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There was always someone in the bathroom. That’s what happens when there are six adults living in an apartment with just one toilet. If I left my door open, I could see part of bathroom door, enough to know if it was being used or not. I had to be quick when it was free before someone else walked in.
One night I was preying on the bathroom when I heard the front door open and close. Everyone else was home so I knew it was my Danish roommate, Henrik, returning from kung fu practice. His room was at the end of the hall, so if I left my door open it was a guarantee he’d stop by to have a little chat.
“Hey buddy,” he said, with a little gym bag hanging from his shoulder.
“Hey buddy, what’s up?”
“I chatted with Vanessa today. Remember that girl you met at Emporio?”
“Yeah, the girl with all the piercings,” I said.
“Right. Well she told me about this new bar we should check out.”
“Yeah?” I wasn’t enthusiastic.
The week before we had gone to some shithole in Larenjeras and while our current spots in Botafogo and Ipanema weren’t that great, we were at least getting some action. Neither of us had much time left in Rio and I didn’t want to waste it with nightlife exploration when it was possible that we’d already found the best spots.
“It’s a rock bar up in the north zone, a little farther out than Lapa. Actually, it’s a lot of bars in a small area,” Henrik said.
“The north zone? Aren’t the girls ugly there?”
“No, the girls are better. My friend made a comment that they like rock types. She said they’d like you. You just have to wear your tightest jeans.”
“She really said that?” I asked.
“She did. The best day to go is Saturday.”
“Saturday? But that’s Casa do Matriz night. I always get something there. That’s prime time!”
“This new bar will make Casa do Matriz look like camel shit.”
I stroked my chin. “What’s the name of this rock bar?”
“Sounds like a luxury condominium development. Good evening, sir, and welcome to the Gherrrridge.”
“Nothing. Hey, maybe I can meet my dream girl there!”
“Yeah, and maybe she won’t turn out to be a bitch slut.”
I laughed. He was still sour about the dream girl.
“So how do you spell this Gheridge?” I asked, changing the subject.
“How would I know? I’m not good at spelling words in English. Just Google it.”
“How am I going to Google a word that I don’t—”
Right then the bathroom door opened and Bruno, the unofficial leader of the apartment since he’d been there for eight years, stepped out wearing nothing but underwear. His age was something of a secret, but I put it at around fifty-five.
Just as I was about to put my hands on the armrests of my chair to hoist myself up, Henrik started to walk away, saying, “Hey, I have to use the bathroom. Let’s talk about it later, okay?”
I arrived in Rio in early December during peak tourist season to find rental prices to be through the roof. People were asking over $800 to rent a crappy room with a shared bathroom. I holed up in a $15 a night hostel in the meanwhile, firing off messages to promising listings I found on Craigslist and other rental sites. Most of the landlords didn’t write back to my English/Portuguese hybrid message. I knew that a lot of gringos wired deposits without even looking at the places, so I wondered if my request to check things out may have pegged me as a high maintenance gringo.
After a week in the hostel with no solid leads, I started to get worried. My plan to spend summer in Rio without blowing my wad was in jeopardy and I began thinking about going to Argentina, land of crazy women, until after Carnival when rental prices would be cheaper. My Brazilian acquaintances didn’t offer any encouragement, telling me that, yes, getting a rental was hard and I should leave and come back later.
Then I met an English girl in my dorm room who changed everything, and the irony was that she was Indian. Thing is I hate Indian girls. Not only do they have the flattest asses on Earth, but they’re the most frigid and masculine, making American girls seem like quality romance material. But I have found an exception to that rule: Indian girls who don’t like being Indian. If all her friends are white then she probably hates her heritage, and therefore Indian in appearance only. This particular English girl acted whiter than other white girls, so I was in the clear to spend time with her.
On her last night we went out for drinks at a bar near the hostel and chatted a little about life, relationships, and how difficult it was to use condoms consistently. She had a fiancé at home in England, but she talked about him with a barely perceptible tone of annoyance that my advanced cheat-dar was able to pick up. All the time I’ve spent in hostels has given me the uncanny ability to tell if a traveling girl with a boy back home is likely to cheat, and how far she’ll go.
I expressed my frustration in finding a room to rent.
“You’ve only been trying a week,” she said.
“Yes, but I’ve tried everything. I even asked everyone who works at the hostel. I think I’ll just go to Argentina for a few months and then come back after the high season passes.”
“What was your original plan?”
“Well, to live in Colombia for six month, Brazil for six months, then Argentina for as long as it takes to get tired of the women. Two months max, I figure.”
“And how long have you been in Brazil so far?”
“I reckon a month.” With English people I like to use fancier words so they understand me better.
“So you’re ready to throw away your plan after just one week’s worth of difficulty?”
“I don’t know, it just sounds to me that you don’t want to stay here after all. If I had a plan likes yours, I’d stick to it. I wouldn’t give up so easily.”
“Have you heard of choicelessness?” she asked.
“It’s a Buddhist term where you imagine that you have no other choices or options and that you must face your current situation and make it work, no matter what. So applying that to your situation…”
“I have no choice but to find an apartment and I can’t leave until I do?”
“There you go.”
I sat in silence for a minute, thinking about her concept. “I don’t want to blow your head up,” I said, “but that’s pretty brilliant. Such a great idea from such a young woman. How old are you again?”
“Oh, well, that’s not that young.”
“Hey!” she said, pushing my shoulder.
We smooched a little that night, but by the next day she was so wrought with guilt that she was extremely short with me. It didn’t matter—I had already tapped her value with the Buddhist lesson, and just as I was about to hit all the rental sites again, I found an email in my inbox from a Brazilian woman. She had a room available and left her phone number. I hadn’t emailed her before and she wasn’t from one of the sites—had someone else given her my address? I took it as some sort of heavenly sign and called her immediately. Within the hour I was on my way to her apartment.
One thing about Rio is that you’re always within rifle range of a favela. If there is an open space on a mountain, there will be shacks, and where there are shacks, there will be industrious young men packaging drugs for sale to Rio’s middle class. The irony of Rio’s drug problem is that the sons and daughters of those who are fighting the drug war are supplying dealers with money through their marijuana and cocaine purchases. No one talks about the demand side of the drug problem—it’s entirely the fault of the dealers, and any means necessary must be used to take them down.
Sort of like how a little child is instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, it doesn’t take watching grisly news reports or hearing gunshots to know that a favela is not a place you want to be. So I was getting a little nervous when the favela in the distance got closer and closer as I triangulated the address of the apartment.
“This has to be a mistake,” I thought, but then under the address I looked at the quoted monthly price again: 750 R$. That was about $400. I hesitated when I crossed the favela border that began at the end of the paved road.
Any normal person would have turned back. Any normal American person, anyway, but something inside me spun to life. I was out of the gringo zone now, and while I was still in Brazil, a “dangerous” country, for the first time since my return trip I felt nervous. My heart was beating fast and my hands became even more sweaty than its normally moist state. Probability of death rising… rising. That feeling is like a drug to some men, and though I hadn’t yet looked at the apartment, it was obvious to me that I would accept it, regardless of what it was like. I was going to live in a favela, whereas five minutes earlier I would have scoffed at the idea.
My tour of the room was a mere formality that took no more than two minutes. It didn’t matter that the building was over sixty years old, that the front gate was stubborn to lock, that the kitchen was crawling with gigantic cockroaches, or that I’d share one bathroom with five other adults. Even though I wasn’t in one of those shacks perched up on the hills, I was so close that from my bedroom window I felt like I could reach out and touch them. I handed my first month’s rent over to the landlady and moved in a few days later for what would be a three-month stay.
CONTINUED: PART TWO