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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:51 GMT
Anything goes in Rio

By Steve Kingstone
BBC correspondent, Brazil

Disguised as a snake at the carnival
Rio's carnival dominates the headlines in Brazil

It is the self-proclaimed biggest party in the world.

The five-day Rio Carnival attracts millions of revellers, and promises a few surprises along the way.

It is 2.30 in the morning. On Brazilian television a man in a silly hat is measuring a woman's breasts.

"One metre thirty," he shrieks, "these are the biggest so far."

Except the woman is not really a woman, and the breasts are not really breasts.

This is a competition for transvestites. To see whose silicon implants are the most impressive.

Welcome to carnival in Rio de Janeiro.


Brazilians call it the biggest party on earth. And coming here I felt like the biggest party-pooper.

Parading in Rio de Janeiro
Tens of thousands of people take part

I simply could not get excited about carnival.

I would be working while everyone else had fun.

There would be crowds, noise and drunkenness to negotiate. And with the expensive television kit we had, security was an issue.

But within half an hour of arriving those worries were being beaten out of me by an army of teenage percussionists. Together they made up the "bateria" or drumming section of Rio's largest samba school.

There were about 30 of them playing at a final rehearsal for carnival.

Economically-clothed Brazilians were sambaing and showing off in a display of teasing sensuality

Thirty varied instruments were taking a collective walloping.

It called to mind the phrase "wall of sound", associated with the music producer Phil Spector. I do not know if he ever came to Rio, but this was a wall to beat all walls.


If the rehearsal was easy on the ear, the eye was not doing too badly either.

Around me, economically-clothed Brazilians were sambaing and showing off in a display of teasing sensuality.

Clowns on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro
The carnival is awash with colour

I was struck by the diversity. They were black, white, and everything in between.

Old danced with young.

There were bemused babies on swaying shoulders. Couples in clinches, some of the same sex.

If a stranger asked for a snap-shot of Brazil, this would not be a bad place to start.

Two nights later I saw the samba school again, this time in performance mode.

A woman was complaining about her diamond-encrusted G string

We were at the sambadrome - a custom-made competition venue - reflecting the fact that Brazilians can turn anything into a sport. Even a simple parade.

In the competition, 14 schools were to samba from one end of the stadium to the other.

Judges awarded marks for everything from costume to choreography to all-round enthusiasm. In the television commentary box were samba legends of yesteryear, offering expert analysis.

We were filming in the "concentracao": a kind of warm-up area.

There, male dancers were being sprayed in gold. A woman was complaining about her diamond-encrusted G string.

There were fashion models and television stars, trailed by assorted hangers-on.

It was Carnival at its polished and most sequinned.

Rival display

The next night we filmed at a small but chaotic "street carnival", a popular alternative to the official parade.

A carnival float
It is constant music, singing and lavish street parades

Organised by residents in the old city centre, it offered a riotous combination of costume, dance and alcohol.

"How does this compare to the sambadrome?" I enquired of a young couple.

She was wearing a harlequin mask and a wig. He had Brazil's largest afro haircut.

"This is much more real," the girl declared. "The people are local. The sambadrome is for foreigners and television crews."

I nodded knowingly, as if I was neither.

With the five-day blur of partying drawing to a close, the judges revealed the results of the samba competition.

The winning school, Beija Flor, took the title for a second year running.

Women dressed as bunnies, men as poodles. And others whose very gender was shrouded in lycra and mystery
On the evening news, the first four items were devoted to carnival coverage. The fifth story was about a corruption scandal engulfing the government.


And so...to the transvestites and their breasts, which stole the show at Rio's Gay Ball - an exclusive party featuring the cream of Brazil's cross-dressing talent.

We were outside filming arrivals. A crowd had gathered either side of a red carpet.

As the guests glided past there were cheers, with the acclaim proportional to chest size and the amount of flesh on display.

People dance on the streets of Rio
Carnival lasts five days but the excitement seems to last all year

There were feathers and leopard-skin, suspenders and stilettos. Women dressed as bunnies, men as poodles. And others whose very gender was shrouded in lycra and mystery.

Some in the crowd were collecting autographs; a case of mainstream Brazil embracing the alternative and outrageous.

It was yet another of carnival's many welcoming faces.

For me the party ended in my hotel room in front of the television. The Gay Ball was being shown live.

With all the silicon measured, the focus shifted to a drag queen reporting from the women's toilets.

With her were three tall, slim figures in skin-tight dresses.

"You have seen their top halves," the drag queen teased, "but what have they got down below? Do they pee standing up...or sitting down?"

That was my cue to go to bed; leaving them in the women's toilets and the answer hanging in the air.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 February, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Gringo at the Rio carnival
24 Feb 04  |  Americas
Samba safe sex message draws ire
20 Feb 04  |  Americas



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