The highs and lows of a samba with Rio


Diary Entry: 2011

Rio was a place that stole my heart, perhaps the first place ever. It was also the first place that gave me a true life education.

I was lucky enough to visit and stay with my friends who lived there, who danced as passistas with the local troupes and who could show me an insight into their world. I’d dreamt about the colourful electric streets of this city for so long and consumed as many beautiful photos as I could. To say I was excited is an understatement.

I didn’t write a blog then, but those years ago, I did write a journal. The bittersweet memories I have recently re-read. It would be interesting to return and see any change five years later… There is a heartbreaking tragedy in this story which I can remember crystal clear to this day.

“Eat the pasta, drink the beer and get ready to Samba.”

It was eleven PM; I had been travelling for a day, and here I was in what I could already feel was one of the most exciting cities on earth. As the sounds of cheering, honking and beer-guzzling floated through the windows of my friend’s apartment in Santa Teresa; I could feel the Rio carnival without even seeing it. This was to be the start of three life-changing weeks

Salgueiro. Straight into the heart of Rio, one of the biggest favelas and home to one of the most famous samba schools.

After a non-stop taxi Journey (‘We never stop at the reds, the taxi will be stolen, and we will, well…’), I felt like I had gone through the wardrobe. Behind a dingy door, an explosion of red and white and the soundtrack of drums and dancing slapped me across the face and removed any travelling sleepless I was still clinging on to.

I’m not sure how long I stood in awe of the beautiful moves and new sounds, but as a cold beer got passed into my hand, it was time, my amigos announced, to dance.

Samba, it would seem, is mighty hard to master, but after a few cans and some tips from friends and new friends alike, I was chanting, dancing and vowing never to go to a western nightclub again before wearily sleeping off the magical memories.

There would be days to follow of different schools, different smiles, different places and different memories to treasure. Charming men and dazzling ladies who would try to teach me the moves they hold so dear…

A haunting silence hovered around us, a strange stillness I found impossible to believe could exist in the midst of this intense city during carnival.

Bang. I was brought back to reality.

Well, no, I wasn’t at all. I was brought into someone else’s reality, the reality I could so easily have played blind to for the remainder of this trip had tonight not happened. Bang. ‘Drive’ ‘on the floor’. The heartbreaking noises that broke the stillness rang on.

I peered out the window; I saw a gun nearly as big as the silhouette of the young boy clinging to it. The silence and stillness were gone and replaced by what seemed like a never-ending thunder of painful life-changing moments for those we left in the distance as the driver sped away.

The silence returned to all of us. My friend apologises, I say not at all. I pray a little to a god I should believe in as we head to Lapa that I will never hear news of my beautiful friends being caught in that madness.

The next time I visit a church, I’ll light a candle for those young men and pray for them. I think of the dazzling ladies and charming old men who I danced with only days before in that building. I cry a little tear as I watch us speed past another red.

Loud music and trucks break the silence. Just ten minutes away, and Rio’s infamous carnival is in full swing. Fifteen minutes later, as we all sip a beer and finally start breathing again, we try and resume normality. I decided to leave my questions till the next morning.

‘Let’s drink caipirinhas and dance under the arches’, I hear from a group behind us. I feel guilty about doing this. But here, in Rio, the beautiful city with beautiful people served up with an underlying amount of pain and heartbreak, I stood up.

Life is short and precious, I reminded myself as I samba and smiled like I was taught just days before by dazzling ladies and charming old men.

What strength and love must keep those smiles alive?

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