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Unpack This: what the UK could learn from Brazil’s politically-charged carnival

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Georgina Lawton had a life-changing experience at Rio Carnival. In her first ‘Unpack This’ column, analysing the experience of solo-travel as a woman of colour, she argues that Brits should pay attention to the politics of the event.

26 Feb 2020

Trigger warning: mentions of rape

Solo travel for me has been both personal and political. It’s meant escapism, freedom and unbridled joy, (swimming with seals in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, tracking black rhinos in South Africa), but has also offered sobering lessons in privilege, identity and self-preservation, too (joining a scam volunteer scheme in Colombia, grieving whilst living in the mania of New York City). As a travel writer and journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to venture to places my parents never could, and for our generation travel is more accessible than ever. But with more options often comes more responsibility: to rebuke stereotypes, to trace roots, foster inclusivity and give back.

Travel writing, and the industry at large, has been traditionally led by a homogenous elite, elevating the same tired narrative from the “bumbling Brit abroad”. But travellers of colour have led a movement in recent years which have broadened out the stories and resulted in increased representation as well as trips that connect us with cultures in a more meaningful way. I’m interested in how we travel to find commonalities with others, and how travel is being used to help us craft our personal identities, especially in spaces where being an unaccompanied woman of colour is seen as a radical act. It’s why I’m writing a book on the topic (due out in 2021) and why I hope you’ll bear these columns in mind when booking your next trip. Brazil is a country to which I felt a strong affiliation when visiting last year. It’s currently celebrating Rio Carnival 2020 and, as such, seems like a natural place to start our journey.

I attended carnival in March 2019 – and was forever changed because of it. A carnival isn’t a carnival without bodies that are glittering, gyrating and generally half-naked, but because of the anything-goes atmosphere, they’re often far from safe spaces. When I travelled to Brazil for carnival in 2019, however, not only were the street parties refreshingly inclusive, they were also focused on raising awareness of street harassment. This year volunteers in Sao Paolo known as “angels” mobilised to distribute “no means no” stickers, building on the momentum from last year in Rio, to ensure the vibe in their carnival stays consensual. And as I reflect on the celebrations I attended last year, I wonder if the UK could replicate some of Brazil’s traditions when it comes to our own festivities.

“When I travelled to Brazil for carnival in 2019, not only were the street parties refreshingly inclusive, they were also focused on raising awareness of street harassment”

The epicentre of carnival is the sambadrome: the hours-long, world-famous, ticketed parade where samba schools from different neighbourhoods throughout the city compete for an annual crown. From the stalls, I marvelled at the detail on the floats, the skill of tiny dancers barely over five years old, hot-stepping at rapid speeds, while breathtaking stunts and stilts were performed before a roaring crowd. Afterwards, I embraced the street party culture in Rio, which is different to anything I’d encountered in the UK or elsewhere.

Block parties, known as “blocos” fill the city’s sweltering streets from 7am every day, with crowds dressed in colourful costumes and samba bands marching next to dancers. Brazilians boogie for hours in large family-filled groups – many are sober. I realised that unlike at a British festival (where I am usually totally off my noodle by lunch), I didn’t need to be fuelled by anything other than the good vibes and the odd Caprinha.

But I also noticed that politics and partying are synonymous in Brazil’s carnival – especially after the 2018 election of far-right President Jair Bolsono who has levelled attacks against the LGBTQI+ community, indigenous groups, and once told a woman law-maker he wouldn’t rape her because she “didn’t deserve it”. His presidency has galvanised feminists – I witnessed an electrifying atmosphere at a Frida Khalo-themed “bloco” as well as a Beyoncé-themed one. In between rapturous brass band renditions of ‘Girl’ and ‘Crazy In Love’, the crowd erupted into synchronised chants – a local friend told me they were protesting against unwanted sexual attention.

Many carnival outfits are politicised. I also saw feminist protestors known as “Barbie Fascists” dressed in matching pink wigs, with anti-Bolsonaro messages emblazoned on their arms and legs. Feminists have reclaimed costumes associated with the derogatory terms commonly hurled at them in the streets, such as hens, cows and cobras and 2019 was also the year Rio council distributed fans advertising a new law against street harassment.

The LGBTQI+ scene is also a huge part of carnival with suitably themed “blocos” open to all. Toco-Xona, founded in 2007, is the first LGBTQI + bloco created by lesbians, while Banda de Ipanema is known for being the biggest bloco which is LGBTQI+ friendly. Everyone, including straight cis men, are doused in glitter, dancing around in pink tutus and colourful necklaces. You will be hit on by those from across the gender spectrum.

Rio carnival seems to be a space shaped by beauty standards far more inclusive than those in Europe. Jiggle, wobble and overspill are seemingly forgiven, and brown, black and bronzed bodies writhe together in the searing heat. Images of Brazil’s lithe and long-limbed beauty queens are still omnipresent, but during street parties, I witnessed men and women of all shapes and sizes sport nipple tassels, thongs and mankinis with a casual insouciance that is rarely mirrored by a bashful Brit at home or abroad. Despite the constant rallying for wider societal change, the festivities still felt body positive.

I was travelling semi-solo – (an old friend was living in the city but often needed to work) and soon realised Rio was the friendliest city I’d ever been to. I sometimes found myself attending concerts and street parties with the “cariocas” (people from Rio), I’d briefly been introduced to. Cariocas are impossibly warm and welcoming: they gave me advice on how to get around the city, invitations to house parties and friendly warnings to look after my phone (petty theft is common). Girls adopted me into their group, teaching me dance moves in crowds, helping me order a McDonald’s in the day and putting me into an Uber at night. Can you imagine doing the same thing at Lovebox?

“Can you imagine random people teaching tourists dance moves, helping them order food and putting them in an Uber at Lovebox?”

I realised that in my own country I am a lot more insulate and largely concerned with just my own friends. But Rio’s carnival reminded me that carnivals by their very nature are social events; branching out and speaking to others beyond my group can really add to the experience, and the city reaffirmed my love for solo travel.

Brazil has the world’s largest African population outside of the continent, with an ever-increasing number of people self-identifying as black as a new civil rights movement shapes the political agenda, and celebrating carnival in Rio makes you feel seen and celebrated. Following centuries of slavery, the country is still fraught with racial tension and has a complicated national dialogue around identity, but during carnival there’s a real sense of unity reflected in the history of the celebration itself: once a Catholic food festival introduced by the Portugese in the 16th century, carnival became infused with the music and traditions of displaced African cultures, like samba music, and today people varying class and ethnic backgrounds party together.

Brazil bursts with a vivacity that’s hard to find in other carnival celebrations – even our beloved Notting Hill Carnival. It’s the biggest and best street party in the world for good reason. The country isn’t without its socio-economic problems, but the warm, self-assured spirit of the locals and the creative methods they employ to elevate their country’s political problems on a world stage was wonderful to be a part of. Head to Rio for carnival and you’ll be inspired by more than just the dancing.

This article is part of the “Unpack this” column, written by travel writer and author @GeorginaLawton