Posts about Consumer travel

A History Lesson

Posted by: Gretchen A. Brown Updated: November 23, 2014 - 5:14 AM

Sometimes the historical treasures of Athens can be found - quite literally - in people’s basements.

During a regular history class with my professor, we were taken on a tour around Athens to see artifacts from antiquity. Some were out in the open and easy to see- like Hadrian’s arch and the Acropolis. You couldn’t miss them even if you tried.

Then my professor took us into the middle of downtown Athens. It’s a bustling, modern European city. I looked out for some kind of ancient column but couldn’t see anything. Just when I had hoped he was taking us on a surprise shopping trip of some sort, he took a sharp left into a deserted sort of shopping mall. No stores were open; all looked like they had been closed for months if not years. He spoke with a guard in Greek, and led us down some cement stairs into the basement of this deserted place.

What I learned was that here, in the most unlikely of places, was one of the largest remaining pieces of the original city wall of Athens. This wall dates back to at least 400 BC. It’s this crazy, cool historical artifact, and it’s sitting underneath a deserted shopping center.

The city of Athens in antiquity was eventually built over, because it was easier to use existing building foundations than to create new ones. These buildings were then built over. Then, these buildings were built over. What happens, then, is that a city of layers is created. The ancient artifacts, the stuff of the 5th, 6th centuries BC is found at a much lower level than the modern city. According to my professor, an archaeologist, several houses here have visible ruins in their basements that one can request in writing to visit if they desire to.

But this is a city of history. You don’t have to look in people’s basements to see some; it is ubiquitous. Every day while walking to class, I can look up and see the Parthenon. And in modern history, my school here is next to the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

Yet, some sites we visit have little to no remains. Just this week, we visited the Pnyx for history class. For those unfamiliar, it is quite literally the seat of democracy; it is here that Athenians first gathered to vote in a direct democracy for different issues. It’s on top of a hill, with a fantastic view of Athens and the Acropolis. All that remains is a stone elevated platform where the speaker stood, as well as a stone retaining wall. Other than that, one can only imagine the scene that must’ve happened, with over 8,000 citizens sitting right here voting over 2500 years ago.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned academically so far on this trip, it’s that much of history (and archeology) is visualization. The Athenians themselves who lived in these places so many years ago are the true cool part about any historical artifact. The buildings that remain? Simply an aid in imagining how these people once lived.

Carnival in Rio De Janeiro: What is normal?

Posted by: Andrew Morrison Updated: March 12, 2014 - 4:54 PM


Andrew Morrison | March 12th 2014 17:49 BT

Two weeks ago, I woke up in Rio De Janeiro to a cacophony of samba music and streets flooded with elaborately costumed belligerent tourists while the residents of Rio went about selling fruit and stocking their shops. It was 7:30 in the morning and my week long Carnival experience was merely beginning. A strike among the waste management staff in Rio had left the streets covered in garbage but people continued to celebrate no matter what they were stepping on. Carnival is like the marriage of Halloween and ancient African traditions to an average tourist but I wondered how actual Cariocas, people from Rio De Janeiro, actually feel about the festivities. To understand the customs of the holiday, I will take you into my experience and offer resources for you to learn more about this remarkable and cultural celebration.

[Traditional dances at Ipanema Beach were just one of the many cultural performances open to the public to participate it - Credit: Andrew Morrison]


Carnival was derived from ancient Roman Catholic traditions and was transplanted to Rio De Janeiro during the 19th century. The mixture of cultures making up the population of Rio and the extravagant samba school parades are what makes Rio one of the most unique Carnival experiences in the world. Last year, Carnival attracted over 2 billion tourists and generated approximately 2.5 billion in revenue. In Rio, Carnival is big business. The celebration differs regionally however, with the greatest popularity occurring in the northeastern and southeastern regions of the country. The large cities in these regions basically shut-down during the week of Carnival which takes place Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

[With waste management workers on strike and thousands of tourists flooding the city, garbage began to pile up rapidly during Carnival - Credit: Andrew Morrison]


The extravagant parades are made up of 12 different samba groups competing to be the best school of Rio De Janeiro. Each group represents a different neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro and they must develop a completely original choreographed song with an allotted 80 minutes to perform. These performances are practiced for seven months in a giant warehouse in complete secrecy and when Carnival finally takes place, each group of 5,000 plus performers takes public transportation to the famed Sambadrome and begins their show. The floats are enormous and highly elaborate like moving art galleries pushed by people for the entire 80 minutes. No machines are allowed in the performances. The best six of the 12 samba schools go on to the champion’s parade but only one is the true champion.

[Perhaps the most iconic figure of Carnival is the Queen of the Drums - The woman that leads the entire samba school and must impress judges with her samba choreography - Credit: Ndecam via Flickr CC]


This year the group Unidos Da Tijuca won the competition with their “agility” themed performance. Every performer represented something related to speed like a pack of cheetahs or a swarm of racecars. Another group represented pirates of the Caribbean, complete with twirling sword fights and scallywags being shot out of cannons hundreds of feet above the crowd. The bit that consistently entranced me was the duo flag bearers that lead each group like a prom king and queen. They have the honor of presenting their school’s signature flag and the mission of charming the crowd, judges and cameras. Often, but not surprisingly, a member of the duo is a Brazilian celebrity. The entire Sambadrome experience costs a minimum of $200 for basic admission. Tourists can also pay to participate in the famed parade, even wear the costumes and learn the choreography. 

[The Sambadrome is the epicenter of Carnival in Brazil seating over 72,000 patrons - Credit: Chupacabras via Flickr CC]

The Reality

Some attend the Sambadrome annually and are loyal fans to specific groups but what I learned from my experience in Rio De Janeiro was that most Cariocas would rather participate in one of the hundreds of Blocos de Rua, or block parties. The block parties are where you can learn the dances, meet the samba band members, and actually participate in the new and old Carnival traditions. These Blocos occur across the city, are completely free, and each with a totally different vibe. Some are strictly samba while others might be alternative rock. The event begins with a band, followed by dancing, and finally a parade where everyone participates including children and elderly people in wheelchairs. It is a beautiful sight to see an entire community celebrating together.

[A young boy costumed as Captain America sprays silly string into the air as his mother holds his shield. These are the kind of parades in Rio that I truly appreciated - Credit: Andrew Morrison] 

My 11 days in Rio De Janeiro proved that the city had all of the exotic charms I wanted to discover for myself. Carnival proved to be the most elaborate and extravagant party I have ever attended and not to mention the record-smashing number of men wearing bras. Ultimately, I fell in love with the freedom of the celebration and the inclusiveness for all people no matter where they rank socioeconomically, what age group they are in or what gender pronoun they choose. The workers strike finally ended with the group earning the increased rights and wages they had demanded and the streets of Rio De Janeiro returned to normal. The celebrations of the workers melted into the block parties almost as if there had never been a problem. Despite the major dispute, Carnival remains the week in every year where Brazil opens up their streets to the world and pushes you to ask, “so what is normal?”

My name is Andrew Morrison and I am an environmental science senior from the University of Minnesota completing soil science research in southern Brazil for an entire year. If you have suggestions or ideas please contact me via my site

To learn more about Brazil use these resources:

- The entire Sambadrome parade of 2013

- A free online course about the history of Brazil



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