Once again, if you take anything with you from this blog, it should be this: When traveling in a place you’ve never been before, ALWAYS. HANG. WITH. LOCALS. Seeing a city with alongside a person who understands it and has lived in it opens the city for you in a way it never would if you’d stayed behind the plexiglass barrier that is being only a tourist. Because we made a point to run with as many Brazilians as possible, Roshan and I understood more truly than ever, what a Brazilian life means.
As it turns out, what does it mean to be a Brazilian?: To enjoy yourself.
Rio de Janeiro is a throbbing city—and when I say throbbing, I mean it in all the senses of the word. Rio is like a throbbing, open wound, a throbbing heart, a throbbing headache, a throbbing longing, a throbbing reverberation of music in a chamber, a throbbing engine hauling 16,000 tons of coal up a mountain. Rio is what I imagine it would feel like if you shoved your head right into the middle of an active beehive—the thrill and the terror, the excitement and the pain.
I’ve never been in a place so alive. When the sun is out, the heat is unrelenting, the streets are swarming and the attitude is scattered. And when the sun goes down, things don’t really change much.
On the very first night we got to Rio, after nearly 16 hours of travel and 5 straight hours of filming and interviews and 0 hours of rest, Roshan and I were gung-ho enough to allow Thiago (our translator) to show us the biggest Rio late-night hotspots. When we asked Thiago where to go, all he said was, “Oh, Lapa!”
Lapa it was. We boarded a turbulent roller coaster of a bus that was packed like too many sweaters in a suitcase. I’d never had so many people I didn’t know touching me so closely and completely. But, as I told myself thousands of times on the trip, I guess this is Rio!
I’d never seen a party scene like there was in Lapa. It was like ever Las Vegas casino and Bourbon street had a child that mated with Beale Street and NYC on New Year’s Eve’s child and those children had a child and named it “Lapa.”
First of all, in Lapa, outdoor drinking is 100% legal. In the middle of the streets that are normally crowded during the day hours, vendors set up shop and sell everything from Caipirinhas (Brazil’s favorite mixed drink), to fejoida (Brazil’s favorite meal)—and these stands go on for miles.
Second of all, Lapa is located in the center of Rio and comes complete with two of Brazil’s greatest landmarks: Las Escaleras Selarón and Los Arcos da Lapa. Imagine if you were allowed to drink and eat like an obese alcoholic all while sitting on the lap of the Lincoln Monument. That’s what Lapa is.
Lapa was loud. And hot. That’s the thing about Rio—the temperature remains the same, regardless of whether the sun has chosen to show itself or not.
On the night I was in Lapa in particular, I was a bundle of ups and downs. I’m not a huge, wild, crazy partier, especially not when I’m running on 0 hours of sleep after shlepping across the Equator. But, I was in Rio, and I was gonna be damned if I wasn’t going to try and have a good time. So. The following is a slide show of my moods throughout the night.
So, to wake us all up…
It was at this point, I wanted to go home. I was sleepy, sweaty and surly. So,
But then, the most random thing happened. Out of nowhere, a guy walks up to me and asks me if I was the girl who was dancing crazily in the Samba circle earlier. I said yes, I was, assuming he was just another drunk Brazilian, but he kept talking to us. He had a friend with him who we also started talking to, and pretty soon, we were all laughing and having a great conversation, when the bus pulled up. I said, “Alright, well, I guess I’ll see ya!” And he said, “What? You can’t go, you must come to this great club we know, you must!” And I looked at Roshan and we said to each other with our eyes, “Well, we’re in Rio!”
They brought us to this excellent club that wasn’t packed to capacity by tourists. It wasn’t air conditioned, but then again, not many things in Rio were. There was live music, a dance floor, a bar and a whole lotta energy. By the time we all finally decided to call it a night, it was 4 am. Roshan and I knew we had to get up at 9 am the next day to do some more reporting, but the bus ride home was the most cathartic experience after that night. Both of us knew we wouldn’t have traded that experience for a few more hours of sleep. And, that was one of the first time we thanked our lucky stars for being able to hang out with a local.
The next night, we decided to get to know the people in our hostel—especially the Brazilian staffers. More advice from me when traveling: stay in good hostels as often as possible, and befriend as many fellow customers as possible. Having all those friends in your hostel is like going back to freshman year and living in a dorm with all your best friends all over again.
This is how that night looked:
One of the best things about staying in a hostel is getting the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. We learned that Europeans think Americans are “superficial,” which is great, ’cause I always just thought they thought we were “fat.”
At this point, you may be wondering what a Caipirinha is. When I first started hearing that word get thrown around, I wondered the same thing. It is pretty much the only mixed drink served/consumed in Rio. In fact, it is actually Brazil’s national cocktail. This sums them up pretty cleanly:
It is a mixture of cachaça (a Brazilian hard liquor), lime and sugar. There is usually more or less sugar in the beverage depending on how poor or excellent (respectively) the vendor is, says Mateos. One of my favorite Mateos quotes came when we asked him to come out with us for our final night in Rio. He had a lot of work to do that night, and tried to explain to us what working at a hostel and a surf shop—two very social places—meant for him and his social life: “I am always stuck in a life of party and I can not help it.” Hard knocks man, hard knocks.
Roshan and I were always flabbergasted by the amount of times we ran into people we knew in Rio. Why? Because we were with Thiago, who knows all the places true Brazilians go to hang out. So, naturally, when we got there, we would of course see all the other Brazilians we knew because, birds of a feather…
One such place was at Pedra do Sal.
Pedro do Sal is the most outrageous Samba dance party in Rio de Janeiro. Every Monday night, people gather in this place no one can find unless they already know where it is. When Thiago was showing us the way, many times Roshan and I looked at each other thinking, “oh my God, he’s lost and too embarrassed to admit it…” But the moment we heard the music, we knew we were in the right place. Plus, you could see people spilling out of the main dance area from side streets:
Then, we arrived.
Thiago told us the history behind the event—making the experience all the more amazing. The location—a small, flat area with a skyscraper-sized boulder slanted on a hill right next to it—was a former market for the slave trade.
The slaves would dance the Samba, which would go unnoticed by the guards as they mistook it for walking. And no, if you’re wondering, the gigantic boulder everyone walks and jumps up and down is not, in fact, safe. It is slippery as hell and many drunken people—even just the night I was there—fell, slipped and stumbled. But, I guess, the drunker you are, the less you feel anything but good vibes.
When we first got there, everything was overwhelming. The music, the people, the food, the smells, the sights—all foreign and all incredibly intimidating. In a setting like that, it’s either sink or swim, so either you grab a caipirinha and get on the dance floor, or you fall to the way side and get yelled at by the vendors for sitting in their chairs without buying enough (both of which happened to me—the sinking and the swimming).
But, soon and serendipitously enough, we ran in to a gaggle of folks we’d met at the hostel, and the night went from blurry to brilliant.
The only thing that Brazilians love more than dancing is futebol—or soccer, as we Americans say it. Thiago knew the ins and outs of soccer games and tickets, and whereas the hostel was selling tickets for R$80 a pop, he was able to get us the same tix for R$15 a piece. Locals, man.
Ever since I was but a youth, I’d always wanted to see soccer played in Brazil. My first club soccer team was founded by a Brazilian man (who I originally thought was crazy, but now, after having been in Brazil and met all kinds of Brazilians, he’s almost tame in comparison) who always taught us that soccer is like a dance—like a Samba. It is a beautiful game, he said, and always make sure you remain composed and exercise “tranquilo,” he said.
Roshan knew it was on my bucket list to see a soccer game in Brazil, so we made it happen.
Thiago laid down some ground rules for our trip to the game: Outside the stadium, do not speak English and seem as local as possible. That was the only rule. It was difficult, but we made sure to give it everything we had.
Once we were in watching the game, maybe more exciting for me than watching the game was watching all the fans around me. After having grown up in a country that doesn’t love soccer the way I do, it was a dream come true to be surrounded by a people for whom soccer is their life’s blood.
When I first arrived in Rio and got to the hostel, I met a French couple who had been in Rio for two weeks, and they said, “The only thing on Brazilian TV is shows about God and futebol.” That sums up the country pretty accurately.
Luckily, this was a game with a lot of goals scored for the home team, so I got to do a lot of cheering. Like this:
Maybe the best part, though, was Thiago translating the different things the fans were shouting at the players. Within five minutes, the man sitting behind us yelled that the same player should both be on the national team, and get a futebol shoved up his @$$. The fans flip flopped between cheering for their teammates and insulting them, all depending on how well they played at any moment.
Also, if you’ll notice, no one sits at a soccer game. They’re always on their feet, just as involved in the play as the athletes. Watching soccer games in Brazil is an interactive affair, if not a contact sport itself.
On our last night in Rio, the hostel gang went out for dinner and clubbing. Here’s the gang:
Rio wouldn’t have been the same without them.