Rain, rain, rain…it’s been raining or completely overcast every single day since I got to Rio. Which really sucks considering virtually everything I want to do here requires nice weather: hang glide, overlook the city from atop Sugar Loaf and Corcovado, and of course, enjoy the sunny beaches of Ipanema. I can’t remember the last time I went to a new country and spent so many days trying to figure out what to do rather than scrambling to do everything as quickly as possible. I REALLY hope this clears up with enough time to at least experience the basics…keep your fingers crossed for me…
A couple days ago David and I took a tour of two of the city’s 750 favelas. Ordinarily I avoid travel-by-tour like the plague, but because of the above mentioned weather limitations we figured one day in a nice, heated bus couldn’t hurt. Especially after we finally caved in and decided to hike up Sugar Loaf, an enormous and magnificent rock/mountain jutting up from the middle of the city, and were treated to a panoramic view with visibility for around eleven inches.
Well, wouldn’t you know it? The tour actually turned out to be FANTASTICALLY interesting. Prior to the tour, my knowledge of favelas was roughly limited to the following three points:
1) They’re like little neighborhoods of Rio
2) Poor people live there
3) They’re extremely dangerous
Actually, favelas are almost like little pod-societies that exist within many large Brazilian cities, often with well over a thousand inhabitants. Far different from just being “poor neighborhoods” they often function completely independently of the rest of the city – completely outside the law, with their own internal politics. Until 1994 they were never even officially recognized as existing – city plans showed empty spaces where in fact thousands of people were living. Pretty weird.
Favelas pop up as a result of immigrants moving from the countryside to seek employment in the big cities. Since all of the prime real estate is far too expensive, these workers band together and form something like “camps” on the less desirable mountainsides, nearby but outside of the actual neighborhoods they service. As families grow and flourish, more and more distant relatives arrive, causing the favelas to expand. The neighborhoods are therefore not built (or maintained) by the city; where there’s a space, a little house pops up. This creates extremely dense little streets and alleys spidering out in every direction; running water is optional, and electricity is usually obtained by tapping illegally into streetlights running along the nearest “normal” street. From the inside they’re about as third-world as it gets, but from the outside they look spectacular: colorful clusters of houses lining the mountainsides with jungle all around them, overlooking the whitep-sanded beaches and Atlantic ocean. Favelas may be poor, but they’ve got some of the best views I’ve ever seen…anywhere.
As far as law enforcement, there are two general types of favelas: those with drugs and those without drugs. Favelas with drugs are controlled completely by the drug lords. A favela drug lord is twenty-something-year-old millionaire who almost never reaches his thirtieth birthday. Because of his life of crime he can never leave his favela, but inside he’s like a god. The people protect him, and he looks after them in return. While entering a favela as an outsider is terribly dangerous, the inhabitants themselves are just like one big family – theft is not permitted, and if there’s ever a problem, you simply go and ask grampa for his assistence. Police are completely outside the equation; they cannot enter. The drug lord is the one who funds the local samba schools, throws parties for holidays, and keeps things running internally. That is, until he’s killed by a rival gang or a police raid.
Of course there are huge problems with this system. Like how children are recruited to sell drugs as young as seven years old. And how getting into one of the drug gangs is a life-long (or life-short) commitment.
Actually, I’m extremely behind on documenting this trip already so rather than trying to reiterate everything I learned, I suggest giving Google a quick glance…there really is a lot of interesting information on these places, these sub-societies outside of mainstream Brazilian society.
The next day we woke up and looked out the window. SUN!! LETS GO! We scrambled to get a cab to Corcovado, the enormous Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over Rio and is visible from virtually every corner of the city. In our haste, we broke International Traveler Rule #1: Make sure the cab driver turns on the meter as soon as you get in.
Without starting the meter, our driver took off towards the mountain, negotiating the price as we drove. I personally speak zero Portuguese, and David speaks about as much as anyone could learn from one month of Pimsleur audio lessons. So communication wasn’t easy. The result was a way-overpriced ride to the VERY top (as opposed to getting a ride to the lower parking lot and taking the scenic cog train up the mountain) and return trip to Silvia’s apartment. Oh well. At least we got a fantastic view of the city.
Not. The second we got to the peak it started pouring rain. Visibility: about 11 inches 😥