Unable to afford pricey tickets, Brazil's have-nots take in Rio's Carnival parades from afar

Neuza Maria Terreira loves Carnival so much that neither the pouring rain nor the stench of a fetid, sewage-filled canal can keep her from getting as close as possible to Rio de Janeiro's world-famous samba school parades.

Terreira is among hundreds of spectators who cannot afford a ticket to the Sambadrome — the vast grounds where Rio's samba school parades are held — and watches the nightlong extravaganza from bleachers a few hundred meters (yards) from the parade route. Hundreds of other mostly poor people take in the parade from a nearby overpass, where some lounge in beach chairs and barbecue on portable grills.

"Carnival is Brazil's biggest popular party, but the masses are being excluded," said Terreira, a 53-year-old public school teacher whose black slicker helped protect her from driving rains Sunday, the first of two main parade nights at the Sambadrome.

"Here, we have to endure the smell of that rotten canal there," she said, gesturing at a sewage-filled waterway that separated the bleachers from the preparation area. There, on the other side, giant floats are hauled into place and dancers and musicians change into their over-the-top costumes as the 12 samba schools competing for this year's title get ready to enter the runway.

"We don't actually see much," said Terreira, "but it's better than nothing."

Rio's Carnival has its origins in the streets, and samba schools bear the names of the hillside "favela" slums where they were born.

But while about 14,200 tickets are sold for around $4, prices for most seats start at over $75 and rise sharply from there — a small fortune in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $278. The most exclusive of the Sambadrome's "camarotes" — private boxes seating 30 people — fetch more than $42,000 nightly.

Many of the low-price tickets are ultimately snatched up by scalpers, who on Sunday were reselling them for $70 each, said Jorgelina Tunala, a 52-year-old housewife who braved the drizzle on the bleachers set up by the local government each year and offered free of charge to users on a first-come, first-served basis. In past years, she was able to score a scalped ticket for the Sambadrome around $20, but this year wasn't so lucky.

"Here it's fun because there's really the Carnival spirit," Tunala shouted over hoots and cheers for Mocidade Independente as the samba school prepared to enter the runway. Venders hawking cans of ice-cold beer out of Styrofoam coolers jostled through the boisterous crowd, while others grilled hot dogs or served up tapioca omelets at stands at the foot of the bleachers.

"It really doesn't compare with the experience you get inside the Sambadrome," where the whole parade is visible, not just the schools warming up, said Tunala. "If I can ever afford to get a ticket to the Sambadrome again, you better believe I won't be here."

Patrick Souza, a 30-year-old history teacher from a distant, hardscrabble Rio suburb, said Carnival was going the same way as Brazilian soccer. High ticket prices at Brazil's new stadiums, built for last year's World Cup, have meant fewer fans at games.

"Like soccer, Carnival is becoming a party for the rich," said Souza. "And that's a real shame because it's the poor who have always made up the heart of Carnival."