In this crowd of what felt to be hundreds, for once, Saika felt glad to be lost in the wildly moving bodies of the crowd as they partied to loud drums and thrilling samba music. Compared to a smaller party where you were noticed more – judged more – Sanjana found peace in the feeling of being lost in exhilaration without anyone to watch. People were handing out cold beer, which Sanjana politely rejected, and a leaflet she had been given earlier by a polite woman was crumpled in her pocket. The leaflets were handed out so people could follow the Portuguese lyrics of the Samba songs that played.
She looked around at the sea of colour before her. Here she was, living out her fantasies, attending one of the most legendary parties in the most gorgeous city in the world.
Her best friend, Saika, told her the Brazilian Carnival was registered as the biggest carnival in the Guinness Book of World Records. Saika was a history nut, and she had a thing for collecting random facts. The carnival was her latest obsession because her mom had been Brazillian. According to her, over two million people and half a million foreigners attend the Carnival each year. The festivity has long evolved since the 1600s when it was rumoured to be a celebration in honour of Greek and Roman gods. Now, it is a celebration that marks the start of Lent, a Roman Catholic tradition, which is a 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that begins on Ash Wednesday.
Many people travel to the Carnival to breathe in the always-moving spectacle. The Carnival they were celebrating was in Rio de Janeiro. This city entices millions of visitors through its natural ecosystems (think Amazonian Rain Forest), carnival, samba, bossa nova, and balneário beaches such as Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, and Ipanema. This was exactly why Saika had dragged her to the carnival just as spring vacation from her medical school started. Sanjana had always dreamed of the beauty of Rio ever since she watched her first National Geographic documentary on Brazil.
Sanjana broke out from her thoughts and grabbed her best friend’s soft hand, who was dancing next to her. With interlocked fingers, both young women giggled in jubilation, covered in a seductive mix of sweat and perfume as they danced. They were participating in one of the local blocos taking place in the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the 10-day celebration of the Carnival.
Sanjana laughed to herself when she remembered asking Saika what a bloco was. They were both relaxing at Sanjana’s house when Saika showed her the planner she made a full two weeks before their vacation.
“You already planned all this?” Sanjana had said, quirking her eyebrow. On the inside though, she hadn’t expected anything less from her best friend.
While you may have heard of this famous city in popular movies like Rio, it is unlikely you have never heard of a ‘blocos’ before. Blocos are boisterous and wild street parties that happen during the Carnival. These parties are planned by individuals, and each party has its unique theme. The bands are allowed to play joyful samba music.
After Sanjana saw all the planning Saika had done in advance, she thought it would be good if she helped out too. So, she searched up some local blocos during carnival. Sanjana didn’t know the official numbers, but she found an article saying one of the most popular blocos, bola preta, has nearly a million attendees. Sanjana would never tell Saika this, but she was afraid that if they even went near the Bola Preta, Sanjana would be drowned in a mass of a million bodies and lose Saika forever. But this is one of those mindless worries Sanjana planned on keeping to herself.
Speaking of Saika, she was wearing one of the many outfits she bought yesterday from the shopping trip to the Botafogo Praia Mall which was located deep in the bustling city. Saika danced in a lily-white wrap-around skirt and a cherry red summer top. The outfit highlighted her dark tan skin, fierce dark chocolate eyes, and her brown curls with honey-blonde streaks pooled on top of her head in a bun. Saika also boasted about her superior linguistic understanding of Portuguese which was why she was their designated tour guide.
On the other hand, Sanjana was in her early twenties and overloaded with studies for her examinations in Medical School. Saika had been concerned with how hard Sanjana had been pushing herself. A few months ago, Sanjana hadn’t felt capable of putting a stop to how much work she gave herself. If she had free time, she felt this intense urge to fill it up with more work. She hadn’t stopped putting this much pressure on herself even as she passed out in her dorm room from exhaustion and lack of food. Saika hadn’t told Sanjana this, but she had pulled her best friend away from her studies so Sanjana’s mental health could ease up.
Saika hoped Sanjana wasn’t going to regret running away from the stony castle that was her Medical School and, instead, make the most of this moment they felt blessed to live in.
Sweating profusely and face blushing from the heat of April’s blazing summer sun – along with some other elevating feelings welling up in her chest that she did not want to acknowledge – Sanjana pulled out her Samsung Phone and opened up a checklist in her notes app titled, “Activities to do in Rio de Janeiro”.
“Can you show me what else we have to do on our to-do list?” Sanjana exclaimed, handing her phone to Saika who was breathing fast from all the dancing. Saika scrolled through the list while Sanjana’s chin rested on Saika’s shoulder.
“Yeah, I’ll show you. But we should probably start walking away free here, we’ve been dancing for almost two hours,” Saika showed her all the dates, addresses, facts, and places she had written down and then started leading Sanjana past the crowd of celebrating people, “Our next stop is to try this street food stand by the beach. I already know the way there.”
While they walked, Sanjana’s eyes scanned the to-do list in amazement, “Wow…you made our plans super detailed huh. My little manager.” Sanjana teased animatedly, fingers pointing at the checkbox with the words ‘Samba parade’, “This sounds amazing.”
“It gets even better. Here let me show you what I found on the internet.” Saika exclaimed, scrolling to the bottom where she had asked Sanjana to put all the history links Saika had texted.
Saika clicked on a link titled, ‘Mystery of the Carnival: How did it dazzle its way into the world spotlight.’ Saika looked at Sanjana’s curiosity and her face broke into a giddy smile.
“You already know how much I love history. I wanted to show you this while we walked to the beach. This is all the history behind how the carnival first started. It starts with worshipping Greek and Roman myths, then becomes focused on the Catholic Church, and then later on the aristocracy. Now it’s a celebration everyone can celebrate.”
“Saika, okay, okay. I’ll listen to your 11-minute history nerd rant.”
“Just you wait, it’ll be a lot more than eleven minutes,” Saika said, smirking, before clearing her throat and reading from the article she picked out, “Dubbed the most legendary show of the year, the Carnival never fails to delight the locals or the tourists. But did you know that the Carnival was originally a Greek festival? The evolution of this fantastical tradition began as a spring festival in honour of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. The Romans then adopted this tradition from the Greeks, using it to celebrate Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Saturnalia, an ancient ‘day off from work’ festival.”
“This is giving me mega Percy Jackson vibes.” Sanjana interrupted.
Saika shook her head and pretended to be annoyed, before starting to read again “Later, the Carnival shifted to the Catholic Church’s influence when the Portuguese colonizers, who were predominantly Catholic, arrived in Brazil in the early 1600s. The Rio Carnival became a festival used to celebrate the time before the Catholic tradition of Lent, a 40-day fasting period. The Carnival started to include small balls and masquerade dances inspired by upper-class festivals in Europe.”
“Sounds fancy. Imagine me dressed as a Macaw.”
“AHEM. Fast forward to 1723, when the first real Carnival festivities began. People ventured onto the streets, throwing buckets of water, food, and mud, which often ended in street brawls. Throughout the 1800s, untamed street fights were replaced with more organized parades like the grandes Sociedades (great societies). The emperor and groups of aristocrats dined in masks and luxurious costumes. In the 1840s, masquerade balls set to the polkas and the waltz began to flourish in the streets. A decade later, horse-drawn floats and military bands became the star centre of the parade. Despite all this progress, one of the most important traditions was the pulsating rhythms gifted to us by the Africans. Since the 1600s, enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil, and since then African culture has become an important component of the heritage of Brazil. Afro-Brazilians brought samba and other eclectic mixes of song, music, and dances, into impoverished slums after slavery was abolished in 1888.”
“That’s kind of cool, so the whole carnival is made up of, like, different influences? Like European and African and then its own unique culture?
“Yup. So, by 1917, the samba became the beating heart of the carnival. Samba unifies others, bringing rich and poor together regardless of wealth. Even today, it’s sung in both the slums and high-class mansions.”
Saika put her hands on Sanjana’s shoulders in a fake dramatic fashion, “I know you’re going to remember none of my history rants later but this is the most important thing you need to know. The first Samba Schools were formed in 1928. From then on, theme songs, elaborate costumes, and vibrant floats became Carnival’s main attraction. The Samba Parade became the most popular event, and the grand Sambadrome was built by a world-famous architect. Together, the parades held in the Sambadrome have become the most spectacular event at this beautiful festival.”
Saika stopped reading mid-article as Sanjana’s brow creased at the last paragraph. “I can’t remember what I don’t know. What are Samba Schools? I thought the Carnival was just one giant parade?”
“Actually, Carnival has many different events. The Samba School is one of the biggest events which takes place at the Sambodromo here in Rio.” Saika gently corrects, scrolling to a checkbox titled ‘Visit the Samba Parade.’ and clicking on the link she had sent in preparation for Sanjana’s questions.
“Oh no, come on Saika, not MORE.”
“UHH yes ‘MORE’,” Saika said enthusiastically, ignoring Sanjana’s complaints. While Sanjana acted tired of Saika’s explanations of carnival she was just pretending. She secretly loved how passionate Saika got when talking about stuff she liked.
“To continue, the Samba Parade is the event where the city’s numerous samba schools compete for the position of Grand Champion. Each Rio carnival samba school performs to a unique samba song and different samba themes. Performances are made up of dancers, singers, a percussion group, and other musicians. All eyes are on the Samba Parades at the Sambadrome during carnival days. This competition happens at the Sambodrome. When thinking of the Sambodrome, imagine a 2300 ft stretch of Marquês de Sapucaí street converted into a permanent parade ground with bleachers built on either side that can carry 90,000 people.”
“Are we going to go to the Sambodrome?”
“Yes, we’re going today. It’s the main event of the carnival. We have to get ready after we get food. Anyway, now, let me finish, I am almost done. The Samba schools usually belong to a particular neighbourhood or in some cases to a ‘favela’ which is the name given to a shanty town in Brazil. In Rio, the Samba schools mainly consist of volunteers from the local neighbourhood, usually a slum or shanty town. Within these impoverished communities, samba schools create a sense of meaning, identity, and belonging.”
“That sounds nice,” said Sanjana with a smile at Saika having to gasp for breath after reading that whole article.
“Yeah. My cousin lives in Brazil. She’s actually going to be competing in the Samba parade.”
“Oh, wow, Are we going to see her?”
“Yeah, this is what she’ll be wearing.” Saika pulled out her phone and opened up a photo of her cousin.
“Gosh, you’ve come prepared with all the notes, and the pictures ready in advance,” Sanjana noted, “I’m loving this dedication on yo-WOW.” Sanjana gasped. In the photo, Sanjana saw Fabiana had hair as black as a tuxedo with oily curls reaching down to her waist, but she had the same eyes and skin tone as Saika. Her dress had been inspired by the legendary phoenix. It was grand, the bottom flowed out into a ball gown that was open from the front and left a small trail in the back. She wore an extravagant feathered crown that was covered with feathers twice as long as Fabiana’s head. The crown was beaded with massive ruby jewels and made Fabiana look like a queen going to rule a kingdom. The top part of her dress was a golden amber colour that shined radiant with applause and had four triangular, dark sunset orange stripes. Her bodice was covered in cinnamon sequins and sunflower yellow glitter and her hair was braided through with scarlet ribbons.
“Wow.” Sanjana breathed.
“You’ve already said that twice. Come on, I need something more original from you,” Saika teased.
“She looks incredible. Do we have to come dressed like this?”
“Only the Samba School performers have to wear a costume. We can dress up if you like. My tia has some old dresses she used to wear at the Carnival and we can put something together. We’re already going to pick up some traditional Brazilian street food but then afterwards we’ll go back to my tia’s house.”
“Yeah, sure. I love trying new food, so I am down for anything.”
Saika nodded and began pulling another article from her to-do list so she could continue rambling on, “There’s a lot of really popular stands near the beaches or in the Lapa neighbourhood-”
“Hey, Saika?” Sanjana interrupted.
“…What does tia mean?”
“It means aunt in Portuguese. Who do you think I was talking about this whole time when I told you where we would stay the night?”
“Uhhhhh.” Saika shook her head at Sanjana in amusement.
Fast forward 30 minutes and they were at the Copacabana beach getting food from a kind man running a local Brazilian food stall. “Here you go! I hope you like it. Here in Brazil, we try to make each bite with a lot of love,” said the man, whose name we learned was Felipe.
Sanjana’s heart warmed delightfully when she watched Saika’s cheery smile biting into her Oswaldo Aranha Filet which was served with fried garlic, fried Portuguese potatoes, and eggs farofa. She had offered to pay for the meal since Saika was already paying to get her entry into one of the Carnival Balls. Sanjana shook herself out of her trance (why was she in a trance anyway? Sanjana thought to herself) and went back to figuring out what she wanted to eat. She was indecisive, but who could blame her, there was so much tasty food.
She tried to remember what Saika was telling her about Brazilian street food on their way here. The most famous Brazilian dish is the Feijoada which is eaten in every corner of the city. This is a rich and hearty stew consisting of black beans, cuts of pork, tomatoes, cabbage, and carrots.
Another food that is considered a popular breakfast food is the Pão de Queijo which is fluffy cheese bread. The Pão de Queijo originally started as a popular food enslaved Africans would eat and it branched out into Brazilian culture after abolition. Acarajé with Vatapá is another food that stems from African Heritage. This is essentially spicy, African-style falafel. Acarajé is made from mashed black-eyed peas and onions which are then moulded into scone-like shapes and stuffed with Vatapá, which is a spicy paste made from shrimp, and other ingredients. Other essential staples in Brazil are Cassava chips and Cafezinho which is Brazilian coffee.
Saika tapped Sanjana’s shoulder when she noticed the mild panic Sanjana was having over this decision. Sanjana looked up to see both Saika and Felipe staring at her kindly. They understood that Sanjana wasn’t trying to take a long time to choose, she just didn’t want to waste this opportunity by picking something she didn’t like
“I think you’d like this,” Saika said, pointing to a picture on the food stall which displayed the dish, “That is Bolinhos de Bacalhau, which are fried cod cakes. It started as a dish brought by Portuguese immigrants.”
Felipe chimed in and pointed to another picture, “Yes, if you’re looking for main dishes we also have the Picanha which is barbecued beef that is taken from the upper sirloin steak. A lot of people here really like our Coxinha too. It’s like a fried crunchy chicken croquette.”
Felipe pulled out a small menu too and explained, “If you just want dessert though, we have Açai na Tigela. It is a frozen açai palm fruit mashed into a smoothie and served in a bowl or a glass. Brigadeiros are chocolates made from milk, butter, and cocoa powder and covered in pistachios or coconut flakes. I also just added this Pastel de Queijo which is a deep-fried cheese pastry that can be stuffed with ground beef, chicken, or melting cheese or covered in chocolate, caramel, and tropical fruits. It can be both sweet and savoury. If you feel like coming back here for more food, just come anytime.”
Sanjana sucked up her indecision and chose the Coxinha. She also got some Brigadeiros to share with Saika for later. But she knew she was definitely coming back to this food stall later just so she could try more food and talk to Felipe. Sanjana felt Saika grab her hand and turn her around; before them lay the golden sands and shimmering waters of the Copacabana beach. “Oh, I forgot we were here too,” Sanjana said as Saika led her over to the sand, which felt so nice under her toes, “Aren’t we supposed to go back to your tia’s house?”
“Mmmmm, later. Don’t you wanna eat here though?”
“Sure,” Sanjana responded. Saika beamed and turned back to her food which was only a quarter of the way finished. Saika started telling her about some of the coolest places to see in Rio.
“Okay so, just some description but this is only one of two of Rio’s famous beaches. The other one is Ipanema beach. While Copacabana is perfect for taking viral photos, Ipanema is a more chic beach. On both beaches, you will find crystal blue ocean waters that are refreshing to the touch. Next to the beaches are some of Rio’s trendiest neighbourhoods, street food stands, and beach kiosks selling traditional artwork and jewellery. Around an hour’s drive from here would take us to the edge of Corcovado mountain. At the top of the mountain is the Christ the Redeemer statue. It’s like 90 feet tall and its arms stretch 90 feet wide. It’s a humanoid statue and it’s meant to be Jesus Christ. It’s also a world-famous UNESCO heritage site. You’d probably remember the statue from the Rio movie series.”
“Are we going to go see it?”
“Yup, but only after the ball and the samba parade. We also need to tour the Lapa neighbourhood but that could take a whole day because of how much there is to do. This neighbourhood is the ‘historical heart’ and one of the most magical places in Rio. Think of twinkling nightlife and handsome colonial buildings from the 1700s that have now been converted into antique stores and restaurants.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” Sanjana responded, “Thank you for putting so much effort into all this.”
“Duh, of course. I think you deserve it,” Saika said with a soft look. The girls finished their food and walked across the beach for a bit. Now they were heading back to Saika’s tia’s place. “Hey, you mentioned a ball right?” Sanjana said, breaking the comfortable silence.
“Yeah, it’s one of the Rio Carnival balls.”
“What are those about?” Sanjana let a smirk out, “Can you show me an article about it?”
“Mmmmm, I am kind of tired of reading, to be honest.”
“No, I could never get tired of reading, you should know this,” Saika said solemnly but Sanjana knew she was kidding, “Okay so according to what I researched earlier, the Rio Carnival balls are some of the most extravagant events throughout the whole carnival. They range from outrageous fun to more sophisticated nights. The balls happen at various venues dotted throughout the city and dressing up under the cover of a masquerade mask is all part of the fun.”
“Ohhhh!” Sanjana said excitedly, “I have heard of those before! There’s one like the Oscars right?”
“Yeah, it’s just as glamorous as the Oscars. It’s called the Magic Ball at the Copacabana Palace. You’ll see celebrities and wealthy businessmen dressing in expensive tuxedos and glamorous dresses. People like Paris Hilton have attended and the ticket is ridiculously expensive. Luckily, many other balls are more affordable to get into, such as the Cordão do Bola Preta Carnival Ball. This ball is dedicated to the famous samba street band Cordão do Bola Preta and includes live performances during the event.”
“Are you bringing a date?” Sanjana asked all of a sudden.
Saika stopped her description of what her ideal violet ball gown would look like when they would attend a Carnival ball. “No…I came here to hang out with you.” She explained curiously, “Why? Are you thinking of going with someone?”
“Uh no, I was just wondering. A ball seems like a great place to have fun with someone.”
“Yeah, well, I am going to have fun with you.”
Sanjana decided to change the subject. “Are we gonna be at your tia’s place soon?”
Saika paused and looked around as though she hadn’t been paying attention to her surroundings for a minute. “Oh yeah, it’s right there, come on.” Sanjana waved her best friend’s mild confusion off with a slight laugh and dared Saika to race her to the house before Saika broke into another passionate rant. They got inside and after saying hi to Saika’s tia, Saika dragged her best friend upstairs. They had to get to the carnival early because the streets would be blocked up so both of them were already picking out their outfits.
Sanjana felt her insides do a happy dance when she heard Saika’s gasp of excitement as Sanjana stepped out of the bathroom. Sanjana twirled her cornflower-blue skirt and watched how the skirt floated around. She had chosen to wear a satiny blue dress with a heavy mask coated in fake sapphires and pearls. To top off the outfit, she had picked these comfortable azure blue flats Saika’s Tia owned. The shoes had dark blue ribbons that would wrap around her legs and make her feel like a fairy. Sanjana felt a little less bold in her outfit compared to the pictures Saika had shown of other traditional, flamboyant parade costumes, but she felt good in her skin. She felt alive with her best friend, clothed in a spectacular dress, and in a dazzling city. She had been so bogged down by work and life, that she hadn’t noticed she hadn’t been happy.
Sanjana grabbed Saika’s hand before she went into the bathroom and smiled when she saw Saika was carrying a violet dress she had been hoping to wear. Sanjana had remembered that was Saika’s favourite colour because it was the same one her mom loved. “Thank you for bringing me here. I feel like I got so busy with my medical studies that I wasn’t focusing on anything else in my life. It was just straight work for hours on end. I didn’t realize it until now but I felt like a machine. Now, it feels like there’s colour in my life again. Thank you for all this. I love you.”
Saika smiled, “Of course, you’re my best friend. I have to go change so we can hurry up and be there on time because they block off the roads for the parade. We’ll talk about this later. I love you too.” Saika squeezed Sanjana’s. But that was only for a split second and then Saika was gone into the bathroom so she could change.
‘Oh no…” Sanjana thought, feeling a weird happy dance in her chest, “I might have a new problem to deal with.” But for now, instead of getting trapped in a spiral of her own overthinking, Sanjana pushed those potentially painful thoughts aside. All she wanted to do was lose herself in the moment; in the dancing, the music, the food, and the beautiful streets of Rio.