On the last trip I meanly insisted Kim bought herself a local bikini.  It's width was about the same as my outstreched palm it looked like it would fit an eight year old.

This time we shopped for one in Recife's poshest mall, packed like allthe others with bikini and sportswear shops. 

Men's trunks are far more modest; Speedos with thick waist bands.  The guidebooks tells you not to buy anything until you ascertain the local fashion, and as we approached Rio we saw more and more bermuda shorts being sold.  The guides had been very clear about avoiding these if you were not to be an obvious gringo.  (Winter skin tones should have been the other clue though we saw many Brazilians who were paler than we were.)  

But Ipanema Beach had stuck with the Speedos and there were fewer dental floss bikinis.

Food & drink

Eat by weight

I´m not a huge fan of South American food and have tried hard to look beyond the rice and beans, deep fired snacks and gloopy stews. The food we´ve had in our hotels has been fine, but often because it´s just simply cooked.

But one of the bargains in Brazil has been to eat in the "quilo" places where food is simply weighed and charged at 60p – 1.10p per 100gms you eat. It´s a mixture of simple salads and some specialities of the house; perhaps a mini churrascaria or some stews. It's very difficult to spend more than a couple of pounds. You take a card at the entrance and have the plate weighed after the self-serve.

Some have a desserts display; one even offered isles flottants (poached egg whites), possibly the lightest pudding available and the one least designed for sale by weight.

Porcao in RioThe other eating delight is the fixed price churrascaria. For 40-50 Reais you eat all you want from a massive and pristine salad bar before being faced with waves of waiters weilding skewers of grilled meat.

There's a proper way to approach this; don't be waylaid by the starchy offerings of the first group of waiters.  Limit the empanadas and the chips and the other goodies.  Don't get sidetracked by the man with the caiparinia trolley, eager to fill you up with fruity variations of the cachaca cocktail. And, most importantly, lay off the salad bar; it's meant to be tempting.

The meat waiters will come round with skewers of  beef, lamb and pork.  With the exception of the chicken heart skewer these are massive joints of meat from which the waiter slices off cuts which you collect with a pair of tongs. 

Waiters are controlled by the little traffic light disks that you display on your table to control their interest.  (The ones above are from Porcão in Rio.)



Despite intentions, we actually ended up at the Rio Carnival Parade after all. We had a couple of days dithering about the cost, and then about the time (we had an early flight the next carnival floatmorning) but eventually decided to pay up. The prices had come down a little from what was emailed 3 weeks before and our trawls through the local papers would simply reveal things like that the final 4% of tickets had been released and were on sale in various obscure parts of the city.

We ended up paying £120 each for some of the cheaper seats overlooking the main parade section. (There´s a very complicated system of sectors and ticket types and a real hierarchy of views.) In the end I really can´t complain about what we got for the money. I´ve certainly never seen a display like it.

Although we read plenty of advice on the best positions to watch the parade, and eventually chose the cheaper seats I don't think it would have made much difference paying more. When we arrived (about 9pm, missing the first school) we could barely move up on the grandstands and felt we were going to be stuck on the entrance steps for the whole show. Butcarnival float with few problems we pushed to the front and spent the evening on the front tier of the concrete steps. There was a fair peppering of foreigners – people from Mexico and from Bahrain – and great friendliness. The locals were constantly asking where you'd come from and trying out bits of different languages, sharing food and binoculars. It emptied out towards the early hours, though I can't see how the suggestion in the guide books of arriving at midnight and buying up tickets from departing crowds would have worked because half the ticket was kept by the machines at the entrance.

The initial shock is the scale. Each of the winners (the parade of champions re-runs the six highest scoring samba schools from the 14 competing the weekend of carnival itself) took an hour to pass and would consist of 6-8 gargantuan floats punctuated by literally thousands of costumed participants.

Each school would have a big theme for the year. The winners this year ran one on reviving the dreams of Simon Bolivar leading the local media to declare that Hugo Chávez had won the carnival. The other themes covered everything from the primal elements, to the Spanish exploration of the Amazon to the history of Brazilian architecture(!). NB. I'm told subsequently that the winning school – Vila Isabel – had sponsorship from the Venezuelan oil industry.
(to be completed later – I´m shattered. Currently in Argentina looking at waterfalls)

There's a certain formula to each school's parade. The drum section (bateria) lines up with the singers by the start of the parade section and launch into the theme samba which is sung repeatedly for the entire parade. The song is published before the parades (and available on CDs afterwards) and the lyrics are printed in the carnival guides with the choruses highlighted for the crowds to join in. The song follows the theme of the parade and the catchiness (and singability) varies a lot!

The first element in the parade would be a set piece (Commisão da Frente) that is repeated every 50m or so down the parade. Imperatriz's theme was 'One for all and all for one' and had musketeers prancing around on hobby horses while Grande Rio had conquistadors invading a series of moving huts that twisted and turned themselves inside out toshow what was happening on the inside.

Each parade will have a Porta-Bandeira and Mestre de Sala, the standard bearer and the salon master who dance intricate moves (apparently a minuet from some old Portuguese traditions), kiss, bow and curtsey.

There would also be one or two girls (the rainha da bateria, the queen of the band – apparentlyMe at carnival a famous actress) dressed in minimal costumes or wearing quantities of long feathers, samba-ing elegantly in high heels. They might precede the bateria and flirt with the mestre da bateria, the band leader. The band is made up of drummers and other percussionist, several burly men singing into microphones and a set of ukelele players. One of the rainha da bateria managed to lose most of her bikini bottoms in front of our part of the audience but she gamely carried on.

Each school is allowed up to eight massive floats (the carros alegoricos) which are punctuated by crowds in costume. Again the sheer numbers and variety of costume is a shock.

Celebs would crop up in the parade – perhaps jumping out unexpectantly from one of the floats or leading the bateria in an extravagent feathered costume – and milk applause from the audience. We could judge the level of celebrity by the excitement and shouting behind us when someone was recognised.

Food & drink

A night in Lapa

Four year´s ago we went on a tour of one of Rio´s favelas, the idea being to introduce tourists into these areas that are so completely off-limits and show what life is like there. (and this was before the City of God film). I don´t remember much other than having various gangs pointed out and shown the kite flying that allegedly told the drugs gangs where the police were. (The favelas still dominate all the hilly areas of Rio, with just one or two exceptions, if you live in the flat areas of town you´re rich).

After the tour the guide invited his small group to meet up late that evening in a club in Lapa. It´s a part of town just off the central business district and one that you´re generally advised to avoid in the dark: we later read in the Rough Guide that it said we really shouldn´t have gone in there at all. But there´s a lot of paranoia in the guides about Rio, one reason that I don´t have any photos of the last visit there, and certainly one of Kim´s work colleagues was mugged there a few days before we were there.

Lapa lived up to expectations. Crowds hung on street corners around burning braziers (for food not warmth), prostitutes flashed at us and transvestites cavorted in the gloomy streets. (We found the club, and eventually the guide and spent the evening samba-ing.)

But four years on Lapa is the place to go in the late evenings and is in the midst of gentrification. It´s one of the few places in Rio that still has a sense of the past; many of the buildings date to the beginning of the last century, and some of the city´s few landmarks are here; the modernist cathedral and an iconic viaduct (a sort of concrete Pont du Gard) over which Rio last tram travels.  This time the old dance halls have been painted up, there´s a new set of bars and clubs, even live music on the streets.

We found a backstreet Samba club which was full of a drunken post-office crowd who proved that Brazilians can (a) have a really good time, and (b) can´t necessarily dance any better than I can.


Parati nights

Bloco singerThere´s a bloco of giant monsters: the `Ambassadors from hell´ accompanyed by an old man in a chair – roped firmly to the back of a pick-up – who waves regally at the crowds. Another group has the requisite girls and feathers, and minimal costumes. It´s enthusiastic but a bit amateurish compared to what we saw in Olinda where the drummers were finely honed, the singers pitch perfect and the dancers truly spectacular. There generally seems to be a lot less live music here and less variety in what´s being performed.

Encountering each other in the narrow streets, the groups negotiate and banter their way past each other, while we struggle to dance on treacherous flag stones, still muddy from high tide in the darkened backstreets of the town.

There were a plethora of men in badly-assembled drag, often accompanied by bemused girlfriends and displaying a good selection of Brazil´s tropical fruit stuffed down their blouse fronts.

The best of the blocos appeared past midnight on Monday. A group of what appeared to be farm workers simply stood outside the historic centre of Parati; two singers, accompanied by an amplified ukele, sang over a small group of drummers.

parati nights 


Rio carnival results

The Rio carnival parades are broadcast live throughout the night. On the Wednesday afterwards there are hours of voting with each of the 14 samba schools being awarded marks by about 40 judges; each mark read out individually. The schools are marked against not only samba skills but in wonderful categories such as `fantasy´and `allegory´.

[much later] OK, in shamefaced retropect I realise that 'alegorias' means floats and 'fantasias' are the costumes.  My phrasebook is seriously limited.  I think it's still a model for Eurovision.