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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Coke and Favelas

A divided city.

A factor of living in third world countries like Brazil is that you can’t usually trust the police. They stopped and searched me a couple of times near my apartment in Rio de Janeiro. They couldn’t figure what a foreigner would be doing so close to a favela if not to buy drugs.

“Tem droga?” Do you have drugs.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I replied, pretending not to understand Portuguese. They turned to each other.

“Do you speak English? Me neither. What should we do with him?” Then turning back to me. “Hotel?”

“I’m sorry, gentlemen but I simply don’t understand.”

They wanted to extort something from me somehow but couldn’t find any drugs and couldn’t communicate so they gave up. Brazilian friends of mine told me they also pretended to be tourists when stopped by the police.

On the other hand it wasn’t as if the traffickers were your best friends either. On the first warm Sunday of spring around 50 bandits stormed the most fashionable stretch of Ipanema beach; thrusting pistols in people’s faces they filled up sacks of wallets and mobile phones. The day before the newspaper headlines had been “People of Rio go back to the beach!” The day after it featured photos of bandits stomping on the head of a young guy who had tried to call the police on his cell phone.

It was always a blast to walk past the stairway entrance to my local favela. When I first moved to the area I thought it was a second hand furniture lot and had almost gone there to ask them for a table. The stairway was obscured by piles of wood and hanging vines that draped down from the cliff and the surrounding trees. At night there was generally a fire burning and there were always a couple of heavy-looking guards in front. As I approached the adolescents on the opposite corner were straight in my face whispering:

“White. Black.” Cocaine. Marijuana.

Sometimes I’d pass by and there’d be a woman with her arm in a sling beating hysterically on a trash can with her good hand. Mean looking dudes sniffed coke off the roofs of cars and eyed you to see if you were wearing anything valuable.

Walking With Attitude

A few months of living in Colombia had taught me how to walk tough or at least a little bit crazy. When I returned home late at night from a bar it was at an energetic pace, arms and legs in counter swing and with nervous twitches of the neck. One time a dodgy-looking guy came wheeling towards me in an intercept pattern so I turned around and kicked a lamppost. He left me alone.

Despite this I was grabbed twice in 6 months, on both occasions just 20 metres from home. The first guy was young enough to be brushed off easily and the fact that I didn’t give him the time of day seemed to take the wind out of his sails. The second time I was careless enough to take the shadier route to my house even though it was already 10:30pm. A drugged-up guy lurched out of the shadows, took hold of my shirt and hissed.

“Money!” It’s generally smarter to give the mugger what you have but I felt suddenly so angry that I shouted in his face.

“Fuck you!” He shot a few nervous looks down the street and went to put his finger to his lips. Didn’t I know that I was supposed to stay quiet when he wanted to rob me? I took the cue and began screaming at him. He loosened his grip and reached to take something from his pocket. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. I pushed him away and dashed around the corner to my apartment.

A Divided City

Brazil isn’t the poorest country in the world and is light years ahead of somewhere like India. When you finish a coconut here you throw the husk in the bin; in India this would be an unforgivable waste. There the meat would be eaten and the shell used for fuel. The poverty in Brazil only stands out because it really shouldn’t be there. Brazil is a country overflowing with natural resources, occupies about half the East Coast of South America and has hue potential for tourism. What holds it back are the cycles of corruption, discrimination and lack of education that cripples the country before it can stand up.

Everything is more apparent with contrast. In the south zone of Rio de Janeiro the rich and poor live only a gunshot apart. Just up from the chic bars, beauty salons and designer clothing shops are the rows of homemade brick houses on the hill above. The favela people make their living off the rich neighbourhoods any way they can and it means that they brush shoulders every day on the street. When you drop an empty can of coke in the trash can some white-haired skeleton turns up a minute later to add it to their sack for recycling. Teenage drug abuse is endemic. Street people sleep on cardboard outside the banks and ATM machines and when you park your car there’s a guy there to find you a parking spot and guard your car while you’re gone. Whether you want him to or not.

The favelas in Rio de Janeiro are 70% black or dark brown. Head to one of the fashionable coffee shops in Leblon however and you’ll see less than one dark face in fifty. Few people talked openly about racism in Brazil but it’s there, burning beneath the skin. My landlady assured me that the mulattos (the light brown-skinned) were okay but that the Negroes ‘smell’.

Sometimes I felt like I was seeing two separate races coexisting in the same city. Most people in Brazil have mixed ancestry to some degree but the blacks in the favelas looked pretty African to me. They sauntered along the street with a flamboyant gait, their loose spines making them natural acrobats in the circles of capoeira and samba. The kids rode their bicycles straight in front of the oncoming buses and seemed not to notice the hiss of death that missed them by inches. The only education they got was from the school of hard knocks and it only took two of them on the street to make me feel nervous. Then they’d laugh and say:

“Nah, gringo. This isn’t a robbery. We just want some money to buy biscuits.”

I met an 10 year old called Paulo on the bus one day. He was out of his head on glue and asked me for some spare change. I gave him a lecture of you’re-wasting-your-life-with-that-shit and he promised to stop. Right. I ended up buying him some meat to take home to his family. I gave him the shopping bag at the checkout counter and said adeus. As I walked away I heard:

“Senhor, you forgot your meat!” The checkout lady cried, snatching the bag up and out of Paulo’s hands.

From that day on I saw Paulo everywhere; passed out cold on the sidewalk at midday, begging at my local juice bar or marching confidently through the streets at 3am.

It’s easy to come up with a bunch of comfortable insights now I’m a few thousand miles away and it has to be said that I didn’t really get close enough to understand the full picture. For one thing the people of the favelas spoke a Portuguese that was 90% slang and swallowed most of their words before they were even spoken. I never had to experience their daily reality and so can’t know how things really were. All I could hope for was to make sense of what I saw and talk to as many people as possible and sift through their opinions for some kind of perspective.

A Street View of Rio

I bought coconut juice every day from a guy called Flavio who commuted two and a half hours every day to work from his favela on the other side of the city. One day he lamented that he and his wife were ‘falling into the rhythm of separation’.

“You know, Tommy, I can give her food and a roof over her head – but I can’t give her an education.”

When he got to know me a little more he told me about an execution he’d witnessed the weekend before. In the middle of the afternoon a young guy was made to kneel in the street and two hoods blew his brains out. The charge was that he was an informant.

“In front of the kids and everything.” Flavio said, shaking his head. He told me it was risky to even visit a favela under the control of another cartel; if conflicts arose between rival cartels then he risked being labelled an informer too.

It would perhaps have been easier to understand all of this had anyone else bothered to think about it too. The poor weren’t aware that life could be any different and the rich preferred to pretend there weren’t any monsters hiding under the social bed.

An exception was Gina, an anthropology student who was studying the street vendors of Copacabana. In various parts of the city an aggressive campaign was underway to clear the sidewalks of these unregistered merchants who paid no taxes. An allegation that’s an utter joke in a country as corrupt as Brazil. The vendors were generally residents of the favelas and trying to make an honest living:

“Sure, maybe they’re selling copies of Louis Vitton bags or Gucci rings,” Gina laughed. “But that’s better than assaulting buses or selling coke, no?”

Every day the merchants could be seen grabbing their fold-up tables and stock and disappearing down alleyways as the municipal police showed up. These were tall, mean looking bastards in grey uniforms who carried long black police sticks. In the bottom of their hearts they probably knew that what they were doing was bullshit and that made them hate their targets even more.

One day I saw an argument break out between a street vendor and tall, black cop. The other police were busy mangling his stall and when he protested they chased him into a corner and started to beat the shit out of him with their clubs. In response to the terrifying brutality a great roar of protest went up from the crowd and many people steamed in to intervene. The aggressive cop was led away by his colleagues but not before he’d left his target on the floor in need of a doctor.

“The authorities in Rio want to make the city like the ones in Europe, modern and sterile.” Gina told me. “What they don’t appreciate is how much understanding and history of the neighbourhood is in the hearts and minds of the merchants who know these streets inside out.

Hardly anyone else ever wanted to talk about any of this. Raise the subject in a bar and their eyes would glass over. This was the kind of conversation for a classroom, not for friends having a beer. Fine, but there was only so much small talk and platitudes about Brazil that I could take as rich girls showed off their poodles on their digital cameras.

Then I’d walk down to Ipanema beach and sit by the waves a while. At the far end the Two Brothers rose up into the sky, hills that hosted Rocinha, the world’s largest favela. Hundreds of sparking lights shimmered on the hilltops and left me to reflect that you could handle just about any perspective if you stood far enough away.