I will never forget my first assignment as a foreign correspondent in Brazil. It was a week-long gig in Rio de Janeiro to cover the city's Carnival. I hadn't heard about the holiday before, so I did some research beforearriving. Apparently, it begins on the Friday 40 days before Easter, and it carries on for five days until Wednesday. Some people say it has roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, when rich and poor people would swap clothes and party hard for days on end. Others argue that this is just empty rhetoric. They say that Carnival truly began when ordinary citizens began marching through Rio playing their drums and tambourines back in the mid-nineteenth century. Either way, everyone can agree on one thing: Carnival is now a big deal. It is one of Brazil's largest cultural events, drawing up to two million tourists to Rio every year.
I was out on the streets on the first Friday of Carnival, armed with my camera and notebook, ready to do some work. Being there was a constant assault on my senses. Brazilian samba music filled the air, coming from all directions and mixing into a chorus of thumping beats. Hundreds of people were singing and dancing. The air smelled like roast chicken, sweat, and occasionally vomit. I wandered for hours on end, from one block party to another. At one point, I think it might
have been around three in the morning, someone offered to trade me an alcoholic beverage and a golden feathered headdress for my camera. I'm still not sure why, but I agreed to the swap. It was probably a question of getting swept up in the Carnival spirit. Unfortunately, my boss did not accept this explanation, and I had to pay for a new camera in the end.
It was worth it, though. I still have that golden headdress, as it reminds me of just how spectacular those few days were. The Rio Carnival is something that everyone should add to his or her bucket list. It’s a far better experience than some of the trashy and boring affairs that pass for cultural events where I come from.