Carnival – a Lifeline in Rio

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

All the way along the coast to Rio de Janiero, we could see the progress of the world-renowned Carnival in the small towns and cities near our ports-of call. Early on, stands were already being constructed; a little later, decorations were being added, parts of costumes tried on, carried on hangers, even worn in the streets in each of the places we stopped. Every Brazilian town of any size, at least on the east coast, has its own Carnival.

It’s not just a once a year performance that’s at stake; it’s a progression towards the ultimate by the inhabitants of Brazil, toward maybe being the best samba dancers, musicians, and artists in the land. The Rio de Janiero show will be attended by thousands of tourists — and, of course, proud Brazilians.  

As we sailed up the coast of Brazil, we could see the grim signs of poverty too, the ugly graffiti that deface once beautiful buildings and the grey, broken-down favelas (miserable slums occupied by squatters) that, ghostlike, ring big cities like Rio. Of course, the city also boasts areas where the rich live, like the luxury apartments and big hotels surrounding the fabled Copacabana Beach (reminiscent of Miami) or the magnificent mansions around the site of the historic Imperial Palace. As the English Charles Dickens wrote in a Victorian context, it’s a tale of two cities.

However, in Brazil you can’t always tell the income level of an area by what appears outside. It’s common for residents not to keep the exteriors in good repair to avoid paying extra taxes. Inside the apartments may be very nicely furnished and well kept.

The favelas, though, are completely run-down; the front lawns are rubble, where children play and teenagers flirt.  Because these areas are a jumble of lanes without addresses where mail can be delivered (at least, at the time I was there), the socialist government (no longer in power) was providing free telephone service and Internet access to the residents. Despite the pervading poverty, it seemed like everyone had – or had access to — a smart phone.

Portuguese-speaking, local taxi drivers who couldn’t speak English used them as portable translators; the customers spoke English into the phone, and it was translated into Portuguese; and vice versa.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak English,” the driver apologized.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Portuguese,” I replied (that is, Portuguese Brazilian style, whose guttural sounds are far removed from Portuguese, Portugal style!)

Yet somehow we communicated very well. It’s amazing how far cell phones and hand gestures can take you. Plus the limited phrases from our guide book (and the couple of classes in getting-to-know Portuguese that we took on the ship) helped us as we drove around the city.

Rio is undoubtedly well guarded.  Standing over Rio, its huge, art-deco-style dimensions and outstretched arms protecting the city, is the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Standing atop a pedestal on the summit of Mount Corcovado, and made of reinforced concrete covered with 1000s of triangular soapsones, it is 98 feet tall; the reach of its extended arms is 92 feet. Since 2007, it has been considered one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Although it’s by far the largest statue of Christ in the world, Catholic Churches of varying sizes and splendor can be found everywhere throughout Brazil.

“Thank God that the people have the Church and Carnival,” I remarked to the cruise ship’s Catholic priest. “I think they would explode without them.” The tension in the country, centering on the need for jobs in the face of big projects stalled every where for lack of money, is palpable. At each of the ship’s stops, young men stood in groups, arms grimly folded, eyes devouring us, hoping for work that wasn’t there for them.

It is a syncretic kind of religion, though, that colors Carnival. Some Brazilian natives (especially in the north of Brazil, closest to the U.S.) had been slaves, transported to this country from Africa by colonial powers to work in the plantations and mines. Despite the best efforts of Christian missionaries, though, Brazilians throughout the country still retain vestiges of the native religions that once permeated the jungle areas. Although eventually most converted to Christianity, they superimposed their native deities on top of the Christian trinity and saints. It makes for a very vibrant, transposed religion in many keys that dances its way to the competitions of Carnival.

Carnival is so integral to the spirit of Brazil that I had always thought it was run by the government, but this is not so. Apparently, it is a private, year-long enterprise. It organizes samba clubs all over Brazil that develop their own routines, different each year, and practice hard and long to enter their own club’s “show” in competition. Eventually twelve and then six samba clubs are chosen. These are invited to design their décor and sew their costumes in a specially constructed complex in Rio.

It is these six clubs that finally perform at Carnival, and thousands of people attend. Each club performs for an hour and a half in one night’s frenzied entertainment. So with six clubs performing, that’s a total of nine continuous hours that audiences sit on concrete benches to applaud the frenetic dancers and musicians. (By the time we got to Rio, tickets were $500 per person to sit on the backless benches; if you wanted a reserved seat with a back and a little closer to the entertainment, the tickets were $1,000 apiece.) The very next day there is a Carnival parade for the populace led by the winning club.

Our ship had arranged for local dancers and musicians to put on a private, onboard show (beautifully costumed dancers, shaking their almost bare backsides to frenetic rhythms, delighted some of the older men on board by dancing with them). Rather than brave the crowds and continuous alcohol consumption late at night, my daughter and I opted for this shipboard arrangement (it was terrific)! In addition, since many smaller towns also put on a dynamic show, we attended one at the next stop, Parintins; it was well worth the price ($150 per ticket).

As it happens, the revelry of Carnival takes place close to the time of Purim, the Jewish festival where young and old kids dress up as Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus and hiss and shake noise-makers at the villain, Haman, who wanted to kill all the Jews in long-ago Persia. The Festival of Purim, too – the one night of the year Jews are supposed to get drunk! – has acted as a safety valve for the many years that Jewish people suffered persecution at the hands of various countries. People need to let off steam in difficult situations, and a festival of this kind is a joyful way of doing it.

Whatever your religious belief, thank God for Purim, and thank God for Carnival. These festivals continue to allow for a reprieve of happiness in the midst of miserable conditions; the concentration of working towards a collective, bigger-than-oneself goal; and the opportunity to be grateful for the vibrancy of life while we live it. They can be a lifeline to better times.