Thursday, May 28, 2009

New Year's in Rio de Janiero

January 2001

New Year's Eve in the United States sucks. The best we have is Times Square where you have half a million people waiting out in the Extreme Cold for hours to watch a little ball drop. Of course Times Square can't fit so many, so most endure the Cold for nothing more than a picture of a big video screen.

And this is as good as it gets in the USA. Most other places people either shrug off the holiday completely (me most years) or desperately search for the cool party, always wondering if they've found it. The biggest problem with New Years in America, in my opinion, is that we are in The Wrong Hemisphere.

The party's in Rio. On a good year up to 3 million people will gather on the beach in Copacabana and watch a 20 minute spectacle of fire works exploding in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf. There is plenty of space and the party starts in the afternoon and because it is summer, they hang out a long time afterwards.

I was here with my brother who was smart enough to get a hotel close to the beach. When we saw the hour long lines at the bathrooms we understood the value of advanced reservations.

We were not so lucky with the weather as the afternoon of the 31st saw several major downpours that sent the crowds on the beach promenade scrambling to the building overhangs in a mass rush of a crowd. While the people waited for the rain to subside men would come by selling umbrellas. God Bless Capitalism.

When it was not raining we strolled up and down the beach indulging in Brazil's cheap and very street food. The best, tho, was the 50 cent beers. Oh yes, another thing that sucks about the US: open container laws. Not in Brazil.

Of course, one leaves behind certain securities and comforts upon leaving the United States. Brazil, and especially Rio, are Not Safe (and I'm not just talking about muggings, altho there is plenty of that). Just one small example: its a custom for people to dress in white, buy roses and toss them into the sea while making a wish. The roses naturally wash immediately back up. Rose stems on a beach...most have been dethroned, but not all.

As midnight approached my brother and I stationed ourselves on the beach. It had been cloudy and drizzly most of the evening but as the minutes counted down into the single digits the clouds burst forth in a massive tropical downpour. The rain was mixed in with the shouts of people and the lighting of fire crackers in ever increasing frequency.

Finally midnight struck with a glorious rain of fireworks. Six different stations curving along the beach all launched identical rockets for a marvelous symmetry. Halfway through the show I noticed a ways down the beach a massive exploding firework that did not get launched up, but instead exploded right in the middle of the crowded beach. After the show ended we wandered up the beach and as we passed this section there were injured people being cared for and being taken away in ambulances, taxis, whatever. The following day I read in the newspaper that 49 people had been injured and one man died. As I said, Rio is Not Safe. Of course, in Sao Paulo crowds got into a beer bottle tossing war with the police and injured 40. Everything becomes a little unglued. I imagine it's a little like Carnaval, except its just one night instead of four.

Unfortunately the rain continued and eventually Will and I went back to our hotel. Amazingly the next day the beach was nearly clean. Rio indeed knows what its most valuable assets are.

My brother is already talking of booking his ticket for next year. Carnaval certainly gets all the attention, but New Years must be a close rival.