The sun was setting over the favela of Vidigal and my flatmates wanted to see me off properly before I left to spend a few months in the Northeast. Like much of favela living, good times come about almost by happenstance, and ideas appear and evolve from one moment to the next. As a small group of mostly foreigners, the obvious choice for a spontaneous goodbye party was the well-to-do Ipanema or perhaps even the constant party neighborhood of Lapa. When I say it was obvious, I mean it was a complete no-brainer. After all, where else would we go that was easy to get to and that offered a healthy amount of fun for foreigners?
During the months prior to that night, we all sort of did our own thing when it came to work and play. It was only at home that we’d share a beer or a meal while discussing our jobs or the intricacies of living in the comunidade, as favelas are called by their residents. We had been meaning to go out in a group for a while but the idea for the location was as much of a surprise as the good memories I’d later take with me.
“Let’s go out in Rocinha!”, the token Brazilian (also a neighbor) of the bunch blurted out. It took several seconds to fully digest the idea that we could have a “night out” in a favela but the near-immediate consensus among our motley crew was nothing short of “hell yeah!”. Ten minutes later, we all walked down the uneven steps, past the heavily armed police, to the main street below and waited for a taxied van to Vidigal’s sister favela, Rocinha, aka Latin America’s largest slum.
I was the only one of the group to have spent a few months living in both favelas previously but, regardless, half the group had already been to several other slums before. It wasn’t exactly unheard of to go into neighboring favelas, although during pre-pacification times, a smart person was keen to keep a lid on which favela they were from.
Living in Brazil, the realization comes quickly that going out requires no snooty dress code. It’s all about feeling good and being relaxed. This carries over to the favelas, as well, which is not to say that ‘comunidade’ residents don’t get fancy, because they do. On a weekend night, walking down Via Apia, one of Rocinha’s main streets, you’ll catch packs of young women all decked out in high heels and short, skin-tight dresses, on their way to enjoy Rio’s nightlife. On the other hand, the “lifers” (those that almost never leave), either stay at home, go to a church service, or hang out at their favorite dive bar (the latter two options, sometimes side by side, location-wise). Tourism, which already exists in the favelas, is dedicated to the daytime, thus the only way to be different is to explore the night, doing a “favela pub crawl.” While I would later coin the term and come up with the concept, it’s got nothing to do with being avant-garde, rather it’s merely fun and different. On the night in question, the only agenda was getting some good food and a few beers.
During the quick, winding ride along the mountainside with views of crashing waves from the Atlantic ocean, we all switched to Spanish since since we collectively spoke better Spanish than English or Portuguese. The rest of the passengers stayed quiet, as they usually do in these kinds of vans when foreigners get in and start joking around. Since my Spanish has suffered in recent years, I stayed on the quiet side and found myself with the privilege of seeing the group I was with as both an outsider and an insider. The whole night was rather surreal, especially experiencing it up-close and from a distance at the same time.
When we got out of the van, we followed the Brazilian among us down the vibrant streets full of moto-taxi’s honking, people jazzed up for the night ahead, the smells from street-side shish kabob vendors and the beat of some indistinct, smooth-sounding hip-hop. Going down one alley, we took a sharp left into a small restaurant and took a seat. It was Japanese food. I sat there for a minute while everyone was ordering sake, sushi and noodles, and wondered how such a night came to be. All of us, minus the Brazilian, were not in our own cultures, not in our own countries, nor states, nor cities. We weren’t slaving away in the office during the week, as we all thrived on the path not taken, and we didn’t even enjoy ourselves in the same way as others. As we lifted our shot glasses, saying ‘cheers!’ in our respective languages, I found myself celebrating way more than just that one moment.