24 February 2012

Balanço do Carnaval

Balanço do Carnaval

This was my second Carnaval experience in Rio. Much like the first, it changed the way I think about the city and about the possibilities of Carnaval to change space and the social order. The spatial element is easier, so let’s begin there.

I went to the Volta Alice bloco in Laranjeiras at 9am on Sunday meeting two friends. Volta Alice has a double meaning as the bloco does a Volta up the Rua Alice, a narrow passage up towards Santa Teresa and it also means come back, which it does every year. Thousands of people crammed into the narrow street, shuffling forward behind a massive samba-blasting beer can. Not a bloco to bring parents to, Volta Alice is a forward-moving mosh pit. Moving from side to side was only slightly less difficult than back to front. Retreating to the back would have taken about 10 minutes though tightly crammed and increasingly drunk, though always friendly revelers. It was hot and sweaty. When the beer can stopped rolling, the crowd’s density increased. By 10am beer had become a possibility, by 10:30 inevitable.

It was within this context that an ambulance doggedly tried to push through the bloco. Driving this rather impoverished looking conveyance was an elderly gentleman who insisted that he get up the hill to get to work. In the passenger seat, a woman on the phone chatted lightly. There was clearly no medical emergency underway though it seemed as if there would be soon. The bellowing fumes of exhaust poisoned revelers even faster than they could do it to themselves. The license plate was from São Paulo, the way clearly lost. Was there no police control at the entrance to Rua Alice? Why was this siren blasting in the middle of this sweaty, slowly moving wave? C’mon…

These otherwise excellent hats from Belo Horizonte were a poor option for a dense crowd.

People do love to cram together in sweaty lumps of flesh in Rio de Janeiro. I felt badly when my sweaty arm or back slathered those near me. I stepped on dozens of feet, knocked over a beer or two, and bumped roughly into well-muscled, chest-hairless Cariocas. I was one more beer-fueled, sun-soaked biped in a pulsing mass that I could not see the beginning or end of.  This is fun until the herd tries to take the same public transportation system or there is any kind of emergency.

Sargento Pimento is the Portuguese translation of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. Last year this bloco was a disaster because so many people tried to cram in the small side streets of Botafogo and no one could even get close to the music. This year the good Sergeant was moved to the Aterro do Flamengo and it was still a disaster.

The sound car was terrible, you had to be within 100 meters to hear anything. I talked with a professional stage hand who said he was “embarrassed for them”.

The cell system crashed. With that many people trying to find each other there were probably 100,000 SMS messages a minute bouncing around. None of them made it to their intended destination. Thousands never met up with their friends.

Though I didn’t see it myself, the anecdotal reports from the end of Sargento Pimento were that the Gloria and Catete metro stations were utter chaos. If something went wrong, a fight, heart attack, birth, not as many people would be singing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds next year.  How many people gave each other nerbvous looks, thinking, “Imagina a Copa…” Imagine what this will be like in 2014. Let’s hope the emergency systems aren’t tied to the cell towers?

We clearly need to figure out a better method for measuring crowds, but there were certainly as many as 40,000 and perhaps as many as 90,000 (my guesses) at the bloco (any suggestions on crowd counting techniques welcome). Imagine a stadium full of people emptying all at once into two metro stations that run along one line and most of those people heading south. That’s the situation that unfolded after Sargento Pimenta.

I heard at a debate earlier this year, “Praia não tem catraca.” The beach doesn’t have a turnstile. This means that it’s impossible to control access to Rio’s major public spaces. When you invite millions and they come, you need to be ready to handle it. We’re a long way from that in Rio.

It’s clear that Rio Metrô is not a mega-system. On Monday night as we went to the Sambodrômo via Metrô, there was only one attendant at the Flamengo station and both of the automatic tellers for recharging the metro card were broken. The Metrô is a scandal disguised as a model of successful, privatized urban governance.

There was a sophomoric element to this year’s Carnaval. The tv and radio campaigns to stop people peeing in the street were backed up with more toilets. The arrests for peeing in the street seem stupid, but they did allow for guys to shout “Polícia!” at their friends. Funny the first time.

Despite the lack of traffic control at Volta Alice, there was a greater police presence this year than last. I didn’t really notice them too much when I wasn’t looking for them. Relative to the policing tactics that I have seen in Austin, Texas this is a pretty hands-off approach. When the hands get you though, it’s not good. Why arrest people for peeing? Can’t you write them tickets? Perhaps because there’s no ticket to give, the cops aren’t there to bust people, they’re there to make sure there’s a limit to the possibilities of Carnaval. OGlobo seemed to take a perverse delight in showing the effectinve policing tactics of the police by reporting on how many people were arrested per day for peeing in the street. While peeing strategies are essential for making it through the party, reporting pee-arrests as front page news should also come with a criminal penalty.

Carnaval confuses, confounds and delights in many of the same ways that the city does. The party is stretched out over two weeks, marking the end of summer and the official beginning of the year. It’s seemingly endless, overwhelmingly large, too much to take in. It seems both too near and too far any to get any focus on. Millions are in their neighborhoods dancing and singing where they usually work, go shopping, sit in traffic. There is an apparent liberty of expression that is both constrained and amplified. Rio’s aggressive sexuality is validated, making public life even more uncomfortable for women. The social production of fantasy takes physical form on women's bodies who do incredible things to (butt and bust implants, bigger thighs than footballers) and with their bodies; girls imitate their elders. 

There is a common sentiment that nothing gets done between xmas and Carnaval, but this isn’t really true. People work their asses off to make the party happen. There are tens of thousands of beer vendors, making their investment back R$1 at a time, lugging ice through crowds, pushing heavy carts, and negotiating with drunks.  I don’t know how to estimate the number of aluminum cans consumed, but it is surely in the tens of millions. Plastic bottles? Sustainable tourism? Overload of sewage systems? Who cleans all this mess up? Can it really get bigger and bigger and bigger until 2016?

Once there, the pageantry and beauty of the samba schools was amazing. The creativity, detail, beauty, and coordination filled me with wonder. The Unidos da Tijuca floats were some of the most incredible things I have seen, mindboggling testaments to the creative possibilities of Carioca society. I’m under no allusions of pureza but as a spectacle in-and-of-itself, wow.

As if to remind us that the year is about to really begin, Sunday marks the end of summer hours in Brazil. The long slide into a short winter has begun.

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