For a trip that I had dreamed about for the majority of my life, and had been (loosely) planning for two years, our preparation for Brazil was pitiful. The sequence of calamities in the days prior to our departure occurred as follows. Firstly, I lost my debit card three days before the flight. There was a sense of inevitability about this one. I had foreseen it and I didn’t disappoint myself. There was no other option but to borrow my teenage sister’s card (and account) for the entire trip, pretend that my name was Miss Claire Stapleton, and hope that nobody would notice.
The second major stumbling block came when my travel buddy’s Brazilian ‘friend’ Ricardo, who had volunteered to arrange us cheap accommodation in Rio (and subsequently received a £500 deposit), disappeared off the face of the earth less than a week before the trip. We shared a gradual, infuriating realisation that we were not only £500 light, but also devoid of shelter, with any affordable hostel now guaranteed to be full for the duration of the tournament. I could envisage this Ricardo, our chuckling nemesis, rolling around like Scrooge McDuck in a heinously assembled stack of Reals. It irked me.
At this stage I was starting to feel paranoid about every aspect of our preparation. This was exacerbated by the airline website’s refusal to allow any of us to check in online, creating a lingering suspicion that I had in fact transferred my £800 flight money to a fraudulent opportunist in Tower Hamlets. While dealing with this, I received a message informing me that one of my closest friends had fallen from a Mayan pyramid in Belize, smashing his head in the process and effectively scalping himself. He had been sedated for the pain, but brain damage was a possibility. Despite the fact that I had already seen this friend dispose of a porcelain wash basin using only his face and the laws of gravity, I was still hugely distressed, particularly as I wouldn’t be able to receive any updates on his condition for the entirety of our 18 hour journey.
Just in case these factors didn’t create enough of a sense of apprehension, I also had my travel companion Frank to consider. This is a notorious Cockney piss artist of epic proportions, a coiled spring of malintent who once, in Ibiza, took so much MDMA that he disappeared, stayed up for four days and gurned until his tooth crumbled. It would be unfair to omit the fact that he is as kind natured and sociable as they come; a big hearted nuisance but a nuisance nevertheless.
Our journey was gruelling, mainly as we underwent it on the pathetic ration of two hours sleep. The aforementioned worries, along with general aeroplane discomfort, ensured that sleep was scarce. However, concerns aside, we were all visiting our first World Cup in the nation where football has unarguably been most joyously expressed. The excitement between the five of us was childlike in that we had nothing else to think about or prioritise over football, whether that be a job, a girlfriend, the in-laws or a work engagement. We had no obligations and it felt wonderful.
We were not all staying in the same hostel, due to only two of us being affected by the Ricardo farce. Having separated, Frank and I arrived at our accommodation, the ‘Hercus Hostel’, only to be informed that our last minute booking had in fact not gone through and that we didn’t have a room. Our tangible dismay thankfully awakened some compassion in the receptionist, who eventually managed to find beds for us both. Temporarily blinded by our relief, we failed to consider the fact that the place was in fact a shithole, and booked in for the next five nights. We would come to regret it, but our overwhelming priority was to put our luggage away, drink several ice cold beers and eat a meal with greater nutritional value than polystyrene. A hasty entry onto the hostel’s woeful Wifi network lifted a huge weight from my shoulders, as it became apparent that despite his bad condition, John was probably going to be fine after a lengthy recovery spell in Belizian hospital. Buoyed by this tremendous reprieve, we stuffed our passports and belongings into the shabby, vulnerable lockers, gave ourselves a quick once over and made our way out into the city.
Our first foray into Rio’s nightlife brought a few quirks to my attention. Firstly, the proportion of spirit relative to mixer is the inverse to what it would be in the UK. With your Cuba Libre you can expect a maximum of 50 ml Coke if you’re lucky. The rest will be rum, and I often found myself buying a separate can to help ease it down, totally emasculating myself in the process. Also, instead of paying for your drinks as and when you order them, many venues present you with a ticket on arrival, which is marked with a tally every time you order a drink. You then pay for everything as you leave the venue. Whilst reducing queueing times, this approach also ensured a few tense encounters where we had completely misjudged how much money we thought we had spent and had to beg for money from our companions and/or forgiveness from the cashier.
One of these establishments, Rio’s Irish bar (‘Shenanigans’), became our go-to meeting point. It felt narrow minded and embarrassing to spend our time drinking in a bar reminiscent of home, like eating at McDonald’s every night, but the truth is that the drinks were great and the atmosphere was even better. It was inevitably saturated in Americans, who were often irritating but typically very friendly, and harmless. Whooping and screeching at every opportunity, their enthusiasm came at complete odds with the natural English cynicism and reserve. A particularly gratifying moment came when a U.S. fan challenged our friend Sean to a ridiculous arm-wrestling showdown, the prize being the large seating booth in the increasingly busy bar, only to shuffle off silent and dejected in unexpected defeat. His overly boisterous friend was then ridiculed by the locals, who literally pulled his pants down, a ritual humiliation that translates across all cultures.
The first morning in the hostel established a new regime of hygiene that I had never previously chosen, namely waiting to get in the sea instead of braving the sanitary horrors of the communal bathroom. Lidless bins overflowing with used toilet tissue, cigarette butts in the urinals drowning in an international cocktail of pungent yellow piss…. you left that bathroom dirtier than you were when you entered it. The hostel staff, however, were wonderful. You could sense that they genuinely enjoyed practising their English with you, indulging us at every opportunity. This linguistic satisfaction worked both ways, as having asked for a bottle of ‘agua’ in flukily impeccable Portuguese, I almost burst with pride when the receptionist asked if I was Brazilian. This was swiftly undermined when I replied ‘Gracias’ instead of the Portuguese ‘Obragado’.
Our first wander down to the Copacabana beach saw my feeble complexion immediately pulverized by a blistering sun which was initially shy, lulling me into an absurd sense of invincibility. The typical careless Brit abroad, my disregard for suncream was almost masochistic, eventually resulting in me removing flakes of skin the size of kingsize Rizla. It was immediately clear that Rio is a place where people take great pride in their appearance: Beautiful, toned locals hung from the multitude of pull up bars littered along the beach front, while acrobatic men displayed impeccable ball control while playing beach volleyball, with their feet. One afternoon, we jogged the entire length of the beach down to the ‘FIFA Fan Fest’, a horde of sweating, sunburnt louts, like an episode of ‘Baywatch’ directed by Shane Meadows. It was hard to feel attractive.
The Copacabana Fan Fest was an amazing alternative to the overpriced stadia. Free of charge and with a capacity of 20,000, we headed down early for the opening match of the tournament, of course featuring the hosts. The vast presence of the heavily armed elite Brazilian police (or ‘Robocops’ as we called them) as well as the numerous hovering helicopters, was alarming but simultaneously reassuring. The show began, and a decidedly less aggressive Chris Brown avatar guided us through the festivities; a melee of samba, somersaults and hip-hop. Frank was already becoming a favourite with the locals, satisfying their strong religious fervour with the rosary beads tattooed around his neck; the result of an impulsive, drunken night in California. Added to his natural (almost Brazilian) tan and desire to speak to all 20,000 revellers simultaneously, he provided an intoxicating combination of social lubricants. Cheap food and beer aided the carnival atmosphere, but we were gobsmacked at kick off when the entirety of the Brazilian contingent sat down cross-legged and quiet, too engrossed in the big screen to devote any brainpower to anything else, even speech. Fortunately, the host nation was victorious (courtesy of some contentious refereeing decisions) and the immense relief ensured that the party would return and continue through until the morning.
Night after night, the seemingly limitless array of bars and clubs were bursting at the seams, rendering every square metre of Rio a viable party habitat. Whether it be the streets, the beach, hotels, restaurants… this was a city refusing to call it a night. The music scene continually baffled me. A bizarre amalgam of chart dance music, rock classics and local samba, it was difficult to pinpoint any real identity. Hearing one of Ipanema’s trendiest spots non-ironically playing ‘Walk of Life’ at 3.30am, created a kind of hipster vacuum in my brain where I struggled to discern whether it was cool or not. I’m still not sure.
Frank’s potential kidnapping on the third night was disconcerting. A combination of a poorly timed screening of ‘City of God’, along with his insistence on wandering off with some favela boys (and some unconscious self-esteem issues) led us to believe that a girl that we were talking to that night was in fact the conductor of a well orchestrated honey trap. Sean, who had taken the time to learn some Portuguese, told her what he thought of her in her mother tongue, namely that she was a robber. I was unaware of this exchange, and quite sad when the poor girl took her leave. This was compounded when I arrived back at the hostel after hours of searching to find my invincible, carefree friend occupying the top bunk.
Our distance from our friends’ hostel, as well as a despairing lack of telecommunications, meant that we spent a lot of time strolling along the beach front with our eyes peeled, looking out for them in hope. While frustrating, this of course allowed us to take in the city more than we would have done, encountering some bizarre and sometimes saddening situations. We regularly witnessed locals sweeping up the tidal wave of used beer cans, even rooting through dustbins to boost their already ample hoard for scrapping purposes. Watching people root through the remnants of our partying excess in order to feed themselves was a sobering, guilt-inflicting experience. I had never seen the phrase, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ applied so literally.
As is often the case in the world’s major cities, the gulf in standard of living between the rich and the poor was hugely distressing. This painful notion was perfectly exemplified one afternoon when, having just passed a homeless man squatting in the street to defecate, we encountered a small trophy dog walking around with shoes on. It was as if the owner didn’t want it dirtying it’s paws with human shit.
Fortunately, not all of our chance encounters were quite so bleak. Only in Brazil would you encounter a toothless old hag with juggling skills to rival the dreadlocked ketamine revellers dotted around UK festivals. Crowds gathered around this twinkle-toed Ronaldinhette as her tatty football refused to succumb to the laws of gravity. Some sights were just mystifying. At one point I saw a Brazilian lady wearing a blue Spain shirt with ‘Puyol 11’ printed on the back, and almost spontaneously combusted with confusion.
The drug dealers seemingly all operated under the guise of lozenge salesmen. In reality they may as well have worn Groucho glasses, such was the transparency of their ruse. Everywhere you went you would encounter shady thugs whispering ‘Coc-ai-eena?’ out of the side of their mouth while shuffling around with trays of Hall’s Soothers. It wasn’t just the legitimacy of their front that came into question, however, as the 2014 World Cup surely saw the highest mark-up on sugar and salt in international trading history. The Westerners were there to be had, and gringo tax was applied ruthlessly.
On the day of England’s first match against the Italians, we encountered a group of American fans that were totally perplexed (but impressed) by our nation’s fanaticism. They couldn’t believe that we had bought tickets for the tournament prior to the team actually qualifying, and wanted photos with us to show their friends. One of them had a dog called Rooney. This was not an isolated incident, and it was refreshing to finally feel proud to wear an England shirt, and to not be (perhaps deservedly) vilified as hooligan scum. The truth is that even the most belligerent Englishmen would be ill advised to cause any sort of scene in a city like Rio, where it seemed the police had been instructed to maintain order and deal with troublemakers with ruthless efficiency. Thankfully, people kept themselves in order.
The build-up to kick off was loud and electrifying inside the Fan Fest. I remember almost shaking with excitement and naive hope as the teams lined up. In retrospect it was possibly the weakest squad either nation had taken to an international tournament for a decade, but we were encouraged by the prospect of fearless youth within the side, typified by a rampaging Raheem Sterling. We were quickly quietened, as a magical Pirlo dummy was followed by an equally adroit finish from Marchisio into the bottom corner. The crowd deflated en masse, before a timely equaliser from our strutting peacock Daniel Sturridge brought the English contingent roaring back to life. Inevitably, we were eventually undone, as woeful marking from our centre halves allowed Mario Balotelli to nod in the simplest of headers to claim the victory.
Despite my foggy head and enormous disappointment, I felt relieved to be away from the vacuum of the British media Zeitgeist. I could just imagine all of the excuses pouring out of them blindly in the studio, while a smirking Alan Hansen sat alone in his living room, caressing a bottle of the finest single malt. Throughout the tournament I often found myself wondering about the coverage at home; how the competition was being perceived and who looked like favourites, and was intrigued to hear the accompanying commentaries to such spectacular and defining moments as Van Persie’s swan dive, Suarez’s savagery and Tim Cahill’s Van Basten impersonation.
Frank’s bank card managed to disappear in the midst of our constant partying, and having spent about three minutes turning our four square-metre hostel room upside down, we realised that it was gone. This posed serious complications, creating a frustrating vicious cycle. Most hostels only accepted cash, and as we now only had one (fraudulent) card between us, it halved a daily cash allowance that was already being decimated by our unhinged thirst for excess. This restricted us from shelling out on anything particularly extravagant, most regretfully the Holy Grail; the coveted Maracanã tickets. In hindsight, however, these restrictions were definitely a blessing when I contemplate the eventual state of my bank account.
Having indulged in the pandemonium of the beach-front for the first few days of the tournament, we decided to explore some districts of Rio which we’d not yet had the chance to experience. We ventured out to Santa Theresa, a far quieter, quainter region full of narrow, winding streets and bohemian cafés and bars. This was Rio with the volume turned down and at it’s most picturesque, with stunning views out across the city and a far more relaxed, ‘Brazilian’ feel than the bedlam which we had grown accustomed to. Ironically, this was where we witnessed the most dramatic moment of the tournament so far; the Dutch decimation of the defending Spanish champions. Tiki-taka was condemned to death by the direct, brazen aggression of the men in orange (particularly the ferocious Arjen Robben), and we lived vicariously through the joy of the Netherlands fans surrounding us.
Our exhilaration spilled over into the evening, where we decided to accelerate the pace and head for the infamous party district of Lapa. A bubbling cauldron of misbehaviour, this was a place where you were urged to leave your wallet and phone behind. The streets were an avenue of attrition, packed out to the sounds of local musicians, tourists and rowdy vendors haggling to sell you a home made caipirinha from their battered intoxication wagons. Having soaked in the atmosphere for a while we eventually ventured indoors, worming our way into a so-called ‘exclusive’ bar with huge, open first floor windows which overlooked the rampant streets below. These worked to our detriment, as our bottles of Brahma were accompanied by a tear gas chaser courtesy of the Policia’s clash with a riotous horde of Argentinians outside. The night continued in a similar vein, culminating in a huge drunken row amongst our group after a few of us were left to foot the bill having once again obliterated all of the available funds between us. Frank and I somehow made it back to our precious domicile, and proceeded to sleep indefinitely.
We inevitably woke up feeling parched, foolish and embarassed, only to discover on a Whatsapp message that we had missed an amazing opportunity. Two members of our group (Sean and Gunning) had been recruited in their hostel and whisked off to the favelas by national press and a film crew, to play football against the local kids. Unfortunately they were both blind drunk, losing by a landslide and further enhancing our nation’s reputation as haggard alcoholics and terrible footballers. The standard was apparently incredible; mesmeric pipsqueaks with the kind of technical ability that can only be explained by their all-consuming addiction to the game that they love. They refused to let poverty restrict their enjoyment. We have all heard the clichés about pigs bladders, but here two kids shared one pair of boots, with one taking the left foot and one taking the right. This devotion (along with the sheer quantity of football pitches open all night, all over the city) goes some way towards explaining the astounding success enjoyed by the national team throughout history, and the resultant hope and expectation on the current challengers.
As is often the case with these kinds of trips (where shelter isn’t guaranteed and there isn’t a solution to every problem you encounter at the end of a phone line), the rare bad days were exceptionally stressful. Following our stay at the infamous Hercus, Frank and I decided to allow ourselves a few days of indulgence and head over to ‘The Lighthouse’, the exponentially cleaner hostel that our friends were staying in. My big toe was suffering from a serious bout of flip-flop fever; red, swollen and badly infected, I attributed this to the fact that I had been residing in a cesspit for the best part of a week. We were both excited to enjoy a clean, uninterrupted shower devoid of bodily flotsam, a notion that felt genuinely luxurious. Resultantly, my bank’s decision to block my debit card was somewhat ill-timed. It is hard to understand why spending cash in Brazil constitutes ‘suspicious activity’; particularly when you have gone into your bank to tell them that that is where you will be spending the next three weeks and to suspend card use under no circumstances. Nevertheless, with no way of contacting the bank, we found ourselves with nowhere to stay, more than a little peckish and destitute for the indefinite future.
Help came in the form of Silvia, a hostel owner and angel, who provided kindness, reassurance and the best coffee that any of us were ever likely to taste. Having sat us down and placated Frank with nicotine, she retrieved some cream and saw to the weeping monstrosity at the end of my foot. Most importantly, she agreed to allow us to stay overnight with no cash up front, at least partially because our friends that had already been staying with her were ‘nice boys’. This display of unprovoked trust took us completely by surprise, and in fact created a lasting, maternal relationship where she enjoyed taking care of us and we enjoyed being pampered. My finances were resolved the next day, following a Whatsapp SOS which was thankfully picked up by my aunt and sister. I had never been so grateful for anything.
With England’s crucial fixture against Uruguay approaching, we found ourselves in a familiarly desperate position. With just one match played, our place in the tournament was already in peril. Our South American opponents were led by racist cannibal Luis Suarez, whose bionic recovery from a serious knee injury had left doctors astounded. It appeared that the script had been written, particularly when considering the level of torment that Suarez had inflicted on his Premier League opponents that domestic season. These facts were not lost on the Scotsman that sold Frank and I his three tickets to the final group match against Costa Rica, just two minutes before kick off. A shrewd opportunist or a ruthless charlatan, whatever way you looked it, he knew that in 90 minutes those tickets would be obsolete. Our shambolic defensive organisation ensured that this was the case, and the buck-toothed genius did his job, rattling in a brace. On the one hand, England were going home, and we had just spent £100 each on tickets (to a match in a distant city) that meant nothing. On the other, we could just enjoy ourselves now without the anxiety of following a team with the collective resilience of…well, England in an international football tournament.
Following some commiseration drinks, Sean suggested that we look into visiting local island ‘Ilha Grande’ for a couple of days for a relaxing, Inception-esque holiday within a holiday. We were all frazzled by this point, so a brief change of scenery sounded like the perfect remedy. After a lengthy delay the next morning (again attributed to ‘Brazilian time’) we were eventually picked up by a minibus loaded with other travellers and driven to the port. It was here that we met two towering Swedes, Petter and Isaak, in the midst of their mid-summer celebrations. The duo reeked of wealth, which would usually be off-putting, but they were game for a laugh and could spin a yarn with the best of them. Isaak described the moment that he had mercy-killed some wildlife during a hunting trip, whispering comforting words into its ear while applying pressure to it’s windpipe. They had us at ‘strangled a moose’.
The short voyage across to the island was eye-opening, mainly due to the insight of our guide, Alex. Half Brazilian and half Dutch, he clearly took a shine to us and offered his opinion on the much publicised civil unrest. It boiled down to one question, ‘Where is the money?’. Unconvinced by the integrity of his nation’s government, he assured us that ‘There will be a riot, and I will be the first one there. Wait ’til the boys from the favelas come down with their weapons…they’re better than what the police have’. This echoed the sentiment of a taxi driver that had previously declared that they needed ‘education and healthcare. Not World Cups’. I was wary that as a British traveller I represented something poisonous to these people that I respected. However, despite their clear misgivings, the Brazilian people never seemed to equate tourists with the enemy, treating us all with the greatest respect. They did not blame us for wanting to enjoy their culture; They blamed their government for rolling out a red carpet at the expense of their entire social infrastructure. I somehow doubted that the British public would have been as rational in similar circumstances.
Having docked at Ilha Grande, we checked into our hotel and quickly freshened up before heading out to a busy, canteen-like bar a few roads in from the coast. We were delighted to bump into Petter and Isaak, although unfortunately the mid-summer celebrations were starting to get the better of the handsome, blond drunkards. Saturated in vodka and squealing ‘Skol!’ at every feasible opportunity, Isaak was drawing quizzical looks from the island’s placid inhabitants. We encouraged Petter to speak to him one on one to calm him down, which he attempted in their mother tongue. Having stared back at him with resolute conviction, Isaak hoofed a chair up in the air before apparently exclaiming, ‘I am what I am!’ in Swedish. I later found him lost and alone, talking to a pack of stray dogs by the shore.
The clubnight that we visited that evening was organised by the European-influenced Alex, and again demonstrated the contrast between what would be considered good club music at home compared to the Brazilian norm. While we couldn’t get enough, the locals struggled to warm to the slow, menacing rumblings of the German tech-house duo. They would rather dance to Bob Marley or the Macarena, and it felt refreshing to see people so nonchalant about a scene that has unfortunately become synonymous with pretension and snobbery; where smiling is considered uncool and dancing like a prat is akin to social suicide.
We decided early the following day that we wouldn’t allow our hangovers to ruin our short stay on such a beautiful island. We combated our discomforts head on, embarking on a steep, gruelling hike which was made all the more difficult by the collective assumption that flip-flops were suitable footwear. In typically unpredictable fashion, Frank had his heart set on meeting some monkeys, skewering sticks with fruit to create banana kebabs, or primate bait. Unfortunately, the simian population of Ilha Grande were nowhere to be seen, but the reward for our exertion was Lopes Mendes; a stunning, secluded beach of postcard tranquility. Talcum powder sand was caressed by improbably blue water, with just a solitary vendor selling refreshments from his humble cart. This felt like the elusive downtime that we had needed, swimming and relaxing for a couple of hours before heading back in style. I’ll never forget skimming across the ocean on a taxi-boat surrounded by pristine scenery, with the sun setting beautifully through the clouds. We couldn’t have been further from Rio, and at one point I wondered whether I’d in fact died and been reincarnated as Jack Johnson.
After a heavenly beach-front barbecue (which I can only describe as ‘Tudor’ in it’s decadence) we all agreed on an early night, with our trip back to the mainland looming the next morning. This marked a turning point in our trip, with myself and Frank’s impulsive ticket purchase meaning a trip to Belo Horizonte the next day for a meaningless kickaround with Costa Rica. It was to be our last night together as a group, which could only mean one thing; the complete undoing of our entire recuperation period on Ilha Grande. We decided to just stay awake, Frank and I arriving at the Coach Station after a sleepless, Lapa-ridden night (the Relapse) that simply made mincemeat of us. The 8 hour journey was foul; devoid of legroom and peppered with feverish, intermittent dozes. I can half-remember an elderly female duo taking great delight in the state of us both, although the entire memory is so surreal that it may just be a complete mental fabrication. Our spectacular crash thankfully began to ease towards the end of the journey. This was no time for anxiety. My skills of persuasion were about to face their sternest test yet; securing entry to a four star hotel using an illegitimate debit card with a female’s name emblazoned across it.
My credentials were declined on arrival. I looked at Frank and felt that familiar, homeless dread; it was late and for the first time, we were defeated. In the vainest of hopes, I checked my (Claire’s) bank balance, which was in fact higher than I expected. How could this be? Further investigation revealed that my payment for the hotel had not gone through the previous week. Suddenly, my optimism started to regain momentum, and I arranged an instant transfer from my account to my sister’s to take the balance above the room fee. I handed the card over again, closed my eyes and prayed to a God that I didn’t even believe in, just in case. The Almighty did our bidding, and we could have wept with joy as the hallowed keycard was handed over. Our foolish, disgusting pilgrimage had come to an end. Fresh sheets, hot showers, sleep… the possibilities were endless.
We started the next day (the eve of my birthday) clean, well rested and feeling fantastic. We were heading to the Mineirão to watch our doomed compatriots’ attempts to salvage some pride against the impressive Costa Ricans. In an attempt to align ourselves favourably with karma, we donated our spare ticket to Harris, a patriotic but impoverished friend from Rio that had arranged travel weeks in advance but ultimately couldn’t afford to buy a ticket. It was worth losing a few pounds each just for the satisfaction of telling him that he was coming with us. Despite the innocence of our intentions, as soon as I realised that the match was kicking off at 1pm, I knew that we were in trouble.
One horrible, goalless stalemate later, we were celebrating like it was 1966. More than happy to revel in our unashamed mediocrity, we roared our way out of the stadium, our spirits being raised even higher after a chance encounter with lovable idiot and soon-to-be vigilante Chris Kamara. It kickstarted a two day birthday bender which included lost phones, police stations, Ozzy Osbourne tribute acts and a makeshift flip-flop cobbler from Bermondsey who saved Frank’s night armed with just a lighter and a hairclip. We also made some additions to our motley crew, including Brazilian make-up artist Fabianna and middle-aged Chelsea fan Spencer who were both somehow spellbound by our unfiltered ramblings.
The order of events during these birthday celebrations are hard to recall, although there is one incident that stayed with me far more than any foolish, drunken anecdote. On the second morning, after the match where I had lost my phone, I realised that for the sake of insurance I would have to visit the local police station to receive an incident number. Years of ineptitude with my belongings meant that I was well versed in the art of phone loss, and so I knew that without this number there would be no chance of my claim being successful. I trudged despairingly to reception and was quickly arranged a taxi to the Police Station. Unfortunately, it was closed. Thus began a lengthy farce involving myself and the taxi driver hurtling around town and communicating through pidgin English and elaborate gestures, interrogating anybody we could find in a uniform and eventually stumbling on what appeared to be a derelict shack. As I walked in, I understood the grievances of the Brazilian people. The battered police cars and woebegone facilities were a world away from the polished image waved under the media’s gaze in Rio. I was encountered by two police officers, one a friendly lady and the other a disconcerting John Belushi-esque bulldog plucked straight from the 1980’s. Meanwhile, a solitary grey desktop computer whirred loudly, seemingly struggling to deal with it’s rudimentary operating system. The police spoke no English, and I will never forget the extraordinary kindness of the taxi driver who took an hour out of his working day to stay with me and act as a translator, just so that I could secure the coveted ‘Bo Numero’. Not everybody was quite as sympathetic. Despite his obvious role as ‘bad cop’, the revelation that it was my birthday was just too much for Belushi, his scolding face erupting into joyous tears of mockery.
I awoke after the birthday shenanigans feeling not one year older, but forty. Devoid of spirit, hope or energy, a rare moment of amusement came when Frank fished my six hour old egg burger from the hotel dustbin in an attempt to pacify his irate tummy. We were physically incapacitated to the point that we stayed in our room and watched the (tedious) Germany vs USA match three times in it’s entirety. We later attempted to salvage something from the day with a pointless excursion to a local Italian restaurant in search of some much needed nutrition. Ultimately, we ate hardly any of our meal. Even a £100 win (courtesy of strapping Belgian Jan Vertonghen) failed to lift the mood as we just headed back and waited to recuperate.
We finally felt reacquainted with our souls as we checked out the following morning, and had 12 hours to kill before our ‘leito’ overnight coach back to Rio. This forced us to wander around and take in a city which we had, in truth, neglected. Although friendly and helpful, the citizens seemed a lot more formal in their dress and nature than the laid-back, party animal Cariocas. The relative lack of tourism meant that we also stood out more as gringos, with locals approaching us in a park to have their photo taken with us, the pallid outsiders.
On Fabianna’s advice we visited a local indoor market, bustling with characters and all manner of inexplicable merchandise. Within metres of each other there were stalls selling Cachaça, ornaments, pick-and-mix, M4 pellet guns, combat knives and saddest of all, terrified puppies crammed into the tiniest of cages. We also attempted an uncharacteristic foray into history and culture by visiting the Belo Horizonte Metal and Mining Museum. Unfortunately we understood barely anything about the elaborate exhibitions surrounding us. At one point, we both looked in bewilderment at a lady that was moved to tears by the combination of a prominent lump of metal and the sombre but indecipherable Portuguese narration booming out of the speakers. Eventually we took our leave and found ourselves back at the Coach Station in far better shape than we had arrived, excited to return to the festival capital for the swansong of my trip.
On our return, we immediately checked back in with Sylvia at The Lighthouse for the remaining few nights. It was undoubtedly expensive, but our small taste of luxury in Belo had rendered the option of dramatically downgrading completely unacceptable. To aid us further, Sylvia’s affection for Frank had led to certain discounts being applied for small repairs around the hostel. It was just the two of us now, but as ever there was no shortage of lively, adventurous people for us to meet. I realised that hostels were essentially a conveyor belt of kindred spirits from around the world, and as one person packed their bags and moved on, another reveller would walk through the door primed with exuberance. We roomed with the Chilean Diego on his last night before leaving the capital, and before long we were sharing a bottle of Pisco as he recounted how his young cousins were among the infamous Chile supporters that had stormed the Maracanã. The police had eventually lured them into a press conference before giving them 48 hours to leave the country, after which they would be arrested. They were currently en route to Bolivia, and so we lay on the beach and gave Diego the heartiest of send-offs before he headed after the unruly fugitives.
With a couple of days to go, we still felt that we were yet to properly experience what Rio’s club scene had to offer. The ‘Rough Guide’ had promised great things that could even rival Europe’s elite, although cultural differences had hindered our ability to enjoy such establishments. An honorary Mancunian, my partying ethos was more aligned with Red Stripe, scruffy trainers and sweltering dungeons than the money-orientated, LA leaning exclusivity of Rio’s socialite community. We recruited our slightly solemn American roommate Eli to form a motivated party trio, searching for a decent house night in what appeared to be a barren musical landscape. Going off a tip we’d received from a local girl visiting our hostel (for an unashamed booty call), we climbed into our creased gladrags and hopped in a taxi heading for our uncharted destination.
On arrival, we paid the exorbitant entrance fee and headed inside. What greeted us can only be described as an EDM nightmare. Shrill bleeps and halfhearted lasers collided to create a soul-sapping dystopia; a land where Diplo and Skrillex duelled for dictatorship and their naïve subjects shuffled along enthusiastically, oblivious to the horror surrounding them. A festival of depravity; stunning women were surrounded by posturing middle-aged felons clad head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger, ordering bottles of Grey Goose to lopsided tables in the middle of the treacherous dancefloor. The gloating vanity of ‘table culture’ had always riled me. When paired with the unmistakeable stench of malice, the effect was nauseating. One reprobate molested female partygoers at will, groping everybody within his radius and then glaring menacingly at anybody that dared to retaliate to his vile routine. His beastly monolith of a bodyguard stood nearby, wearily overseeing the dedicated display of harassment and discouraging anybody in the crowd from doing the right thing. This was not the party that we had sought, and we quickly took our leave before the ugliness somehow escalated.
Our final full day saw the realisation of a dream that had so far eluded us. Earlier in the trip we had arranged transportation up into the hills for a hang-gliding jump, only to be foiled by a change in wind direction that had rendered it unsafe. Now, at the final opportunity, the green light was given and we sped up the mountains as quickly as possible, refusing to let the fickle elements disappoint us again. We were each given an instructor that would be partnered with us, mine being the tanned, charismatic and ironically named ‘Albino’. We went through a few simple practice routines and ensured that I was mentally prepared for the jump. There is something inherently unnatural about leaping off of a cliff, but I collected my composure, held Albino’s arm and sprinted down the slope and over the edge like a deranged lemming. The sensation was even more staggering than I had expected; a contradiction of intense exhilaration and meditative serenity. The view was unimprovable as we soared over the favelas and down to the shore, a seven minute journey that made me feel more alive than ever before. A forearm to the face from Albino on landing brought me back down to earth figuratively as well as literally, although only for a second, as Frank and I removed our temporary wings, sought each other out and embraced triumphantly.
For a trip that had been planned on the foundation of our love of football and the spectacle of the 2014 World Cup, it feels interesting to revisit these memories and realise how few of the noteworthy moments actually have anything to do with the sport. We were spoilt with dramatic, goal-heavy fixtures for pretty much the entirety of the group stage, and I flew home with Brazil yet to be eliminated and the party still very much in full swing. I wouldn’t change that for the world. The beauty of the trip was not necessarily anything to do with a football being kicked into a net, but in the way that we (and almost everybody around us) were galvanized with that unidentifiable feeling that none of us have experienced since we learn the truth about jolly Saint Nick. It takes a special kind of person to maintain this boundless optimism through the testing times, and in Frank I had found him. It will come as a surprise to no-one that I found his elusive bank card on arrival at Galeão Airport. It will surprise even less people to hear that a fortnight later and with his bank account stretched to breaking limit, Frank missed his flight home. As ever, the calamities will keep on coming. It is the way that we deal with them that matters, and you can rest assured that Frankie Mayes will have slept soundly that evening.
Words by Sean Stapleton
N.B. John Walden is alive and well, following a summer of stapled heads, sponge baths and romantic liaisons with his care-givers.