It's carnival time in the cidade maravilhosa; four days of heavy percussion, canned Skol lager and parading through the streets doing the fussy, one-two-three foot-shuffle that men call the samba dance. You'd imagine the carnival presence would be everywhere, but it's caught mostly in glimpses - the lilac tutu worn by the burly youth catching the tram in Santa Teresa, the gang of teenage girls posing in their black-dotted finery like so many plump Dalmatians, the wretched float, featuring a gigantic sequinned sea creature, abandoned by the roadside.
Nothing in your life, however, prepares you for the sights outside the Sambadrome, where several thousand dancers in crazily extravagant costumes mill about trying to find their pals: a hundred exotic birds in beaked headdresses, a hundred Louis XVI shepherdesses (of both sexes), a hundred twirling green-leaved plants like vacationing triffids, a hundred pot-bellied clowns covered in mathematical formulae. They light fags as fireworks crash overhead and take snaps of each other with digital cameras hidden in their underwear, blithely ignoring the monstrous gurning heads on the great carnival floats behind them.
The Sambadrome, a half-mile-long street flanked by terraces of spectators, is the setting for the big parades, where the 14-strong groupo especialof competing samba schools parade their finery over two nights. Each school has 80 minutes to show off its six floats and army of dancers (from 1,500 to 5,000 of them, all elaborately feathered, sequinned and sandalled). They're judged on harmony, percussion, co-ordination and general fabulosity. Something dark and atavistically tribal stirs in your guts as you watch, emerging from behind a frenzied throng of dancers, the great looming plaster figurehead of the next giant float and its enthroned queen.
Apart from being the most flamboyantly tacky, over-the-top parade you've ever seen, the Sambadrome experience is a trouser-bursting moneyspinner. The 30,000 audience pay between £50 and £60 for seats at the low end, and a fair wedge of the national economy at the high. The well-heeled carioca (Rio-dwelling) businessman who invites 10 associates to boogie through the night in his camarote (communal box) can part with £20,000. Tickets are snapped up within an hour of going on sale and reappear on the black market at five times the printed price. The organisers make a second fortune selling world TV rights to this 12-hour spectacular.
The carros alegoricos, as the floats are charmingly called, are designed by the schools, each of which has a president, a director and music and design committees - there's such a weight of bureaucracy attached, it's amazing that anything gets to rumble down the runway at all. But money fuels the allegorical cars: it costs 5m reals (£1.25m) to build the six floats of each school.
Where does the money come from? They aren't fussy. Last year's winning school, Vila Isobel, was financed by Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. The floats told the story of his country's rise to global eminence. There isn't, in theory, anything to stop Burger King or Richard Desmond sponsoring a samba school and launching a celebration of Whoppers or, um, Whoppers on the floats. They're not branded sponsorships, not yet anyway, but it's coming. "Are we in danger of losing our traditions of communality?" asked one samba specialist. "If we want to stay self-financing, we may have to. But so what? Thirty years ago, we didn't even have the Sambadrome... "
Ten years ago, they didn't have dancing in the street in Rio. Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans (or August in Notting Hill), the Rio carnival used to be confined to the expensive 'drome and wasn't available to low-income locals unless they watched it through the window of their TV rental shop. Seven years ago, the concept of blocos began - literally, a block party involving a couple of buses equipped with blaring sound systems, a local banda and a troupe of followers. Entrance is free (or you pay a fiver for a T-shirt) and you can join in the drinking, the ogling and the hilarity of being sprayed with gunk. Trouble is, they're so disorganised. It's ridiculous to expect discipline from a South American crowd of pissed revellers, but after the Sambadrome's tight co-ordination, your standards are a little high.
I went to a bloco revel in Botafogo, a densely populated district north of Sugarloaf mountain. The march was to start at 4pm and make its way two miles to Copacabana beach. In the boiling sunshine, we drank yet more Skol and waited, invigorated by a small army of girl drummers who whacked their big surdos drums with fiery intensity.
First, though, there were speeches. The dance-school leader on the bus shouted into a microphone for 20 minutes about a recent favela shooting and the iniquities of the police; then, for another 20 minutes, on the vital importance of giving blood to the local hospital; then on the vital importance of buying a T-shirt. He was constantly inter-rupted by the impatient girl drummers.
By 5.30pm, we'd moved 50 yards and the man was back on the microphone, saying the bus was malfunctioning. At 6pm we gave up and left. But we saw them again; they appeared on the beach while we were having cocktails at the Copacabana Palace at 9.30pm.
My translator told me one drum was covered in blood - the drummer had struck her left hand with the stick in her impatient, whacking right. Blood on the drums: a perfect image of carnival passion, Rio-style.Reuse content