The best night venue in Rio, the Noites Cariocas, was located on the first hill of the Sugar Loaf, the morro da Urca. The place was fantastic for concerts; the artists performed in an open-air theatre overhung by trees while the audience sat on the ground and on the surrounding platforms. During the intervals and after the shows, they turned on the sound system and transformed the whole place into a dance floor. By day it was filled with tourists, but on Friday and on Saturday nights the place used to be pack-solid with Rio’s party-goers.
The starry nights, the wonderful ocean breeze, the cold beer, the subdued lighting and the reliable effects of our special cigarettes made the place dreamlike. There were several paths around the lightly forested leading away from the central stage and dancing area, all of them took us to places with breath-taking views of the city’s lights. From there we could see on one side of the hill the silhouette of the Tijuca mountain range and of Christ the Redeemer reflected onto Guanabara Bay’s calm waters, and on the other side the open ocean reflecting the moon. Rio looked like a wonderful work of art with rows of lamp posts highlighting the coast and its dark hills surrounding the outlines of streets and buildings. Altogether, this was the perfect setting to woo the opposite sex. The atmosphere and the visual alchemy made the girls look beautiful up there; not all of them were from the Zona Sul and most were on the non-adventurous side so we had to keep a low profile. Even so, when it came to chatting them up, the romantic aura of Noites Cariocas was irresistible and a bit of flirting and buying them drinks performed miracles.
The frustrating side of all these discoveries was that my modest pocket money could not keep up with all the expenses involved in paying for concert tickets, joints, nightclubs, beer and movies. The most expensive item on the list was precisely the Noites Cariocas and the wise guy’s solution was to skip the entrance charge by climbing the hill instead of taking the cable car. Although the path wasn’t lit, the trek was doable.
Like poachers waiting on their prey, policemen and bouncers hid along the way, watching for guys like me to appear, hoping to extort a bribe. In the case of the security guards to allow us to continue our trek and in the case of the police officers not to take us to a delegacia where they would charge us for possession. If they caught you and you had no money, they were merciless. A group of them had caught some mates from school and, instead of detaining everyone, they had forced them to go back down the hill naked.
Climbing into Noites Cariocas that way had always had gone well for me until one particular night. It was the end of the month and my allowance had dried up, but one of my favorite bands, A Cor do Som, was playing. The only option was to take the trail, so, along with a friend, Marcio, we headed up under the light of a full moon. Midway up, we crossed a group coming down who told us that the path was ‘dirty’, meaning that there were policemen hidden somewhere further up.
Undeterred, Marcio and I decided to take an alternative route, one normally only used by experienced climbers. This was not a wise decision, but at least this path would be ‘clean’. We only realized the risks when it was too late: as if out of nowhere, we suddenly found ourselves having to cross a steep stretch of the trail with a sheer drop of 200 meters immediately alongside.
When we were almost there, my party-shoes lost their grip and I slipped. Miraculously – and I mean absolutely miraculously – there was a sapling sticking out of a rock just below me. That was the only small piece of vegetation protruding out of the rock within a radius of fifty meters; had I slipped a few centimetres before or after that point, that would have been it for me.
With the Noites Cariocas immediately above, I could hear the music and a small crowd shouting that someone had fallen down the rock. Looking up there was a four-meter wall of rock, while looking down there was a precipice. With my feet barely touching the root of that blessed and tiny trunk, I forced myself to look up and only concentrate on how to emerge alive, a reflex that I’d learned from dangerous situations in high-wave body surfing. I put my shoes into my pockets and managed to climb up the rock with my bare feet.
As I emerged and was putting my shoes back on, a bouncer made his way through the crowd and grabbed me by the arm saying that he was going to hand me over to the police. I pushed my arm away and challenged him, saying that I refused to go, and received the vocal support of everyone around us. In the face of this opposition, he backed down and instead escorted me to the cable car and out of Noites Cariocas. Given the circumstances, I just thanked the Almighty for still being alive. Beyond scriptures, priests, rabbis, mullahs, books and reasoning, I believed then – as I still do now – in the existence of an omnipotent God, a divine being who had decided this was not my moment to go.