I was awakened at 2:30am Saturday night by a gentle knocking
at my bedroom door. I thought for sure I must have dreamed it, but no, there it was
again, a gentle tapping.
I staggered out of bed to find Olivia whispering "The
guys from Mocidade are here with our costumes and they need the money right
Mocidade (moh-see-DAH-jee) is a beloved Rio escola-de-samba - one of the huge parade groups -
that we have signed up to parade with. It's a storied escola, with a great
history, that we both have personal connections to. It's had a rocky road
recently, but Mocidade has a truly great song this year, and they've also just had a
very exciting change of leadership. They have been struggling under the directorship of a very controversial escola president for years, and a few scant weeks ago they actually somehow got rid of him. I don't know the whole story but it was big news in Rio, and the general sensation is that
"Mocidade is back." That the people of the Mocidade community have reclaimed their escola.
both signed up for a costume in one of the parade sections.
But, two-thirty in the morning? And a sudden demand for
close to US $300, cash on demand? Seriously? It feels like a drug deal, but we
open the door and there are two very tired-looking guys with big black trash
bags full of mysterious costume objects, one of them whispering "Sorry about the time" and both of them looking absolutely exhausted. It turns out they are doing FORTY last-minute home deliveries tonight. They hand over two very large strange silver
cross-shaped things about four feet wide that I decide later are supposed to be crab carapaces with four gigantic
silver lightning bolts shooting out of them; and also two extremely
strange-looking hats that seem to have giant fuzzy orange lightning bolts
shooting out the top, plus fake fuzzy orange sunglasses; and large trash bags containing clown suits, clown shoes, a truly enormous shoulder harness of some kind, and some other objects I can't figure out.
Yeah, so, it's two-thirty in the morning, Sunday morning really, and the parade is at nine pm Monday night. There is an unmistakable air of last-minute-ness about this. I wonder if money came through at the very last second, if the costumes were thrown together last-minute; I wonder if it's got something to
do with the recent change in leadership. Or, possibly Mocidade's just super disorganized, which (knowing the Rio escolas) is also possible.
Anyway, we heap everything on the floor and everybody falls
back asleep. It's Saturday night, after all - meaning, it's our last night of sleep before
the Grupo Especial escola parades. Grupo Especial will run all night Sunday and
all night Monday, till dawn, and I don't expect to any sleep at all either night. So all day
Sunday we sleep, and all night Sunday we're at the Sambodromo watching the six Grupo Especial parades. And by "up all night" I mean the
last parade ends AFTER dawn and I don't get to bed till after 8am the next morning.
So it wasn't till mid-day Monday - the day of the
parade - that Olivia and I woke up and finally had a moment to take a serious
look at the costumes.
This is going to be difficult.
Rio Carnaval costumes are not the "sexy samba
dancer" costumes that everyone always seems to imagine. They're more like
bizarre modern art sculptures that are wrapped all around your body, almost
smothering you in layers of strange headpieces, shoulder-pieces and strange
accessories. The idea is that they're illustrate some aspect of the
escola's parade theme that year, but the theme could be anything (South Korea,
environmental destruction, the history of photography, whatever). You might end
up dressed as a satellite dish, a fish, a newspaper, Mahatma Gandhi, you name
it. And you don't have much choice - you sign up for an ala and you have to wear exactly the costume that ala is committed too. (everybody in the ala has to wear an identical costume.) Anyway, this time Olivia and I are in an ala (parade section) that is
supposed to be "manguebeat", a genre of Brazilian music that we both
love and that is often represented by a crab, so it's sort of a crab costume
except with lightning bolts added everywhere. Nice idea but as we get a look at
the costume it becomes apparent the hat is horribly designed, unbelievably tall
and top-heavy and there is no possible way it is going to stay on our head. The
costume's also already falling apart. It looks like it was indeed glued
together at the last second, with not enough glue, and the silver lightning
bolts are shedding their silver tips even as we hold them up to look at them.
Not a good sign.
Also, I begin to notice that we will be wearing, in 90F
heat: a one-piece clown suit made of thick black plastic; on top of that, a
huge foam chestpiece that drapes down nearly to my knees; attached to that, a the big silver carapace with the
giant lightning bolts; on top of all
that, a choker around our necks; tall socks and closed shoes; crab
claws on our hands; and the giant hat.
We're just kind of idly looking at all this and haven't said
anything to each other yet and Olivia says calmly, "Kathleen, you
know we are going to die, right?"
In true Carnaval fashion the thing we are most worried about
is not our impending death, but rather the fact that the hat won't stay on. Because the escola doesn't get marked down if people die but DOES get marked
down if the hats don't stay on. And, of course, the Rio Carnaval
is a competition. There are 3 levels of
competition. Some escolas, the heavy hitters, the rich ones that can afford to
blow seven million dollars on a parade, parade to win. Others - the
"poor" escolas that only have the two or three million dollars in base annual funding that
the city of Rio provides them with - fight just for a chance to finish in the
top 6, which get a position of honor in the champion's parade next week.
some escolas just fight for their lives, trying not to come in last, because
the last escola is demoted to the "second group", which is a terrible
blow. Mocidade, unfortunately, has been the last group recently, the escolas that struggle just to stay in Grupo Especial. We want Mocidade to do well. That means the hat needs to stay on!
We're so worried about the poor design of the hat, and the impossible crab claws while we're at it, and the costume falling apart, that Olivia
actually calls up the ala director (director of our parade section) to warn him about the unfeasibility and poor construction of the costumes and tell him
he's got to bring glue to the parade assembly point tonight, just to help glue all
the pieces back on. Plus string to help tie the hats on.
Olivia hangs up and tells me "He knows, he apologizes,
and he said, the whole escola is like this." Apparently every ala has been
complaining that ALL the costumes are too huge, all the hats are too unwieldy,
everything's just unbearable and everything's falling apart. Right then. On with the show.
The evening starts off with the perpetual problem of
"how the hell do we even get to the Sambodromo, which is clear across
town, when all the taxis are taken by the 300,000 drunk college kids who are all running around town going to the street
parades, all the buses are either re-routed or stuck in the street parades also" etc. There's the rush of panic as we realize we are late, the usual additional panic as we realize that no free taxis exist in the world, the usual last-second plea
for a friend to drive us to a certain subway station that we think is open, the
additional excitement of accidentally getting on the wrong subway line and then
missing our station and going one station too far and having to walk back. Finally, an hour later we are staggering with all our heavy costume pieces to the Sambodromo and I finally have to confront a huge complication that I've been thinking about all weekend: I am trying to do two completely incompatible activities at
the same night. These are: (1) be in one parade, (2) watch the other five parades.
you are thinking "those don't sound like completely incompatible
activities", you have never paraded in the Rio Sambodromo, have you?
jigsaw-puzzle pieces I've been thinking about since Thursday, when I first had the bright idea
of trying to parade with Mocidade:
- you cannot carry any personal possessions in the parade.
At all. Of any kind. Unless you can completely hide them under your costume (where they will get SOAKED with sweat and when I say soaked, I mean dripping).
- you cannot wear your own shoes in the parade. You can only
wear the costume shoes.
- but the costume shoes are very badly made and don't fit and will give
you hideous blisters within minutes; and the costume itself is going
to make you die of heat stroke and sweat like a stuck pig, so you can only wear
your underwear underneath it and you are going to need to take the costume and
the shoes off IMMEDIATELY after the parade or you will WILL die of heat stroke
(and I'm not even exaggerating, you would actually need medical attention)
- ok, that leaves you standing there barefoot in your bra
and panties at the end of the Sambodromo, doesn't it? But where can you leave
your clothes and shoes during the parade? There is nowhere to leave your clothes. Nor your phone,
keys or money.
- Yay, you have a ticket to a private seat! Perhaps you can leave your stuff there? But not without your friends to watch it, and since you're in the first parade and have to arrive early for it, your friends
are not there yet to hold your bag for you.
- But yay, Dudu can hold your bag for you!
- But Dudu is in Sector 6 and your own ticket is for Sector
10. And for a completely inexplicable reason, people in Sectors 2, 4, 6 and 8
can all walk freely between each other sectors, and people between Sectors 10
and 12 can intermingle too, but there is a heavily militarized zone between
Sectors 8 and 10 and it's absolutely impossible to walk from one to the other. So if Dudu has your bag and he walks into Setor 6 with it, how will you ever get it back if your own ticket is for Setor 10?
- Also don't forget you have to get a Magic Bracelet to
re-enter the Sambodromo. But to get the Magic Bracelet you have to walk TWO
FRIGGIN' MILES in your damn costume shoes (all the way around the Sambodromo
through infinite warren of tiny little back alleys, following a taunting series
of "Sectors 10 and 12 This Way" signs that seem to be laughing at you
as they lead you further and further south, practically down to Argentina)
... and there's about 10 more things I need to add to that
list to explain how I finally managed to retrieve my bag from Setor 6, but never mind, just trust me when I say that (1) being in the first
parade and (2) watching the rest of the parades, just those 2 things,
represents a feat of Rio logistics that has to be experienced firsthand to be
believed. Anyway, I end up limping all the way to Setor 10 dragging my whole
huge impossible costume there, limping in my damn clown shoes - and why am I
not surprised that the elastic on one of Mocidade's knee-high clown socks broke instantly and is
dragging around my foot, and that I'm already getting a blister? Or that the
entire Mocidade costume is disassembling itself as I haul the damn thing five
thousand miles to goddamn Sector 10 to get my goddamn Magic Bracelet so that I
can re-enter the goddamn Sambodromo later?
This HAT, my god, it's supposed to be sort of a crab, remember, and it is in the form of a gigantic and incredible heavy crowd about 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and on top are 2 long eyestalks (each two feet long), each with a black eyeball at the end surrounded by silver sequins.
Obviously the crab also has 2 orange lightning bolts on top of its head and a
huge pair of bright fuzzy orange sunglasses, plus a sequinned silver ball on
top of everything, because, well, obviously that is what crabs look like,
right? (And obviously crabs have a gigantic silver carapace with four ENORMOUS
silver lightning bolts shooting out of it that are about four feet wide) Anyway
I'm dragging my huge carapace-with-lightning bolts in one hand, the other hand
has the trash bag with my gigantic shoulder harness and also the hat, which is
upside down, and I'm wearing the black plastic clown outfit, and clown socks and
one sock is down and is dragging around my foot, and I'm like an hour late and by the time I get my wristband, I'm at least a million miles from the north end of the Sambodromo where
Mocidade is assembling and I am LATE. So I'm RACING up the side of the Sambodromo - did I
mention it is a million miles long? - really starting to panic about the time, when a man comes running after me and says "You dropped your eye."
He hands me an eyestalk. With a black eye at the end. He
also hands me the bright orange giant sunglasses. I look down at my hat and
realize it must have been literally falling apart as I walked, because it's now
- both orange lightning bolts
All that is left is one lonely eyestalk + eye (also, the
lonely remaining eye is trailing a long string of silver sequins that is coming
unglued). Plus a spray of pointy pieces of wire and it is a damn miracle that I
haven't put somebody's eye out. Plus, one of the green ribbons at the side is
unraveling and I'm trailing a thread of green polyester that is probably 15
feet long. It's tripping random people behind me, but it's so thin that they can't see what they tripped on and they're all looking around in puzzlement. Also one of the silver lightning bolts has fallen off the carapace. I'm like a one-woman walking disaster area.
I rip off the green string, stuff all the pieces in the bag, tie the trailing
edge of the clown sock to the clown shoe with the shoelaces, ignore the blister
and keep on going.
Anyway, I finally find Mocidade, and am soooo relieved I just drop all my stuff in the street, buy a
bottle of icy-cold water (from a kid who seems to be selling beer and water on
the street all by himself and who can't be more than seven years old), pour half
the water over my head, and chug the second half. The Mocidade gods are smiling on me and I actually find a porta-potty with a working door lock that is not entirely disgusting! Truly I am blessed. I retrieve all my stray costume pieces and make my way
into the Mocidade "concentration" area, where the paraders are
assembling, and, oh my god, MASS CHAOS in all directions. CHAOS.
Mocidade's got about 3800 paraders (not a typo... I'm not sure of the exact number but know it was just under 4000) and every single one of them is jammed
into this single stretch of street that is only one block long, and it appears that every single costume is
falling apart and everybody is in a panic and there are costume pieces all over
everywhere, and we're all wedged into that section of street so tightly I literally cannot turn around.
(especially not with that carapace thing, which I am beginning to hate with the force of a thousand suns) There are dozens and dozens of alas, each with nearly a hundred people, every damn ala with huge
weird hats and huge pointy backpieces, and it is JAM-packed and nobody can get
anywhere and everybody is frustrated and panicky and I can't find my ala. I'm dragging my lightning-bolt carapace, my
sock is tripping me up again, I can't get anywhere. I finally nearly get bowled over by a band member who is hauling an
enormous first-surdo that's nearly as wide as my crab carapace. He's got a Mocidade director who is acting as a kind of snowplow for him, charging ahead hollering
for everybody to make way, and that's who's just shoved me aside. I take advantage of this and I wedge myself in right behind the drum guy and basically
follow in their wake for as long as I can.
And then I see them! Silver carapaces ahead, and orange
sunglasses and orange lightning bolts! My people! I have found my people! I'm
so relieved. I still can't actually GET to them but I can SEE them up ahead.
About ten minutes of struggle later I've actually gotten to the ala
and located Olivia and only then do I realize
what deep shit we are all in:
NONE OF THE CARAPACES WILL CONNECT TO THE SHOULDER HARNESS.
They're supposed to connect together. The silver carapace thing has 2 little metal
prongs that are supposed to fit into 2 metal holes in the shoulder harness. But
the prongs are way too short. They were all made incorrectly. The ala directors
seem to be utterly baffled by this and Olivia's trying to ask one of them about it, but he seems to decided to devote all his mental energy just to gluing broken silver lightning bolts back together (which, granted, also needs to be done) but it seems to be taking 15 minutes per lightning bolt, there's hundreds of lightning bolts, people are starting to really despair about the metal prongs, and the parade starts in less than an hour.
A pause here to remind everybody that the Rio Carnaval is a
competition, that Mocidade has been in trouble recently and it has only escaped
being demoted by the skin of its teeth. Last year it came in 11th out of 12th.
If it comes in 12th, it gets demoted to the second group, loses two million
dollars per year of city funding, and, most of all, it would just break everybody's heart.
And one of the categories it's judged on is costumes, and
one of the things the costume judge looks for is that all costumes have all
We have to get the carapaces attached somehow. We have to. It become apparent the
only thing that will work is if we all, all of us, stab 2 holes in the thick
fabric of the costume with a pair of scissors so that the too-short metal
prongs can reach their little metal holes. But does anybody have a pair of
scissors? Of course not. Did any of the ala directors think to bring a pair of
scissors? Of course not. I actually overhear one of the ala directors screaming
"FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DOES ANYBODY HAVE SCISSORS? OR A KNIFE? ANYTHING
SHARP? ANYBODY?" I dig out my house key but discover it's one of those weird
Brazilian keys that doesn't have sharp teeth. I try tearing the fabric, I even try biting
a hole in it - no dice.
Perhaps it will not be a surprise if I tell you that
everybody's hats have been shedding orange lightning bolts and silver balls and
eyestalks and eyes every which way. There's carapaces underfoot everywhere, giant fuzzy orange sunglasses, people are putting orange lightning bolts on only to have them fall off again instantly, and DID I FORGET TO MENTION THE CLAWS? I haven't mentioned the
claws? the two claws that are attached to each costume by 3 separate colored long
pieces of rubber - so, just to be clear, that's SIX long things-to-trip-on attached to each costume, that trail across the ground and tangle in your feet and
tangle the feet of the person next to you? I'm just not going to mention the
claws anymore because I'm trying to erase them from my memory.
Olivia and I start out sort of confident and determined, certain we will be able to solve all these problems, but after
a half hour drifts by and it's creeping closer to 9 and none of our efforts work and the ala directors disappear searching for scissors, we end up sort of standing there in slack-jawed disbelief.
It is beginning to sink in that the parade is only minutes away, we only have
half our costumes on, each of our costumes is missing half their pieces, the carapace cannot be
put on the costume, the hat has more problems than I can even describe. I'm starting to laugh, but Olivia has this heart-breaking
expression on her face of stunned shock mixed with near-fury (because, you have to understand, it MATTERS how well Mocidade does). I'm trying to tell her something like "You have to laugh,
otherwise you'll cry," when there's screaming and yelling behind us and
somebody's hollering "GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY! THE BAIANAS NEED TO GET
Baianas are the older women in hoop skirts. One of the Rio
Carnaval's more peculiar rules is that each escola is required to have at least
70 older women who are all wearing large hoop skirts, and they
generally have the hugest costumes. And for some reason, some of Mocidade's
baianas have showed up late and they've decided that the best way to get to the
front of the parade is not to use the same path everybody else has been using
all along, but instead to simple charge straight through the middle of alas
that have all their costume pieces spread out on the floor for assembly. They
charge DIRECTLY across the middle of all our stuff, actually yelling at us, and
trample right over our carapaces - which till now I've been detesting but as I
see the baianas walking ON OUR CARAPACES I suddenly become extremely protective
of the stupid hideous carapaces and just can't believe that anybody would DARE step
on my silver crab carapace!
The baianas plow right through my ala and destroy everything we've been working on. Till now the whole situation has seemed sort of sad but also
sort of funny, but now the mood goes truly black. For a second there
it's teetering on the edge of either murder or suicide, I can't decide which.
But as I look at the carapaces I discover the damn things
have been through so much hell already, and have lost so many pieces already,
that a little baiana-trampling hasn't really done any detectable additional
damage. Everything looked like shit before and it still looks like shit, that's
I begin to accept the fact that we are not going to be able
to get the costumes together, and I ask Olivia, "So, if we can't get our
costume together, what do we do, should we stay out of the parade?" and
she gives me sort of a fierce look and just says "We are going to parade."
The fireworks go off. The parade is starting. There's no way.
We look at each other again.
And then suddenly there's a different ala director with us,
a young guy who's working at nearly the speed of light, and - unbelieveable,
unbelievable - HE HAS A PAIR OF SCISSORS, he's hacking holes in Olivia's
shoulder-piece, he's GOT HER CARAPACE ATTACHED to her back, holy Jesus, he's
hacking holes in my costume too, he's GOT MY CARAPACE ATTACHED TOO, he's
hacking various essential holes in the hat, he's got strings to put through the
holes to tie the hat on, he's gluing things on, he's found some stray orange
lightning bolts on the ground and stray orange sunglasses, he's jamming them on
the hats, suddenly we've got our huge shoulder things and silver carapaces on. All
the little pieces are suddenly reappearing and getting jammed on the hat, he's
wedging lightning bolts onto Olivia's hat, he fixes somebody's eyestalk, we
figure out how the damn claws work, I feel hands on my foot and I don't even
know who it is (I can't look down) - somebody is fixing my sock! Well, they're trying to, and they fail, but the sock problem has caught somebody's attention (clearly somebody has been ordered to crawl around and inspect the socks) and pretty soon I've been handed a little piece of string and I manage to tie the sock up around my calf. And the floats are moving and the
song is starting and it turns out we're all in entirely the wrong place (why am
I not surprised?) and we're all being hustled over to the correct float and we
all get in line behind it and an ala director gets us all in line - Olivia has
advised me to drift into the back line where we'll have a bit more space and
air, and the ala director arranges the back line in a certain order.
Then a 2nd ala director appears and he is
appalled at the order we are standing in, and he puts us in an entirely
different order, and a 3rd director shows up and gets agitated and puts us in a
different order, and a 4th director appears and is very upset about the order
we're in and puts us in an entirely different order, and we're moving and the
parade's happening and we are turning now, the gigantic float in front of us is slowly wheeling onto the parade route, and we follow it around the wide turn and the millions of lights hit our eyes, the stadium full of thousands of people, and - oh my god - we've made it!
We're on the runway! We're in the Sambodromo! I look around
and, holy Jesus, EVERYBODY'S COSTUME IS ASSEMBLED. Everybody's hat has 2 orange
lightning bolts and orange sunglasses and 2 eyestalks and a little silver ball.
Everybody's got their silver carapace. Everybody's socks are up.
We did it! We did it! We did it!
At the very last second a 5th ala director is horrified at
the way the back line is arranged and puts us in an entirely different order, and
then we're dancing, we're singing, we're walking under the first judge's booth
and it's ON, we're being judged now, we sing like our little hearts depend on
it. My goddam hat is still trying to fall off and I have to keep my little crab
claws up the whole time, hanging on to the green ribbons on either side to keep it level, trying
to pretend the hat is fine and that I'm just holding my little crab claws up
because it makes me happy to have my little crab claws up, but honestly, I think this the best song I've ever
heard in my life and it is suddenly the most amazing parade I've ever been in,
in my entire life.
I honestly, truly, love the song.
As I take the very last step off the parade route, my sock falls down.
At the end Olivia manages to sneak us off to the side, to a
place we're probably not supposed to be, and we wait there and watch the rest
of the parade come pouring over to us. We're in the area where the gigantic
floats go right after they come after the parade route. A huge float full of
mostly-naked, very sweaty, extremely good-looking men comes by and they all
pile off right next to us and stand all around us. Several destaques (the girls
in the amazing glitter bikinis with gigantic feathery wings) are also standing
around. We stand there with the gorgeous mostly-naked guys and the gorgeous mostly-naked girls, in our weird crab outfits (we've already jettisoned the carapaces and hats and I've ripped off the detested claws), we watch the parade pour off the end of the parade route and I begin
to realize that somehow, by the skin of their teeth, at the last possible
second, against all odds, Mocidade has pulled off an incredibly good parade. I hear the crowd actually
SCREAM when the Mocidade bateria does an exceptionally beautiful break. (As Pauline
points out later, Brazilians don't usually scream like that.) The bateria is the
last group off the parade route and when they come off we all go running up to
greet them, and start leaping and dancing and singing with them, the whole crowd just ecstatic. My god;
Mocidade has done it. And as I tell Olivia later,
"I am never, ever, going to forget this parade."