With both of us marginally recovered we began our longest overseas journey yet, from Germany to Brazil. With 2 stops we got a stepwise reintroduction to warm weather and short sleeves. We’ve been to New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and aside from clips on television, we had only a vague idea of what lay ahead at Rio’s Carnival. The first thing we noticed was the traffic. Our cab driver warned us ahead of time. We looked at the traffic online and the whole city seemed to glow red. Our 15 minute ride took over an hour and a half. The second thing we noticed was Portuguese. There were few Spanish speakers and even less obliged us with English. In fact, Brazil seemed to speak the least English of any country we visited thus far. Portuguese is tough. From pronunciation to vocabulary we were unprepared and slow to learn. Our real time translator was not too helpful. It uses promising technology that needs refinement. It seems to make menu items particularly unappetizing. Tripadvisor has been good to us. With a grain of salt, we’ve found enjoyable meals throughout the world. The locations have been inexplicably inaccurate with their map feature, but the more reviews, the more reliable the impressions. Understandably, hours of operation may be harder to keep track of. This is especially true during holidays and off-season in remote areas. We have struck out more than once, but three strikes and we were out after climbing all the way up to Santa Teresa and we settled at what looked like a neighborhood institution. It had dust on fixtures so thick it had to be old. To our dismay the rice was flavorless; the pickles were mushy; and the fries were soggy. It was no surprise there were no stray cats hanging around outside. I wish I could say that was our worst culinary experience in Rio, but the list is long. From pathetic sandwiches resembling Po-boys to thick flavorless steaks, the punishment came in many forms. Kilograma is a pay-by-weight buffet popular all times of day. From a distance it all looked fairly appetizing, but even at arms length the truth began to reveal itself. It could only be described as poor-quality hospital food. The only redeeming quality was the strongest Caiparinhas (local cocktail) in the city. Fear not. There were some gems in the city. With its sizzling pot of meats and sides of greens, potatoes, and manioc we enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of the traditional feijoada. Restaurante Aprazivel stood up to expectations. Amazonia Soul in Ipanema serves real Açai instead of the sugar-infused frozen mush. And even in a culture so dependent on meat, we found delicious vegetarian fair at Gaia Art & Cafe, on the Northeast end of Copacabana. “Pardon our dust,” must seem unnecessary in Brazil as our hotel made no mention of the ongoing remodel. It is beyond me why they didn’t have this done any week of the year besides Carnival. We thought we’d be unaffected from the sanctity of our air conditioned room, but – lo and behold – wifi worked only from the lobby, and marginally at that. There wasn’t even a front door yet! No malaria concerns in Rio, but dengue runs rampant and the hotel’s “open-door” policy brought us back to nature with the mosquitos. No big deal, except nobody wants to watch someone swat at mosquitos during a videoconference. With work out of the way we set out to experience Carnival. We ambled along the beach fronts and strolled the streets of Copacabana and Ipanema partaking in the drunken chaos. By day the blocos (block parties) paraded through the streets as a dancing mob. By night sun-baked and alcohol-infused bodies amplified the energy with dance anywhere there was a beat. Antarctica beer was sold every 10 feet and cans discarded by revelers were quickly recovered by others collecting for return money. In every group someone always carried a bottle of warm Smirnoff to sustain the consummate buzz. The most macho men dressed in the skimpiest dresses and strangers made out at every intersection. The balmy weather and sexually charged culture encouraged most costumes to be “barely there,” while others resembled a cheap Halloween with Mario Bros’ likeness the most popular this year. For two nights in a row rain crashed the party and flooded the streets. The sloppy-drunk costume-clad and near-naked only danced harder to keep warm in the rain. All was well until the reality of returning home set in. Buses were chocked full of sopping wet boozers and fist fights broke out over taxis. We had been tipping well previously to stock up on “cab-karma,” and it worked. We made it back to the city center without much difficulty. Each night we returned safely we let out a sigh of relief. We had received multiple warnings of mugging, armed robbery, and even violent crime. We were told to carry a wad of singles to throw at a robber before you run. We hid credit cards and big bills in our shoes. We carried info cards from our hotel with numbers for the tourism police and closest hospital. I survived a close call with an IPA. We found refuge from the rain in a corner restaurant. It kept us dry and gave us front row seats to watch the drunk and now soaking wet bacchanalia flow through the streets. The rain let up and we were ready to move on, but as I tipped back the last of my beer I felt something drop onto the floor of my mouth. Luckily, it partially embedded itself and I managed to resist swallowing the foreign and unexpected object. To both my dismay and relief I removed a sickle-shaped shard from my mouth. Apparently, twist-off tops are not used as directed as our waiter had popped the top instead. There’s no love for Detroit in Brazil. NY Yankee’s hats dominate the recognizable American apparel, although Chicago Bull’s jerseys take a close second with mostly Derrick Rose number 1 and some classic Jordan 23. We rounded out our cultural tour with views of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and Pãn de Açúcar (Sugarloaf). A series of cable cars carry passengers atop Sugarloaf mountain for the best views of the city. And then there was the Sambadrome. We have little to compare this to in the US. Imagine a 10 hour halftime show complete with music, dancing, the most elaborate costumes and floats you’ve ever seen parade all night long for four nights in a row. Keep in mind this is a competition. The largest and most famous samba schools from all over the country compete to be recognized as champions each year. Their songs become anthems for years to come sung in the streets by all walks of life. We followed the flow of people that began almost a mile away. It was quiet in the streets but the air felt electric. We walked through dark alley ways and past makeshift bodegas until we reached the bright lights and security checkpoint. We proudly donned our sector 4 lanyards and breeched the entrance. We could hear the music, the crowd, and feel the rising energy ahead. Our first look at the half-mile long stage was unlike anything we’d seen before. I wept softly at the immense beauty and array of colors before my eyes. We had missed the first school’s presentation, but no worries, there was still 8 hours to be seen. The next school opened with parachuters streaming smoke and a six-story eagle. The energy consumed us, and soon we were singing along in Portuguese and dancing in the stands. Each samba school has as much as 82 minutes to traverse the Sambadrome. They play, sing, and dance to their song on repeat throughout their themed presentation. Classically structured with flag-bearing couples, drum lines, scantily-clad peacock inspired samba dancers, and hundreds upon hundreds of costumed paraders singing their hearts out between wildly elaborate floats. We felt guilty leaving before the show was over, but surprised to find it was past 4 am. We followed a flow of costume-clad paraders through a tunnel towards our hotel. They looked energized and exhausted at the same time. They looked both relieved and disappointed that the year’s worth of work had finally concluded. Costumes lay abandoned in the streets and I ended the night with a beer and cheeseburger from Bob’s burgers. It was both disgusting and delicious all the same. Rio’s Carnival was both exciting and exhausting. Obrigado Brasil.

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