We didn't do a whole lot the first night or the first day. We just enjoyed each other's company and played with Lindsey's kitties and rested and ate copious amounts of Domino's (no, we did not order it two nights in a row...what?...). We went for a run along the gorgeous bay. We explored the Rio Sul mall and all its fancy stores. I bought two new pairs of shoes. One of them is a pair of Melissa-brand sandals with obnoxiously large rubber birds on them:
The red style on the left! whoo hoo! haha
Saturday, we went to Rio de Janeiro's botanical garden. It was gorgeous! I got to reunite with some toucan buddies and I think I got Lindsey to appreciate our feathered friends a little more. :)
quintessential Rio botanical garden picture
looking for the toucans
and back to normal. Yeah, we look a little related. The unintentionally matching blouses may or may not contribute.
After the walk around the garden, we had to rest up. Why?
Because we went to the Mangueira's Carnival rehearsal, that's why!
If you don't know what that means, then you're probably not thinking, "oh, cool!" right now. So I'll explain. But first, some background on Carnival that I learned this weekend (please correct me if I'm wrong). Let's put the following paragraphs in the category of "things I should've learned about and done much sooner as a resident of Brazil":
In Rio de Janeiro, many slums have their own "samba schools." These samba schools form the groups that compete in the giant famous Carnival parades. Every year, each school makes its own float and writes its own song. Then the members dance and perform on and around the float during the parade. The whole point of the parade is to see which samba school has the best performance. At the end of the parade, someone (who? a committee? I don't know) votes on the best school.
The samba schools (and the residents of the neighborhoods that house them) spend the whole year preparing for this event. It's a major hobby and passion for a lot of people.
To earn money and to garner publicity for their neighborhood, school, and annual song, some (maybe all?) samba schools open their doors for public rehearsals. So you can pay to go in and watch the rehearsal.
That's what we did! We went to a rehearsal at the cultural center of Mangueira, the name of a slum and of its samba school inside. It was the first or one of the first rehearsals of the year, so it was a ceremony in itself.
Some of Lindsey's friends invited us. I didn't really know what to expect. Lindsey had gone to one before, and she said, "you're gonna get sweaty, so dress accordingly." So all I knew was that I was going to a favela for the first time, that I'd be in the middle of a big crowd, and that I'd probably be required to dance.
The samba school wasn't deep in the favela or anything. It was right on the edge, next to the main avenue, so it wasn't necessarily dangerous. But I'll admit that, try as I might not to be indoctrinated by the prejudice opinions of the Brazilians I roll with, I was scared out of my mind for just an instant when I got out of that taxi. Then I took a deep breath, shook it off and started walking.
(I'll add here that I recently read a book called "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's about American housing projects, but the parallels gave me a lot of insight into how slums in Brazil operate and why I don't need to be scared going into one, especially for something like this.)
We paid at a little wooden ticket window and walked up a large staircase into the Mangueira cultural center. It's essentially one giant room with second story balconies akin to the mezzanine section of a theater. The front wall and its balcony were set up for a live band. A sort of opening band (not the main members of the samba ensemble) was playing classic samba music when we arrived. Everything was painted and decorated in green and pink, the samba school's official colors, and, as it happens, my two favorite colors. (You can probably imagine by now that this samba school is going to hold a special place in my heart.)
In typical foreigner fashion, we got to the event only 20 minutes after the technical starting time, and that was too early. We were some of the first people there. The benefit of our early arrival was our ability to find a table. We bought a round of caipirinhas from a booth and sat down to watch things start to unfold.
As the night went on, more and more people started to arrive, and more and more started dancing casually, in pairs or small groups. A woman with beautiful and big curly hair dyed blonde came to our table and insisted on teaching us how to samba.
"It's very easy," she told me with a larger-than-life smile. She was the first of many people to tell me this. She then proceeded to show me one of the many variations of foot moves that make up the samba steps. As you can imagine, I was terrible at it. The music wasn't that loud yet, and I wasn't drunk, so I kept just shaking my head to say "no" and stepping out of the circle a bit to let the better people do their thing.
Soon, things started to get louder. The excitement was building, and the caipirnhas were kicking in. The crowd was growing, and we were soon getting whistled off the dance floor and onto its peripheries.
There were sudden waves of of neon green and pink and what felt like a great and wonderful explosion to the senses. Then, at that moment, came the crashing of the drums.
As the samba school members came thundering out onto the dance floor, led by the retired dancers in pants suits, the pink and green curtains covering the balcony over the stage opened up to reveal rows of live band members. They were packed into the bleachers and moving their metal instruments to the rhythm they were making. The lights and the colors flashed off of the silver and gold. The sound was all-encompassing.
And with drums and cheering and stomping and blaring like that, there's only one thing you can do.
The love was so big and the sound was so loud that it suddenly didn't matter if my samba steps were right or if my hips were shaking just so. Some people were just straight up jumping up and down, and that was okay, too.
The pride was almost palpable. The people in that room were proud to be from Mangueira. Proud to be Cariocas. Proud to be Brazilians. Proud of their mixed and shared heritages. And, of course, proud to be damn good samba dancers and musicians.
At one point in the celebrations, our group of foreigners (there were SO many of us! And we seemed to be pulled together like magnets) was in a circle with the woman with the blonde afro. She was showing us more steps when suddenly, a woman we've dubbed the samba goddess came in to the circle. The former teacher immediately yielded the floor to her.
She pretended to teach us for a minute, but she was really just there to show us just how good sambistas can be. She was at least 6'5'' and moved like a gorgeous machine. I literally bowed at her feet. I didn't know how else to show my respect.
We were graced with her presence for only an instant, and then she was gone, whisked off in a swirl of gold and pastels.
The festivities probably continued long after we were too pooped to move any more and four of us shared a taxi back to the southern part of the city. We were just tiny fish in a huge sea of history and tradition and joy. It was a side of Brazil that I took far too long to get acquainted with, and I feel like I know her and can love her much better now.