Captain Moonlight's Notebook: A mugger's game

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RIO DE JANEIRO was convulsed last week by its annual orgy of bickering, nudity, hanky-panky and street crime. Yes, it was Carnival again.

For traditionalists, the event has not been quite the same since the municipal authorities decided a few years ago to capitalise on Carnival's hard currency-earning potential by building the Sambadrome, a kind of airport runway flanked by viewing stands.

For the Rio authorities, this has the advantage that tourists can be induced to pay some pounds 140 each to watch the five-hour parade of the biggest samba schools in relative safety. Taking the main parade off the streets also makes it easier for the television companies and the sponsors' marketing managers. But the Sambadrome, where tickets are way beyond the pockets of ordinary citizens, deprives the people of Rio, who originally invented the Carnival, of much of the fun.

They have ways of getting their own back, though. In a moving tribute to the true spirit of Rio, this year the Caprichosos de Pilares samba school designed its lead float in homage to one of Rio's most popular items of street life: a giant representation of a tourist in Bermuda shorts being held up at gunpoint under the amused gaze of a prostitute and a street urchin.

The mayor of Rio, Cesar Maia, who spends much of his time trying to reassure foreign visitors that they will not be stripped to the bone if they dare to venture out of their hotels, was not amused. He tried to have the float banned. No chance, said the Caprichosos. The Caprichosos won, leaving the mayor little option but to grit his teeth and pretend it was good Carnival fun.

(Photograph omitted)