Fear and Loathing in Lapa
Fast on the heels of my last post decrying the lack of interesting things I have gotten myself into comes an epic night wrought with adventure and questionable choices. After picking up my World Cup ticket and filming the NINJA in their apartment for a bit yesterday, I headed back up the hill home. I always feel nervous when I have my computer and camera on me at the same time; add my passport and a World Cup ticket to the mix and I was anxious to get all of that back safely.
I made some dinner and was hanging out and resolved myself to venture out of the house regardless of whether or not I had plans. I texted one of my friends here — David from Rio that works at the hostel — and he told me that a lot of the people that work at his hostel were going out in Lapa tonight…
I sauntered over to the hostel around 9:45, and David and I had a couple of beers while waiting for everyone else. The hostel has an amazing balcony on the back side of the building and it was a glorious night to sit and drink beers while watching the city below.
The team straggled in over the next hour or so and by 10:30 everyone was ready to march down the hill. I had heard a bunch of stories of people getting robbed on their way into Lapa, but we were a big group with more guys than girls. Plus, the girls insisted and made fun of me for worrying about it, so I had no choice in the matter really.
Luckily for us, no one was robbed on either leg of the voyage. There are quite a few stairs down to Lapa from Santa Teresa, which made for quite the hike back up the mountain at the end of the night. Once we got down there, though, we immediately made our way down this alley to find a drink stand dominating 10 feet of sidewalk teeming with people eight or nine deep everywhere around the fold-up tables constituting their bar. Technically they had a storefront bar open to the street, but really it was a hollowed out building that the bartenders used for staging and restocking supplies. It looked like an abandoned apartment in the projects only without any furniture or appliances (at least that you could see from the street).
This “bar” only makes a few drinks, which are written on a poster board behind the foldable table. From what I was told by one of our troupe, these are the best and cheapest (and strongest) caipirinhas in Lapa. Cairpirinhas are the signature Brazilian cocktail made with limes, sugar and cachaca (a native liquor). The bartenders were making them by the gallon, and you could get 500ml for 5 reais, which is a little more than $2 USD. Each drink had about two shots in it, so that’s one helluva bargain.
The caipirinha tastes kinda like a margarita on the rocks except a little smoother. Cachaca is a less harsh spirit than tequila, and the drink reflects that. I watched the bartender make ours and it’s really just fresh lime slices, sugar, cachaca and ice. You muddle the limes and sugar together to get sweetened lime juice, add liquor and voila! — a caipirinha.
While the drink is quite tasty, it’s far too sweet to drink all night so I stopped after the first. After securing our first drink, though, I had some time to look around and survey the landscape; it did not disappoint.
The first thing you notice is at the termination of the main drag of Lapa are huge arches that look like a double-decker aquaduct straight out of ancient Rome (except they’re painted white instead of a natural stone color). These are not only visually striking but also helpful as a visual reference for where you are. There used to be a trolly that ran along the top of it, but it is no longer in service (bondé ja dammit!).
Otherwise, the streets remind me of a giant block party because everyone spills out onto the street from their respective bars regardless of whether cars drive on those streets or not. There are vendors walking around all over the place, and the preferred method for acquiring more drinks is to buy beer from guys lugging around giant coolers on their customized bicycles. You can get a 16oz tallboy for 5 reais, which is an absolute steal in American terms. I don’t know many American bars, especially in the nightlife hub of a huge city, where you can get a 16oz Bud Light for $2.25. If you walked a little ways away from the main drag nearer to the arches, you can get three for 7 reais… It’s just insane how cheap the drinks were.
The main street was teeming with people. Most of them are locals, which is really cool that an area as famous as this hasn’t been gringo-ized via tourism. Sure you could spot Americans or Europeans (usually because they’re super white or they had their phones out taking pictures or filming the bands), but the vast majority of people there were Brazilian.
The street feels safe based on the police presence there, but the entire area is borderline sketchy at best. Most of what I could see just looked like a busy party street, but every alleyway looked rife with sin. You hear stories of drugs, hookers, you name it on these side streets, right out in the open for anyone to see. I didn’t actually see any of that, but you just have a sense it’s going on somewhere in the area. There is graffiti everywhere — a theme I’ve noticed a lot in this city — and there are suspect-looking individuals any which way you turn. I felt safe because it's well lit and we stayed on the main drag, but you have this feeling that you're never more than a few steps away from either danger, depravity or both.
All of the bars that we went to, which were only two in retrospect, allowed you to walk in with a drink in your hand (something no American bar would allow). And, regardless of what might or might not be legal, there are no open container laws stopping you from walking around with whatever you want to. If it’s illegal, no one enforces it at all; despite the presence of a freaking platoon of military police standing guard at every corner and patrolling the streets every couple of minutes, no one gets onto you for walking around with whatever alcohol you have on you. People were lighting up joints and smoking them in broad view of anyone and everyone but the cops don’t seem to give a damn. It was reassuring to have them there because I feel like it discourages theft, but it was interesting the amount of leeway people received.
Inside the bars that we went to were traditional Brazilian drum corps playing to a packed house. It was like walking into the movie drum line except without the terrible acting and awkward facial contortions from Nike Canon while he tries to look like he’s trying really hard at playing the snare drum. The drum corps had a leader with his back to the audience with two snare drums on a stand. The rest of the corps looked out over the crowd with different drums slung over their hips (bass drums of differing sizes, bongos, etc.). There is also usually a singer, but I can’t say they add a lot to the performance because they’re not singing melodically but rather doing something closer to humming with their mouths open so there is some sound other than just drums.
Either way, the interaction between the leader and the corps was fascinating. They would alter rhythms, end songs, transition into entirely new songs, etc. just from the rhythms that the leader played on his drums. If he wanted to change something about what they were doing, he would play a specific rhythm on his drum to signal the change. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in music before. Sometimes the corps wouldn’t do what he signaled because the crowd was really into their groove and the corps members didn’t want to change right then, but eventually the leader always won out.
On the dance floor, samba reigns supreme. The Brazilians dancing last night put the best Americans to shame. They take the electric slide and make it look like child’s play, even when doing essentially the same dance. The steps are basically the same, but their spin on it makes our group dancing look silly by comparison. Their flare and fluidity are unmistakable, and their hips certainly do not lie.
There was a particularly colorful bunch in the middle of the dance floor highlighted by a cross-dressing man. He was owning whatever dance the crowd decided to do. He was right in the middle of everything and generally dictated how the crowd would dance to whatever song the corps took up. The best dancers from the floor were eventually brought up onto the tiny stage behind the drummers to dance for a couple of songs. The people good enough to make it to the stage personified why Brazilians are better at soccer than us — I don’t know any American with footwork and body control like that. As Robin Williams said, Brazilians don’t really play soccer they just samba with the ball. It all makes sense now.
We went to a couple of dance halls/bars to see different corps play followed by spending the last hour or so just hanging out on the street, drinking and listening to the street musicians. It really is convenient to be able to buy beers on pretty much any patch of street you happen to be standing on because we could people watch, hang out, listen to awesome drumming on the street while drinks are brought right to you.
Around 3am the group decided to head back up the hill, which. was. a. BITCH. The staircases really are just carved into the mountainside, which makes for quite the workout while inebriated. I took my leave of the group at the hostel they work at and rolled into bed around 3:45. It was a wild and crazy night but I felt like I got to experience the real Rio nightlife before the crush of World Cup tourists take over all the locations like Lapa. I spent most of the day sleeping it off and planning excursions for the next week. I’ve got a huge day of hiking in Tijuca forest planned for Wednesday, which I’m really looking forward to. If I could just get some interviews filmed, my life would open up a lot more for touristy things. I’m hoping I make some headway on that this week.
In the meantime, everyone have a great Saturday night!