Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2: Favelas, Drug Lords and Social Programs

Ipanema Beach on a rare break between downpours, Rio de Janeiro

The relentless rain finally stopped for awhile and we actually had a brief glimpse of the sun through the clouds. We high-tailed it to Ipanema beach, just in time to partake of a full 15 minutes of sunshine, only to be subsequently drenched in yet another torrential downpour. Ah, well, grab opportunity when it we needed to find something else to do. While we were planning our trip to Rio, I came across information about taking a tour of one of the favelas , the slums of Brazil that consist of cobbled-together residences that are built on top of each other and generally sit on the sides of hills, but was feeling a bit conflicted about visiting one. On one hand, it sounded a bit voyeuristic, like going on a "people safari", complete with binoculars, khaki leisure suits with matching hats and long-range camera lenses, but on the other, favela life and culture greatly influence urban life in Rio for better or for worse. Whenever Luis and I travel, we try to experience the different sides of the places we visit, not just the bright and shiny parts, so we decided to go ahead and take the tour.

Some of the favela's makeshift homes (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Originally the tours were intended to only make money for the tour agencies, and tourists were taken in jeeps to photograph the favela and its residents, never stepping out to actually speak to anyone or to walk through the streets. Now, however, the tour is much more interactive and tourists can wander through the neighborhood, visiting health care facilities, child care centers, schools and local businesses and are encouraged to chat with the residents. The tour guides are now largely based in the favelas, and a large proportion of the funds going directly to the favela (although to whom exactly depends on who you ask). The guides attempt to educate the public about the challenges, living and social conditions of life in a favela.

The favela's smallest residents check their photos out after insisting on posing glamorously for us (photo by Simone Cannon)

The minivan picked us up at our hostel in the morning and we met our guide, Catelina, a longtime favela resident. After picking up several other tourists, she drove us to the bottom of the hill of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. No one knows the exact population of Rocinha (its doubtful that the drug dealers would be willing to fill out an official government census form), but estimates range from 60,000-400,000. Catelina warned us not to take photos until she told us that we could do so safely (a traumatic and revolting development for photoholic Luis, who is incapable of going for more than a few minutes without taking a photo of something...anything. He once literally filled 10 CDs with photos on his first four days in New York City...I swear he even took photos of the sidewalk). She told us that there is a danger of accidentally photographing drug dealers, drug transactions or residents carrying bombs, pistols or sub-machine guns and that the drug dealers don't take kindly to having photographed evidence of their activities appearing on Facebook.

Our guide demonstrates the codes that the drug dealers paint on the walls to demarcate their individual territories (photo by Luis Bastardo)
She told us to select a moto-taxi from the row of waiting motorcyclists who would shuttle us up to the top of the favela, where we could walk back down, visiting different areas of the community. I looked for the guy who seemed the safest and most stable and hopped on the back. The guide told the women to hold on tight to the body of the driver (it's the highlight of their day!) but told the men not to try the same tactic, but rather to hold on to the back seat of the bike, unless they wanted the driver to "accidentally" swerve and knock them off into the street (apparently "man-crushes" are not the way to endear yourself in the favelas...). At the top, we were dropped off, then obediently trailed after the guide through the makeshift streets of the favela, back down to the bottom, where the contrast of world-class Ipanema Beach lies. I was still a bit nervous though, carefully stepping through the narrow, steep, often garbage-strewn streets.

View of the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha, from the top of a local home (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Luis fits right in everywhere he goes, always at ease in any situation. I, however, am constantly perceived as the quintessential tourist (I'm usually thought to be German or French), and consequently stand out like a sore thumb, so I sure as hell wasn't going to blend right in as a "favelista". As we made our way precariously through the neighborhood though, our self-consciousness wore off as we realized that we were nothing new to the residents. Our guide told us that she led through three tours a day, every day of the week, so we were just part of the scenery. We visited shops and day-care centers, listened to local musicians drumming Samba on modified plastic buckets with sticks (impressive!), sampled local homemade cakes and pastries, visited a workshop and art gallery filled with amazing works created by the local youth and chatted with residents about the difficulties and realities of living in a favela.

Local favela boys demonstrate their amazing drumming skills  (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Contrary to popular belief, there are many social programs and most of the residents hold non-drug related jobs outside the favela. They often live in the favelas because they can´t afford to live anywhere else (Brazil is an extremely expensive place to live, even for the middle class). Most residents steer well clear of the drug-related activity, preferring to avoid the violence and crime. However, it is often difficult for their children to avoid involvement, as the dealers hire them as relatively well-paid look-outs, whose job it is to set off fireworks to warn the dealers when the police are approaching. One of the biggest issues, aside from the obvious danger, is that the role models for the children are often the drug dealers themselves. The kids see the power and money that the dealers have and aspire to be like them, ignoring the risks of the extremely high rate of murder and violence in that line of work. The current leader of the approximately 4 million dollar a month drug trade in Rocinha (as estimated by our guide) is only 24 years old, although that is ancient by drug dealer standards; most don´t make it past their 18th birthday due to the violence and competition for positions in the industry hierarchy. Although the structure of the drug industry is similar to that of any legitimate corporation and competition to move up in the hierarchy is just as brutal, in the drug trade, when you make a mistake and commit career suicide, it is literal. The violence, assassinations and retributions effectively reduce the competition for advancement; there is no room for error and no second chance.

Local art gallery and workshop for the local youth, complete with cut-out of a semi-automatic weapon (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

 Although the reality of life in Rocinha is jarring and eye-opening, it is an excellent chance to experience a part of the city that most citizens of Rio would prefer didn't exist. It is both a social and financial burden and an undeniable influence on the culture and society of Rio and Brazil as a whole. Positive changes are underway, however, and although favela residents exist in living conditions unthinkable to most of us, the poverty and fear have not diminished their strong sense of optimism.

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