02/21/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated May 03, 2012

Carnival Takes To The Streets (PHOTOS)

Written by Christina Gossmann with photos by Sam Wolson

A dozen glitter-faced fairies, dwarfs and a dead bride line up by the seaside to take a pee. No wonder, given all that beer they've just had. Some pee free-handedly, some awkwardly squatting behind a rock, most still swaying to the drums. When they are done, they bounce (and periodically stumble) back to the crowd for some more. Because that is what they are here for.

It is 11 p.m. at a beach of Rio de Janeiro during its most manic time of the year.

Carnival in Brazil used to mark the time of preparation for Christ's resurrection, 46 days before Easter. It was a time to clear oneself; many would stop eating meat (carnelevare="lifting the meat"). From a religious event, Carnival turned into a communal celebration of Brazilian culture and probably the most elaborate and excessive party in the world. For one week, practically the entire country shuts down to dance, sing and drink beer.

Brazilian Carnival celebrations differ by region, but generally, they can be separated into formal and informal festivities. The beautiful women in exuberant, tiny dresses with massive head décor that often represent Carnival in popular media, unfortunately, belong to the formal part, the Sambadrome. This structure, built pretty much exclusively for this very purpose, hosts the official Carnival parade for four nights a year. Samba schools spent the whole year preparing for this competition. A professional jury evaluates them based on choreography, costume, theme, music, etc. At the end of the week, one Samba school will emerge as the winner and proudly parade once more. Again, in the Sambadrome. Sounds exciting, but with tickets to the Sambadrome averaging something like $200, it is safe to say that Carnival in Rio is all about blocos.

Blocos are the more informal side of Carnival. These mini parades take place all over town and country and are free for everybody to join. This, however, does not mean that they are less professional. Or fun. Each bloco has its own theme (some examples: "Fire in Underwear," "Friendliness of almost love," "Push to Get" and "Empire of Folia") and thus, its own crowd. Naturally, photographer Sam Wolson and I decided to make it our mission to check out the blocos of Rio de Janeiro this week. The crazier, the better.

The first night, we take it slow. We go down the street to a small bloco in Leme, a fairly affluent neighborhood located North of the infamous Copacabana Beach. Around 500 people have come to go a bit nuts tonight, including 60-year old women samba-ing to traditional Carnival tunes as well as foreign youngsters singing along to an improv version of "Hit the Road, Jack." Paper garlands fly above the many dancing fairies, dwarfs and dead brides who occasionally take strolls to the seaside. Among the madness of it all, between the bright lights and drums, fishermen, only several hundred feet away from the partying crowd, carry on fishing, just like every other night. They are still there when most have left for another party and only a few loners remain dispersed along the beach on plastic chairs.

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