18 February 2013

The Carnaval Grinch

Dr. Seuss's famous Grinch
How could I have let Carnaval just pass me by this year? I really surprised myself. In the past I’ve always followed the Rio samba schools, or gone to the Sambódromo, or joined a street bloco, or kept samba playing incessantly in the background. I’ve gone to my share of Carnaval parties, I’ve learned the lyrics of my favorite sambas, and on Ash Wednesday I’ve parked myself in front of the T.V. to watch the apuração, the final judging of Rio’s top twelve samba schools. Last year I wrote six blogposts on various Carnaval subjects, each one more enthusiastic than the other. So what happened this year? I feel like the Grinch who stole Carnaval.

If you’ll forgive me my bluntness, I just couldn’t get it up this year. I didn’t care. All I kept thinking was, Thank goodness Carnaval falls early this year. And I held on to that, because it meant an early end to the high season in Búzios, an early end to the bumper-to-bumper traffic, an early end to long lines in the stores, an early end to the groups of loud, noisy renters in the house across the street from us and in the house right next door. I didn’t even care when I read the stunning news that at three weeks before Carnaval, two of the most traditional samba schools in Rio, Mangueira and Portela, were nowhere near ready. Not one of the eight floats that each school would use in their parade had been completed, not one. Usually at three weeks to show time at least half of the floats are ready to go. This was an amazing story for those who follow the Rio schools. What did I do after I read the article? I put it aside and took a nap.

Perhaps my ennui is just a reflection of an unusual Carnaval year. For the first time, more than half of the  special-group samba schools chose themes cynically, expecting to garner paid sponsorships. There were themes honoring South Korea, Germany and Rock in Rio, just to name three, and the schools had no reason to doubt that the honorees would dig deep into their pockets in gratitude. But they miscalculated badly. In hard economic times, some of the entities so honored said, Thanks, but don’t expect any financial aid, we didn’t ask to be honored. In one instance (South Korea) money was promised but, in the end, never paid. A week or so before Carnaval these schools were scrounging for ways to pay their debts. Things were not going quite right.

Firemen at the ready . . . but not part of the show
Fainting tree, also not part of the show

At the end of the day, though, I still do love a good competition. I began to wake up a little when the champion school, Unidos da Tijuca, had serious problems barely five minutes into their parade. One float broke down, pieces from another float broke off, smoke came shooting out of yet another float, and several participants were overcome by heat exhaustion. This was the school to beat and there it was, giving the championship away, point by point. Another serious contender was Beija-Flor, which also had mechanical and technical problems during their parade. And there was more drama with Mangueira, always a crowd-pleaser and my all time personal favorite. They had finished their preparations in time, they put on a great show, but then ran six minutes over the allotted parade time of 82 minutes. This meant that even before the judging started they’d lost six decimal points, not an easy deficit to make up.

Float stuck on TV tower
Broken-down float

So last Wednesday I found myself settled in front of the T.V. to watch the apuração, and for two hours I "got into" Carnaval. That was all I could muster this year. But this Grinch will get her comeuppance in 2014, when Carnaval falls on March 4th, three weeks later than this year!

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