it's another friday night in rio. i arrived three weeks ago and finally feel the rhythm of the place setting in. i don't have my capoeira classes, i don't have my friends to call, i don't have a routine, but i have myself in a city that pulses with so much energy sometimes i feel like i've spent the last 26 years in a hyperbaric chamber. what's on the agenda for tonight? well, it's friday so we're obviously going to lapa. that's where the people are. meet at the caipirinha stand (for just anybody, this would be the most unspecific direction of all time, considering the 50+ caipirinha stands on the street in lapa on any given friday...but within this group, it's one singular point on a map.) what are we gonna do tonight? tom suggests a reggae show at some place called 'casa de geral' in santa teresa. well, that's close to home, and it only costs R$3 to get in. plus, the invitation came from tom's love interest- the beautiful portuguese-speaking german ballerina. heck yes! but let's hit lapa first. it's early.
we get down to lapa at about 10pm. caipirinha, check. R$5 for a caipirinha to conquer all caipirinhas. about 1/4 of a bottle in a 24oz cup, complete with electric green sugar syrup decoratively dripped around the cup like the work of some barista at starbucks. once we've all got our first sip down and the heat sets in, the crowd grows exponentionally with each passing minute like some kind of amoeba dividing and sub-dividing... suddenly i hear something very familiar... no, it's not lil' wayne on mr. caipirinha's ghetto blaster, it's bigger...badder...and way more fun to dance to.
"do you guys hear that?" i ask my crew of escorts (i.e. my male roommates who serve as companions on the night out, but offer about as much deterrant to the brazilian boys as sugar water to mosquitoes...) looking out through the crowd and the screaming traffic, my ears lead me through the cars, across two streets to a sub-crowd of people standing in front of a garage door. above hangs a green, yellow and black sign that says, 'orunmila centro cultural afro-brasileiro.' unable to contain myself i bounce in place, oblivious to whether or not my friends have followed me across the street and managed to dodge the speeding buses and taxis. the bateria plays a steady beat that feels so familiar and so comforting and sooo intoxicating, all feelings of culture shock and not speaking the language go out the window. right now, i understand everything...and for everything else i'll just follow along.
the garage doors fly open and, following the drums, the crowd streams into the tiny, dark room, set up with a small bar, a smaller stage, and acoustics to make your heart melt. the beat stops, just long enough to introduce the featured singer for the evening. the smiles light up the barely lit room, reflecting off the beads of sweat on everyone's forehead. the rasta on stage takes the mic, and leads everyone in another round of pulsing movement and sound...i look behind me and tom, my punk-rock compadre from the streets of nottingham, and rob, the streets-of-new york-bred harvard grad, are dancing in the crowd like it's their neighborhood spot, so familiar, so happy, so brazilian....
we float out of there on a wave of music and pile in a taxi that takes us up, up, up the hills of santa teresa almost to corcovado. we are sitting on top of rio de janeiro and get out to find a small house party. we make our way to the back patio, where reggae music awaits us on the stereo and home-made music videos play on the projector. following orunmila, this is the only place that could have improved upon the vibe.
people walk in, new faces appear, the music from the dj's lap top gets better and better...a man appears who stands about 6'3" with dreads bursting out of his head. he's the singer for the band. i saw him in the video. then the next set of dreads appears. and the next. i love it here...
tom, knowing my tendencies, looks to me and says, "you're loving it here, aren't you?" i don't need to answer. the smile is practically too big for my face. but i have enough sense to notice that his girl just walked in with another guy...
"you want another beer?" i ask. his face says it all as he nods. i walk over to the make-shift bar- one of the guy's bedroom windows opens up onto the center courtyard. the house shoots up two stories, enclosing us on three sides. the back "wall" is the forest of santa teresa- banana trees and thick branches dangling to the ground. i'm waiting for a monkey to come sit on my shoulder. the air slowly fills with swirling smoke, the earthy smell of reggae music floats through the crowd. then something catches my eye. more dreads. bleached blond. dark eyes, almost black, and a face like i've never seen. i grab tom's hand to show him my find, and he just speaks for me, "yeah, he's beautiful..." but in nottingham they say, "yeh, 'ees beyoot-i-fol."
i look again and he looks at me. my stomach drops and i smile. i have to look away. hmmm...a beer i think...as i stand in line i look around at all the faces i see; they're all smiling. voices are getting louder, the band is setting up and the space to move gets tighter and tighter. i grab my beer and turn to see the blond dreads and face that make me grin like an idiot....
"quere entrar pa' falar."
"nao, ainda nao. uh, vou para o banheiro!"
he looks at me with eyes so wide and innocent i feel like a six year-old on the playground...i'm waiting for him to hold my hand and tell me i'm pretty before he pulls my hair and runs away.
deep breath. i need music.
so the music starts. and it's OFF THE CHAIN!
the lead singer, udi, has one of the most unique voices i've ever heard. they play a set of original reggae-funk songs, and then start into covers- everything from bob marley to james brown to amy winehouse and vanessa da mata (i thought it was a recording of her voice when he started singing 'nao me deixe so'.) the band never stopped playing, the crowd never stopped dancing, and i never stopped stealing glances from my crush...
finally he started dancing with me...he did his best to ask me questions i could understand...i did my best to answer...his name was saulo. i looked over to see tom chatting with a beautiful blond girl holding hands with a creepy looking "band manager" type...the smoke in the air mixed with the spring breeze and it all seemed like an alternate universe...that felt so close to home...glances turned to dancing, which led to hand-holding, bodies leaning into each other, faces touching, and the kiss...then the hours passed like minutes. i remember looking around suddenly to find a nearly empty house.
in this transition moment, the smoke was starting to clear, the caipirinha fading away, the voices quieting, the night transitioning to morning...i saw tom wandering about like a lost infant.
"hey! are you ok?" he looked at me from under his cap and just broke. no words, just tears, and i grabbed him for a big hug. "hey, you wanna go? do you want me to take you home?" saulo was there behind me looking for a way to help. i told him we needed to get tom home. saulo looked at him with all kindness and heart and offered him a huge hug. "take it easy," he said. tom lightened a little. "i just want to go home." he had ended a 2 year relationship before coming to brazil, and the girl he followed to this party just made out with a creepy old man in front of his face. so we loaded him into a kombi outside, and i was relieved to see the driver from morro dos prazeres with black lights inside his converted vw bus and a dvd player that always had hip hop music videos playing...
(in portuguese) "i need you to take my friend home- make SURE he gets there. rua aurea 80."
"the pousada, right?"
"right. make sure he gets in. can you help me?"
"you got it."
we set tom off and turned back to the house. so quiet now. the band sitting on the front porch, seeming so calm and normal after putting on such an amazing show. where are you from, what are you doing here, how are you liking rio? all the questions flowing back and forth in a language i don't yet know that i speak. i hear it. i get it. but it doesn't come out of me the way i want it to. but sitting on that porch at day break, i feel at home.
it's almost six. i tell saulo i need to go home. i live in santa teresa, by the football pitch. we get on the bus and head down. out the window, i see a cidade maravillhosa- the ocean lit by the dawn's pink sky, pao de azucar rising out of the bay, and all the favelas descending down the mountain. on top of everything, cristo o redentor standing on top of corcovado, in perfect view. the colors of the morning, of the mountainside, the richness of the landscape and the air itself...i feel myself wrapped up in rio, wrapped up in saulo's arms.
when the bus stops, i can hardly get off, my legs are so shaky... is it the eight hours of dancing? the 24oz caipirinha? the contact high? the city? whatever it is, it's inside me, and one dream drifts into another as i put myself to bed that morning...in my new home, rio de janeiro...