Rio counts down to wild Carnival extravaganza
Rio kicks off its world-famous Carnival celebrations on Friday which will showcase its wild dancing and lavish parades. -AFP
RIO DE JANEIRO - Rio kicks off its world-famous Carnival celebrations Friday, heralding five days of wild samba dancing, parades of lavishly decorated floats and scores of scantily dressed women.
The annual pre-Lent festival will bring this racially diverse country of 191 million people virtually to a stop, with all eyes on Rio, the "Marvelous City" that sets the standard for over-the top partying and sexy exhibitionism.
Late Monday, city officials breathed a collective sigh of relief when police and firefighters seeking higher pay ended a strike that had threatened to disrupt the event.
Billed as the "greatest show on earth", Carnival in Rio generates 250,000 jobs and revenues of 640 million dollars (S$810 million) for hotels, bars and restaurants, according to state officials.
More than five million people, including 850,000 tourists, are expected to attend, according to Rio's tourism secretary Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello.
"Carnival allows people to masquerade as somebody else. Men as women, women as men, the poor as the rich," Alex de Sousa, a member of the Uniao da Ilha samba school, told AFP.
"With Carnival madness begins, but it is a very good madness, fantastic, where sadness is overcome and one only thinks of happiness," said Flavio Rocha, a 49-year-old lawyer who during Carnival makes and sells disguises. This year he will morph into an exotic bird at the iconic Sambadrome.
As is customary, King Momo, the Rio Carnival's symbol of overweight excess, will be crowned and will receive a giant key to the city Friday, symbolically launching the world's most famous party.
Milton Junior, who weighs in at 160 kilograms and stands 1.84 meters tall, takes his job as carnival king very seriously.
He hired a personal trainer and a nutritionist to whip himself into shape for the five days of sizzling dancing to infectious drum beats and heavy drinking of beer and caipirinhas.
The highlight will come Sunday and Monday, when 13 competing samba schools march hundreds of lavishly costumed singers, dancers and musicians down a specially designed parade route to the Sambadrome.
The Sambadrome, originally designed 30 years ago by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer reopened Sunday after a nine-month makeover. It has now been expanded to offer a 72,500-seat capacity, with access ramps for the handicapped and elevators.
The parades, a fierce contest between top local samba schools for the title of "Carnival champion," are watched with the same fervor as football games in this soccer-mad nation.
"All year, we dream of winning. A parade needs fantasy, harmony, joy, but it cannot be without emotion," said Andre Cezari, the artistic director of the Beija-Flor samba school, which won the title last year.
"The public must have goose bumps when they see an allegory or float, a disguise. This is a must and what makes a school the champion," he told AFP.
Each school spends between two and five million dollars to organize its parade. Some are often funded by gambling syndicates.
But each year more and more Brazilian and foreign firms invest in the Carnival, an mega-event now broadcast around the world.
Security is always a concern and this year authorities will deploy 50,000 police officers to patrol the streets as well as a small remote-controlled blimp fitted with a camera overhead to keep watch over street parties.
In recent years, authorities have boosted security and sought to improve the city's image as they prepare to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In 2008, they began seizing control of various favelas, or shantytowns, which for decades had been been under the sway of narcotraffickers and para-military militias made up of corrupt ex-police and firefighters.
Meanwhile, the unrest in the country's poorly paid state police force had threatened to disrupt Carnival celebrations not only in Rio but also in Salvador, Brazil's third largest city and the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Some 10,000 military police across Bahia state ended a 12-day strike last week after the arrest of their leader.
That strike, during which 200 striking police occupied the Bahia state legislature in Salvador for nine days, had unleashed a massive crime wave in which 176 people were murdered, more than twice the usual homicide rate.
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