By Angus MacSwan
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Wearing nuns’ veils, condom-shaped hats and all kinds of silly headgear, Brazilians partied in the beer-slicked streets of Rio de Janeiro Friday as its Carnival started in earnest.
Crowds gathered in the historic hilltop district of Santa Teresa for one of the most popular binges, the Bloco das Carmelitas. Elsewhere, bars and cafes overflowed onto the streets as the beat of samba drums rose above the throng.
Many of the revelers in Santa Teresa wore hats shaped liked condoms — distributed as part of a campaign to promote safe sex and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease.
The government has handed out 19.5 million free condoms across Brazil, drawing criticism from Roman Catholic clerics in the world’s largest Catholic nation.
"The condom means safe sex — that’s a good Carnival message," said Thais, a long-legged blonde chugging beer with her girlfriends.
Others wore black nuns’ veils.
"The story is that a long time ago, a nun jumped over the wall of the Carmelita convent, down there, so she could dance in Carnival," said a hat seller named Rita.
The Bloco das Carmelitas social club named itself after the convent but the revelers showed no signs of being restrained by religious considerations.
An estimated 700,000 Brazilian and foreign tourists are expected to join in the five-day fiesta, famed the world over for its extravagant samba parades and dancers dressed in little more than plumed head-dresses and high-heeled shoes.
REMINDER OF VIOLENCE
The day got off to a solemn start, however, as police demanding more pay placed nearly 600 crosses on Copacabana Beach in memory of slain officers — a reminder of the violence that grips the crime-plagued city.
The protest was part of a campaign for better working conditions that has thrown the police force into disarray in the build-up to the festivities.
About 50 officers offered to resign this week and 11 have been sacked, including the force commander, but Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral has pledged that security for Carnival would not be compromised.
Brazilians have good reason to celebrate this year as the country enjoys an economic boom that has given more people jobs and put more money in their pockets.
"Yes, it’s been a good year," said Thais, a 26-year-old law student, offering her condom hat to a reporter.
Asked about the violence that afflicts Rio, she said: "That happens in certain parts of the city but not everywhere, not here. Nothing’s happened to me for a long time."
Rio is one of the world’s most violent cities, with heavily-armed drug gangs controlling many of its slums, or favelas, and police responding with military-style raids.
"We want to pay homage to our heroes, we want to show the community the cost of the life of a policeman," Police Officers Association head Dilson Ferreira de Anaide said as he and other policemen placed 586 crosses in the sand on Copacabana Beach — one for each of their colleagues killed in action since 2004.
"We earn 30 reais ($17) a day, less than a maid earns."
The crisis in the force erupted after Col. Ubiratan Angelo was sacked by state security chief Jose Beltrame for allowing a mass police protest to go ahead last weekend.
The new commander, Col. Gilson Pitta, promised that the public would be safe.
"We are going to have the most peaceful Carnival of all time, for Rio residents and for tourists," he said.
More than 9,500 police will patrol the streets for Carnival, which peaks when the city’s top samba groups march in the Sambadrome parade strip Sunday and Monday nights. (Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Xavier Briand)