Read my hips: this place can party hard
IF EVER there was a prize for the nation which throws the best parties, Brazil would win it - hands down.
Brazilians love music, dance and a big party. For them, music is sexual, emotional and religious.
Any time of the year is party time in Brazil, but visitors to Rio de Janeiro next year for the FIFA World Cup and in 2016 for the Olympic and Paralympic Games can expect the city to party in a big way.
However, it is especially around Carnaval time, in the first two months of the year, when Brazilians put on the biggest party of all. In the 40 days leading up to the Christian period of Lent, towns and cities throughout Brazil pulsate to the beat of the samba.
In a nation of great wealth and great poverty the joy of a Carnaval brings everyone together. It is a time of wild street parties, painted faces, colourful costumes, plenty of shapely bare flesh, parades and, of course, samba bands whose frenzied drumming echoes down the canyons of city streets.
Brazil's ethnic mix of Africans, Europeans and Indians has shaped a unique culture that expresses itself everywhere in legends, dance and music as well as in the cuisine. Especially at Carnaval time.
Carnaval is thought to have derived from the Latin carnelevare, meaning farewell to meat, a Lenten tradition. Its trademark is extravagance in just about everything hedonistic, self-indulgent and exhibitionist. Add an element of happy innocence and you have the Brazilian Carnaval, perhaps the Greatest Show on Earth.
Carnaval is, of course, synonymous with Rio. On the same latitude as Rockhampton, Queensland, Rio claims the title of Brazil's Carnaval capital. It can throw a party and invite a couple of million revellers.
Most of its nine million-plus inhabitants - and many more from surrounding countries - celebrate in streets, parks and plazas; in nightclubs and bars; and in formal balls. Impromptu parties break out on street corners. Many millions more watch the spectacle on television.
Carnaval is said to have arrived in Brazil with Portuguese settlers who brought some Catholic traditions in the 1500s. It began as a simple throwing of water, flour and mud at passers-by. That was soon banned. In the 19th century Carnaval meant a lavish masked ball.
Then in the 1920s the new samba emerged.
Slum dwellers, former slaves and their poor descendants from Africa, those who live in Rio's shanty towns, or favelas, created the samba (which comes from the Angolan word samba, an invocation to the gods).
From the 1930s the event took shape as a massive parade with participants adopting South American Indian costumes and African rhythms.
These days Carnaval takes a year to prepare. Led by so-called samba schools, Escolas de Samba, each of which train up to 5000 dancers and 200-400 drummers throughout the year, it is a huge and expensive operation. Each school develops a theme which is then expressed in costumes worn by hundreds of members, accompanied by elaborate, giant, mechanised floats. The pounding drums, rhythms thumped by open bare hand or stick, drive the parade. Thousands of voices kick in.
Carnaval makes no distinction between the rich and the poor; some of the best samba schools come from poor neighbourhoods. Competition between them is akin to the rivalry between sporting teams.
The schools hold practice sessions for months before Carnaval. The climax comes in the Sambodromo, a purpose-built stadium erected in 1984 along a kilometre-long strip. A dozen or more of the samba schools dance in front of some 90,000 spectators, who have paid up to several hundred dollars for tickets. Each school has about 80 minutes to impress.
Judges choose the best school on the basis of many elements, including percussion, the theme song of the school, song and dance routines, choreography, costumes, story line, floats and decorations. The more outrageous the costumes, it seems, the better: feathered headdresses, long flowing capes, sparkling sequins and rhinestone-studded G-strings.
And the wonderful thing is, as a visitor to Brazil, you are very welcome to party, too. It is just a matter of getting into some party gear and finding a street party. To be there is to feel Brazil's infectious enthusiasm. If you can't get a ticket to the special tourist section of the Sambodromo you can see the schools line up outside in Avenida Presidente Vagas.
Carnavals flourish in the largest of cities, like the megalopolis of Sao Paulo, as well as small communities, including Manaus on the Amazon River, Recife and Buzios.
Salvador, Brazil's third largest city, is a former capital and one which is said to have more African soul and history than any other Brazilian city. It parties from around December through March in a number of festivals. Salvador can attract up to three million spectators for its Carnaval.
The small riverside town of Parintins, deep on the Amazon River, has the Bumba Meu Boi, an exuberant, three-day dance festival held each June. It is becoming a significant tourist event said to be the largest cultural festival of the north of Brazil.
Wherever you choose to go to take part in a Carnaval it is best to dress like the other partygoers so as not to stand out and attract thieves. Don't carry valuables - only a little well-protected money.
Book accommodation well ahead. It will be scarce - and expensive. Accommodation prices can quadruple and many rooms are sold only as five- and seven-day packages. You might consider going to Rio the week before Carnaval, as we did, when you can watch rehearsals for a more relaxed and cheaper experience. You still get some of the electric atmosphere as the city gets into party mood.
It's also possible to watch schools in Rio rehearsing year round.
IF YOU GO
Qantas has flights to Rio de Janiero from major Australian ports from $2292 return, economy class
For information on where you can go to watch Carnaval rehearsals go to http://www.cidadedosambaj.com.br