Alex paraded us to a club with a $70 entrance fee. For our group, it was half off, $35, which was still a lot, but I had left my sensible side back at the hotel. Inside, small plastic cups of Vodka / Red Bulls were being sold for $30 a piece ($19 US dollars). I got a little nervous about all the money I was starting to dispense that night, but Alex continued to come through, distributing endless festive rounds of Skol beer cans.
The second floor of the club was lined with narrow glass booths, the likes of which I’d never seen before. They were big enough for four people, max, and contained nothing but a couch. They were basically a place to put you and your friends on display. Half the booths were occupied by couples making out. PDAs carry zero taboo in Brazil. Equal portions of gay couples and straight couples were lip locked everywhere. The real party was on the roof. DJs spun ironic mashup after quirky mashup, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” mashed with Blink 182′s “All the Small Things”, the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” On the side of a tall building next to the club, visuals were projected. Oftentimes, it was footage of giant 30 feet X 30 feet thong adorned booties.
It got to be five in the morning. The crowd began to thin, but there was still a reasonable amount of committed partiers. Brazil goes late! “You ready to take off, bud?” Greg deduced as I wearily limped up to him, content but exhausted. I nodded. “Okay, I’ll split a cab with you. But first, five more minutes.” We broke into more dancing, and danced hard. It was Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” mashed up with “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I started noticing a girl making eyes at me from the sideline. I couldn’t tell if she was intrigued by my outrageous dancing, or perplexed, or if she thought I was a total clown. I returned her stare a second time, and without warning, she pounced on me. An aggressive makeout session commenced, stumbling across the dance floor, completely in public, no conversation. I spoke no Portuguese and she could only piece together a few words of English. It was very in the spirit of the night.
Now it was 6 AM and there was talk of traveling across town to the favela to experience a party in the ghetto. Five hours ago, this possibility had sounded compelling to me, but at this point, I felt we had already lucked out with a jewel of a night. How much more joy could we possibly squeeze out of it? I expressed my reservations to Greg. “C’mon, man,“ he jostled me. “When’s the next time you’re going to be in Rio? When’s the next time you’re going to have the chance to party in a favela? You almost left an hour ago. Aren’t you glad you stayed for those five more minutes?” I knew that Prawn was right. So off we zoomed as the sky began to lighten, our taxi never stopping for red lights. If you stop for red lights in Rio, you’re making yourself vulnerable to getting robbed.
At the base of Vidigal, a rotation of tough dudes swerved rumbling motorbikes to the curb of an uphill street. I’d never ridden before, and being a bit clumsy, I nervously gathered as much advice as I could from Georgi. Lean on the curves. Either hold onto the back of the seat, or if you want, it’s okay to hang onto the dude. I don’t much trust my balance, so I handed over my fare, a blue two Real bill, and awkwardly wrapped my arm around the belly of the gruff driver. Off we shot, snaking up the narrow winding hill, through the colorful cramped disarray of the favela, other motorbikes passing us, heading back down to pick up the next passengers.
It wasn’t long before we had arrived at the party. It was 7 AM, completely bright out, and felt safe enough. About 30 diehard partiers remained at this particular street corner. A DJ was set up on a table of planks, nodding his head to the baile funk beats and smiling, paying us no mind. There was a massive white wall full of speakers and bullhorns, a homemade one-of-a-kind rig, pounding the deafening raw beats, the obscene yet undecipherable Portuguese lyrics. A cluster of prostitutes squatted low to the ground, dancing casually and provocatively in their slinky outfits, with their hard lives written on their faces. One of the ladies was obviously a man. From the doors and windows of the pastel shacks, waking grandmothers peeked out upon the scene, unbothered, accustomed to the mayhem. On another table of planks, an improvised bar was set up, from which Greg ordered us a round of plastic cups filled with a tart limey nameless beverage. Local boys and men sauntered, laughing and enjoying themselves. I felt like I was in the middle of a living, breathing MIA song, which is itself an implication of my admittedly limited American hipster musical palette. It was then that we saw the guns. The laughing, sauntering teenagers had AK-47s slung over their shoulders like purses. Upon first glance, it appeared to be a toy, but we quickly realized that this was the real thing. No one seemed agitated or hostile, so we kept our distance, kept our smiles, and everything went smoothly. That is, until we noticed that Big Prawn was gone.
“Where’s Greg?” we asked each other. Alex and Miles searched up one hill, came back after a minute, tried the other direction, came back. “Last I saw him was when he bought us drinks.” “He’ll turn up. Let’s just wait a few more minutes.” Alex and Georgi exchanged concerned glances. Miles, Georgi, our friend Mari, and I slunked down the hill to see if he might possibly be waiting at the bottom, but this behavior didn’t seem like him. Our worries heightened. We analyzed Greg. He has his whimsical moments of solo wanderings and exploration, but he’s certainly not reckless or irresponsible or insensitive. We went through worst-case scenarios. Had he been coaxed into a house by some faux-friendly people and then held up for his money? Was he tied up somewhere? Unconscious? Laying in some corner with a bullet in his head?
25 minutes after Prawn’s disappearance, we got a text message from Alex announcing that Greg had been safely recovered! It was the first moment of my life where I experienced that reaction characteristic of parents, the sort where one second you’re thinking “Oh my god, where is he, I hope nothing bad has happened, this is terrifying!” and then the second you find out he’s alright, your thinking, “I’m going to strangle him! Don’t you EVER do that again, you IDIOT!”
Greg’s explanation? He had wandered off with a friendly woman who wanted to show him her storefront church. After that, he decided to make the climb to the top of the favela by himself. In the words of Big Prawn, “I thought, ‘When am I ever going to be here again?’ Nobody was bothering me. I knew that if I asked you guys, you would’ve said ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’ So I just went.” In other words, he HAD acted recklessly and irresponsible and insensitive. What can you do?
I reconvened with Darwin when it was time to go sound check for the show the next day and recounted our adventures. “What have you been up to?” I asked him. “YouTube,” Darwin shrugged, sounding content. “Any highlights?” I asked. “I found some footage of raves from 1989… 1990… the music was very cool… and the style of dress was very cool.”
And this is the difference between the way the rest of the band responds to new cities and the way Darwin responds to new cities.