Isn’t it great when things go just as you planned? It was our second day in the beautiful city of Rio De Janeiro, profoundly named “River of January” after the month in which Portuguese explorers drastically misunderstood their Google Maps directions when navigating to India. They thought the bay they found was actually the mouth of a river leading into the new and beautiful continent they were about to lay claim on. In their defense though, Google maps isn’t all that accurate here. With walking time estimates, they don’t include the obvious, obligatory delays for stopping and admiring the brilliant shoreline of Copacabana. Rio is framed by a series of hills and, in the distance, the statue of Christ the Redeemer looking over a city that, let’s just say, he should pardon during the week of Carnival.
Needless to say, things didn’t go according to plan – and that was beautiful. We were all set to go to a block party (“bloco”) in Carioça Square and then head over to the Sambadrome, which is a stadium where the official carnival schools perform the parade. A bloco is, let’s say, a phenomenon, where you have a parade led by a band playing generally percussion-based music and followed through the streets by hundreds of people in the most ridiculously creative outfits, drinking and dancing until they can stand no more. And then, drinking some more. A 35 minute Uber there sounded fine. So I put on my favorite flamingo shirt, flowery shorts, a Brazilian flag bandana, and my newly acquired Havianas slippers (why slippers? I’ll get back to that). I connected my Spotify “Follow the Bloco” playlist to the speakers and, with some small talk with the Uber driver in terribly broken Portuguese, we were on our way.
Three songs in however, we knew that was a mistake. The car was stuck in standstill traffic for a good 20 minutes which is when we made the fateful decision to get off and take the metro. We pushed our way through another bloco that was going on and reached the station only to see hoards of people who had the same brilliant idea to take the metro. We did try to push through for another 15 minutes but after seeing the police frequently stop entry to avoid people from literally stepping on each others’ heads, we realized it would take an hour before we got into a train while also staying alive. We then made the second fateful decision to walk 50 minutes to the Square. What we didn’t realize is that 15 minutes of actual walking time represented 3 minutes in Google Maps since we were walking through a bloco and going a step back for every two steps forward. At that point, we were just going to embrace it. We each had a shot of cachaça from the nearest vendor and with some cans of Heineken, we were ready (I did try to enjoy a local beer, Skol, but it was so diluted that it felt like it had almost as much beer content as bottled water does. Of course this assessment is after the shot of cachaça).
Switching between dancing on the streets in pouring rain and walking towards our destination, we had our first true carnival experience. This means that as the night progresses, you care less about what your feet are standing in and care more about making best use of the few soaked notes of Reals stuffed in your pockets (Mom/Dad – please skip to the next paragraph). Words cannot describe this but all I can say is that you can fairly accurately estimate the time of the night by the degree to which the streets smell of pee. It’s not that there aren’t porta-potties, but going into the wrong one will more than likely also make you vomit. I then saw a man peeing on a pole (I don’t know why people do that) and, thanks to the forces of gravity and inclined pavements, the pee was flowing directly into a puddle on the street in which housed the feet of a man, a few feet away from me, wearing the same slippers I had purchased the previous day. So I did what any human would naturally do. I walked over to the closest street vendor and took out the only note I had in my pocket and asked her to give me whatever she could for 2 Reals. She made me half a cup of a clear liquid with a dash of typhoid and with that, I was on my way.
We finally got to the Sambadrome two hours later than we had planned to. It also takes some time to get used to strangers helping us purely out of the goodness of their heart. Coming from New York, that made no sense. When we had some difficulty finding the correct gate to enter from, the first person we asked for directions walked with us for a good 15 minutes to the gate and then just said bye and went about his life. After another round of caipirinhas, that almost certainly contained equal parts or sugar and typhoid, we got to the stands to enjoy the most amazing display of music, dance, and colors. The Samba schools train for months to put up this performance and it truly was incredible to see all the different stage and costume designs surrounded by a level of noise and energy that almost paralleled that from the blocos. It was almost midnight when the parade was coming to an end, and just as we were getting ready to head back, we thought to ask someone if this was the end of the festivities. With a hint of harmless ridicule in his tone, he told us that this was just one out to the seven schools that perform and each performance takes 1 – 1.5 hours. Needless to say, it was 5 am before we got back to the hotel and we had just about seen half the schools perform. How they do it, I don’t know.
Brazil may have pristine beaches, intriguing history, and absolutely crazy parties, but the thing that struck me most was the people. Without even going out of my way, I made friends in the most random places, right from people we met in the bus to a guy standing next to an alcohol vendor in the bloco recommending which liquors to try out – all of whom asked to connect on Instagram. The night after the 5am carnival morning, we had planned to check out a bloco in Ipanema. However we got quite delayed because we got pulled into another bloco outside our hotel in Copacabana and were able to slip into an “exclusive” area within the ropes right ahead of the bus that carried the band – it was amazing! But sadly when we eventually got to Ipanema, it seemed like things there were ending. Since I was the one who always wanted to find opportunities to speak to random people in extremely broken Portuguese, that really sounded like a blend of Spanish and Dothraki, my friend pointed out to a pretty girl with curly blonde hair and told me to ask her if the bloco was still on. Sadly, it was all over and we were told that there was nothing else going on in Copacabana or Ipanema. I’m not really sure what the conversation was after that, since I was speaking in Spanish and she was responding in Portuguese, but we ended up taking the metro with their group of friends to the neighborhood of Lapa and partied until 4am at different bars and clubs that locals clearly frequented. Lapa was likely the craziest neighborhood in terms of drinking and partying and dancing, which was evident in how much every street smelled of pee. But I won’t get into that again. The night was filled with meeting new people, wondering if and when we would get mugged, singing and dancing in the metro, learning some basic Samba, and, from what I remember, just a couple more cans of beer. At one point in the night, my friend’s slippers broke and we decided to go up to a street vendor to ask her for her slippers in exchange for 40 Reals. She seemed a little too happy with that deal and so I asked her to include a shot of cachaça with the slippers; then it was truly a win-win.
I would be remiss to not mention Rio’s beaches. One good thing about being awake at all hours is that you get to see all the different colors of the sun’s rays hitting the ocean. On the last night in Rio we were back in Lapa enjoying live Afro-Brazilian music until the first rays of the sun were out. Even though it was just after 5:30 in the morning and there were no signs of the parties ending, we headed to Copacabana beach and saw the most beautiful sunrise. Yellow, orange, and red colors were gushing through the clouds and reflecting on the waves creating a sort of natural kaleidoscope. As the sun rose, the sky evolved to brighter orange and yellow shades, occasionally interrupted by black specks of flocks of birds on their morning fly. Waist deep in the cool ocean water with the first rays of the sun hitting my face, I felt truly at peace with the ocean and everything happening around me. The name Arnav, meaning “The Ocean”, could not have been more apt.
I am now leaving that part of the world, heading upstream to the Amazons to recount what will possibly be some very different experiences.