively preparing for this role for the past 12 months, and have spent the past 15 years dreaming about what it would be like to dance as a Muse, the second highest position for a dancer (the first being the Queen, which is very rarely afforded to foreigners) in the infamous Rio Carnival parade.
As I lie in bed trying to sleep, flashes of my very first trip to Brazil enter my thoughts.
I first arrived in Rio at the tender age of 21, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the total innocence of a girl brought up in a first-world country, full of enthusiasm and naivety, in search of adventure and passion.
Neither the arduous journey from Australia (no less than 36 hours with multiple stop overs) nor the confronting encounter with a sprawling slum (and its unfortunate smell that seeps through the windows of your taxi as you leave the international airport) could dampen my spirits. I was in Rio – the marvellous city!
I won’t go into too much gory detail here, but my first 12 months in Rio weren’t exactly marvellous.
For a start, although I had studied Spanish at university, the difficulty of Brazilian Portuguese, especially the sotaque carioca (Rio accent) was a total surprise. Cariocas (locals from Rio) speak so much slang and with such a strong accent, that sometimes it doesn’t even sound like Portuguese. Just when I thought I was starting to get a hold of the basics, they would fire fresh slang at me and I felt like I was back at zero again.
Although I was told many Brazilians could speak English as lots of them had lived and studied overseas, this was actually a very small minority in Rio. Most Cariocas, especially those involved in the Carnival industry, have never even left the city, let alone visited another state in Brazil. Travel and overseas study is only for the very wealthy.
Daily activities such as catching the bus, ordering food, buying a metro card, paying utility bills (at the time there was no internet banking so everything had to be done over the phone with automated instructions in Portuguese), surviving the heat and generally just communicating with people was a huge challenge.
I would take a shower and put on my make up in the morning before heading out to teach my English classes for the day, and almost as soon as I stepped out onto the street, I’d be dripping in sweat and my make up would be sliding off my face. I would need to carry 3 changes of clothes with me for the day, plus of course a bikini, sarong and havaianas!
I would jump onto a ridiculously crowded bus, hanging on for dear life whilst the driver didn’t even wait for me to take a seat before speeding off. Once I did manage to find a seat (after making my way through the incredibly squishy turnstile whilst fishing for coins in my wallet to pay, all while trying to balance in heels) I would sit down and immediately have someone throw their heavy bag or backpack onto my lap (this is a strange form of courtesy in Rio – if you are seated and someone is standing, you are expected to hold their bag for them for the duration of the ride).
I would walk down the street and regularly get a fright at people shouting at each other, gesturing wildly with their hands, and think they were having a huge public argument and were about to get into a punch up, only to realize that that’s how Brazilians express themselves in conversation!
I would go into a bakery to buy a coffee and some pao frances (delicious, crusty French baguette style rolls that are a staple of Rio breakfasts), only to cause the entire staff to laugh at me hysterically when I mispronounced the word for bread (saying it without the nasal tone typical to Brazilian Portuguese completely changes the meaning….I’ll leave it up to you to guess what I had accidently ordered instead of bread!)
After work, I would head down to Ipanema beach for a swim (the joys of summer daylight saving with the sun still up at 8pm!) and leave my belongings on the sand (like we always do in Australia), when someone would come up yelling at me and furiously pointing at my things. I would look at them blankly and when they’d realize I wasn’t Brazilian (this happened all the time), they would try (in very broken English) to tell me that it wasn’t safe to leave my things on the sand, as the beach was full of petty thieves and I should be more careful.
At the end of each day, my head would be pounding and my brain totally fried.
Sometimes when my parents called me from Australia, I would blurt out a strange mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English, much to their confusion. Sometimes I would dream in Portuguese, other times in English, and wake up in the morning not knowing where I was.
Even though I had a few Brazilian friends who spoke some English, I felt extremely isolated and very lonely.
One evening I decided to go to Estacao Primeira da Mangueira, one of Rio’s oldest and most prestigious samba schools. I had been warned not to travel out to the suburbs alone at night, especially not to a samba school, which was generally located at the base of a slum. But of course, my 21 year old self thought that I was invincible and this was yet another adventure!
It was here that I saw Passistas (professional dancers from the community) for the very first time.
They were spectacular creatures with lioness manes, bedazzled outfits and super high platform heels. I had never seen such confidence, fierceness and outward sexuality in women before.
Many of them weren’t even teenagers yet and were dancing like grown women, sensually moving their hips and flirting with the school’s drummers whilst moving their feet so fast it looked like they were about to take flight.
I was captivated.
Over the next couple of years, I was obsessed with learning how to dance like these divas.
I would go to samba school events and spend the night watching them intently, trying to understand how they moved their bodies in so many different ways.
If I saw one whose style I really loved, I would approach her, and in broken Portuguese, ask if she would teach me.
I cannot recall the number of times I stood on the side of a bustling road, with trucks and buses thundering past, under a big orelhao (Rio’s iconic blue pay phones), trying to organize a time and place to meet a passista for a private class.
I would jot down (what I understood) of her directions, often taking 2 buses and a train to arrive at the foot of her slum with absolutely no idea how to contact her once I arrived. This was back in the day when most people didn’t have mobile phones (and those of us who had them in Rio had to hide them otherwise they’d be stolen in an instant).
I would stand at the entrance to the slum in the searing heat, not knowing if I should enter this mysterious new world, or simply stay put. People would pass by and look at me questioningly, and it was usually a curious little kid who would come up and ask who I was, and offer to show me where the Passista lived. Passistas are quite famous in their communities, as many young girls aspire to one day look like them, wear sparkly outfits and earn the prestige of representing their school in the Carnival parade.
More often than not, the girl wasn’t home, or she simply forgot about my class, or I misunderstood the day/time, and after hours of commuting and waiting, I would make my way home disappointed and defeated.
On other days, I would have my lesson, but would be shouted at the entire time, or laughed at, or simply ignored and be made to dance non-stop while she painted her nails or chatted with her friends. I would also leave these sessions disappointed and defeated.
I went on to live in Brazil on and off for the next decade, and endured so much more than this (but those are stories for another blog series!), so it’s any wonder I actually survived this journey and am still here now.
It may come down to divine calling. Or divine stupidity.
Either way, Samba still makes my heart soar and regardless of the incredible challenges and criticisms I have faced over the years in this industry, from both Brazilians and non-Brazilians, I am about to do something that none of my peers has ever done – walk down the Samba avenue as the very first Australian Muse in the history of Rio Carnival.
It really doesn’t matter what people think of me anymore – whether they like/dislike my dance style, my business skills, the way I look or even if they respect my journey – the fact is that I have made it this far and have not given up.
Whatever happens on the avenue will be up to me. I can choose to let all of the hate and jealousy affect me, or I can hold my head up high and back myself, knowing that I am the only one who truly understands what it has taken to get here, and no one can take this experience away from me.
With that thought, I drift into a restless sleep, dreaming of costume malfunctions, floats catching on fire and breaking my leg as I trip over in my gladiator boots in front of hundreds of thousands of people on Rio’s infamous Samba avenue….
Have you read the other blogs in this series?