Out on the gaming table of life, where fortunes can be made and lost, a flip of the right card could change a life. In my corner, i had been quietly playing my own game, trying not to get too distracted by the bright lights or sleazy people. I was counting the cards, and i was sure i would win. Oblivious of the hand the dealer had ready to play, and a little ignorant of the stakes involved, i played on. It was to be my downfall.
The first sign was the loss of my wallet during the trip to Ponta Negra the night before. I bluffed, wearing a poker face good enough to fool a pro, and i made my arrangements to get my bank card cancelled and replaced. In the morning at our hotel, things began to slide in a downward direction. We had been put into a different room than the one we had negotiated for the night before, and now the owner of the flat we stayed in demanded a payment of double our agreed rate. They tried all kinds of dirty tricks to win, from telling lies, feigning ignorance and wearing sunglasses, but our friend Kelly is fluent in Portuguese, and that stopped them from cheating outright. We played our final hand, won against the odds, and got told to leave the hotel, having broken even.
Out the front of our new place in Vila, a poorer area of Ponta Negra, a three-night street festival was just warming up in the early evening. Soon the place was crowded with locals. Eager to cater for their needs, all kinds of mobile shops were set up, selling pastries, corn or kebab skewers; or cut-price beer and cachaça out of polystyrene coolers. As the festa wore on, it seemed to get stranger and stranger, incorporating a June Festival hoedown of sorts and several dance routines from local groups. My attempts to dance the Samba and Forro once again were more amusing than precise, but being one of the only tourists, i still garnered plenty of attention.
Walking through Vila at probably 4.30am, Latin America seemed at its most distant, its most inaccessible. Gone were the crowds of people, drinking, dancing and living their lives by the street. Far away from the flashing lights of the festival in the back blocks of Ponta Negra, the cobblestoned streets were now the realm of cats and dogs, a monochrome world polarized by orange streetlights and dark shadows. Latin America, at this place and time was sleeping, and me, walking through this bairro on the way back to a secure hotel unit, similarly polarized. A white person was in a dark neighbourhood, awake while asleep, so close geographically and so distant in mindset. Unified we were in one thing: Silence.
Saturday i held my cards with an iron grip, determined not to lose. The odds though were bad, and soon to get a lot worse. Getting money from my credit card failed utterly, so i placed my chips on getting emergency cash wired to a bank in Brasil. After playing every one of my trump cards through numerous frustrations to get back in the black, i finally got the cash secured for Monday. Or so i thought.
That night, I met up with some friends living in Ponta Negra, and we hit the local bars. Years ago, i had vowed never to enter a club named Matrix, but here we were at Matrix Disco Pub, amidst terrible music and big fluroescent polystyrene balls stuck to the walls. Needless to say, i lasted about the length it took me to drink a couple of beers, before heading back to the street party.
Carlo, an Italian guy about the same age as me, had been staying in Ponta Negra for several months already, doing research for a university in Venice. We met up again on Sunday on the way to the festival in Vila, now into its third night. Past the stage, we found a tiny fairground in the back of the festival with rickety wooden rides for kids. Included were such death-defying rides as a pirate ship only twice the size of a garden swing, squeaking rusted teacups and a little race car carousel, cars missing the odd wheel, forever bumping over a rutted wooden track. Later we fired air rifles at candy, giving our prizes to the kids crowding around us. The music was even more frantic than Friday night, featuring some hyper-speed Forro mixed with electronic music. The 1940's polka antics were in full swing, this time with the country folk replaced by cross-dressers. But all too soon, the festival finished, and people returned to their lives, leaving nothing but their giant piles of rubbish behind.