In Search of the Golden Tickets

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We thought our luck had run out. Our first few days in Rio had gone as smooth as a baby’s bum on a silk satin slide (mainly thanks to our uber-host Leo and his friends) but we were now on our own. Leo and his housemate Nino were taking part in the main Carnival procession at the ‘Sambodromo’ and our mission was to get tickets to see them.

It was completely sold out so our plan was to get to the place and try our luck with the touts. The problems started immediately. We got to the metro and the queue, which was peppered with an array of outlandish carnival costumes, went on for as far as the eye could see. After an interminable wait we finally got our metro passes and made our way to the packed platform.

The train at this stage was only half full and we made it on albeit with a fair amount of pushing and jostling all around us. Our now packed carriage stuttered to the next station where the platform was awash with a raucous crowd which heaved forward trying to create space where there was none. Shouting and screaming ensued and it was actually quite scary at one point as it looked like some people were getting crushed.

Luckily, we had managed to make our way to the middle of the carriage where there was a small pocket of space. The doors eventually closed and at this stage it was clear that no-one was getting on or off this train until it reached the Sambodromo, a mere eight stops away.

The screaming and shouting continued for another couple of stops as the train struggled on with the journey. But, amazingly, the screaming soon turned into laughter and the shouting turned into, well, singing! It seemed that the new-found familiarity between hundreds of carnival-goers packed in like sardines had a positive rather than negative effect. This was a very Brazilian turn of events – from shouting to singing in a matter of minutes.

When we finally reached our destination everyone was happy and we headed off to find tickets for the main event. It was at this point we realised we were completely out of our depth.

We didn’t know where to go, what tickets to buy, how much we should be paying or anything else about the Sambodromo experience.

There were a number of touts but they all seemed to be offering tickets for ‘Sector 6’. We negotiated a price for two but it just didn’t feel right as it all seemed too easy. So we headed closer to the stadium and sought out more options.

The scene outside the stadium could only be described as apocalyptic. There were police cars, fires, drunks and all sorts of people hurrying in all kinds of directions. Then the fireworks went off signalling the start of the event. For some reason these fireworks were much less about pretty lights and much more about extremely loud bangs and whistles.

Against a backdrop of explosions in the sky we found another tout who was again mostly selling Sector 6 but also had two tickets for Sector 1. These were double the price but we thought ‘1’ has got to be better than ‘6’ right? That was our only rational for again breaking our budget.

It eased our minds somewhat that these key-card tickets came wrapped in plastic and sealed with official looking paper. We ran to the stadium eager to take our places and excited to catch the first performance.

It was then that we were told that our entrance was on the other side of the stadium. We were told to walk 10 minutes to the metro, take it one stop, then walk another 10 minutes to our gate. For the next half an hour I felt like Charlie with the golden ticket negotiating his way to the Chocolate Factory through thousands of others looking for a way in.

But we eventually made it. The contrast between outside and inside was considerable. From the hellish, dark and dangerous exterior to the heavenly, fervent and fabulous Sambadromo.

We missed the first 45 minutes of the parade but we needn’t have worried – the show lasts for eight hours!

What you may not know (and I certainly didn’t before I got to Brazil) is that the parade, which runs over two nights, is actually a contest between the top 12 Samba schools in the region. Each school gets between 65 and 80 minutes to strut their stuff on their chosen theme with scores attributed for costume, music, design and enthusiasm. The winner receives money and glory whilst the loser is relegated and will not be allowed back the following year. It is taken very seriously.

By the time we arrived they were still only halfway through the first school. We took our places and were relieved to find that Sector 1 was indeed the first stand so we got to see the parades at their energetic best (we later found out sector 6 is the last and worst place to sit).

The parade itself is an incredible viewing experience. I don’t think I’ve said ‘wow’ (and meant it) more times in my life. Every single costume is a work of art and there are over a hundred thousand of them. The floats themselves are magnificent marvels of theatre and engineering.

Knowing two people who were taking part made it even more special. Leo’s school, which had chosen Religion as its theme, was on second. After a glorious parade of bopping Muslims, swinging Sikhs, and dancing Jews we saw Leo and Nino get into the Hare Krishna groove. Nino was sitting in the lotus position on top of a lifesize model of an elephant and Leo was throwing some lively shapes above him.

The third school was even more impressive (sorry Leo). They had chosen movies as their theme and the arrays of Godfather gangsters, Dick Tracy cops and Caribbean pirates did not disappoint. But the highlight was the Superheroes. Any float that features eight Spidermen climbing up one side and four Batmen skiing down the other gets my vote.

The next school was a disappointment. They had chosen Mexico as their theme and failed embarrassingly with an attempted recreation of Frida Kahlo’s life featuring inaudible am-dram singing. It was at this point, after four hours and at 2am, that we decided to drag our tired bodies home (earlier in the day we had trekked to a waterfall and up a mountain with a stunning view across Rio and it was now taking its toll).

We had only seen four of the schools but we were more than satisfied, especially after making it home in the early hours without getting mugged. It was made even more special when we found out that we had seen the winning act – the Tijuca school with their movie parade. We agreed with the judges as the superhero samba proved to be one of the highlights of our Rio stay.

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One Response to “In Search of the Golden Tickets”

  1. Darren Cutler Says:

    All the way to Rio and still queuing “nightmare” , but sounds worth all the effort to see the carnival. 🙂

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