"Where are you from?" I asked in curiosity.
Turns out he was from near London, along with the other three people he was travelling with. One of his friends - Hanna - joined us in the common room and we all talked for well over an hour. It was strange, but I chatted with them as if I'd known them for years and years, freely discussing all kinds of things without the tiniest bit of reservation or inhibition. And this went both ways. It was amazing yet felt so normal too.
We nearly fell off our chairs in shock upon finding out we all took the same flight on the same day from London to Rio barely a week ago - myself in Row 16, and they, just ten rows behind me. Whereas I had spent the first week in this city, they had transferred to an island nearby called Ilha Grande for the first few nights, before coming up to Rio just a day or two ago. A week before, they were perfect strangers to me, and now we were striking up conversation like long-lost friends reunited. What a small world.
"What are you up to tonight then?" my new friends asked.
I paused for a second. "To be honest, I was just going to call it an early night," I replied.
"Come to the favela party with us!"
I had had such a great time in Rio, but to be honest, as I intended to leave for my next destination in the next day or two, my mind had already said good bye to the place, particularly after my Sao Paulo friends had left earlier that day.
Should I just stay in on this dreary Sunday, as originally envisioned? Or should I just spontaneously go to this party?
"F*ck it. I'm going upstairs to get changed, be back in a second!"
A quick word on what a favela is. It is basically a run down shanty town hugging the mountains bordering the city. Some of the worst ones have limited access to clean water and electricity. From what I've heard, many are controlled by drug lords. Most favela residents bus themselves into the wealthier confines of Rio to work, and head back up to the favelas at the end of the working day.
Another interesting fact I discovered was that up until the late 1980s, the government refused to recognise favelas, so they were represented by blank space on official maps. Also, because technically these places did not "exist" in the eyes of lawmakers, the poor did not have the right to vote or have their say in local government matters. I guess you could say they were disenfranchised in a sense.
Now, some tour operators offer favela day tours to tourists. I really was in two minds about whether to go on such a tour or not. It felt like handing over cash to some rich businessperson just to have them whisk me up the mountains to these places so I could gawk at poor people, cast one or two of them looks of well-meaning sympathy, before being brought back down to the safe and affluent confines of leafy Ipanema.
After discussing it at length with some fellow travellers, I learned about some companies that do it a lot more respectfully than others. So instead of transporting you in a bullet-proof Lincoln Navigator 4x4 complete with rocket propelled grenades and a helicopter hovering over the scene in case some 'funny business' goes down, one of the tour companies rides you up in a motorcycle to a well-known favela called Rocinha, you get to actually meet local residents and chat with them, can look at some of the artwork the local men and women have designed and buy it directly from them, and then you slowly wander down the favela with the guides, stopping every now and then to take in places of interest.
I still wasn't sure if felt right to go on this favela tour, even if the tour operator mentioned above actually pledge part of their earnings towards supporting the favela directly. There was something weirdly voyeuristic about being charged a fee to peruse the neighbourhood of Rio's disadvantaged. I mean, can you imagine someone offering to take you on a tour of Tower Hamlets or the Bronx for a hefty surcharge? You would probably slap them with the subway ticket you'd then use to go look around those areas yourself. For free.
Now, another way to experience a favela is to go to a party there at night time. This didn't raise such an ethical dilemma.
I quickly got dressed, and headed to the hostel bar downstairs with my new friends to booze up for our night out. Sometime around midnight, the company organising the transportation to this favela party picked a big group of us from our hostel, stopped at a few more places nearby to pick up more travellers, and after a quick thirty minute journey, we arrived at our destination.
"Remember, when the time is five a.m. please come back to this exact spot so we can take you back to the hostel," boomed the female company rep. "Otherwise you will be stuck here and must find your own way back! Oh and to all the guys. If you meet any.... 'special' girls, don't forget to check the goods in the pants first or you might have a very big surprise!" she added with a beaming wink.
My friends and I stared at each other, completely speechless and incredibly disturbed.
The favela party was housed in what seemed to be a massive warehouse. The place was packed full of people, and Brazilian funk music blasted from the loudspeakers strategically dotted all over. Us backpackers were given special wristbands that allowed us to the 'VIP area'. Which basically allowed entry to an above-ground level overlooking the entire place, along with a dedicated bar. I guess they did it to give us backpackers a 'safe' place to mingle. Personally, it felt a bit neo-imperialist.
So after getting a few drinks, a small group of us decided to head downstairs together to check out the rest of the action. As we slowly made our way through the crowd, I noticed what seemed to be water all over the bare, concrete floor. I didn't think much of it until a few seconds later, when we could sniff the pungent aroma of stale and freshly released urine.
It then dawned on us that our feet were wading through the piss of several hundred drunk people.
I looked down at my flip flops, which, by now, were soaked. I shrugged. The damage had already been done, and the only other alternative would have been to go barefoot, which wasn't much of an option at all. After carefully rolling my jeans up to as close to my knees as possible, we then continued with our wander through the crowd.
And then it happened. We were standing close to the stage area when I felt a warm, steady splatter down my leg. I looked to my right to see some guy just standing with his knob out, pissing in our general direction, seemingly without a care - or more accurately, any sense of shame - in the world.
I was stunned. My friend stared, first at me, then at our legs, then at the absolute stranger, then back to me. Never in my life had I taken part in a golden shower without consent.
My first immediate thought was "wtf? Is this what people do in favelas?!" As foolish as it sounds now, the next image on my mind was of me having a go at this guy, only for him to draw out a knife and nonchalantly stab us ("psssh, these dumb tourists") for daring to disturb him while he unleashed a stream of piss onto a small group of innocent bystanders.
After scraping our jaws from the floor, we decided to enjoy the rest of the night and just dunk our legs in the shower once we got back to the hostel.
Except, when we returned, incredibly drunk and fatigued, for the first time - "in months", stated a member of staff adamantly - our hostel had run out of water...
No tap water. No toilet flush. No shower.
We resignedly passed out in our beds, allowing the dried urine of a hundred human souls to mixinto our sheets overnight, before rising, bleary-eyed a few hours later, to stumble down towards the beach and shake our dirty legs in the Atlantic.
Only in Rio.