Tuesday, November 02, 2004

M13 Once Upon a Time in the Favellas, Yo

A Report From Rio

My first reaction to the idea of Favella (slum) tours in Rio was a mixture surprise, humor and offense. Imagine someone doing that in Detroit or Camden. (Hey – maybe that’s my million dollar idea?) It sort of smacked of the idea that people in ghettos are like zoo animals in cages to be gawked at.

The more I read, however, the more interested I was. The New York Times wrote the tour up favorably as highly educational and interesting. Part of the tour’s proceeds is the principal source of funds for an after school program that has sent 130 kids a year to college for the last decade.

So I decided to check it out.

Marina, my guide, picked me up at my hotel with a van full of Brits. Everyone wants to know what I think about Kerry vs. Bush. I tell them it’s going to be close and it’s going to be like the 2000 election only I think Kerry is going to win. (Yes, I was wrong).

Marcelo Amstrong’s guide company started the tours which are popular with all but two groups; Brazilians and their government. It seems they would rather deny the existence of the favellas. The media in Brazil has fanned the stereotypes of the favellas as crime-ridden slums.

In reality, most actually leave their houses unlocked. The favella dwellers welcome the tours because they allow people to see for themselves the reality. In the 12 years Marcelo has been operating, he has not had a single incident. It seems all the crime takes place in the nice part of town. But I wonder if I am going to run into my shirtless 20-year old assailant with my Canon G5 digital camera.

Marina explains that slums are a parallel universe where people empower themselves building homes on public land where the market and the government have failed them. Brazilian law allows anyone to gain title to land if they have been on it for five years or longer. Many people actually hold title to their properties.

We drive through Imanema, go through a tunnel and then into a posh neighborhood with million plus dollar homes. I thought this was a slum tour?

The filthy rich and filthy poor are literally next door to one another. We park the van and go into the alleyway that leads to the favella. There are no streets, but the alleys have names and to the people there they are considered streets. They are so narrow it is impossible to fully open an umbrella here.

House is built on house defying any logical scheme. Some of the dwellings are no larger than my childhood tree fort. Some doors are barely chest high. There is electricity, cable and running water. Some people even have appliances they buy on credit from local department stores. Even though the have no collateral, their names are so valuable to them, they are typically lower credit risks than the rich people living below them. We walk down stairs in what looks like painting by M.C. Escher with palsy.

Small brick houses stacked haphazardly on one on top of the other on top of the next. Rats nests of cable wiring. Stairs leading up, down and sideways to doors. Friendly people who say hi and who are as curious about us as we are of them. A guy holds a puppy through a window for me to pet.

Damn. I wish I had my camera. I’ve recruited a Brit to take pictures from me. She is actually from Zimbabwe and I ask her and her mother what it’s like living under such a ruthless dictatorship. Since they hold British citizenship, they feel they can always leave.

Marina was fascinating and the tour was enlightening. I ask a question; who consumes all the drugs, the rich of Rio? Apparently, not. According to Marina, the drugs are just “passing through” on their way to the states. This was the only thing she said I found hard to believe. While I don’t doubt some of the drugs do pass through on their way up north, I am sure there is a local market as well.

In the favela, an unwritten code of order is enforced by drug gangs just as in, “City of God”. In the film, a car runs into a crowded restaurant, the police come and ask what’s happened. No one admits to seeing a car even though it’s right there in the middle of the restaurant. Criminals want no trouble and when there is any, they brutally repress it.

We drive to Rio’s largest favela. It actually has a street with a bank that was robbed by the police. It seems this is a parallel universe where the criminals keep order and the police break it. For a moment, I fantasize about being an anthropologist, immersing myself in and integrating into the community. One day they will accept me as their own. Then I wonder what it would be like to once again leave. I know it’s some thing I could make the most of. Though the thought is entirely momentary and fleeting.

We walk by a chicken shack where you pick your own live chicken to be butchered on demand. On display are freshly killed chickens, eggs still in tact dangling from their halved bodies. How even the most hardcore meat eater could not be disgusted is beyond me. I wonder if this is lost on everyone on the tour but me. Probably.

Needless to say, it reaffirmed my vegetarianism but also made me wonder if more people would be vegetarian if their food came in the gory form of dismembered carcasses instead of in “nuggets”, “wings” and “breasts”.

“City of God” draws the parallel between violence against animals and violence toward humankind in its opening and closing scenes which are quite hard to watch. I definitely think there is a connection.

Nearby, a hearty street cat is patrolling for scraps. No doubt this guys eats better than most house cats. He is on a perfect Atkins diet in this part of town. The place is a bustle with people. This is the first time I feel like I really stand out in Brazil. Till now, as long as I keep my mouth closed, I fit in.

We finish the tour on the roof a house that has the best view of Rio. A panaroma spanning the Christ Statue, Sugarloaf and Impanema beach and beyond is visible. The other members of the tour look at paintings and handicrafts (it wouldn’t be a tour with out a stop at the “gift shop”) while I gaze out over the wonder that is Rio from above.

It’s a view that the poorest people of Rio get to enjoy every day.

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