As the plane began its long decent over the lava of orange and white lights which shone atop a mountainous terrain. I saw for the first time the true size of this incredible country. The wave of lights continued for as far as the eye could see.
I had been planning this trip for years but as the tyres of the steel bird screeched across the hot tarmac they confirmed the reality of what I was about to do. Until 11 hours ago it had been a childhood fantasy, the kind which was filled with laughter and unbridled joy – nothing could go wrong, in your dreams you are invincible. . . As you walk off the plane and the hot, humid climate consumes you like an anaconda, you feel strangely exposed. Suffocated and vulnerable you walk through the airport onto unforgiving, foreign streets and hail a taxi to Botafogo.
Rio’s roads do nothing to reassure you as the traffic flows like a rapid river with no obvious rules or conduct. As the taxi creeps around the quieter roads, street lights glisten off the coiled barbed wire which wraps around the surface of every wall and fence, whilst tropical trees erupt from the pavement dwarfing you into a state of submission. As you pull up outside the hostel, a dirty white shutter which groans and moans every time it is commanded to open is the only thing that greets you.
Bags are abandoned, your heart rate calms and ‘welcome to the jungle’ stops blasting between your ears as you realise you aren’t the only foreigner in the city. Ignoring warnings from fellow hostel guests and accompanied by a spectacled bear you decide to make your own judgement and conquer what could only have been a logical apprehension triggered by media propaganda and unknown surroundings.
The first port of call was one of the many bars which spring out from behind their shuttered hiding places of the day time, welcoming thirsty locals and turning whole streets into lively bars. We were presented with a giant bottle of beer placed lovingly in a cooler and two small glasses. Glasses, which throughout the two weeks would never long be empty. Portuguese and cigarette smoke fills the air as taxi horns offend the peace in the hope of receiving custom from anyone seen to be walking in the same direction. Four bottles down and the Dutch forces us from our seats and into the streets which are filled with grilled meats throughout the night, we walk out of sight with wallets zipped up tight.
We walked and talked and stumbled past a beach which was playing host to an MC battle, stopped by as we watched carioca after carioca step up to the mike as an immense sound system provided a beat, there must have been over a hundred people there including Mary. Un-possessive of a Portuguese tongue between the pair of us we walked on. Road beers from one of the many stores refreshed us until we were again greeted by very loud music, this time bouncing out of an old, grey colonial building in the middle of an otherwise quiet street. Intrigued we entered, greeted by what looked like a pool hall – the tables were there at least. The atmosphere and live band suggested otherwise. We challenged some locals to a game and realised that they play the game very differently in Rio, only four balls per team – two on each cushion.
We were told over pool that Lapa is the place to be on a Saturday night in Rio so, with ever growing courage hailed a taxi and set off to Casa Alta, which was playing host to a samba band. Instructed by the taxi driver to follow an abandoned train track up what seemed to be a deserted hill, we were sceptical until we reached an old mansion set into the hill side, we entered. The view from the two tiered, cobble floored club is the first thing that hits you, completely open, your eyes feast upon a city lit up under a starry night sky. Palm trees were scattered around the lower tier, watching on as the band set up. This was to be no ordinary samba gig. The band, ‘The Flying Orchestra’ threw out energy for a solid two hours which saw every member of the band venturing out into the crowd as people limbo’d and ducked under the trumpet as it was swung around to pronounce the sound, people were encouraged to crowd surf as the band acted out every rhythm, dying as the beat slowed and ecstatically fighting as the percussion battled with the wind instruments. Casa Alto shut its doors but the band played on walking down the abandoned, golden train track to a blissful, never ending beat as dawn started to kiss the night sky, the whole club followed and one by one peeled off into the wild city as the beat faded away.
The sun was rising as we took the taxi back to Botafogo, pulling up close to the hostel, hungry and buzzing from the sheer magic we had just witnessed we decided to get some food from one of the many café’s which trade places with the bars on the corners of most blocks after the night shift. The pastry laden, cheese filled foods were a surprise given Rio’s hot climate and the close vicinity of the ocean, not the healthiest of diets it would appear, at least the juice bars can tackle a hangover.
We agreed, drunk, at 8am that this was the time to see the city. During the day at the tourist attractions you meet other tourists. At night in the bars and clubs you meet the locals. At 8am as the city wakes up, the relentless honking starts again and the curvaceous women in yoga pants battle through lustful stares to make it to the gym you see the real city. Sun glistening down, briefcases swinging, amid all the hustle and bustle two gentlemen from Manchester end their evening over pasties and pineapple juice, wondering why they still had their wallets.
We must have been extremely lucky. It’s not possible to spend an evening in Rio without getting mugged or stabbed or shot, that’s what we were told by our friends, parents, the television and the newspapers. They can’t be wrong, can they?
We reached the conclusion that Rio, like any other city in the world, has its suspect areas. There are places in Manchester I wouldn’t walk around at night. So long as you keep your wits about you, walking confidently, uninviting of trouble it’s all good. The locals we met were all very welcoming, those who do know Spanish were happy to have a broken conversation and were very happy and curious about the fact that two Englishmen had made the effort to cross the Atlantic to come and see their home.
As we stumbled back to the hostel Christ watched over us, looming ever present, silently judging.
The haggard white shutter, an old grandparent wise with age greeted us in his usual manner. Struggling, but glad to see we had survived our first night in Rio De Janerio.