RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The 10 million extra government-provided condoms are poised, final touches being put on huge floats depicting Queen Cleopatra and Can-can dancers, and the Barack Obama masks are flying off the shelves.
Brazil’s annual Carnival, the pre-Lenten festival of hedonism that possesses Rio de Janeiro and much of the country, is ready to take off this weekend despite the best attempts of the global economic crisis to drag it down to earth.
Creativity is the word of the year as Rio’s top Samba schools grapple with a double whammy of stingy benefactors and a rise in costs of imported materials used in their floats and costumes that are at the center of the spectacle.
The number of foreign tourists is expected to fall by about 10 percent from last year, Rio officials say, and some mining towns in nearby Minas Gerais state had to cancel their parades as the global crisis hit public coffers and employment.
But Brazilian visitors to Rio are expected to make up the numbers for the crisis-hit foreigners and the spirit of debauchery and irreverence is in no danger of being dimmed.
“It’ll be the same as always — lots of sex and lots of drink!” said Leo, a 24-year-old from the Minas Gerais town of Ouro Preto, who was shopping for costumes in downtown Rio and who rushed off without giving his surname.
Violence marred the run-up to the revelry on Thursday as more than 40 tourists were held up and robbed in two separate incidents in a reminder of Rio’s severe crime problems.
Seven men armed with knives, guns and grenades broke into a hostel in the district of Lapa, famous for its Samba clubs and parties, early in the morning and held some of the 34 foreign and Brazilian tourists hostage for at least an hour.
In the afternoon, 10 American and German tourists were held up as they visited tourist spots in the Sao Conrado area of the Brazilian city, police said.
The federal government said last week it would distribute an extra 10 million free condoms this month, on top of the 45 million it regularly provides to prevent the spread of AIDS.
New U.S. President Barack Obama is the most popular choice for masks this year with costume stores reporting thousands of sales, threatening perennial favorite Osama bin Laden.
Viviane Castro, a model who got her Rio Samba school disqualified last year by losing a small triangle of glitter covering her intimate parts, has no intention of being left out of the limelight this year when she parades in Sao Paulo.
“This year I will also come with few clothes, but paying homage to a big political personality who is Obama. He will be painted on my body,” she told the O Globo website.
There have so far been no scandals to match one last year in which organizers barred a float depicting Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, although the Catholic Church has voiced concern over one Samba school’s plan this year to depict the Inquisition.
The showpiece of Carnival is at the Sambadrome on Sunday and Monday nights where 70,000 spectators and live TV coverage (this year forsaking the Oscars) will follow the competing parades of top Samba schools, which this year feature a giant Queen Cleopatra bathing in milk among other themes.
But the real partying is on the streets, where Rio residents and visitors are already casting aside their sorrows and many of their morals for hard-drinking days and nights in neighborhood groups called “blocos”, some of which have existed for a century.
Rio’s official tourism agency said that despite the expected fall in foreign visitors, the overall number of visitors for Carnival was seen rising to 719,000 from 705,000 last year. Revenues for the city were also forecast to rise to $521 million from $510 million.
But the crisis is being felt in Rio’s City of Samba, where thousands of workers have been laboring for months to prepare the parades. Designers have been forced to use more cheaper and recycled materials and make do without some of the pricey imported frills they have grown used to.
Eleven of the top 12 schools have no sponsors this year, leaving them to make do with the $1.7 million or so they receive from the main Carnival association.
Making matters worse, the currency’s slump of about a third against the dollar since last year has jacked up import prices and the federal government withdrew funding of about $430,000 that it provided to each school last year.
Alexandre Louzada, a designer who has led champion Beija-Flor (Humming Bird) to two straight titles, said the lack of money could be a blessing in disguise for the parades, which have become ever more costly and commercialized.
“I even think that it is good that we rethink Carnival, because it was becoming a slave of luxury and I think creativity must have its place,” he said.
Editing by Kieran Murray and Todd Eastham