It's a serious business, carnival

Eating at a local restaurant in Rio one evening, I felt the music from a passing street party cause

Until I went to the Rio Carnival, I had always considered myself something of a party animal. That self-image now lies in tatters. After only two days at the greatest celebration on earth I was a broken woman, danced out, drunk out, and longing for the relentless drumming outside my hotel window to stop. A sign that I am getting old? Or does it just reflect the anthropological fact that, for stamina, Brazilians put binge Britons to shame?

The precedent was set as soon as I arrived. Emerging from Rio airport dishevelled and blinking, I was confronted by a troupe of samba drummers and a frantically gyrating dancer dressed in a jewelled thong and feather headdress. It was 7.30am. Had they even had breakfast yet?

From then on there was not a second when I couldn't hear at least one samba group, and often two or three, playing at slightly different speeds. One evening, eating at a local restaurant, I felt the music from a passing street party cause my throat to vibrate so intensely that I could barely swallow my rice and beans. None of the Brazilians seemed remotely fazed; they simply laid down their forks and got up to samba around the tables.

Cockroaches and corpses

To the Sambadrome, the vast stadium where Rio's famous samba schools parade every night until 6am. I was hoping to see Viradouro, the school that caused huge controversy with its float this year. Jettisoning the usual cheery themes, its parade was entitled "Things That Make You Shiver", and featured dancers dressed as rats, cockroaches and spiders. The crowning glory was set to be the "Holocaust" float, which consisted of a dancer dressed as Adolf Hitler sambaing on top of a sculpted pile of emaciated corpses.

Following a court action by the Israelite Federation of Rio de Janeiro, the Holocaust float was banned just days before the parade. The unrepentant organisers replaced it with a float dedicated to "liberty of expression", on which the dancers were gagged and dressed in white robes.

Who said carnival was all about hedonism? In Brazil, it's a serious business.

Pink palace

Contrary to the impression I may have given, I was in Brazil to work. I was reporting on the remarkable cultural NGO AfroReggae, which aims to provide alternatives to gang culture for young people in some of Rio's most deprived and dangerous favelas (you can read about it in the NS arts pages next week). I have visited quite a few jails in the line of duty, but none has been weirder than Rio's youth detention centre for girls, where AfroReggae took me to see one of its projects.

The prison chiefs had handed over the design of a new block and prison clothing to the teenage inmates, who chose a pink colour scheme. So the cold concrete walls and beds of each cell were painted baby pink with a hot pink trim, and the inmates slouched around wearing bright pink tracksuits. The effect would have been akin to being inside a Barbie palace, were it not for the very unfeminine heavy iron bars across all the doors.

On Friday I was invited to a baile funk night in Cantagalo, one of the favelas where AfroReggae works. I had read a few music journalists' somewhat breathless accounts of these events. Baile funk is characterised by its aggressive, compulsive beat and also by the tendency of its clientele to show up to dances armed to the teeth.

I imagined the reports were probably exaggerated; but no, there really were gangs of boys in the crowd waving guns almost larger than themselves. One young man standing behind me had gone for a more subtle look, sporting several grenades strapped to his belt. I didn't get the feeling that they were actually planning a shoot-out; the arms were fashion accessories, the gangster equivalent of the latest designer handbag.

Thanks to Ari, my hard-as-nails host, I actually felt very safe. I stood next to a huge wall of open-air speakers and felt the jerky bassline pulse through the humid air. As soon as I started to dance I forgot all about the lethal weapons only a few feet away. Never mind Ipanema and Copacabana, this was the best night out in Rio. The next time I looked at my watch it was 5am. Perhaps there is some life in the old dog yet.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn