Friday, October 21, 2005

Danger City

October 21 – Rio de Janeiro
They could save electricity and just turn them off. The streetlights in Rio don’t serve much purpose at night because everyone just drives through them anyway. Its not safe to stop.

It’s not safe to go downtown after 7pm on weekdays. You shouldn’t take your wallet out on the bus, you should have small change ready when you get on. Don’t walk around with a camera in plain view. Never carry any more money than you need for a specific outing but always have enough cash on hand to appease a mugger.

“Accept the fact that you might be mugged, pickpocketed or have your bag snatched while you’re in the country,” the Lonely Planet guidebook advises.

Then this tip: “Don’t wander into the favelas.”

means slum and in a city where counting the poor is like numbering the grains of sand on Ipanema beach, there are plenty of fevelas.

City of God
, the excellent movie set in a Rio slum brought attention to the situation a couple years back, and now favela tours are on the Rio checklist right next to Copacabana and the Christo Redentor statue.

Some have earned the unfortunate name “safari” and are apparently conducted in long, rugged jeeps that roll through the favelas at the direction of a guide wearing a safari hat.

I was sipping a papaya juice at the neighborhood Suco stand with my two new Danish friends when a man drinking a thick black shake started talking to us. He was mid-40’s with a graying beard and an American accent.

“I came here for a week,” John told us. “And now I’ve been here 20 years.”

John works at an NGO in a nearby favela—they’re everywhere in Rio and always one wrong turn and a five-minute walk away. “I’m bringing my friend up to the favela this afternoon if you’d like to come along,” he said.

We said sure.

Brazil has a huge poverty problem and the slums are the clearest sign of it. The tiny, squatted houses are built with flimsy-looking red bricks. The communities cling to the side of the mountain, running down its slope until a piece of infrastructure halts them like a dam: the back of a giant apartment building, a highway.

We met John at his house at 3pm. There were a dozen other backpackers there too and it was clear then that this was more organized than just tagging along with John’s friend. But it seemed safe and interesting and we followed John towards the cluster of little red brick boxes.

We reached a very long staircase and though it took five minutes, you could tell with each step you were crossing over to the other side of the tracks.

“You can’t take pictures of the slums,” John said. “You just look up at a cluster of houses and you don’t know but that could be a drug look-out and they won’t let you take a picture. The other day a guy took a picture—and he had been told not to take pictures—and a few minutes later someone came down and said ‘You have to give me your camera or your memory card.’ So he gave him the memory card. He wasn’t being robbed, its just that they can’t allow that.”

John’s free, non-tour tour had a catch of course, but it was an acceptable catch. He wasn’t really showing us the favela but the school at the edge of the slum where he volunteers. He’d show us the kids that were being helped, tell us how desperate their situation is, and then hint that it would be nice if we helped out.

The program plucks children out of the local slum who are considered especially high risk—mainly those with one parent—and guides them from the nursery all the way to university. Ideally.

The kids were friendly and fairly engaging considering they were in school. They wore uniforms with the logo of the school on it and gave little indication of being dealt one of the worst hands the 21st century has to deal.

One fourteen year old girl with the eyes and countenance of someone ten years shy of quietly concurring the world, gave dance lessons to one of the Danish girls. Then the Brazilian girls invited us to a samba party this weekend.

“Its much more fun than this,” the girl with the good English said. “Meet us at the steps at 12 on Saturday.”

“Twelve at night?”

“Yes. Midnight.”

Midnight at the steps at the base of the favela seemed like something so obviously dumb that they wouldn’t bother listing it in the Lonely Planet next to “don’t bring your wallet to the beach.” But after 30 crime-free hours in Danger City we were starting to feel a little better about it all and the Danish girl took the Brazilian girl’s number and said we’d like to samba.


At 1:54 PM, Blogger Betsy said...

Please be careful Brook. They aren't kidding about the drug lords watching everyone in the Favela and sometimes they don't just ask you for your camera, they'll shoot at you if they see you taking pictures. My friend Jeff just did an amazing documentary on Rio - he gave video cameras to local kids to get shots in the favela you should check it out - I think it will be on HBO in February.


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