RIO DE JANEIRO - Revelers are packing streets and dancing to samba beats in this seaside city's Carnival celebration a bacchanal of music, booze and flesh that officially opens Friday when King Momo, the mythical figure ruling over the chaos, is handed the keys to the city.
The rotund King Momo embodies Carnival, a raucous free-for-all where excesses are encouraged and the natural order of things is turned upside down men dress as women, the poor parade as kings, rules are bent and everyone escapes their drab daily existence for a few days of catharsis.
This year the celebration is expected to draw about 756,000 visitors, both foreign and Brazilian, who will pack hotels to nearly 100 percent capacity and spend about $559 million, according to Rio state's tourism department.
While pre-Carnival parties have stoked the wild atmosphere in Rio for a few weeks, several tragedies have already struck revelers. A fire burned through warehouses containing more than 8,000 samba group costumes on Feb. 7, forcing the organizations to scramble for weeks to make up what they lost before the parades on Sunday and Monday. A police investigation concluded Thursday the fire was accidental, and not arson.
A woman in Rio de Janeiro died Feb. 20 after falling from a Carnival sound truck, and eight days later in rural Minas Gerais state a downed power line electrocuted a crowd dancing in a packed street parade, killing 16 people and injuring dozens of others.
The losses were mourned, but didn't put a dent in the partying.
In addition to the elaborate two-day samba group parade and the high-dollar costumed balls where the rich spend a lot to wear very little in the most exclusive company, Rio's free, open-to-all street Carnival is bigger than ever.
This year, 424 street bands and "blocos," as mobile street parties are called, have registered with the city. Starting several weeks before Carnival, they parade all over town, playing their own songs or traditional Carnival tunes with a following of hundreds or tens of thousands of revelers dancing, drinking, and singing heartily in their wake.
Lording over the sweaty, frenzied masses is Momo.
"He's the sovereign reigning over Carnival, commanding the party," said Haroldo Costa, an author of several books about Brazil's Carnival traditions. "Handing the city's key over to him is a great symbol from this moment on, he is the physical and spiritual leader of the city and his cheer is omnipresent."
Rio has had a King Momo since the 1930s, when the first one a rotund, hard-drinking sports journalist was chosen by colleagues to parade around town in a crown and colorful costume, spreading the party spirit.
As with that first King, Momo traditionally was required to carry extra weight. He is, after all, the standard-bearer for all things excessive. Until 2004 Rio had a requirement that anyone competing for the post had to weigh at least 330 pounds. With diabetes and obesity on the rise in Brazil, Rio removed the weight requirement. Many other cities have followed.
It was the dismissal of the weight category that first gave the current King Momo the hope of ascending to the throne. Back then, Milton Rodrigues, a bank manager in the offseason, was in pretty good shape a mere 255 pounds on a 6-foot frame.
"There was this taboo, you couldn't be the king if you weren't a big guy," he said. "But I've always loved Carnival, lived for it, ever since I was a teenager. I would run off to samba group rehearsals so I could dance."
When he saw a relatively trim man take the crown in 2004, he decided to run. Four years and four attempts later, Rodrigues was elected, and has won ever since. Momo candidates are judged on how well they can samba, their knowledge of Rio's Carnival traditions, and their friendly cheer. They take home a $12,000 purse and the chance to be the face of a party that showcases Rio de Janeiro to the rest of the world.
During the five-day festivities, the king shuttles around town in a van with a chauffeur provided by the city together with the Queen of Carnival and two princesses, chosen by jurors for their dancing, good looks and Carnival spirit.
This Carnival court opens the Carnival parade and makes an appearance at as many celebrations as possible, from the fanciest dress-up balls to the humblest celebrations on Rio's poor outskirts.
Balancing the schedule of the Carnival King with his job and his duties as a husband to a wife who also performs as a dancer for the Portela samba group and the father of a 2-year-old daughter is tough, he said.
"The whole family is turned upside down during this time of the year," he said. "The little one has been learning to samba since before she was born."
The only problem Rodrigues has now, ironically, is controlling his weight. The drinking and fast food that keep him going in the days leading up to Carnival have ballooned his weight beyond 150 kilograms how much beyond that, he's not sure, because he's stopped looking, Rodrigues said.
It's all worth it, he said.
"Carnival is the world's biggest manifestation of happiness, merrymaking, extravagance," he said. "It's a massive getting rid of all the stresses of every day, and it brings a sense of peace and togetherness. I hope to do this as long as I can, God willing and my disposition holding up."