Sarah Esther Maslin and Vincent Catala watch a midnight football match and join a samba party
Aterro do Flamengo, 12.30am
When it’s sunny, Flamengo beach is full of families and dogs, bikini-clad teens with miniature speakers blasting carioca funk and body-builders lifting weights made from scrap metal and water jugs. After the sun sets, it’s empty and quiet except for the hum of cars and the squeak of trainers on turf. A dozen football pitches under weak floodlights play host to nightly matches between groups of university students, workers and waiters coming off their shifts.
Tonight, there’s a cool breeze, so only the sweatiest take off their shirts. A team in blue from a nearby university is losing 2-0 when the other team, in orange, gets a corner kick. “Hey! I’m all alone here,” yells the goalie on the blue team.
That’s the feeling many students have when they move to Rio from faraway towns. They live in cramped apartments and work full-time jobs on top of their studies. Midnight matches are a rare chance to blow off steam and make friends.
Two players lean against the fence, waiting to come on as substitutes. Victor, an 18-year-old law student, refuses to believe that his new teammate is 26. “Where’s your proof?” he demands, playing prosecutor. Marcos, who’s studying to be a sports journalist, takes out his ID card with a smug smile.
The orange team scores again. The whistle blows. It’s half time. The blue players swear at the ground for a while. Then they huddle up, wrap their sweaty arms around each other and talk strategy for the second half.
A roda de samba is wrapping up in Lapa, a bustling neighbourhood tucked behind a huge white aqueduct constructed by the Portuguese in the 1700s. At Vaca Atolada, a luncheonette by day and bar by night, the “samba circle” is literal: four guitarists and a tambourine player sit around a wooden table and revellers dance in a ring around them, moving their feet and hips during the verses, raising their hands and singing during the chorus.
Black-and-white photos on the walls pay tribute to samba legends. A man in a printed shirt says Lapa has always been bohemian. But in the last decades of the 20th century, violence drove away the music. When the city got safer in the early 2000s, samba made a comeback.
A little after 2am, the musicians start to put away their instruments. The crowd lingers, chatting and drinking beer. “I prefer this calm vibe,” says Alex, one of the guitarists. “But I make more money during carnival.” The week-long samba party draws millions to Rio each February.
A curly-haired woman approaches the table and tries to cajole the band into playing another tune. She’s unsuccessful.
A block inland from the famous Copacabana beach, a new gay club has opened its doors. Under the magenta lights of the Pink Flamingo, 20-somethings in tracksuits cling to each other, sucking on vapes and gushing about the evening’s drag show. Ravena, a drag queen, moved here 15 years ago from the north-eastern state of Bahía. She says that Rio lags behind São Paulo when it comes to LGBT-friendliness. Beach and carnival aside, it’s an old-fashioned town.
Around the corner, sex is sold on the beachside strip. Priscilla, a 27-year-old prostitute with waist-long blonde hair and piercing blue contact lenses, stands on a red carpet to welcome European men in suits into a club.
On the pavement, a rougher trade unfolds. Cars roll slowly alongside the pavement, passing women who strut in groups of two or three. Every so often, a man in sunglasses leans out of a passenger window, calling over one of the women. She gets into his car. They speed off.
North-west of the city centre, in a huge warehouse surrounded by favelas, Rio’s municipal market never closes.
Two men in baseball caps interrogate a woman selling flowers. “The colour of tea,” one of the men repeats, pointing to a picture on his smartphone. Erico and Wellington have been tasked with finding 200 roses to match their friend’s bridesmaids’ dresses. So far, no luck. The wedding is tomorrow.
They hurry off to other stalls. The flower seller shrugs. She’ll be here till noon. After that, it gets too hot for the roses.
At a stall stacked floor to ceiling with coconuts, Jorge Rito, the owner of Rio Coco, tries to stay awake. He sits on an uncomfortable stool, his feet dangling above the ground. He listens to forro, Brazilian country music, on a portable speaker. He won’t have much to do until the truck arrives to take the coconuts to the beaches at dawn.
Copacabana beach, 5.35am
All is quiet on Copacabana beach in the final minutes of darkness. Two dozen fishing boats lie upside down in the sand. Among them are smaller shapes in sleeping bags. As the sun peeks out over the water, they begin to fidget.
These fishermen are from nearby favelas, they tell me, but now – for reasons they are reluctant to say – they are reduced to sleeping on the beach. They’re joined at sunrise by veteran fishermen, along with surfers, rowers and a lone scuba diver.
“I’m a crazy man!” shouts a guy in Speedos, running into the water with a fishing rod and an open-top kayak. He hops aboard and paddles madly.
Copacabana beach, 6.05 am
At 6am a reveille from the fort at the end of the beach rouses the last fisherman curled up in the sand. He stashes his blanket and runs to help get the boats out. The sun shimmers in the windows of beachside apartments and creates a changing canvas of colours behind the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Six fishermen overturn each boat, balance it on wooden planks, untangle the fishing nets and plop them in the hull. When a big wave rushes in, they pull out the planks and push the boat toward the ocean, letting it float until the water recedes and they replace the planks. They repeat this process three or four times, until they reach the water’s edge. Then it’s time for the final push. A wave comes in. “Fast, let’s go, now!” the head fisherman, Felipe, shouts. Grunting, the men drag the boat all the way into the water. Three heave themselves in. They disappear over the horizon.