Totally screwed in Rio
Henrique and I fought in Italy for the entertainment of a demented couch surfing host, but that’s a story for another time. We survived together and forged a deep friendship. I mean, trauma bonds people together, so we were like family. He invited me to Brazil, his home country, to cross “Go to Carnaval in Rio” off my bucketlist.
When I agreed to come to Rio, I imagined big asses, lots of drinking and pulling all-nighters with my Brazilian friend. How was I supposed to know that things would get so crazy in Brazil that I would cancel my entire trip to Peru I had planned for the week after? How could I have looked into the future to see the military police sprinting towards me with automatic weapons, or asking to meet the father of a girl I fell in love with because I would be sure we were getting married? How could I have known I’d never see my passport again and there was no way I’d be making it back to the US for work on Monday? Looking back I’m so glad I couldn’t have known the ultimate shit show was coming. I may have never boarded that plane, and I’d have one less insane story to tell.
Carnaval is celebrated by millions of people every year all around Brazil. It’s a cultural festival where millions of people party on the streets, dance samba and get very, very drunk. While this happens all over Brazil to celebrate the days leading up to lent, the traditional fasting period in the catholic religion, Rio is known as the greatest place on Earth to experience what Brazilian culture is all about.
Walking through customs in Rio international airport, I see Henrique (pronounced En-hiki) with a full bottle of Cachaca, the most famous liquor in Brazil, smiling ear to ear as he yells as loud as he can to get my attention (you literally could not miss this guy if you tried) and pours Cachaca down my throat while singing in Portuguese at customs in the airport, which I’m pretty sure is a federal offense. This is when I knew I made the right decision to come to Rio.
We spent the first few days of Carnaval drinking a full bottle of Cachaca every day, plus 5-10 Caipirinhas (a sweet Brazilian mixed drink that’s half Cachaca and half sugar with a little Limon’). We would get shit faced starting at 8am as we left his grandmother's house where we were staying. We’d take the ferry from Niteroi to the city center of Rio about 25 minutes away where the biggest block parties are. Having Henrique to guide me around was incredible. I could get drunk and never have to think about directions, where the party is or anything. I never had to think about where I was or where we were staying, which would end up fucking me over in the end, but we aren’t there yet.
Carnaval is like New Years Eve mixed with halloween. Everyone dresses up, the girls in tiny costumes showing off their bodies and the guys dress up in tutus and whatever else they can find to look like a homeless transvestite tooth fairy.
Love is always in the air. Brazilian culture is more sexual than in the west. You can walk down the street and make eye contact with a cute girl, she will walk up to you and you just start making out. When you’re done, you smile and nod, then keep walking. It is amazing.
A few nights in, Henrique introduced me to his sister Luiza. Luiza was a Brazilian bombshell. Stunningly gorgeous, fun and most importantly, she liked me!
I was smitten. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other and she had me smiling all night drinking Caipirinha after Caipirinha. We all partied together, got too drunk. Took a taxi to a house she used to live in only to have her realise this isn’t her house anymore and Henrique and I decided to get her to her actual house and call it a night. I was torn between chasing after Luiza, or spending time with Henrique, and in the end I remembered the slurring “Guys before thighs”.
That decision would change the rest of the trip to South America, and my life.
Henrique, with Cachaca in hand, walked up to two police officers sitting in their cruiser and asked them if they wanted a drink. When they declined he naturally asked where the party was at. They told him there was a beach party they heard about on Copacabana beach (Rio police are so cool) so we took the metro, chanting with hundreds of people the whole way a song that translated to “She may not be pretty, but she makes up for it in enthusiasm. The bigger they are the harder they try.” Or some ridiculous Brazilian chant sung by Rio’s population of drunk 19 year olds.
Dancing at the beach I saw a very cute Japanese girl getting harassed by these Brazilian guys. They were grabbing her hard by the arm and pulling her in to dance with them. It was clear she didn’t want to dance with them, but there were 6 of them and she didn’t have a choice.
I walked over, took her by the hand, pulled her close to me and told them she was my wife in Spanish (I don’t speak Portuguese) and they unhappily backed off after I repeated the Spanish words for wife, my heart, love, girlfriend and other words I knew in Spanish that conveyed she was with me while smiling. Always smile when doing something that might get you beat up. It’s hard to fight a nice guy. She thanked me and I took a couple steps back, wanting to make sure to give her some space after that, but she took two steps toward me and we started dancing together.
We just stared into each other's eyes and smiled. I told her I needed to pee and she said she did too, so we went to the ocean and peed together, so romantic. One of my flip flops fell off into the ocean (my favorite flip flops) so I just took the other off too as one flop just won’t do.
For those of you that don’t know, there is a major lack of bathrooms during carnival. So bad that I opened a door to a porta-potty and there was a mountain of shit built up, and people would climb up, putting their feet on the walls and shit on top of the pile. I had never seen anything more horrid and have never seen anything that bad since.
Ok, back to the lovey dovey eye-gazing.
At that point I had fallen in love before in a “love at first sight” kinda way on a beach in Thailand, and on the Seine river in Paris. But this was by far the most intense I had even experienced. Our eyes were locked, her hands felt like magic and I had oxytocin flowing at full blast when we spoke. She felt it too. It was crazy but it felt so true that night. We were trying to tell each other all of the facts about who we were, how we grew up and what our families are like. It was like we knew we were going to be together, so we wanted the other person to know as much as possible. Her name was Carina. Her parents are both Japanese, she was a first generation Brazilian and she was trying to get a job for the government at the time so she could have 6 weeks off every year to travel.
We stayed together on Copacabana beach, away from the dancing, talking and staring into each other's eyes all night. I forgot about everything and everybody else. Nothing else existed that night but Carina and I. I was certain I had found my person, that we had to somehow make this work. Everything was beautiful until the sun began to rise and we realized nobody else was on the beach. Including Henrique.
I was barefoot, in short shorts, with no shirt, no wallet, no cell phone and no fucking clue where I was.
Carina’s phone was dead, and she didn’t bring money as pickpockets were always out during Carnaval. For the first time in my travels, I felt totally fucked. This was a feeling I was about to get very used to. Carina suggested we go to the end of the beach, to a place called Arpoador to watch the sunrise together. We sat on the rocks, making out and it was clear that we both wanted more. We were on rocks, so it wasn’t very comfortable, plus there were a few other people around. I pointed at the other side of the beach, that was totally empty. She said “No that’s military property, it’s off limits.”
So I did what any logical horny person would do. I said “Come oonnnn, nobody will notice.”
It was easy to shuffle down the steep rocks and sneak to a little cove with some trash in it to start making out. About 2 minutes in I see her eyes get really big and she says “stop, stop, stop!”
I turn and see a guy in full dark green military clothes sprinting at us with a “I’m going to fuck you up” look on his face. He was holding a big ass gun out in front of him and in that moment I remember thinking “ Be Chevy Chase”.
Some people have WWJD, but I’ve always got WWCCD.
I told Carina to not say anything and pretend she didn’t speak portuguese, that I would handle this. I put on my biggest goofy tourist smile and said “Hola Senor!”, with a hard “H” as he got close. “problemo on la playa?” I said in my impression Chevy Chase playing out a National Lampoons Rio vacation scene.
He instantly went from angry, to facepalm. He saw we were just dumbass tourists who stumbled onto the beach not seeing the huge “Militaria” signs everywhere. “No bueno on la playa?” “Vamos aqui no bien?” Just saying the worst Spanish sentences in a horridly accurate impression of an American tourist. Carina stayed quiet and played along. The guy pointed for us to go and we did. Looks like I wouldn’t be getting laid anytime soon.
At this point the sun was up and getting very hot. My bare feet are starting to hurt, I can feel the beginnings of a bad sunburn, I’m thirsty, hungry and tired. I’m happy because I’m with Carina, but I really need to find a way to get back to Henrique and I can’t go to Carina’s house as she is staying with her dad, and bringing home a half naked hungover lost white boy is not an option.
I have no phone, no clothes, no money, no sense of direction or where I am at all. All I know is we are about an hour from the house, in some direction. This is bad.
I tell Carina I need to think a while. I sit on a park bench waiting for my brilliant moment as the sunburn starts to hurt and my lack of sunglasses starts to be a problem.
One of my greatest skills that has been created out of years of solo travel is becoming an expert at resourcefulness. So many difficult situations like this, where I’m basically fucked and have to just figure it out.
So sitting there racking my brain, I come up with the only way out. With no money and no phone as well as no address, I found a possibility.
If we could borrow someone’s phone, I could login to my facebook account on their phone, message Henrique, hope that he is somehow still awake at 7:30am after partying all night and get him to give me the address. Then memorize that address, log out of facebook on this guys phone, flag down a taxi, explain the situation to him, that I don’t have any money on me, but I can get it once I am at the destination and I’d make it back to Henrique. Find a pen to write down Carina’s name on my hand so I don’t lose her forever and boom, everything would be ok.
Did I mention I was leaving for the airport today?
Carina being able to speak Portuguese, and looking like the sweetest, kindest person ever was my secret weapon. Nobody cared to help some naked tourist dude, but they would stop for her. So I stepped back and watched her step up and make it happen. We got the phone and I messaged 15 time in a row hoping his phone would vibrate (this was before you could use Facebook to call) and luckily he woke up and responded! We got the address, the pen, the taxi and after a goodbye make-out session everything seemed to be worked out. Seemed to be being the most important part of that sentence.
We drove for an hour. Which as anyone who has ever been in a taxi knows, is a very very expensive taxi ride. I hadn’t paid any attention at all to what their building looked like, but after using the drivers phone to see on the map where it was, I promised the driver I would be right back with money for him. You could see clearly he was not happy about the arrangement.
I walked up to the building to see a gate out front. I pulled, nothing. I pushed, nothing. It was locked, and once again I was fucked.
Eventually a security guard for the building came out and immediately told me to leave. He didn’t speak english and Portuguese might have well been Swahili to me. I told him Henriques name, and he said that nobody named Henrique lived there. Which was true. We were staying at his grandparents apartment. Now I had to search through my memory to find the moment he introduced me to his grandparents, “ This is my grandmother _________ and my grandfather _________” Fuuuuuck. What were their names?? The taxi driver yelled over to the security guard to let me in as I owed him money, but the security guard wouldn’t budge. I kept repeating “his last name “Bogado, Boooogggaaaddddoooo” but he couldn’t find anything. So, realizing I was once again, totally fucked so close to home. I did the one thing I had left. I screamed in the street.
“HENRIQUEEEEEE” The security guard was pissed, but hey, he wouldn’t let me in so a guys gotta do what a guys gotta do. A few more screams and the guard said “ok ok” and opened the door. As he opened the door I see the most beautiful hung over face in the world come down around the corner. It was Henrique! Perfect timing because I didn’t know what apartment he was in.
We hug, he says he looked everywhere for me, but couldn’t find me as the sun came up and everyone had left. I said it’s ok I understand (you can’t be mad at a sweet guy like Henrique) and we went upstairs. I started packing my backpack for the airport as I was headed to Peru that day, only to realize, my passport wasn’t in the top pocket of my backpack where it normally was. Searching all my pockets I couldn’t find it. I took everything out and started to have that code red panic moment that most travelers have had at some point. Think “No fucking way, it has to be here somewhere”, but it wasn’t. I tell Henrique that I can’t find my passport and he says “I think I had it in my backpack.
A bit of the pressure releases, but I’m still anxious as he turns his bag upside down on his bed, only to discover a razor blade sized slit on the bottom of his bag. He was robbed and didn’t know it. He looks at me with a “Oh no” face and says “You can stay a few days with my grandparents if you need.
I have a million thoughts going through my head at once. I knew then I wasn’t going to Peru. All the money I had spent was wasted, my flights to Peru and back to the states were useless. I was screwed. Until a thought came in my head that changed everything. Carina. Carina lives in Sao Paulo, where the US embassy is about 9 hours away by bus. I could go stay with her for the week since I already took it off work and she could help me get a new passport so I could leave Brazil. Maybe this is all meant to be…
I message Carina explaining what happened and she says “I am on the bus now, it hasn’t left, it leaves in 20 minutes. Hurry and come with me to Sao Paulo. Stay with me.”
That fast my life changed. From Machu Picchu to a Sao Paulo love. I said goodbye to Henrique and his grandparents. Thanked them for everything and told a taxi to hurry as fast as he could to the bus station. I only had 15 minutes till it left and it was 12 minutes away. I bought the ticket online in the taxi and messaging Carina telling her to stop the bus if she had to.
Every red light felt like days. Every slow driver was my worst enemy.
I arrived with one minute to spare, and by the time I paid my taxi, got my bags and ran to the bus, it was running and ready to leave. I jumped on board and showed my ticket when I saw the most beautiful face in the world sitting at the back of the bus right in the middle. Smiling ear to ear.
I was a mess. Sweating, sunburned to a crisp, hung over, stressed out and sleep deprived. But Carina took care of me. We spent the week together in Sao Paulo and it was magical. Yes getting a new passport was hell, including a moment where I had to yell at a asshole security guard at the embassy saying “I am a United States citizen and I demand to speak to my consulate” when he refused to let me in (thank you google for that one). As well as a 2 day process of getting a new flight rebooked during carnaval that had five layovers…..FIVE.
I never once felt I missed out on Peru while I was in Sao Paulo. It was exactly where I needed to be.
Two years later while searching though something called “Facebook message requests” a folder of messages from non-friends that I had never seen before, a message from a Brazilian in February two years earlier.
“Hello, I found your passport on the beach at Copacabana. Let me know if you are in town, I can bring it to you.”
……….Facepalm. Total Facebook fail.
In the end it wasn’t meant to be. Carina and I met up again a couple times in different places and eventually fizzled out romantically. Nothing could top our initial head over heels feelings for each other.
Henriques sister and I ended up reconnecting as well in New York City and that also eventually faded. The one person who has not. The one person who will always be like family to me is Henrique. The crazy son of a bitch with endless cachaca and smiles.
We met again at Carnaval in Rio after five years apart. Nothing had changed.