Here are the preliminary facts:
1) I was to be the first of the group to return to America. My flight was leaving Rio at 5:45am or so. I had paid for a taxi in advance to pick me up from our hostel at 3:45am.
2) We had signed up to go with a group to the Mangeuira Samba School that Saturday night. The excursion was to last from 10:00pm to 3:00am.
3) Tight much that window between the Samba School and my paid-for taxi ride to the airport? TBD, but believe me, it was very present in my mind from the moment I made the reservation.
4) Earlier that morning I had broken to death my poor beloved little camera, so all pictures here were stolen from Trish. Sorry, Trish. Thanks, Trish.
When you read that we were headed to the Samba School do not think “Oh neat, Brigham must have gone to a nice little auditorium where he was taught to dance the samba by friendly teachers in an environment approximating the teaching of a square dance in an American junior high school.” That is not what a Samba School is.
Let me tell you what I understand a Samba School to be:
Throughout Rio there are these different samba crews, they practice all year long to make the dopest samba song with the dopest army of dancers and the most relentless battery of drummers. After practicing all year, these samba crews meet up to battle in the festival known as Carnival. See, I, like probably you thought Carnival was something like Brazilian Mardi Gras with these crazy parades through the streets. Nope. Carnival takes place in the Sambadrome! They go to a special stadium for the Samba parades, sure, some madness probably spills into the streets, but Carnival is a full on regulated competition.
What a Samba School is is the place where these samba crews practice all year long (each crew has its own school, so when I say we went to the Mangueira School, Mangueira would be the name of the crew) and they’re open to the public. No, no, hold on, it’s not as scandalous as you understand the Carnival madness to be, it’s people practically in their day clothes working on their parade all night.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing that happens at a Samba School that warrants being addressed in a Danger Supplement.
So this van comes and picks us up from the hostel, along with plenty of other people, and takes us to the street where the Mangueira Samba School is. We are taken to an outdoor bar for an hour before admitted to the school. The street was packed with revellers, local and tourist alike. Across from the bar was a impressive looking soundsystem/unattended outdoor dancefloor—too bad it was playing cheery 90s R&B Pop, what does a guy have to do to hear some Baile Funk when he’s in Rio?
There was this dude standing right infront of us that had had his picture taken enthusiastically doublefisting a couple of beers. This is me making fun of him right behind his back. Bryndee had to have what was going on explained to her.
Around midnight they let us into the Samba School…imagine a very large high school gymnasium, or a smallish fieldhouse, and you’ll have imagined the Mangueira Samba School's size and lay out quite well. It had a retractable roof that was opened and closed a few times that night on account of a rain that came and went. Around the periphery of the room there were tables set up where people were trying to eat as the throngs of attenders pushed pass and in the center of the floor the “dancers”—a procession of elderly women followed by flag bearers and crowd-participators practiced circling the room. Behind all this there was like a choirloft where the gentleman that sang the samba song sang accompanied by a few guitarists. Behind them stood in waiting an army of drummers. The gentleman would sing, the guitarists would play, the dancers would circle—this would go on for like the first 7 minutes of the song (the one song they had, the song that went on all night) and then, at the proper moment, the drums would come in.
The drums. The drums.
The first time the full strength drum battery burst into life it’s like being backhanded by an angry god. Pure shock and awe. An overwhelming physical force and sensation. And then they just go, they drum and drum and drum for, man, it’s an endless drumming jam session (but not some hippie drum circle, they drum like a swarm of bees, an army of red ants, or a forestfull of howler monkeys)…maybe 20 minutes? I don’t know. The song is awful long. And when the drumming comes in that’s when everyone starts samba dancing full speed. Saw some fast, fast feet that night, some well-gyrated hips for sure.
Eventually the sambaing became much more than enough for me. I retreated to the periphery, observed goings on (like mini samba battle circles off on the sidelines) and posted up against a wall with an eye on the clock and a mind for 3 AM.
A highlight: Up in the choir loft there was this spot where the main Beyonce-type lady would stand and be the main samba dancer. I don’t know, maybe this spot represents the front of a float during Carnival? Anyway, one time during the song this young fellow got up there somehow (don’t know if he was invited or an intruder but no one made him leave) and he out pranced and preened the Beyonce lady by kilometers. High stepping, high kicking, living the dream. Way to go, little samba dude.
Anyway, let’s get to the Danger of the Danger Supplement.
Really, when things were well underway, there wasn’t much difference between the Samba School and a dance club. From my outskirts position I tried to keep an eye on my amigos, but couldn’t always see them in the crowd. At one point Chateau emerged from the mass before me and walked over, kind of smiling that smile and laughing that little laugh that one smiles and laughs when they’ve just been caught up in an intense moment, a danger moment. Through the noise (the noise! The drums!) he yell-explained to me that he probably should lay low for a bit, that some dudes were dancing up on some of the girls and he had said to them “Hey, how much for a dancing lesson?” and that the dudes didn’t care for his little joke.
Chateau came, Chateau went. I didn’t think to much of it. The hours passed, three a.m. arrived. Our little band gathered, I could sense something had happened, but hadn’t any idea what it was. I watched Karen and Bryndee rebuff some dudes hoping to see them more that night. Chateau seemed to have something very much on his mind, he told me he had to go talk with our Group Organizer guy that brought us there. I saw Chateau pulling the dude aside and speaking intently, crossing his arms, uncrossing, shrugging. I assumed he was lodging a complaint about something but who knows what. We left the school in a tight bunch and made our way directly to our van. Something was up, there was something to that exit, but I didn’t know what. We sat, drunks pounded the window, heads were counted and eventually we left. 3:15 or so. 3:15, that was pretty good, pretty much right the time I needed it to be as we began our drive home if I was going to make my 3:45 cab.
In the car what was happening was explained to me, or at least this is how I remember it going:
Those fellows that Chateau had asked about dancing lessons continued to be a problem and Chateau continued to keep them apart from the girls. Eventually they told Chateau that they would wait for him outside the club and beat him up. As we assembled near the door Chateau could see that they were indeed waiting for him outside. When he was speaking with Noelle and the Group Organizer he was explaining the situation to them. We had left the school, not very knownst to me, under the watchful eye of our Organizer and additional protectors. I think.
SO what I’m saying is we were going to get totally jumped and execution-style murdered outside the Samba School but luck and numbers kept us protected. And I didn’t know this was happening. At all.
We got to the hostel at 3:35 or 40. I grabbed my bags and walked out to the sidewalk the moment my cab was pulling up. I bid half my group farewell and got in that car. In exactly 15 minutes it had me at the airport and waiting in a long, long line to check in.
Riding in that cab, getting my ticket, going through security, waiting for my plan—even though it was a slow moving process, I felt like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat at the very last moment just as a giant stone door slams shut forever. My Brazil trip was an awesome once in a lifetime adventure, an awesome once in a lifetime adventure that I can’t help but feel I barely escaped alive.