Describing the indescribable (part 1)

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
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Trip End Nov 09, 2010


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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Friday, January 22, 2010

Finally, another update from Jeff;  Bom dia!

We left Rio this morning, moving on to Iguazu Falls on the tri-border area of Southwestern Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.  It was a two hour flight from Rio, changing from the 6 million plus conglomerate of world famous beaches and much more to what feels like a small speed bump in the middle of Rio.  This place is small, inland, very green and we're very excited to go see the Falls tomorrow.  Word is that these falls make Niagara look like a trickle.  I know Tamara plans to write about the dinner we just ate, but I will leave all that for her.
On our last full day in Rio, we visited the indescribable.  We went on a Favela tour.  Favela is the local Portugese word for slum.  There are plenty of warnings in all travel guides and nearly everyone we've ever talked with about Rio about the dangers of crime, don't go out at night, stay only in tourist areas, etc.  All that made us a bit uncertain, along with the general concept of "touring" what is openly described as a slum and that the two things seemed so counter to each other.  In the end, we decided to do it, in part based on some friends recommendation that had just done the same back in October.
The punch line is that we are glad we did it.  The indescribable part of it all is that nothing I wrote here would truly do justice to what we saw for an hour or two.  I think Tamara wrote last week about the nice man from Louisiana that gave us the ride from the airport.  I remember driving from the airport and seeing one of (there are many different ones) the Favela's from the road.  His comments were that "those were the favela's, the slums; they're like cities with their own banks and everything".  I'm quite certain he has never done the tour.  It was clear after we did go, that his was just the mostly jaded view from the outside based on what he read and heard.
Make no mistake, I would certainly not go in (there is very clearly an 'in' and an 'out') without being on the tour, but having been 'in' allows you to at least have some sense of the reality of the life the residents live there.  It will also make you give thanks for ALL the things you have, live with, are exposed too and nearly anything and everything that happens in your daily life.  The name of the Favela we visited escapes me at the moment, but we were told (by our excellent guide, who was an outsider himself) this was the largest one in all Latin America and probably the third largest in the world (behind South Africa and India).  This one has approximately 200,000 residents.  I'm not certain of the geographic space it covers.  It is on a large mountainside and looks and is very expansive from both the bottom and the top.  But at the same time, this place is as packed in and cramped as you can imagine.
Riding to the place we would begin our tour, the guide explains some of what we're going to do, basic logistics, timing, etc.  He tells us when we will be able to take photos and when we will not be allowed to do so.  The no picture warning just feels clear enough that you don't want to consider the alternative.  For most of the no picture sections (the 'entrance' area for one), we're told there are residents that basically guard the place from outsiders.  We're told very clearly about the drugs and the gangs.  We're told about the simple communications they sometimes have to warn others and other parts of the community about stuff happening.  If fireworks go off, that signals others of things.  It's all pretty amazing.
But it looks like very little I've seen before.  I've been through Harlem (hey, the NYC Marathon runs right through it), the Floating Villages of Cambodia and the "scary" parts of my hometown in Houston.  Nothing compares to this.
When we arrive at the entrance, we're taken to a line up of motorcycle taxis that will take us individually almost to the top of the mountain.  It's about a 5-7 minute ride, maybe about two miles.  Our group is about a dozen or so, but the guide hooks each of us up with a taxi and we simply climb on the back of a small motorcycle, no helmet, very little warning or instruction and off we go, with a complete stranger that says nothing (who is a resident), who proceeds to zip up the hillside with little intention or desire of wasting any time.  It's not quite as curvy, but for anyone that has seen or been on Lombard Street in San Francisco, that comes to mind.  Bear in mind there is what looks like complete chaos in traffic on both sides of this narrow two lane road, congested with trucks, cars, people, children, animals and more.  These taxi bikes don't wait for or in traffic either.  They zig, zag and squeeze through the smallest of openings.  If you move your head to one side to look around the drivers head, you quickly pull it back and sit as straight up as possible for the oncoming narrow opening between two truck side view mirrors you're about to squeeze through.  You have no helmet on, you're holding on to the small metal bars around the back of the seat and wondering what the hell would honestly happen if one of us gringo tourists were to fall off one of these things!  "Oh yes, mister American insurance company, I was riding on the back of a motorcycle with no helmet in one of the largest slums in a foreign country when I fell and broke my back - may I please have all my benefits now?"  At least that was one of the brief thoughts I had while practicing my death grip on my motorcyle taxi back seat!  .............

It's after midnight for me and we've got big things planned for tomorrow.  Tamara is already sleeping, with one of those high tech masks over her eyes.  It would make a good photo, but I better not.  I'm going to make this a two part story and publish this now and return later with "the rest of the story".  It's all good, no one got hurt, sick or lost and we'd recommend going if you ever get the chance.  Ciao for now, Jeff...........

ps - if you've not already figured it out, clicking on photos enlarges them and reveals longer captions.


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Comments

Eric on

Fascinating, Jeff. Brings to mind the needs of the people of Haiti as well. Every time I read one of your incredibly descriptive blogs I wonder what you will both be motivated to do when the trip is over. You still have a lot to experience before that!!!!
Thanks for sharing all of these wonderful observations!

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