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Updated: May 6, 2020

Antarctica and Carnaval in Rio were the two things on my bucket list that had to be arranged when I got my sabbatical. Both can only be done at certain times of the year, and teaching does not lend itself to travel outside of school holidays. Carnaval is still a few weeks away, but today we’re on our way to Cidade do Samba (Samba City) to do a tour of the Carnaval Factory where one of the major Samba schools is preparing for the parade. Carnaval is the world’s biggest party for sure - but it’s more than that. The parades, which take place in the Sambodrome, are something that I have always wanted to see and to be able to go behind the scenes is incredible. This is also something that can be done year round as preparation for these performances takes pretty much the entire year. 

We enter the huge warehouse and immediately I see a giant float to my right. It’s fronted by a gigantic pink peacock and I marvel at the size of it. Our guide tells us that the floats are usually about 20m high, 30 meters wide and 50 feet long. It’s a wonder they fit in the building. The bottom floor is home to several floats, but we aren’t allowed to take photos here. They don’t want the other schools to know what they are planning. 

There is so much history to Carnaval, and I’m fascinated by what our guide tells us. Samba originated in Rio in the early 1900’s, with black slaves and is now a major Brazilian icon. However, the parades are about storytelling. Samba was a way for the uneducated to tell stories, and each float in each school’s parade is a chapter within that story. The schools are judged on their plot or theme, along with harmony, percussion and many other aspects of their performance. We learn that each school has two flag bearers that carry an oversized flag for the entire show. There is so much more to these parades than just the flashy costumes, beautiful people and magnificent floats. Each Samba School represents an area of the city.

We walk up to the third floor, which weaves around openings that allow the floats to pop up through. The workers are seeing costumes and again, we aren’t allowed to take photos of anything for this year’s parade. We do get to take photos of previous years’ costumes, and I snap away at the feather, glitter and sequin covered masterpieces. I am fascinated to learn that everyone who works here gets paid, with the money coming from sponsors. Getting ready for the parade is a year long process - right after Carnaval, they start planning next year’s parade. I can see why - the story, the floats, the costumes, the dancing, the singing….. I don’t know how they do it!

We get to watch a video about the parades, and my heart thumps just watching it on tv. I can’t believe that in a few weeks I will get to realize my dream of seeing this live. If seeing it on tv gives me goosebumps, I can’t imagine what parade night will bring.  Someone asks our guide if she dances in the parade, but she tells us that although she is on the floats, she is not in the spotlight as she can’t afford the 15,000 real (Brazilian currency) costume. Gulp. That’s about $5000 Canadian. She explains that after Carnaval everything is recycled. The hand made costumes are taken apart by hand and if the material can’t be used again, they find another use for it, like stuffing. Carnaval is not cheap, and they do everything they can to save money and use what they already have. 

Afterwards, we get to dress up in old parade costumes and I am blown away by how heavy they are. My white dress is made of thick material and the feathered headpiece feels like it weighs a ton and the hard helmet digs into my forehead. People sing and dance in these in the humid heat of Carnaval, and I’m sweating just standing in the air conditioned room.

A beautiful girl comes in to Samba for us and they way she moves her body astounds me. She has such control over her feet, her hips- her entire body - as she bounces to the rhythm of the song. We get a small lesson and although they are basic moves, I feel like I understand Samba a lot more than Tango. It’s energetic and fun. 

On the way out, we learn that Grande Rio, the school factory we are visiting right now, will be performing on the night we attend the parades. I tell our guide this and she brings us back in to have another quick peek at the floats so we will recognize them in the Sambodrome. I ask her when the last time her school won the parade was and she looks a little sad. Grande Rio has yet to win a parade, but maybe this will be their year. That would be something to see! (Stay tuned to see how Rio Grande places in the parade this year!)

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

Landing in Rio, even though I have been here before, excites me to no end. We arrive at our AirBnB on Copacabana Beach and our host meets us at the entrance. We spend about 10 minutes going over all our security requirements - they take our passports and copy them, take our photo and scan the pointer finger on both of our hands. This is how we will enter and exit the building, and although it’s a pain, I feel safe here already. And we are literally steps from the most famous beach in the world. Our flat is cute - we have two beds, a small table, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom. And we are a block from the beach. It will take minutes to get there. But the most exciting thing is that we are here for one month so we get to unpack. After living out of a suitcase for almost 2 months, putting things on hangers and in drawers is like heaven. We go grocery shopping, one of my favourite things to do in foreign countries, and buy all the staples we need for our stay. Finding coffee, soap, ziploc bags and fresh fruit excites me probably a little more than it should, but it’s nice to do something normal. 

It’s been pouring rain since we got here, and on our second day in the flat, we are informed that there will be no power from 10-5 so we make plans to visit some museums. The first one, MAM, or Museum of Modern Art, is really quite confusing. I love art, but I just don’t get some modern art. One display had a record and its cover laid out and the information label said Record and Cover. I just feel like there are better things to see in Rio. 

Our afternoon visit to Museo do Amanha (The Museum of Tomorrow) is much more interesting and worthwhile. It’s all about the future of our planet and how we affect the world we are living in. There are interactive displays that teach you about Earth, and I learn some interesting facts. For example, I didn’t know that gravity varies on our planet because it is not perfectly spherical. There is also an amazing video presentation, in Portuguese, but it doesn’t really matter. I lay on my back in a dome shaped room and the ceiling is transformed into a mesmerizing display of the power of our planet. That’s all I will say, because if you ever come here, you should go see for yourself. 

One of my favourite displays has two pieces of fabric  billowing in the wind over a platform which must be hiding a fan. The two white strips of almost glittery fabric whirl and swirl, meeting each other and separating in no particular pattern. The piece by Daniel Wurtzel is entitled Flows, and symbolized the dynamic interactions of light, air, water and land. This museum was more than just something to do on a rainy day - it has a message about how we are changing our planet, and what we need to do in order to prevent severe damage. It is definitly worth a visit.

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

For our last day we return to Cacimbo do Padre, but this time I bring my camera and zoom lens. I’ve never fancied myself as a sports photographer, but standing in the water and shooting surfers flying through the waves is as exciting and rewarding and shooting flying birds. I over hear someone in English pointing out the surfers saying third ranked, fourth ranked which makes me think that these are the professional surfers practicing for the competition. There is a huge group of surfers right next to us, and as others surf in they cheer and clap when they catch a really good wave. Before each one goes out, they do a series of stretches on the sand, and wax their boards. I feel like I’m part of some elite behind the scenes surf club. I can’t imagine how they learn to do the things they do. I also can’t imagine how they don’t get hit in the head by their boards every time they go down. Sometimes all we see is a board popping up from the giant waves when the surfer goes down. These are some talented athletes. I wade into the water to say my silent good-bye to Noronha, and I’m in knee high water when a wave crashes into me and knocks me down. I can’t even stand in these waves and those surfers are out there controlling their bodies and their boards against the power of the water. I brush the sand off of me and walk out of the ocean one last time. Fernando de Noronha has revived me, refreshed me and relaxed me. I marvel at how far I have travelled in just over a month. From the southernmost continent to a tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean. My swimsuit has now been in 2 degree water and 29 degree water. I feel very privileged, and somehow accomplished. I am chasing my dreams and for once, my dreams are in reach. 

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

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