RIO DE JANEIRO: The five days of over-the-top parades and raucous, alcohol-soaked street parties that make up Rio de Janeiro's world-famous Carnival celebrations kicked off Friday amid a recent avalanche of bad news, including more evidence of Brazil's stalling economy, an ongoing drought and a snowballing corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras.
In the annual ceremony that marks the official start of the festivities, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes handed over the keys of the city to King Momo, the mythical jester who reigns over the extravaganza. Musicians from Unidos da Tijuca, the samba group that won last year's flamboyant parade competition, played a medley of the samba classics that make up the city's tried and true Carnival soundtrack as a few dancers showed off their fancy footwork.
Paes acknowledged that times are tough, but suggested Carnival would represent a welcome respite.
"We have lots of problems, lots of challenges and lots of defects," he said, "but we are very proud to live in a city like Rio de Janeiro."
Paes said the festivities were sure to bring more than a welcome dose of fun: More than 450 street parties were expected to bring an estimated 975,000 tourists out onto the streets. The visitors are expected to inject around $780 million into the local economy, he said.
Still, many residents complain that the "blocos," popular street parties, snarl traffic, generate tons of litter and generally complicate daily life, particularly in areas such as Ipanema and Copacabana. Both beachside neighborhoods are epicenters of the "blocos," which are dedicated to everything from Michael Jackson to Super Mario Brothers and see revelers dress up to dance, sing, parade and down prodigious amounts of beer under the scorching sun.
With the corruption scandal at Petrobras making headlines daily for the past year, petroleum-themed Carnival costumes were expected to prove among this year's most popular. A Rio-based mask company has been churning out rubber masks of Maria das Gracas Foster, the Petrobras president who resigned earlier this month.
Carnival is huge not only in Rio, but across Brazil, with famous celebrations in the northeastern cities of Salvador and Olinda attracting tourists by the tens of thousands. However, with the southeast in the throes of the worst drought in 80 years, some smaller cities in the regional have had to scrap their Carnival festivities altogether.
Carnival wraps up on Wednesday, following Rio's all-night-long samba group parades at the city's Sambadrome, where thousands of musicians, sequin and feather-clad samba dancers and costumed revelers compete for the title of the year's top group.