As Carnival fever seizes Rio, some seek escape

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm •  Published: February 8, 2013
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As samba queens get final touch-ups on their sequins and feathers and hundreds of thousands of revelers take command of Rio's streets for Carnival's opening on Friday, Leo Name is hunkering down. The self-avowed Carnival Scrooge has stocked up on frozen TV dinners and hopes he won't have to set foot outside his apartment during the five days of festivities.

Appalled by the monumental proportions that street parties have taken on in recent years with the influx of an estimated half million visitors to the city of 6 million people, many locals flee Rio or lock themselves away for the duration.

Fans of Carnival dismiss them as blasphemous curmudgeons. But Name and others like him insist theirs is a rational response to an event that shutters businesses, snarls traffic and sees public spaces overrun by beer-guzzling revelers who think any place is a good space to urinate.

"Over the past years, the crowds have gotten so thick that I couldn't even make it to the metro and wasn't able to buy bread at the supermarket, which is literally downstairs from my place," said Name, a geography professor at Rio's Pontific Catholic University. "I felt like I was under siege."

It wasn't always like that. For decades, Rio was fairly calm during Carnival. Residents who could afford it took advantage of the public holiday to go on vacation, and the city's pace slowed. Carnival celebrations were mostly restricted to the well-regimented parades at the Sambadrome, where spectators now pay from $78 to $1,032 a person to marvel at the over-the-top floats, the musicians' unflagging enthusiasm and the fancy footwork of dancers decked out in not much more than a sprinkling of rhinestones and a puff of ostrich feathers.

"When I was a kid, I used to go to three, four or even five movies a day during Carnival because the cinemas had these special discounts to try to drum up an audience," said the 35-year-old Name. "It was great. The city was empty, the metro was empty, the streets were empty, and there were no lines anywhere."

But Carnival has spilled into Rio's streets with the resurgence of "blocos" — raucous, heavy-drinking street parties that regularly draw tens or hundreds of thousands of people. This year, organizers are hoping Rio's biggest bloco, "Bola Preta," or Black Ball, which in 2012 attracted an estimated 2 million people to the historic city center, will enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's biggest street party.

Far removed from the polished, highly produced glitz of the Sambadrome, blocos are come-one-come-all events that many people say embody the authentic, popular spirit of Carnival. Organized by clubs or neighborhood associations, they draw participants from all walks of life and social classes. While a handful of the most established blocos date back nearly a century, themed street parties have proliferated in recent years, including ones for Michael Jackson fans, Beatles enthusiasts and a canine extravaganza for dogs and their owners, all decked out in extravagant costumes.

Revelers converge at a designated meeting point for a bloco and then the tide floods through neighboring streets as partiers dance and sing along to music blasting from sound trucks. Prodigious amounts of beer keep spirits high, although it also results in an epidemic of public urination, much to the chagrin of city officials.

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