When You Are Invited to the City of God

Trip Start Jun 16, 2006
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Trip End Aug 15, 2006


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Friday, June 23, 2006

On the beach the other day, I approached Carlos, my dreadlocked friend who tried to sell me weed my first day in Rio. I sat down on the bench next to him, and we chatted for a bit, talking about football and how marvelous Rio is. He eventually sold me some rings, and his friend sold me a shark tooth necklace. Then I got the invitation.

They invited me to see the next Brazilian football match, in one of the favelas (slums)--their favela, in Rio de Janeiro. I told them that depending on what I was doing, I might meet them on the beach again the next day and then we would party. They said no problem. You donīt take invitations like these lightly.

When you are invited to go to the City of God, you have some thinking to do. You have to think about how youīre going to act, and what little of anything youīre going to take. And when you walk into the City of God, you donīt want to look like a foreigner. And when I say foreigner, I mean a person who looks out of place. You want to look like you belong there--like you live there. Or at the very least, to look like someone who doesnīt have much to be desired from. Hence the not shaving for a week. Hence the swimming in the ocean and not showering for two days.

Ok, so now Iīm being dramatic, even though I did not take Carlos up on his offer. I decided that my Portuguese was too poor and my perception of Brazilians too underdeveloped to truly discern their intentions. Iīm sure that had I gone, things would have been fine, they seemed like benign guys who just wanted to share their part of the city with a foreigner and learn from one another, but I felt the risk was too great, especially this early in my travels.

And I did not even go to the actual Cidade de Deus (itīs about 20 minutes west of Rio), but instead I went to Rocinha, the largest favela in the city. But I did take this tour of this favela, and let me tell you, there is something unsettling about paying to take a tour of a slum. Itīs like your reducing the experience to the equivalent of going to the zoo and watching the animals. Like youīre watching people in cages. And it shouldnīt be like this. I tell myself that my money is going to a good cause--itīs going towards maintaining the schools there, but it remains upsetting, because somehow, somewhere, we ended up building these cities in honor of God and ourselves.

It works like this: as a tourist on the tour, you receive protection. Not protection like guns, but political protection. The favela is run by a drug lord, so he provides the security. One of his main goals is keeping the police out so he can continue to sell drugs. Thus, by providing protection to tourists (whoīs money aids the development of infrastructure projects like schools), he does not have to worry about robberies or murders of foreigners that would bring the police in. If a tourist were to have a problem, then whoever robbed that tourist would likely be killed by the druglordīs men.

In essence, they have some sort of system worked out. A system of zero tolerance. They always say safety is at itīs best when it is a zero sum game. Assured mutual destruction=cold war=peace?

So for me anyway, safety wasnīt an issue. I even took a camera and a few photos. My personal feelings towards poverty would be the point of contention for me. I asked myself, how do you improve things when the numbers against hope are so great? Or how do you fight against the Malthusian predictions of the world?

I still personally feel that Smoky Mountain, Manila is one of the most squalid, wretched places on earth, where the residents live in a toxic dump. But I could also mention the shantytowns of Mexico City. Or the streets of Shanghai. Or the Dark City in Buenos Aires. Or the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. Or Tangerang, Indonesia. Or the squatter settlements on the Ganges. I still cannot comprehend how people endure in such conditions. I don`t understand how hope endures.

Rocinha was actually tame by these standards (although it should be noted that the tour only took me along the main commercial street in the safest area of the city). The streets were fairly clean, people went about their business, and tours are so commonplace now, people barely even bothered to look at us. Sure there were some shanty buildings along the cliffs. And 60,000 people in the small valley is a bit much. But they are turning the city around with a grant from the Inter-American Bank and personal investments by some residents.

Rocinha gets a bad name due to the contrast of wealth and success in bordering Rio (although you can see people sleeping in the streets of Ipanema) and the drug wars of a couple years ago. Brazil is only one of many countries frought with these contradictions, but in Rio, they seem even the more heightened. Still, the sunny optimism of the Brazilians endure.

At a party in Mexico City last year, I brought up the uncomfortable topic of wealth distribution with a friend. He was embarrased at my remark that 10% of the countryīs population likely controlled 90% of its wealth, but he responded with a seemingly perfect answer: "Entonces, haga lo que uno puede hacer--lucha para la familia y a si mismo." (Then do what one can do--fight for oneīs family and himself.)

My entire life, Iīve been the observer, the critic, the sardonic wit, but I donīt have the answer for our cities. I donīt have the talent or the will. I can only etch words and images into the minds of men in the hopes that it might someday preface change.

My contemporaries and colleagues have founded refugee organizations, AIDS clinics, and social entrepreneurship programs for youth. For their efforts, we owe them our eternal gratitude. I once argue long ago in a misguided paper on global poverty that we would need more benevolent capitalists to reverse the course of human indigence. We simply needed more Carnegies and Gatesī. I argued that imbalances in historical geography and capitalism led to imbalances in wealth distribution. However, I offered no solution, at least no moral one, and I still havenīt found the answer for our undiscovered country--a 21st century free of poverty and where equality is a realization rather than a dream.

Liberals think that governments and social organizations are the solution to aiding the needy. Conservatives say the answer is with the individual. I say we need both (and a Gates or Carnegie wouldnīt hurt as well) to reverse the trends of the Manilas and the Rocinhas. Again, I criticize plainly, without recourse. This is the epoch in which Tony Blair said we would make poverty history. May we ever hope.
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