I Went to the Olympics and Found Rio's Wildest Party at a Gas Station
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When the Olympics were awarded to Rio in 2009, you, I, and the rest of the world probably had the same thought in unison: oh my sweet baby Jesus, that will be the biggest party on the planet. And, truth told, Rio de Janeiro and Brazil at large didn't disappoint. I managed to swing a whiplash trip from New York during the Games, ostensibly to get my orange crush on at a big, bright, Dutch-as-hell Heineken party. And, yeah, it was a blast that probably took six months off my life in the day or so I was there.
But the fact is, the corporate shindigs aren't why these Summer Games will go down as a life-changing experience for anyone who managed to scrap their way to Brazil this August. No, the fact is, Rio just knows how to party. The greatest bash I stumbled into was a thrumming neighborhood rager that centered on a Shell gas station, of all things. It won't carry the same infamy as the Shell station where Ryan Lochte suffered a stickup that wasn't, but it's enduring proof of why, after all the foibles of these Olympics, they had a marvelous city as host.
After hanging out in Leblon -- one of Rio's poshest neighborhoods -- a few of the foreign journalists I'd met during my 60-hour stay in Brazil suggested bar-hopping in a neighborhood called Lapa on Friday night. "That area is not so nice," said Danny, a Swede and 20-year resident of São Paulo. He wasn't interested in going, and it was already after midnight. From the little I knew of Danny, saying Lapa was "not so nice" meant my wallet's odds of being stolen went up about 40%.
I had trepidations. Lapa was 30 minutes from Leblon. None of us spoke Portuguese, or knew quite where we were heading. I was stuck lugging a dorky backpack. But it was my last night in Rio. Of course I said yes. Only then did I get what at the time felt like the sketchiest possible detail: "The meeting point is a Shell gas station," Henri said from the front seat. "And I'm not kidding."
The real Brazil doesn't go to the Olympics -- the Olympics come to it
We hopped out of the cab in the middle of a traffic jam. The Arcos da Lapa aqueduct clearly in sight to our left. Energy emanated from the crowd -- deep-bass samba blasted from somewhere; mini-pizzas and churrasco skewers sizzled on grills under vendor tents; Cariocas danced and mingled; dreadlocked burnouts sold trinkets and handmade statues, laid out on rugs. I was not expecting this scene.
Traffic came to a standstill on Rua Riachuelo, the street crossing the Arcos, from the sheer volume of humans crossing. We stood in the median, trying to meet with someone I'd not yet heard of. A yelling phone call later, our group was now six -- two more tall Australians had joined us. We exchanged pleasantries and soldiered on.
Thirty yards ahead, our destination lit up the night: quite literally, because the Shell station's yellow awning and red accents stood out among the purple and blue neons illuminating the bars and clubs.
This was a gas station, but not like any I'd ever seen. Instead of selling pork rinds and Mountain Dew inside, this place had vendors hocking cigarettes and candy from trays and muddling caipirinhas in carts outside. People skittered between and around the gas pumps, while ill-advised motorists tried to snowplow out through the crowd after gassing up. Dozens of groups stood beneath the station's awning, enjoying the space they couldn't get out in the street. Next to me on Rua Riachuelo, a delivery truck tried to make its way, honking its horn. It moved 20 yards in 10 minutes.
Why was this particular joint the epicenter of a sprawling street party? I suspect because it was huge, open-air, and well lit. And clearly providence is at work, as well. God must have an eye on a working gas station where hundreds of partiers meet to stand around, buy cigarettes, and somehow not turn the whole place into a mushroom cloud.
The party goes on
So this is what it felt like to live in the Rio away from the Olympic Village.
After buying a round of Heinekens off a guy with a cooler on a cart, we flowed further up the street, past the halted truck. Velvet ropes and Incredible Hulk bouncers directed club-goers toward their destinations, while Carioca funk and popular dance music leaked out every time a door opened. Cariocas tossed cash to vendors for cigarettes, lighting them as they bumped through the crowd. The occasional whiff of marijuana hit me. Beautiful women pulled by muscular boyfriends, bearded metalheads, and tank top-wearing teenagers wriggled in every direction.
We came to a stop in a triangular plaza where three roads crossed, with a churrasco grill spitting in front and a lady rummaging through cooler ice for beers behind us. The Australian journalists and I chatted about our work, I bought a round of beers, and we all took note when two Brazilian women approached and asked, as an opener, "How do you like Brazil?"
The Aussies chatted the girls up. The prettier one flirted intermittently, but it appeared to be going nowhere. I bought a cigarette and chatted up a new Australian.
"I'm Scott," he said. "That's my girlfriend over there. The tall one over there's my sister, and the tan one's her partner."
Turns out Scott's sister was an Olympic beach volleyball player, built like the gazelles I'd seen on TV, spiking balls into sandy oblivion. Her partner was decidedly more squat, likely a defensive specialist at some university. The partner flirted with a Brazilian built like a loveseat with a head. Scott's sister flirted with another guy. Tom, it turned out his name was. His grip was firm, and his shirt unbuttoned one hole below business-casual. He was decidedly more handsome than the rest of us slugs, and he needed to be -- he was on-air talent for one of Australia's biggest morning shows.
I walked into the middle of the street to snap a few photos and videos of the luminescent bars built into Art Deco buildings. Scott came along and mused about his trip. "You know, I've heard so much about all the condoms they have here for athletes," Scott told me, "but I can't find one anywhere. I've gone into five pharmacies, but I've had to sneak off because I'm with my parents."
"Really?" I asked. "I guess it is a heavily Catholic country, so that makes some sense. Have you tried a grocery store?"
"I've tried that, too, but I can't just ask anyone when I'm with my parents. I have to sneak off. I don't have any fucking idea where they sell condoms. And all I wanna do is fuck my girlfriend. We've been here for two weeks."
"Well," I said, "you're in luck."
I slid my worn, camouflage backpack off my shoulder and unzipped it to fish out a quart-sized plastic bag. It contained BAND-AIDs, butt wipes, and Scott's Holy Grail.
"No fucking way, mate," he said.
Scott shook my hand like a guy who was gonna get laid for the first time in two weeks.
Our conversation drifted off. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Scott nudging his girlfriend. He flashed the condom at her, and she smiled.
I joked and drank more with Henri and Paul, with whom I'd established the most rapport. Henri gave me his card, and we agreed to exchange trade secrets when we had big successes at work. We ordered churrasco skewers off the street grill, watching as they were dipped in chimichurri, grilled, then rolled in breadcrumbs.
"You dropped something," Henri said.
I turned around. The lady who'd sold me beers was pointing to the ground.
"Your ID, mate," he said. Indeed, they'd found a strange ID.
"That's not me," I said.
"You," the beer lady said.
I looked at it. He was like a handsomer, younger, German-er version of me. It turns out I have German doppelgänger. And dude's full government name is, hand on a Bible, freakin' Max Hog.
All good things must come to an end
The night was beginning to tilt toward the dim hour when the best bad decisions come to life. I slipped away to a bar across the street to take a leak. The host asked me something in Portuguese, and I replied in Spanish: "Mi amigo," pointing upstairs. I pissed and hurried back out, hoping to go unnoticed.
We ordered a round of caipirinhas from a new cart that appeared. In that lime was a second wind. This was the best caipirinha I'd had in Rio.
It was now 4am, and the street outside the Shell was no less crowded. Young people surged in all directions, trading their reais for street beers, laughing about whatever people laugh about just before dawn. We headed for a club someone noticed near the aqueduct.
Along the way, several people danced. Two jumped in front of me on the beat, isolating me from the group, if only for a moment. The one directly in front slipped his hand in my front pocket as he danced, and I felt him pick for my phone. I pushed him away and checked my other pockets. Nothing gone. My backpack might as well have been a sandwich board screaming, "I'm an American!" in this scene.
I caught up with the rest of the crew outside an outdoor club; chain-link fences lined the outer gate, with totem-pole bouncers on either side of the inner cage. I was hustled in, paying no cover, tailing the Aussies.
The club looked like an outdoor theater, with gyrating Cariocas in place of seats. Spotlights flashed to the beat, bass thumping deeper and deeper. The front of the club smelled like piss, and I was tired. I lit another cigarette, which elicited a frown from the volleyball gazelle.
"Those will kill you," she said.
Behind the gazelle, her partner shot a playful shrug and a smile as her Brazilian loveseat stud had followed her to the club. They danced a bit. Paul and Charles agreed they didn't want to stay. I asked where they were going -- Copacabana, same as me. We finally took our leave. Outside, I bought a pizza, or at least a disk of dough covered in cheese and oregano, from a vendor 25 yards from the aqueduct. I figured it'd give me the runs, but didn't particularly care, as I'd thus far dodged whatever Rio viruses I'd been warned about.
As we wandered back toward Avenida Republica do Paraguai, where we'd hopped out of our cab and now hoped to hop in another, Paul and I lost track of Charles amid the scattering of locals drinking in groups, stoners, and vendors. It was 4:37am. We hopped in a cab back to Copacabana, our terminus Paul and Charles' hotel. We said how great it was to meet one another, how we should stay in touch. I knew I'd never see or hear from them again.
I'd dreamed of attending the Olympics since 1996, when Michael Johnson and his gold Nikes raced their way into history. When I finally did go, I didn't experience the Games. Instead, I got out into Rio -- and I enjoyed the greater rush for leaving the beaten track.
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