x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Transformed by Carnival magic

The nomad On the first day of Carnival in Copacabana, thousands of people hang around and dance wildly on the roads, pavements and on the public benches.

Dancers from the Imperio Serrano samba school perform at the Sambadrome, a place in Rio de Janeiro designed by Oscar Niemeyer where samba schools compete each year during Carnival.
Dancers from the Imperio Serrano samba school perform at the Sambadrome, a place in Rio de Janeiro designed by Oscar Niemeyer where samba schools compete each year during Carnival.

On the first day of Carnival I headed to a party in Copacabana with Brian and James, two friends from Britain, and four of their friends. There were thousands of people hanging around and dancing wildly on the roads, pavements and on the public benches. Food stalls were scattered across the streets. All we could hear was trance and house music coming out of a speaker system placed on the back of an old, scratched-up lorry. Our group was soon joined by an Australian man and Anglo-Thai girl. After a night of extreme dancing we returned to our rented apartment at 4am.

On the second and third days of Carnival, we walked towards Ipanema beach where the main party was due to be taking place. On these nights the atmosphere was even livelier and wilder than the first. There were parades of people walking and dancing down the main stretch of the road, following another beaten up pickup vehicle that, once again, had a speaker system fitted on the back. The main road had been closed to traffic with the exemption of police cars and rubbish trucks. We followed the crowd dancing along to the folk Brazilian music that was being played. People were dressed up in outrageous costumes: the number of men dressed up as women was surprising. Others were dressed up as dogs and cats complete with a tail, fur and whiskers. The majority of women wore bikini tops and skirts with angel wings around their backs and halos around their heads. I stuck to the simple but patriotic option of having the UAE flag painted on my cheek.

I really enjoyed the second and third days of Carnival because of the parties taking place on the main beach itself, where there were about five different stands playing music that varied from electro to drum 'n' bass. On the fourth day of Carnival, at about 10pm, we headed to Lapa. Lapa has a reputation for being more dangerous than either Ipanema or Copacabana. There are quite a few pickpockets in the area and you have to keep your belongings safe at all times. A few of Brian's friends later told us they had their cash snatched from their pockets while walking through the parade and they did not even realise it at the time. I made sure I never took out more than the equivalent of US$35 (Dh130) whenever I went out and luckily, avoided trouble.

Lapa was by far the most exciting place we had been to during Carnival. The streets were just as crowded as those in Ipanema and Copacabana but they had an authentic feel to it in the sense that they lacked the pretentiousness of the previous places and as a result felt more local and less touristy. Different parties were going on, all featuring different themes. I heard a group of people playing the samba while walking slowly along the streets and alleyways and I decided to check the party out - it was by far the best. There is something about the rhythm of the samba that gets you dancing. Each player has his or her own drum and hits it hard with their drumstick at intervals. The assortment of beats drives the crowd wild with energy. I pushed in straight to the front of the crush walking along the alleyways with the samba players, dancing constantly till I felt exhausted - again, I dropped at around 4am.

The following day, we got to Saquarema during the early hours of the afternoon. It was just the type of relaxed small town we needed to stay after Carnival. We spent the next three days eating seafood and surfing at the Itauna beach, where the waves reached three metres high. Saquarema is a very small town about 100km north-east of Rio and is not considered to be one of the main tourist attractions.

We then decided it was time to go back to Rio to watch the six samba school finalists perform at Sambadrome. We checked back into the Rio Backpackers hostel (www.riobackpackers.com.br), where we were able to buy tickets at a cost of $160 (Dh588) each and headed straight to the Sambadrome. For six hours we watched the six samba school finalists perform their parades. The costumes and sets were out of this world as were the routines, which consisted of dancing, gymnastics and samba playing. What really amazed me more than anything else were the massive robotic sets that were built for this once-a-year event. These robots that the performers were dancing on were huge, with wheels and faces that were designed with the most intricate detail. The eyes, mouth and head of the robots moved constantly, and it felt as if you were actually looking at a real-life person whose head size was three or four times the size of your own body. I was disorientated but exhilarated. Next week: Omar reports from Saalbach in Austria.