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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

Even though we have been in Copacabana for 3 weeks, we still feel like doing the walking tour would be interesting, because, let’s face it, we mostly know the only beach, bars and restaurants! I’m surprised to learn that there are nearly 800,000 people living in Copacabana alone. That’s insane - there are only around a million people in Calgary, but it’s so spread out that it never feels that busy. When technology started getting better and they were able to make roads and blast through mountains to get to this part of the city, it quickly became one of the most desirable places to live. I wonder why……

When we cross over into Ipanema, we walk along the sidewalk near the beach. Street vendors line the walkway selling all kinds of exquisite handmade jewelry, souvenirs and trinkets. It pains me to walk by without stopping, but I know we will be back. Last time I was here I got the most beautiful woven necklace with blue beads that always starts a conversation. My favourite souvenir is always jewelry - something you can use, (ok, show off) and it's usually affordable and light enough to carry around with you.

We cross over into the city that borders the beach and stop in front of Garota de Ipanema. This is the bar/restaurant where the famous song, The Girl From Ipanema, was written. They would sit in the bar, which has open spaces in place of windows, and watch her go by every day on the way to the beach. It’s kind of a cool story - an actual girl was the inspiration for the song that became such a huge hit - and here she walked, and it’s even more interesting to me since seeing her at the Copacabana Palace at the Magic Ball. 

Afterwards, we walk on towards the lagoon and see a tiny bit of sun behind the thick rain clouds. I imagine on a clear day, the sunset here would be perfection. When I look across to my right, I spy Christ the Redeemer again. I don't know how he does it, but everywhere I go I find him somewhere different than I would expect. I think he's following me.....

We end the day at a Brazilian BBQ. These are my favourite restaurants here - you basically get to eat as much meat and sides as you want for one price - yes, usually a big price, but it’s so worth it. The way they cook their beef in Brazil, particularly the picanha cut, the most popular one here, is perfection. We sit down and the waiter explains that our red and green sided card tells the servers if we want meat or not. Red means stop - (I’m full) and green means bring it on.

They circulate constantly with different cuts of meat, fried cheese and sometimes even fish. The servers have the meat on a spit, usually, and you have a side plate with tongs. When they start cutting your section of meat, you grab it with the tongs and put it on your plate. Luckily the first time we were in Brazil we went to a place like this with a Portuguese speaker so we understood the process. The hardest thing here is deciding what to fill your belly with…..

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

The surprising thing about my month in Rio has been the amount of rain we’ve had. There’s been about a week of nearly solid rain, and yes, I’m lucky to be here, but it really sucks. Rio is an outside city - everything I love about this city is not a building — we did all the good museums and being stuck in our dingy AirBnB with its cockroaches and such little space is getting a little old. We take a trip to Barra, the beaches south of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, but it’s rather boring. It’s pretty much the same as Copa, but way less people, way less beach, and way less restaurants, hotels and bars. Not really worth coming to, in my opinion - there are way nicer places in Rio. The rain provides us with an excuse to do something mundane so we go to RioSul shopping mall and buy tickets to a movie. It’s fun, exciting in an “I’m a regular person in Rio kind of way”. We see The Invisible Man with Portuguese subtitles, and I really enjoy myself, sitting in recliners and eating popcorn while trying to match the English to the Portuguese. It’s so normal! The thing about travel is - it’s exciting and you get to see and do things you have dreamed about doing your whole life, but it’s tough too. It’s hard being away from people you love (and your cat), your house, your bed, your routines. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world, but travelling for this long is not easy. Worth it, yes, but sometimes I just want to wake up in my own bed, get up and have normal toast and normal coffee for breakfast and have somewhere to sit besides a bed. Travel definitely makes you appreciate what you have at home.

We finally get bored enough that we actually do some walking tours in the rain. We get soaked on the first one - uncomfortably soaked, and don’t see much more than we did on the others. We walk along the marina and see Marinha Do Brasil and there are sailors out front which makes me wish I had brought my real camera, but the rain is too heavy. We walk through Pedra do Sal again and it looks so different with no Carnaval parties going on. It's practically deserted in the rain. We visit Olympic Plaza and see where the torch burned; right across from the magnificent Candelaria Church. I love old stone churches - they look so regal and this one is no different with its white dome flanked by two columns. Crosses adorn each of the three rooftops, and they draw your eyes upwards.

The next morning, we are surprised with sunshine when we exit the metro station downtown for our next walk. I immediately panic because I’m not wearing any sunscreen, but we spend most of our time in the shade. Our first stop in the city centre is the Colombo Bakery. I had heard of this famous Rio landmark, but I was not prepared for what it would look like. I feel like I’m in the hotel lobby of a 5 star hotel in a 1950’s movie. This place is classy. It’s set down an ordinary street and I have to look twice before I realize that is where we are. The entrance has baked goods for sale in ornate glass display cases, and you have to pay first before handing your slip to the attendant. In the back is a restaurant, where waiters in black and white take orders from rich looking people sitting in wicker chairs at marble top tables. Huge mirrors gilded with brass hang from the walls, and the walls also seem to be made from marble. The gray, white and blue tiles give the place an almost Arabic palatial feel. There is a partial second level that consists mainly of a balcony that wraps around the wall. It looks like the perfect place to have a coffee. I’m definitely planning to come back.

We carry on to XV Square which used to the be the old port and is home to the Imperial Palace, the house of the Royal Portuguese family. We stroll through Cinelandia, a formerly upscale part of the city not unlike New York's Broadway. In fact, it's nicknamed Brazilian Broadway because it is home to so many theaters and cinemas. The stunning marble Municipal Theater is its centerpiece, and the green and gold capped domes draw your eyes in immediately. The National Library is also here, and got its start when a 1755 earthquake in Portugal caused significant damage to the Royal Library. In 1808, John VI brought 60, 000 books to Rio to be housed in the National Library.

When we turn the corner, I am surprised to see that we are really close to Lapa, Rio's Bohemian neighbourhood, and one of my favourite parts of downtown. I can see the arches in the distance, but the colourful buildings and graffiti are what make this area so interesting to me. It's a photographer's dream, and I plan to spend a lot of time here with my camera after my mom leaves.

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

After days of rain, we luck out so grandly with clear skies and warm temperatures on the night we have tickets to the Samba Parade. The previous two nights of parades had quite a bit of rain, and besides the poor spectators sitting on cement grandstands in the rain, it pains me to think of the elaborate costumes and floats that would be drenched. What a shame.

We bought transfers to the Sambadrome with our parade tickets as we had been advised that it was the safest and easiest way to get there, and luckily, our pick up point is right across the street at the Hilton. As we wait in the lobby, I notice girls putting glitter on themselves, and as I look closer, I see that the Hilton has a table full of different glitter and Carnaval paraphernalia for its guests. Only in Brazil!

When we arrive at the Sambrodome, our laminated tickets around our necks, we go through security. It’s pretty lax, and as soon as we are through, we are on a mission to find our Sector. We have tickets for the grandstands, with no seating allocations, and we have been warned to get there early. We are pleased to see that our sector, 6, is pretty much empty. We find a good place next to the stairs and plop our cushions down. We are all dressed up again - we bought some of the gemstones on stickers for our faces and we fit right in with all of the other parade goers. We see some of the most elaborate costumes here that we have seen so far; one man is walking around with a giant headpiece sprouting feathers. Most people have some sort of costume on - whether it is just flowers in their hair, or glitter on their face. You are definitely the odd man out if you haven’t glammed yourself up for Carnaval!

It’s only 7 when we find our seats, and the parade doesn’t start until 9:30. The bleachers fill up quite quickly, and a group of travellers from The Netherlands sits in front of us. It’s nice to talk to other people and feel their excitement. The Sambadrome is huge - almost half a mile long and the bleachers tower over the road that runs down the middle. Below us are the more pricey seats - boxes and party rooms that are way out of our budget. There are sections with 6 chairs right next to the road and although you would get a great close up view, we have been told that the grandstands are the best seats in the house because you are seeing everything from up so high.

People are dancing already and I can’t stop gazing around me in awe - I had seen the Sambadrome before, but with the lights on and the stands filled with people, it’s like a completely different place. You can feel the energy in the air - it’s like the whole place is pulsing with anticipation. About 9:15 we notice that the first Samba School - Estacio De Sa - has taken its place. We strain to see what awaits us but all we can see are bright colours and lights - that’s how big the Sambadrome is! We are just about in the middle so we are pretty far from the parade entrance. When the clock strikes 9:29 a strange thing happens - instead of turning to 9:30, it resets to 00:00 and music starts blaring. The parade is starting! The music is so loud and the crowd positively vibrates to its beat. Everyone is standing and I realize that my view is going to be much more restricted than I thought. But it doesn’t matter, the intensity of the enthusiasm of the people around me is contagious and I find myself jumping and screaming along with everyone else.

I find out later that the clock is recording the length of each parade - there is a time limit of an hour and they lose points if they are majorly under or over. The clock is at 00:15 when the floats finally reach us and I get to see them up close. They move really slowly, stopping at certain points along the road; the Sambadrome is so huge that it just takes that long for them to dance the entire length. I have dreamed of this moment my entire life and it’s so overwhelming and so astounding in person that I have tears in my eyes. The sheer size of the floats is indescribable, the first one is long - like a city block long - and it has two sections. The first is home to what looks like a dinosaur skeleton poking out of a gigantic rib cage. The float must be three stories high and the ribs alone have to be 10 metres high and as thick as 2 telephone poles. Dancers writhe all around the float and two women adorned in feather headdresses and flashy yellow costumes stand proud at the front of the float. They reach out to the crowd and you can see them soaking in the energy. The second section of the float has several more dinosaur heads and another rib cage, but this time there is a massive lion bobbing on top of the float. It too is about 10 metres high and so life-like it’s almost frightening. Its mane sways with the movement of the float and the entire cat is somehow bouncing to the beat of the music. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before. I thought I knew what to expect, but seeing this in real life is mind blowing. The sheer size of the floats is impossible to describe - they tower over the people in the grandstands, making them look like ants.

But it’s not just the floats that are impressive - behind the lion is a group of dancers - hundreds - all decked out in sparkly purple costumes with spiky head pieces. There are 2 or 3 beautiful women who dance in front of each float - they dance like nothing I have ever seen before. Their feet move so fast that even from up here, it’s dizzying. They samba to each side, showing off their perfect bodies, their stunning costumes and their impeccable moves.

Another giant group of dancers clad in green with leaflike headpieces follow another float. They move as one, in perfect time with the music and so many questions roll through my head. How? How do they perfect the dance with so many people? I can’t imagine the time and dedication that goes into something like this. The making of the floats and costumes is a process my brain can’t handle - they are so big and beautiful and so perfect. Where do they store the costumes and the floats? Yes, we saw the one Samba school preparing for Carnaval but there is no way everything for the parade could be housed in one building. There are about 6 or 7 giant floats in each parade and thousands of dancers. Thousands. I am beyond impressed. I’m incredulous.

The first parade lasts for an hour and every float that goes by, every group of dancers that goes by, leaves me with my jaw hanging open. It’s a high I’ve never experienced before - this is truly the Greatest Party on Earth. The exuberance of the dancers and the crowds is lifting my spirits to a place they’ve never been before - this is the most incredible thing I have ever seen. I wonder how anything can top this - there are still 6 more schools to parade - and the next one is even more exciting and impressive.

The next school to parade is Viradouro, and as soon as their music starts, I know I’m going to love them. It’s a catchy song, and although I don’t know what they are singing, I find myself trying to sing along. Their first, extremely yellow float takes up half the Sambadrome. It’s the longest one I’ve seen yet, and the flashiest. Gold swirls adorn the float bed and it supports a gigantic powerful blue and white bust of a woman holding what looks like two mirrors in her hands. There are smaller replicas of her on each side of the float. Underneath the main bust is a circular terrace that has scantily clad, gold helmeted dancers shimmying away while water glides over the roof and in front of them. I can’t look away.

But I have to because the next float is stealing the show. It’s my favourite yet - it’s not as high or as long as the previous one, but it has purply blue light strands that wave from the top like tentacles. Underneath are massive figures of African women in mostly orange. It’s in three sections and the lights decorate each section and the orange and purply blue lights make such a nice contrast. The next one is almost complete silver and the one after that is striking in white and red. I can see photos of this one making a nice Christmas card. As I watch the parades, I remember that each school is telling a story through their art. Try as I might, I can not make sense of the story in any of the parades. Perhaps it would help if I understood the words to the music, but it doesn't matter to me in the moment. I'm just appreciating what is in front of me - and it is magical.

The next school is Mangueira, last year’s winner, and the crowd goes wild. They have one float that completely blows my mind - it’s Jesus on the cross, and it is nearly as tall as the Sambadrome. Even if you aren’t religious, I think this would give you chills. It’s mesmerizing, and as it comes closer, I see live men chained to crosses wearing only loincloths and crowns, writhing away like they are in pain.

When Grande Rio starts their march down the Sambadrome, I feel like I am personally invested in their performance. Because we toured behind the scenes of their school, I’m even more excited to see how they compare to the other schools. I know they have never won, but I am impressed by everything about them - their costumes, their dancers and their out of this world floats. They have a jungle theme with huge animals shaking in time to their song. I could easily describe every single float and dancer that I see tonight, but that could go on forever. A few other highlights include a mermaid in a pool of water, an astronaut floating in space, helicopters attached to the side of a float, and lots of favelas (Rio slums) depicted in various ways. The dancers continue to amaze me - it never gets old watching them move like that. The colourful costumes, the songs and the energy of the people in the stands will remain in my heart forever.

We stay until the 6th school is nearly done, and by this time it's 5 a.m. and we are bone tired. Every muscle aches from standing on cement for nearly 12 hours and we make our way back to the transfer station. As we drive through Copacabana at 6 a.m., we witness the sun making its ascent over the ocean. It’s the perfect end to the perfect night. I will never forget what I saw tonight, and how I felt. This was truly the most incredible night of my life. Carnaval has exceeded my expectations.

(Check back soon to see who wins and how Rio Grande places!)

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Hi there! I'm Dawnelle - travel photographer, adventure seeker and digital nomad currently exploring  South America. 

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