On the day of the exam, I woke up at dawn. Unable to return to sleep, I went for a walk by the beach to calm down. The sunrise was spectacular and the temperature of the water was perfect, the sea was calm and inviting, so I went for a long swim, did some body surfing and managed to relax. As I emerged from the water, I noticed a man on the promenade looking at me. He was dressed in a white suit, tall with a short moustache and an old-fashioned haircut, all of which made him look like my maternal grandfather. This bizarre encounter sent shivers up my spine, but I took the incident as a good omen.
I went home, showered, had breakfast, got on the bus and was soon with hundreds of other students gathered in front of a rundown public primary school at the end of Leblon. After a 10 minute wait, officials dressed in lab coats opened the gates to allow us in and we had to find which classroom we had to go to on a board in the corridor. I took my place at a school chair with an arm that folded down to serve as a table, under which were studded old bits of chewing gum. As we sat down, the invigilators, all in their mid-twenties, handed out pencils and erasers. When everyone was in, the inspectors ran through a roll call and made us aware of the rules: no cheating, no noise, no talking and when they said the time was over, it was over. After this they handed out thick, A4-sized envelopes containing the test booklets and a card on which we had to tick the correct answers.
The exams were spread across four days. I will confess that on the physics and chemistry tests, I had some key formulae scribbled on the lower parts of my trousers, but on the other tests, maths, languages, history, biology and geography, I played clean.
Fearing the worst, on the weekend that the results were to be announced in the newspapers, Kristoff and I fled to Mauá. We camped near Maromba and the only link to the outside world was a payphone in a bed and breakfast. Calling Sarah would be the safest way to hear the news: she had gone through the same process before and would not be too judgmental if I had failed.
She had already looked up my name and, to everyone’s absolute surprise, I had been accepted by UFRJ, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, for their prestigious economics programme, considered the best of its kind in Rio as well as one of the best in the country.
Sarah had also looked up Kristoff’s name and gave the news that he would be studying biology at the same university, one of the hardest programmes to get into, with a ratio of 20 applicants for each place. Both of us were over the moon and were ready to celebrate. For the big occasion, we were going to try the latest wise guy, fun hallucinogenic craze: magic mushrooms. Mauá was renowned for them and the weather was just right for their sprouting: sunny, following a few days of steady rain.
We rushed to the closest pastures, but didn’t find any. Our hopes were re-ignited when someone told us that we would surely find them in the pastures of Campo Alegre (the appropriately named “Happy Field”), a village 40 kilometers away. The problem was that we had no means of transport other than our feet, but we were obstinate enough to go on an entire day’s trek to get our golden fungi.
The exhausting walk paid off: we found a field full of them and picked what we could under the menacing watch of the bull who owned the territory. We had to be careful: there were two similar-looking species of wild mushrooms: the desired kind had black stripes on its lower side and a poisonous variety exactly the same but with white stripes. After a moment of elation, we returned to our senses and remembered it would soon be dark and that we faced another long walk back.
Back in the camping site, we took a well-earned plunge in the river, changed our clothes and got the guitars for the night jam. Once we were all set, we ate the mushrooms, wondering what we would experience and when. Their taste was similar to ordinary cultivated mushrooms – they were just bigger and looked more distinct. Night had already fallen when we hit the road and we were lucky to get a lift shortly after. In the back seat, looking out of the window, I started to feel light headed, by the time the car dropped us off and its lights had moved away, we were already on psychedelic ground.
Our lift had let us off in Maromba’s square; a patch of earth defined by the few houses and the church bordering it. In order not to go out on an uncontrollable tangent, we had the good sense to go to the only bar in the village that also faced square. The only other lights came from the grocery store on the opposite side of that unpaved terrain. Locals would gather there because they sold cheap liquor and there was pool table, while the hippies would congregate where we were. Each group respected the other’s space. One group would be stoned out of their minds while the other one was equally spaced out on a deadly mix of the region’s famous honey with cachaça.
As we tried to absorb what was going on, we noticed that there were already two guys sitting at the table and strumming something. We asked if we could tune our guitars to theirs and join in. After some time, a friend who would go on to become a famous guitarist turned up and joined in too. More people started to arrive and the end, there must have been some seven or eight musicians capturing what the spirits had to say about the beauty of the surrounding moonlit mountains and the stars above.
That session was one of the best in my life. An euphoric crowd gathered and participated using whatever means they could to heighten the energy – taking the lead by singing out loud improvised verses, clapping, drumming on tables and on the bar’s fragile walls or simply dancing. Music, place and people merged into a collective trance that endured for hours.
I cannot remember how that explosion of psychedelia ended, nor where I slept, but in the morning, when we went for our daily shot of milk – drawn manually from cows while we waited – everyone was commenting on how good the jam session had been. It turned out that all the musicians had taken magic mushrooms, but had been unaware that the others had done the same. We spent the rest of the day washing off our hangovers at a natural water slide, hurtling into the icy, fresh, water, bringing us crashing back to ordinary life.