Hitting the wall in Rio’s Sambadrome

In any endurance event, an unprepared athlete is in danger of hitting ”the wall” — a point when the muscles weaken, the spirit droops, and the distant finish line seems to be playing a cruel joke.

For me, under the harsh glare of TV cameras and thousands of spectators, that point came about halfway along Rio de Janeiro’s hallowed Sambadrome strip on my debut Carnival parade.

Sweat was pouring from under my pink peacock of a hat, which felt like it had a death grip on my head. My initially lively jig had deteriorated into a kind of lumbering two-step that owed more to my clubbing days than to the handful of Samba lessons I have taken since arriving in Brazil 10 months ago.

Ahead, the sweeping double arch at the end of the 700m course was obscured by the backside of a giant golden Buddha on the float ahead of me. Turning back was not an option.

I was simultaneously regretting the several beers I had consumed after a hot day’s work reporting on neighbourhood Carnival parties and wishing I had had more.

Suddenly, wardrobe disaster strikes.

One of the enormous wings slotted into the back of my costume snags that of a woman dancing on my left and for a moment we are locked together like a giant bird of paradise. After some anxious untangling, we are free again and I pray the judges who will decide the fate of my Samba school weren’t looking.

I wish I could say that my first Carnival ”desfile”, or parade, was the result of months of planning, practice and immersion in a local community. In fact, I was tipped off the day before that there were still some costumes on sale and decided it would be a good way to get an inside perspective on the annual parades that transfix Rio and much of Brazil.

I was pleased to find that ”my” school, Estacio de Sa, was one of the oldest and most respected in Rio with roots going back to the city’s first Samba school, Deixa Falar, formed in 1926.

Appealing to my competitive spirit, it was also on a mission to climb back into the elite echelon of 12 Samba schools that get the lion’s share of television money and media attention after it was demoted two years ago.

But any notion that I was entering a cloistered, exclusive Rio club was dashed when I called the costume store.

”Are you a chubby gringo or a fat gringo?” asked Claudia upon hearing my accented Portuguese.

Allowing in chubby gringos with questionable dancing skills is a calculated risk that most Rio Samba schools take every year.

They know the lack of style and synchronisation in the 5 000-strong parades could cost them valuable points but they need the money generated by costume sales (mine cost about $130).

We are placed in areas where we can do the least damage, in the ”alas”, or wings, in between the luxuriant floats and among hundreds of others dressed in the same costume.

My gringa girlfriend and I eyed the costumes warily after they arrived the night before the big parade on Saturday.

I had opted for an Indian-inspired creation, which now appeared far pinker and more skimpy than it had on the school’s website. The sandals were two sizes too small for me. Most impressive was the set of wings with a span of about two metres, and which would later cramp my style during the parade.

Our main duty before the parade was to memorize the lines of the school’s parade song, which matched the overall theme of the parade — links between India and Brazil. It would be belted out by everyone throughout the 80-minute march.

Arriving at the meeting point about two hours before the parade, we found thousands of Estacio members already mingling and fixing last-minute costume glitches, the thrill and anticipation rising ahead of the community’s annual coming-out show.

”Parading with Estacio was a dream for me because it is a school with a lot of tradition,” said Walker Antero, a 32-year-old geography teacher, his face framed by an outrageous pink ruff.

His advice for a first-timer? ”Give everything you’ve got.”

A foghorn sounded, fireworks exploded, and we were off — past a stand full of fanatics waving Estacio flags on our left and under the close-up gaze of the beautiful people in pricey box seats on our right. I quickly got carried away and broke ranks for a solo dance, drawing a barked warning from one of the stewards who police the wings to enforce fluidity and order.

Just as in a marathon, things got easier once I broke through the wall. The raucous crowd in the cheap seats at the end of the stadium gave us a vital psychological boost as the giant bikini shape of the arches and the finish line came into view.

We rounded some chubby gringos, side-stepped a discarded butterfly costume and slumped gratefully into a taxi. Four days later, the results were out — despite my efforts, or perhaps because of them, Estacio de Sa failed to make it back into Rio’s elite Samba club. – Reuters

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