I actually cried leaving the city. I cried leaving my friends in the hotel, I cried in the elevator, I cried on the bus. I was nothing but tears driving away from Rio.
Cat Head Josh was so right about this city. He told me I wouldn’t want to leave, and when I finally did, it was like I left a part of me there.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Rio was the smell of urine. It hung in the cool early morning air of the Rodoviaria along with the hot exhaust from the buses. I held my breath through the bus station and headed out to catch a local bus to Copacabana. Cat Head was with me and since he knows the city well, pointed out interesting sights along the way as we rode. I saw the Cristo lit up before the sun rise and some of the favellas along our way to the Zona Sul, which is where the beaches are. I had heard so much about how dangerous Rio is, about how I would have to be so careful and watch where I was going and not to talk to anyone because everyone there is just out to rob you anyway. I was uptight and uneasy when we got off the bus in Copacabana to walk along the beach, and felt nauseated upon finding the air there smelled just as bad as it did in the rodoviaria, and even worse because the scent of low-tide and dirty streets mixed in with the urine. Not to mention the fact that it was just about six in the morning and the sun hadn’t yet come out enough to show me that Rio was a beautiful place. The air was thick with a fog that seemed to trap all those smells at the exact level of my nose. There was no escaping where I was and I began to question whether it was a good idea or not to be there.
But then Josh and I found the beach and walked along the famous black and white waves of the mosaic sidewalk that until then I’d only seen in books. There were people milling around at little beer tents and huts, some drinking juice and others drinking beer. There were prostitutes and men talking with them. Josh and I stopped at a beer hut and sat down to watch the sun burn the fog off over a beer. When he told me to stand on the beach next to a little palm so he could take my picture, I placed my backpack on my chair and watched it so intently that now, when I look back through my photos, I can see how nervous I was about being there. So unnecessarily nervous.
Soon after we finished our beers and walked to a store off the beach to get breakfast, Josh and I parted ways–he to his rented apartment and I to the beach. I may have been the first person out there because I arrived just as the people who rent chairs and umbrellas were setting up. The first person I met was a dark man in glasses and a do-rag with a broad smile. He set my chair up and once he did, I didn’t leave that spot for five hours straight. My friends arrived a little after noon–Mia and Millette, two cousins and teachers from New Haven. I taught with Mia at NHA and was so excited to spend time with her I could scarcely contain my happiness when I saw her walk through the hotel’s doors.
You can imagine how the following days went: sleeping, speaking Portuguese, lying on the beach, eating, drinking cold beer and caipirinhas, staying out late, and every combination thereof. That’s exactly what happened and there’s no need to go into exact details because writing them down would make them seem boring and concrete, when what I want to do is to keep them as alive and energetic as they actually were. Imagine the best vacation of your life–doing exactly what it is you wanted to do every moment you were there–and that’s what this vacation was like for me.
The only time I was doing something I wasn’t excited about was actually the exact thing I was going there to do: the parade at the Sambodromo. That’s the big parade that happens over several days at night and they have all of the huge floats and dancers and drum corps and whatnot. Everyone who can afford to go in, packs themselves up into concrete stadium seating and stands and watches a parade go by. It was torture. It was the most boring thing I think I’ve ever seen and neither Millette nor Mia felt any more excited than I was to be there. We left after about an hour and a half. But we were there, so whatever.
The biggest source of joy at the Sambodromo was actually these cardboard origami pink urination “assistants” that the people working the festa handed out to all the women coming through. It was this cardboard cone so women could go to the bathroom standing up. The three of us looked at the instructions and laughed at the thought of actually using it, stuffing them into our back pockets for souvenirs.
The real Carnaval, for all of us, happened on the street next to our hotel, each night we were there. Every night, we walked through the street carnaval–a truck blasting music and people crowded around it dancing, selling beer, cooking pinchos, spraying shaving cream in the air, and down the street to Help, which happens to be the most famous strip club in Rio (or so I’m told), to watch capoeira performed out front. Some nights we danced salsa across Avenida Atlantica from Help, other nights we went to Ipanema to other street carnavals. It’s hard to believe I was there for five days. It’s like I was hardly there at all, but like I was there forever.
Now I am at home, on the couch, suffering from a head cold and maybe a case of strep throat that I felt coming on last Friday on the bus to Rio. It seemed while I was there, the sun burned it out of me, but now that I’m back in Campinas, it crept back in and now I’m a wreck. I can’t wait to get back to that city.