As Carnival fever seizes Rio, some seek escape
As samba queens get final touch-ups on their sequins and feathers and hundreds of thousands of revelers take command of Rio's streets for Carnival's opening on Friday, Leo Name is hunkering down. The self-avowed Carnival Scrooge has stocked up on frozen TV dinners and hopes he won't have to set foot outside his apartment during the five days of festivities.
Appalled by the monumental proportions that street parties have taken on in recent years with the influx of an estimated half million visitors to the city of 6 million people, many locals flee Rio or lock themselves away for the duration.
Fans of Carnival dismiss them as blasphemous curmudgeons. But Name and others like him insist theirs is a rational response to an event that shutters businesses, snarls traffic and sees public spaces overrun by beer-guzzling revelers who think any place is a good space to urinate.
"Over the past years, the crowds have gotten so thick that I couldn't even make it to the metro and wasn't able to buy bread at the supermarket, which is literally downstairs from my place," said Name, a geography professor at Rio's Pontific Catholic University. "I felt like I was under siege."
It wasn't always like that. For decades, Rio was fairly calm during Carnival. Residents who could afford it took advantage of the public holiday to go on vacation, and the city's pace slowed. Carnival celebrations were mostly restricted to the well-regimented parades at the Sambadrome, where spectators now pay from $78 to $1,032 a person to marvel at the over-the-top floats, the musicians' unflagging enthusiasm and the fancy footwork of dancers decked out in not much more than a sprinkling of rhinestones and a puff of ostrich feathers.
"When I was a kid, I used to go to three, four or even five movies a day during Carnival because the cinemas had these special discounts to try to drum up an audience," said the 35-year-old Name. "It was great. The city was empty, the metro was empty, the streets were empty, and there were no lines anywhere."
But Carnival has spilled into Rio's streets with the resurgence of "blocos" - raucous, heavy-drinking street parties that regularly draw tens or hundreds of thousands of people. This year, organizers are hoping Rio's biggest bloco, "Bola Preta," or Black Ball, which in 2012 attracted an estimated 2 million people to the historic city center, will enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's biggest street party.
Far removed from the polished, highly produced glitz of the Sambadrome, blocos are come-one-come-all events that many people say embody the authentic, popular spirit of Carnival. Organized by clubs or neighborhood associations, they draw participants from all walks of life and social classes. While a handful of the most established blocos date back nearly a century, themed street parties have proliferated in recent years, including ones for Michael Jackson fans, Beatles enthusiasts and a canine extravaganza for dogs and their owners, all decked out in extravagant costumes.
Revelers converge at a designated meeting point for a bloco and then the tide floods through neighboring streets as partiers dance and sing along to music blasting from sound trucks. Prodigious amounts of beer keep spirits high, although it also results in an epidemic of public urination, much to the chagrin of city officials.
Starting in 2009, Mayor Eduardo Paes has been forcing some order on what had historically been spontaneous gatherings, publicized largely through word of mouth. Now, each bloco must apply for authorization from City Hall, which has an apparatus funded by corporate sponsorships that announces the time and place of each gathering and takes care of logistics, like traffic diversions and cleanup.
Still, with more than 5 million people taking part in blocos last year, by official estimate, the accompanying chaos, litter and traffic nightmares brought by the street parties has sparked a backlash, with some critics calling on City Hall to rein the blocos in.
"While they're a guaranteed good time for some, the street parties bring problems for others," read a recent opinion piece titled "Too Much Joy" in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. "The consensus is that many of them have grown too big and need to be held in an appropriate place."
City Hall has brushed off the complaints. This year, officials handed out 15 percent more bloco authorizations than for 2012, giving the green light to 492 street parties.
Speaking at a recent news conference, city Tourism Secretary Antonio Figueira de Mello dismissed criticism as "a conflict of interest between residents."
"With an event that has as big an impact on the city as Carnival, you're always going to have lots of happy people and lots of unhappy people, particularly when events are taking place on the front steps of your building and when they get in the way of your daily routine," Mello said. "Blocos are like street fairs: Everyone likes them, but no one wants one on their street."
Mello stressed that with the rise in the number of blocos comes a ramping up of logistical support.
The number of traffic cops has been increased 25 percent to nearly 1,000 officers in a bid to smooth transportation snarls. Nearly 7,800 municipal guards are to be deployed to encourage revelers to take advantage of this year's 17,200 portable toilets - up from just 900 four years ago. Fines will be levied on those caught urinating in public, Mello said.
Such measures are cold comfort for many residents.
Vinicius Netto, an urbanism professor, said that after "suffering" through the last four Carnivals, he and his girlfriend have decided not to stick around to see if things run more smoothly this time around. They're spending Carnival on an isolated island several hours away.
"Rio is the mecca of Carnival, and I respect that," Netto said. "The problem is that it takes over the city to such an extent that there's no space left for those of us who, for whatever reason, would prefer not to participate."