I finally left the sambadrome at around 3:30am after about five hours inside. Another school had just started and the party was only intensifying. I've heard that the parades usually run until five or six in the morning (about eight hours straight) on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of Carnival, all without repeating a single performer.
I wandered for a bit, shell-shocked from the loud music. Finally I came to my senses . . . I had followed the performers from the sambadrome back to the staging area. Here there were hundreds of people of all ages, sweaty and excited from the show, eating food from paper plates and drinking beer. Other performers were lining up on the avenue nearby, ready for their turn, and passers-by clung to the chain link fence yelling encouragement. The avenue led back towards the ship, and the night was warm so I decided to walk back.
The street party around the sambadrome stretched for blocks. With the streets closed, people had set up camp around coolers and televisions to watch the parade. Even at 4am there were vendors of all types working the crowds. Police officers were stationed at most corners, as floats from previous days were still parked here on the street. All of the banks I saw were either boarded over with plywood, like preparations for a hurricane, or had erected temporary fences patrolled with security guards. Carnival must get rough sometimes . . .
I was almost back to the ship when I passed a place where people had been selling bottled water earlier. The coolers were still there, and as I looked closer I realized that the people were too – huddled up on pieces of cardboard, lying in the filth in the gutter. This isn’t just their territory for selling stuff to tourists – this is where they live, too. I can only imagine an existence that involves selling enough during the day to buy another pallet from the store, along with whatever food you need to survive.
The image of people sleeping in the street like dogs stuck with me as I crossed under the freeway overpass to the terminal. Here, only twenty minutes from the biggest party on Earth, are people who feel so hopeless that the only thing carnival means to them is a chance to make enough to eat for another week. How can a world like this exist? And yet it does.
Living on a ship is a strange thing. We bounce from place to place, in contact with land, needing it, but never really connected to anything. We’re not really responsible for anywhere – the ship, maybe, but ships wear out eventually and cease to be places. It's a fundamentally temporary relationship, unlike a resident’s relationship with a place like Rio or Barcelona or Detroit. We see people in pain, suffering, but it isn't real because the next day it will all slide under the stern like everything else. We feel no responsibility to help them because it isn't a part of the world that we feel responsible for.
And that’s just the thing. A world where people sleep on the street like dogs exists because we let it. The spectacle of people huddled in the gutter like stray animals is not unique to Rio or anywhere else that I've been in the world. No one “likes” poverty, but it says something unsettling about our values that we let it persist. If the will to end poverty existed, we would have done so by now. Our actions speak much louder than words.
Unless . . . I can't help but wonder if there is something inherent in the human condition that leads some of us to misery. It is said that everything in the world exists in balance; there is no good without bad, no hope without despair. Can it be that there are some things you cannot give another person, things which are vital for their well-being but which cannot be transferred from one human to another? If good and bad ARE balanced in the world, why do some have so much of the good while others have so much of the bad? Is it possible that while you can feed and clothe the wretched and the poor, you can never really help them if they do not choose to help themselves? Jesus of Nazareth said that, “Men do not live on bread alone,” and if that is true, how do you give them what is not bread?
This is a subject I've dealt with before in this blog, and I still don't have a good answer. How do you help someone find the will to live?
I just came back inside from a late-night stroll on the front of the ship. Here the lights are darkened so that the watch officers can keep their night vision. We’re just off the coast, and a stiff breeze brings the heavy, warm scent of summer to us from land. The stars are out in the full glory . . . what a strange thing to stand here under unfamiliar constellations off an exotic foreign coast in the middle of the night.