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I Lost My Virginity to a Brazilian Churrascaria – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I Lost My Virginity to a Brazilian Churrascaria

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

My body was in absolute hell. I couldn’t sleep. I was in bed, shivering in the fetal position, asking myself if it were ever going to end. I felt a bit nauseous, a little queasy and a lot like Nicholas Cage’s character after a weekend bender in the movie Leaving Las Vegas.

Only I wasn’t leaving Las Vegas. In fact, I wasn’t going anywhere, not anytime soon at least.

It's not gluttony. It's pure bliss.
It’s not gluttony. It’s pure bliss.
I was in Rio de Janeiro, and I had just indulged in the biggest party in the world, the licentious revelry of Carnaval. After seven consecutive nights of unfettered debauchery, late-night gorgings of unidentifiable meats-on-a-stick bought from local street vendors and very little sleep, my body was on the verge of collapse.

I was ready for a change of pace and the chance to relax.

Luckily, two friends I had met the week prior, in typical Cariocan fashion, had invited my girlfriend and me to stay with them in their apartment following the seemingly never-ending Carnaval. This, I thought, would be the perfect way to change gears. Cariocas (people from Rio) have long been known for their openness, affability and generosity as hosts. And our new friends, Emerson and Ricardo, were no exceptions.

So we checked out of our dumpy $40/night hostel (the cheapest available during Carnaval) and settled into the quiet solitude of our friends’ apartment in Leme, just two blocks away from the famous Copacabana beach. We could spend our days, I thought, taking in a little sun and checking out the sights, not at all difficult to do in Rio, as the best sights are its gorgeous beaches, the even more beautiful people that populate them, and the spectacular mountains, visible from virtually every part of the city, that precipitously rise from them. This natural juxtaposition, that so few places in the world can claim, is one of the many seductive powers of this vibrant Brazilian paradise.

I was, however, sadly mistaken if I thought that any sense of calm would come, so long as I was in this city and in the company of two very proud Cariocas. I was whisked about the city, taking in all the sights that most tourists in Rio never get the opportunity to see. Ricardo, a history teacher, showed us the historical aspects of the city, including where the city was first founded and the battlegrounds that shaped the future of this remarkably large and diverse country. We visited several museums and walked through the many distinct neighborhoods that make up this sprawling metropolis.

Finally, on the Tuesday before Lent, and Carnaval officially coming to an end, I cajoled my friends into letting me relax. They grudgingly acquiesced, but with one stipulation: that I be prepared to dine with them that afternoon at the place of their choosing. I happily obliged and decided to hit the beach and rest a little bit before we headed out.

As an avid believer that meals are not tasted but experienced, very little could have prepared me for the culinary adventure I was about to have.

One of the best parts of my stay with my Cariocan friends is the way in which they entertained me. Consciously or not, they made everywhere we went a big secret, as I hadn’t the slightest idea how to dissect the round and guttural Portuguese language and they weren’t volunteering any information in English. Five of us, including another friend we had met during Carnaval, crowded into Emerson’s car and began the drive through meandering tropical valleys on our way to the quaint town of Petropolis, an hour outside of Rio.

One would think, already two weeks into my Kerouacian culinary adventure through South America, that I would know what a churrascaria was, but in all the craziness of Carnaval I had somehow missed the boat. When we finally arrived to our destination the word “churrascaria” on the sign still meant nothing to me. Amazingly, I hadn’t the slightest clue what was waiting for me behind those restaurant doors.

The famous running mosaic along Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro
The famous running mosaic along Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro
I walked in and immediately spotted the dapper waiters, all men sharply dressed in starched, buttoned-up white shirts, crisp black aprons and wearing very serious demeanors. I took my seat, only to see the couple next to me with a bucket of Bohemias (the local and tasty upscale brew here) in front of them, neatly iced down, and a row of empty bottles. They certainly looked like they had been here for a while, I thought to myself. Emerson and Ricardo huddled together and starting marking some X’s on a small sheet of paper. Before I could even ask what was happening, a waiter had placed in front of me a bucket of frosty beers and filled my glass in its respective turn.

No questions, just answers.

Before I knew it there appeared another determined-looking waiter, this one holding a long skewer of sizzling red meat and a carving knife. I was completely caught off guard. I hadn’t ordered anything yet, but this man was glaring at me. It wouldn’t have been the first time that my two Brazilian friends had surreptitiously ordered me something, and so, not wanting to be rude, I glanced back at the waiter for some sort of sign to assuage my confusion.

He merely raised his eyebrows as a semi-polite attempt of a rhetorical question. He then began to cut off one of the juiciest beef tenderloins I had ever seen and placed it on my bare plate. While I gathered my bearings and pondered how I came into God’s good graces so unknowingly, I was peppered by another selfless waiter, this one casting a circular shadow of mutton in his left and the same generous tool in his right.

What was I to do but mutter “Sim” (Portugese for yes) to his innocous request? Behind the second waiter gathered a slew of other resolute-looking men, already furrowing their eyebrows in preparation for the same rhetorical question.

Was this heaven? Because it certaintly wasn’t Iowa.

In my glazed eyes, I looked to the rest of the table, waiting for some similar response to my own, utter astonishment. To my amazement, nothing. Thiebeau (the Frenchman we were also traveling with), Emerson and Ricardo were being served the same pornographic volumes of meat as I. Why? then, their prosaic faces? How could they be taking this in stride while I was perspiring like a young boy pilfering a stick of gum from the drugstore?

Had they seen this somewhere before?

I had hit the jackpot and no one even offered a glance. Everyone except my girlfriend Laura, who had the deer in headlights look down pat. She was absolutely speechless. I was still important said this treatment, and her actions reaffirmed my belief.

After the lamb and filet mignon I stopped saying “Sim,” instead moving to an enthusiastic nod. Following the filet came grilled tilapia and then pork tenderloin, at which point I became more nonchalant in my approach. Alas, after the salmon and chicken hearts, I had become a pretensious glutton, merely pointing my fork to the plate and demanding food in a manner befitting royalty. King Louis XIV I might have been, as every sip taken from my beer was immediately replenished and the bottle placed back on ice.

Sunset over Rio's bay, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World
Sunset over Rio’s bay, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World
From every direction the waiters came, yet I couldn’t bring myself to say no. Always wanting to try new things, I tasted cuts of meat I didn’t know were possible. They kept coming until I couldn’t raise my fork any longer. I then realized, perhaps, this may be the end; that Darwin’s theory holds back for no one, not even me. The waiters’ spirits were indefatigable. Never before had I witnessed people so loyally attached to their occupation. Ultimately, I knew I had been defeated.

At that moment I pondered a wry remark the great gastronome Orson Welles had once made, “Gluttony,” he said, “is not a secret vice.” Touché, I proclaimed!

In an age of haute cuisine and minimalist dining, I still believe that no great meal can be measured fairly if it leaves you where you started: hungry. My epicurean pursuit of happiness has brought me to some of the finest restaurants and most opulent buffets, but none shall measure up to the sense of satisfaction I felt that afternoon at my first Brazilian churrascaria.

And for all my troubles, about $12. In MasterCard terms, it was priceless.

And while it may not have been heaven, it’s what I hope heaven to be.

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