It is midnight.
Perola waits for us at the bottom of our hill and five of us pile into her tiny car.
The other seven hire a collectivo (communal taxi) to take us up the steep mountain of Corcavado. Near the top, on the way up to the statue of the Christ sits the abandoned Paineiras hotel.
The hotel has been abandoned for over thirty years. The original Paineiras was built by Pedro II the Emperor of Portugal in 1884. It was created as a rest stop for wealthy travelers on their way to the statue of the Christ, the symbol of Rio de Janeiro. Visitors would board a train from Paineiras to continue the rest of the way up to the famous monument.
Corcovado mountain and the curvy road and near vertical railroad track leading up to the Christ
Our car strains up the mountain road, engine smoke trailing behind us. It slows to a stop at the top of the bluff. The taxi pulls up behind us and we gather under a weak street light with dense jungle all around us.
We argue with the driver over price eventually giving way to his demand. The taxi pulls away and we investigate. The place is huge, its façade peering out from the jungle. Ariel is the first to disappear through a ground level window and we quickly follow. With a few flashlights we take in the sight of the main room. Its high ceilings supported by tall ornate pillars suggest a faded splendor. Beautifully tiled floors obscured by dust lead us to grand doors opening into different hallways.
We take a quick inventory of options and decide to climb the spiraling, decayed staircase to the top. Wandering down obscure, spooky corridors we peer into forsaken rooms full of peeling paint and decrepit, shattered furniture. Perola and I sing in the dark, our voices high and harmonic, the sound waves fluttering like angels and ghosts down blackened hallways.
We enter a far wing of the hotel with broken windows overlooking the lights of the city glowing white and yellow far below. We decide to stay for a while and sit down in a courtyard on the cool tile floor. We light little orange candles and I pull out some bread and peanuts for us to share. Hours pass and cold creeps in. I hope we can make it through the night to catch the sunrise at the statue of the Christ. I notice my friends getting tired and cold. I rub my hands together to warm them.
Birth of the bonfire
Ariel embeds matches into the hot wax of the candles and we watch them ignite with a fiery hiss. The flame grows higher and I add some pieces of the cardboard candle box to the fire. The warmth from the little flame gives us some relief from the frigid breeze and some of the guys run off to scavenge some wood from the rooms. They throw in the wood and we cultivate the flames. Now we have a real fire, a tall, crackling hot fire that leaps at us with the shifting of the wind. I am warm and happy. We sit around the fire telling stories. Emboldened by the dim light of flames, we let our guard down, building an intimacy the light of day does not allow. I ask a question and we take turns answering them. Time passes quickly and the sky begins to show signs of dawn. It is 5:30am and I am excited that we have made it through most of the night. Sunrise is one of my favorite miracles to witness and I only have the opportunity to see it when I’ve stayed up all night. We were so close!
Just as the dawn creeps closer, one of the crew says she feels like going home. Then another joined in and soon the whole group was ready to leave. With my best argument I try to convince them to stay. But they want beds and blankets, the comforts of home. Water is poured onto the fire and the last of the coals are stomped out. The group wanders out and heads back to the car. Perola takes a load of people down to base of the mountain to catch a taxi and the rest of us walk down the hill waiting for her return. I linger behind walking the slowest, my thoughts still back in the old hotel. I think of the beautiful fire and the special intimacy it stirred within us.
We amble down the hill, passing the crossroads with the sign pointing to the Christ. My body freezes. Missed moments and the colors of sunrise flash in my mind. Memories of times where I parted with my desire because it wasn’t the inclination of others pull at my chest. I felt a mental juncture. If I leave with the group there would be some regret for sure. If I go on to the Christ there is open possibility with unknown results. After two minutes of inner struggle and very slow walking I ask my friend Rico to tell the rest of the group I had to go. I turn around and start back up the hill with a flutter in my stomach and a skip in my heart.
To be continued…