Drug lords, fireworks, machine guns and kids....

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
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Trip End Jul 17, 2010


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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Thursday, January 28, 2010

We’re behind and we’re sorry.

Our blog is running seriously behind and we’re sincerely sorry about that. We’re currently on an overland trip through South America which means a whole bunch of us are driving around the continent on a well equipped truck. I have promised Nic that we would spend that time preparing lots of blogs and catching up instead of falling asleep on the long trips. I’m currently typing this entry on the truck heading down to Patagonia. I won’t say too much but a lot has happened since we last posted a blog.

Enough housekeeping, onto the interesting stuff.

So last we left it, we finished in Miami and were heading to Rio de Janeiro. We spent the first few days in Rio staying at the JW Marriott Hotel on Copacabana beach. Time was mostly spent catching up on sleep and spending our days walking on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The beaches were picturesque, long and extremely hot as we had hit Rio in the middle of a heatwave. The days were hitting the 40s consistently and the nights didn’t cool down much at all. We were thankful for the pumping air conditioning at the Marriott if not a little guilty at the amount of energy needed to keep the entire hotel icy cool.

Staying in a 5 star hotel is really weird when you’ve been travelling for a while and staying in anything but luxury accommodation. There are the obvious differences such as the beds, pillows, towels and furnishings. But as soon as you walk through the revolving doors at the front, you’re transported into a different world. Everyone from the bellboys to the concierge speaks near perfect English, the air conditioning is blasting and instrumental lounge music is playing in the background. I’m not sure what they made of us on the first day, walking in drenched in sweat after hiking down Copacabana beach with our massive backpacks in 40+ degree heat searching for the hotel.

We had a two week gap between our Central American leg and Carnival which was going to start our South American leg and Nicole found a volunteer program that we could do to ‘fill that time”. The two weeks that we spent, living and working inside a favela named Rocinha  (pronounced Ho-sin-ya) was anything but a simple time filler.

Anyway, we lapped up the luxury and made our way over to Rocinha a few days later, excited if not a little unsure of what we were getting into. On the car ride there, we’re given the run down from our guide about how the favela works and some background about how they came about. The term favela is a Brazillian Portugese term for a slum or a shanty town. A large number of them popped up in the 70s when many rural people came into the city to search for a better life. They couldn’t afford to stay in the neighbourhoods proper, so they built their houses where they found spare land. Many large cities around the world have experienced something similar and the shanty towns are normally in the outskirts of the city. Rio, bucks that trend because of its unique landscape. The city itself is quite mountainous and hilly so during the influx, the squatters chose pockets of land in the heart of the city that were difficult but not impossible to build upon. As a result, some of the favelas have million dollar views and border million dollar homes. Rocinha is sandwiched between Sao Conrado and Gavea, two extremely wealthy neighbourhoods and is about 10 minutes walk from the beach. To give you an example of just how wealthy these suburbs are, we were told that you could buy an apartment in Sao Conrado for about USD$5million. The Sao Conrado mall houses boutique shops like Emporio Armani and Mont Blanc with a parking lot full of luxury cars.

So how does a favela work? Each favela is run by a drug lord and Rocinha is no different so you have to be wary of that fact all the time. There are sentries posted at each entrance with walkie talkies to warn the rest of any police incursions. When the police do come, the sentries let off fireworks to warn everyone. If you’re not a drug soldier then you should be indoors and staying away from the windows - we experienced a raid during our second week and were stuck inside for a few hours. The favela is home to nearly 4000 gun carrying soldiers and the population overall is anywhere from 150000 to 200000 people living in an area just over one square km. Machine guns, handguns, walkie talkies and grenades are common place here. And yes, at one time or another during our stay here we did see it all.

Living in a community run by a drug lord isn’t as bad as it sounds. You just have to be respectful and stick to the rules. So no photographs at certain places and be very careful where you wonder around. We felt safe here at all times because the section we were staying was inhabited by families living their normal lives. We didn’t see any drug use at all or alcohol abuse at all. We would actually feel much safer here at midnight than we would in some suburbs of Sydney that might appear to be safe and civilised but there is less order around.

So why would a Brazillian stay in a favela? Rental prices here aren’t cheap and buying a favela house isn’t cheap either. What makes it attractive to people is that their utility costs are basically zero because the electricity and water is (to put it kindly) “borrowed”. There is also a sense of community here and people genuinely care about each other. The other thing I like about this place is that there is no shame in staying in a favela. The term favela has such a stigma attached to it, but the people who live here know nothing of it. If they know of it, then they certainly don’t show it. As far as favelas go, Rocinha is fairly developed. The houses here are built from brick, there is a sewerage system, there is access to water and electricity and there are banks and supermarkets here as well as access to transportation.

Now normally, I like to let the pictures do the talking on these blog posts however we were living in a favela run by a drug gang and photography in a few places is more than just frowned upon. With 4000 gun carrying soldiers around, you can never be sure that the picture you’re taking DOESN’T include one of them. I prefer my Nikon without a bullet in it, thanks. The other reason our time in Rocinha is also a little light on the pictures is that somehow, I just didn’t feel right taking pictures of the neighbourhood. We were living and working here and it just didn’t seem like the cool thing to do. How often do you walk past your neighbour’s house, stick your camera over their fence and take a picture of them having a BBQ with their friends? The houses of the favela are so close and packed together that walking around and snapping pictures screams touristic. Even though there is little doubt that we’re NOT locals, I thought that leaving the camera at home was the respectful thing to do. We were trying our hardest to be one of the locals after all.

So that’s some background about what we were getting into. We left the cushy life of the JW Marriott Hotel on Copacabana beach and were picked up by our guide to head to Rocinha.

At the bottom of the favela, Luiz our guide dropped us off and gave us some advice, “Go with the flow and give yourself time to get used to it. These are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.” He also commented that he was pleased that we all had backpacks instead of bags with wheels. We didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of his comment until we were met by Alana (more about her later) and we began the climb upwards in 40 degree heat through the maze of laneways and houses with all our possessions on our backs. Up, up and up we went, with Alana turning back periodically and asking us if we were OK. Apparently, she was also giving us directions on how to find out way back down, “Past the guys with the walkie talkies, left at the green wall, right at the graffiti, watch out for dog shit, be careful of the pipes, dripping water here etc.”  The only response we could muster was neither English nor Portugese, kind of a grunt to acknowledge that we were barely alive. I think I made up a few new swear words that day. At one stage, I had visions of 30 years from now, when locals would walk past our skeletons, still attached to our backpacks and comment, “2 gringoes came here in the summer of 2010. They stopped for a break and never made it up. You can see all manner of camping equipment lying around as they tried to shed weight the higher they got, until the heat finally claimed them.”

Alana was to serve as our English point of contact during our time as volunteers at Rocinha. She has awesome Portugese. She’s been volunteering here for the past 8 years and lives in Rio with her husband and two beautiful children. She serves as translator, motivator, psychologist and ear to whinging gringos when things don’t go right during the volunteer program. She showed us to the house that we would be calling home for the next 2 weeks and we met Marcia and her son, Paulo. I’ll get back to Marcia and Paulo in a little bit, firstly some background.

Roupa Suja is one of the poorest neighbourhoods within the favela of Rocinha. We would be volunteering at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called UMPMRS (União de Mulheres Pro-Melhoramento da Roupa Suja) which translates to (Union of Women for the Betterment of Roupa Suja). Marcia, (the president of the organisation) started tutoring children in her living room back in 1978. The organisation has achieved a lot since it began and continues to make a massive contribution to the betterment of the community. Marcia is such a warm and caring person who genuinely loves all of the children under her care and works hard for the Roupa Suja community. She is an extremely hands on president and you can find her most days in the day care centre.

You can see a full history here http://www.roupasuja.org/history.html

We would be volunteering at the daycare centre during the day with free time in the evenings and during the kids’ naptime in the mid afternoon.The day care centre looks after just over 40 kids aged from toddlers to 5 years old. The main idea of the day care centre is to provide community of Roupa Suja with a level of day care for the youngest children in their families, thus allowing the parents or older siblings the chance to go to school or to look for jobs. Without such a program, they would be forced to stay at home and look after the children/siblings. There is a full time social worker there to determine the level of help that the day care can provide. If the parents have full time jobs, they are asked to make a donation to cover some of the costs. Nearly 80% of the kids who go to the day care go there for free.

Every single child is given 3 freshly cooked meals at the daycare and bathed before they’re picked up in the afternoon. Nic and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen during the mornings, preparing the main meal of the day the cook there (Vanilda) does wonders with the meagre budget she is given. The meals are incredibly balanced. The ladies who work there are all full time employees  and the whole program is independently funded. They recently had their funding pulled by one of their sponsors so if you would like to help this worthy cause, please drop Nic or I an email and we can tee things up. Know that your money goes straight to the source.

The ladies working here are so special and full of love for these kids. I have never seen so many happy well behaved kids together in the one place. 

During the evenings, we were free to do as we pleased. When we first arrived at the house, we were introduced to Paulo, Marcia’s son. He’s in charge of the maintenance of the day care centre and the house. Nic noticed a Brazillan Jiu Jitsu gi (like a fighting kimono) drying outside and after speaking to Alana, we found out that Paulo is a purple belt and was surprised that I was keen to come along for a class. After lots of broken Portugese and plenty of use of my English-Portugese phrasebook, I was set to come for lessons every night for the next two weeks. I would be Rocinha Jiu JItsu’s token gringo for a fortnight. The quality of the school was quite apparent with 8 black belts, 6 or 7 purple belts and a host of blues and whites. I have never sweated so much in any jiu jitsu class as I have at this one. Plenty of humidity, extreme heat, a class of 25 people and only 3 wall fans all come together to produce plenty of sweat. To Wil (my jiu jitsu instructor in Australia) you’ll be happy to know that I left them with a good impression of your techniques. Paulo and I had plenty of fun teaching each other English/Portugese.

So we settled in to a nice little routine where we would go to work by day, chill out/jiu jitsu at night then cook our dinner and sit around in the dark waiting for the electricity to come on. As mentioned, we were in the middle of a heat wave and we’re told that Rio suffers from the same problem around Carnival time every year, when a unique set of circumstances leave parts of the city without electricity and water. At this time of the year, the weather is always hot, which means that everyone is pumping their air conditioners and having extra showers to compensate. Add the extra tourists that come in for Carnival and you start having rolling power and water shortages. Nearly every night we were there our power would cut out between 9.30pm to 2am. The problem is especially bad when you’ve living in a favela and the water and electricity is “borrowed”. Sleeping in 30 degree weather with high humidity is impossible without electricity. Throw in 4 days where we ran out of water and things got pretty smelly pretty quickly. Every cloud has a silver lining though. Wenow have a greater appreciation for water and electricity, and a new way to torture our enemies.

This blog entry has gone on for a bit so I’ll end things for the time being. Join us for our next blog when we actually walk down the runway at the Sambadrome for Carnival 2010, reunite with our best mates Ilan and Carmen, plan a super surprise for the daycare centre and I nearly shed an emotional tear.

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Comments

scottyh on

As someone living in brazil wit ha in laws who live in a semi - favela your ideas and views make me laugh... not all favelas are controlled by gangs in fact very few are... stay at a five star hotel an then offer to help and live in a favela??? bizzare!

travellingtans
travellingtans on

Well, glad I could make you laugh. Don't see what's wrong with staying in a 5 star hotel then staying and working in a favela. At least we did the latter. Would have been easy to go to Rio for Carnaval and not have seen the other side like most other tourists.

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