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One of the biggest complaints I hear from ordinary Brazilians is that foreigners associate Brazil with the same old stereotypical images. They blame the foreign press for selling those images abroad.

– Gringos think Brazil is either favelas, beaches or jungle.

– Gringos think all Brazilian women are sex maniacs in tiny bikinis.

– Gringos think everyone here spends their days playing football, dancing samba or lying on the beach.

I hardly need stress that those are grotesque cliches.

But it’s not the foreign press that perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s Brazilians themselves. In fact, Brazil makes a point of selling those images overseas.

The best example of that came in the Olympic closing ceremony, where Brazil was represented, and not unfairly, by a samba-ing bin man and dancing indians. The background was the promenade at Copacabana beach. Pele appeared.

I tweeted this at the time:

Nunca mais quero ouvir Brasileiro reclamando que gringo acha que Brazil ‘e so samba e carnaval e indio…

and got a huge response from Brazilians who seemed to agree.

(The tweet says: “I never again want to hear Brazilians complaining that gringos think Brazil is all about samba and carnival and indians.”)

Further cliches abound in a song released this week to celebrate Rio de Janeiro taking the Olympic mantle from London.

The song is called Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro, or The Olympic Gods Visit Rio de Janeiro. It features many of the city’s best known musicians and some of its most famous personalities. (Although curiously, there are no sportsmen or women involved.)

The video is great, with amazing pictures of the city.

The problem is that it’s full of the same old cliches Brazilians say they hate. Samba. Favelas. Beaches. Christ the Redeemer. Football.

They chorus is even that tiresome phrase: Rio de Janeiro continua lindo, or Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful.

The point I want to make here is not that these cliches are untrue. Like all cliches, they have their roots in reality.

The point is that Brazilians can’t have it all ways. You either come up with some new ways to sell the city and the country or you accept that people are going to associate Brazil with samba, beaches, scantily clad dancers and kids playing football in favelas.

Personally, I think the strategy makes total sense. I don’t see the problem with concentrating on your strengths.

Rio’s favelas are iconic. The country’s football players are the best in the world. The beaches are beautiful. Samba and carnival are both spectacular and seductive. Christ and Sugarloaf are unbeatable postcard images. And who doesn’t find Brazilian women charming and attractive?

Enjoy these things, they are what make Brazil so unique.

Just relax and let the world will enjoy them too. And don’t blame me if gringos can’t see past them.

I was in Rio for carnival so have neither written much nor posted for almost a week.

Being in Rio was great, especially because of the huge interest in street carnival, known as blocos. There were more than 400 blocos this year and what amazed me most was how people were dressing up like never before.

Part of carnival’s appeal was that almost subversive aspect. It was a period in which you could do things you weren’t supposed to do at other time of the year.

One obvious way to subvert norms was dressing up, particularly men dressing in drag. This year I saw hundreds of men in outrageous drag and many hundreds more in other costumes. It was a marked change from years gone by. People were definitely getting into it more. Carnival 2010 was more participatory than I had ever seen.

One of my favourite stories from Brazil was written during carnival 2007 on the return of street carnival. I consider this piece to be one of the best I’ve ever written during all my time here. I filed it to my editor at Time, who wrote back with a one word reply, saying: Delicious. It was a response I’ve never forgotten. The story starts:

It is 6 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and I am standing in a public square in Rio de Janeiro surrounded by babies in fancy dress costumes. On my left there is a woman dressed as an angel and on my right is a bearded man kitted out as Alice in Wonderland. Next to them I am a picture of sobriety; the only sign that I might be infected with the same madness as those around me a custom-made belt around my waist holding bottles, drinking glasses and twizzle sticks. I tell people who don’t know carnival that it is the same ritual every year, just two weeks of happy, drunk people cavorting around the streets half naked. And like every year, my innate Scottish reserve stops me from jumping into the fray with the same abandon as everyone else. Yet as I slip my cocktail back in my belt and watch grown adults spray each other with foam, I know that if I really want to enjoy myself, I must join the ranks of those happy drunk people cavorting around half naked. “Carnival is interaction,” agrees my friend Tatiana Guimaraes. “You have to get in there in the middle of it.”

More and more people are taking Guimaraes’ advice this year as carnival returns to its roots and the street parties that were once the staple of the pre-Lenten festival. Until the 1980s, Rio’s big samba schools paraded through the city center, their dancers, drummer and floats feted on all sides by enthusiastic revelers. But when the celebration moved to Oscar Niemeyer’s sambadrome in 1984, it marked the beginning of the end for the spontaneous carnival of the people. Authorities began selling tickets to what had been a free show, pricing out many. Corporate clients reserved large parts of the arena for the rich, famous and, this being Brazil, beautiful. Around the same time samba schools themselves moved away from their roots in Rio’s poor communities, giving awards to sambas sung by outsiders and adopting themes sponsored by multinationals. In response, the Cariocas, as the residents of Rio are called, have chosen to go the other way, local instead of international, familial and not corporate.

In a nice wee bit of symmetry, I met up with Tatiana Guimaraes and her husband Onaicram at the Bloco de Segunda in Botafogo on Monday. She gave birth to their first child three days later. Baby Artur is a carnival baby for a carnival couple.

With carnival just three days away I was looking through the Christian Science Monitor’s archives and came across two stories I wrote for my first ever carnival in Rio, way back in 2000.

The first was a story about a samba school made up of people who met on the then nascent internet and came to Rio to parade together in a school they called Unidos do Mundo. The story, which can be read here in its entirety, starts:

The samba beat at Rio’s famous Carnival will have an international sound to it this year thanks to the Internet.

Poles, Finns, Argentines, and Japanese are to shake their hips in “Unidos do Mundo,” an Internet-based samba school that will become the first-ever international samba group to parade in Rio’s legendary Carnival.

The second piece is a short snippet from the Reporters on the Job spot. The now discontinued spot asked the reporter to say something about the story he or she had worked on.

That year I paraded in carnival for the Vila Isabel school. Here’s a pic of me looking suitably youthful and optimistic. (The fact they got relegated that year was a total coincidence.)

I did most of the planning for it online, including choosing the school and buying the costume. Here’s a bit background to that. Nothing much has changed.

* GOING UNDERCOVER: Reporter Andrew Downie recently moved to Rio and decided he ought to experience Carnival from the inside. First step, pick a samba school to gain entry into the parade. “I chose the Vila Isabel school, checked out the costumes online, and opted to go as a Beija Flor, although I had no idea what that might be. It was a nice color and didn’t look too cumbersome or hot,” says Andrew. After he e-mailed his order, he called a Brazilian friend who laughed, explaining that “I was going as a hummingbird.” A couple of days later, the seamstress phoned to confirm his order and ask for a shoe size. He deposited 250 reales ($141) into her bank account. His costume arrives Saturday. The parade is Sunday night. “Actually, a humming bird might be appropriate – I still don’t know the words of the school song.”

She’s in the mood for a dance and now she’s got the chance.

Samba fans can breathe easy. A judge today ruled that 7-year old dancing queen Júlia Lira can parade in Sunday’s carnival in Rio.

Childrens’ rights groups had asked authorities to stop the girl from appearing as the queen of the percussion section, a role usually reserved for sexed up and scantily clad soap opera stars and models.

“The role of the queen of the bateria is a highly eroticized one and we here in Rio are in the midst of a campaign to combat the sexual abuse and exploitation of children,” Carlos Nicodemus, the head of the Rio de Janeiro state council for the defense of children and adolescents told me yesterday. Read more in my Christian Science Monitor piece.

“In society today, the sexualization of children comes at an ever earlier age and is more and more common,” he added. ” I don’t think she should be allowed to parade.”

A judge disagreed. According to the AP today:

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) _ A Rio samba group says a judge has ruled that a 7-year-old girl can parade as its drum corps queen during Carnival.

Viradouro samba school spokeswoman Joice Hurtado says the group received the news Wednesday and is ecstatic.

This story made the rounds at the weekend after it was picked up by the ever vigilant Bradley Brooks at AP and then Tom Phillips of the Guardian.

I was told this was the most read Brazil story on the internet at the weekend.  People dig the story of the dancing queen.

Well, she can dance and she can jive. Now she’s about to have the time of her life.

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