Rio Arrival

After an insufferable 20+ hours of flying, plane swapping, no bathing and furious prayers that I would not up-chuck my guts, my plane disembarked in Rio de Janeiro (Aerolineas Argentinas is an airline in need of major revamping, and the flight attendants need training in how not to be rude).
As I hobbled off the plane I no longer paid much attention to the inferiority of the airport; I had a chance to observe this in Argentina where to my spoilt eye most things appeared deteriorated.
I was grateful that I had endured the torture of flying (at each landing I felt my head would explode and therefore I would have to have a closed casket funeral) and reached my destination. In a few moments I would be reunited with one of my bestfriends whom I had not seen in 8 years. Though I did not know what to expect to discover in Brazil, the one thing I was certain of was our friendship. The space and time of those 8 years disappeared immediately when she greeted me.

We then walked out into the sweltering night, and Melissa, her husband Douglas and I hopped on a bus. Amid our frantic conversation I began my acquaintance with the city of Rio de Janeiro. For a Westerner the most salient aspect was the poverty, most things were old and dilapidated; the city also seemed to serve as an old grimy canvas for the art of graffiti. I glimpsed the destitution I was well aware existed but for the first time without the filter of the television glass. It doesn't matter how great your knowledge of the indigence of the world, it is never tantamount to experiencing life in a 3rd world country.

The bus let us off at Largo do Machado, one of the many inner city suburbs of Rio, and we went to a local supermarket to stock up on soy milk and other vegan things for me to eat. It was about 11 at night by then but the city never sleeps, it only dozes during weeknights.

We then hailed a cab which took us up the mountain in the region of Santa Teresa where my friends live. The road snakes upwards and there are secluded mansions on both sides, further shrouded by trees and climbing plants. It's also a bouncy ride, as the streets are full of pot holes and stretches of cobble-like stones, and of course everyone drives like a maniac.

Another aspect of life in Rio that was immediately conspicuous to me was the way in which people communicated. Though I do not speak Portuguese, I was still able to perceive that people communicate with each other in a very casual manner, as if they are long-time acquaintances.

Finally we arrived at the favela, which means a shanty town or ghetto, where Melissa and Douglas reside. It looks like a mini-city, with narrow, concrete pathways, many of which are a challenge to navigate. We dragged my luggage to their tiny two-bedroom apartment, where I found Douglas's very cute brother sleeping on the couch; a nice sight indeed.
The bathroom looked like something out of a horror movie but it had running water and a toilet that flushed, which by now I felt to be a luxury.
Exhausted I pulled the curtain to my room shut (no, no door) and hit the sack, being horizontal never felt so great.


Welcome to the Favela

There are many favelas all over Brazil, the one I'm living at is considered small, with an estimated 200 families occupying it. One of the largest favelas houses about 300,000 people, and I imagine it would be like a labyrinth.
The building pattern for the various apartments seems to be rather loose, basically houses are squeezed in where ever there is room. There is the one main pathway and then numerous passages and treacherous staircases leading up, down and every which way.

The apartment I'm staying in is tiny and has two bedrooms in theory, as neither has a door. The two bedrooms are separated by a sliding door and my room is separated from the living area by a crude curtain, a transparent one at that. The bathroom also features a sliding door, and it boasts several leaks, missing tiles and an unsophisticated hot water system; in short a bunch of wires are attached to the shower head with electrical tape.
It is not common for kitchens to contain a hot water faucet; therefore, getting grease off pots and pans is a tad arduous. Particularly as the oven doesn't work, so most of the food is fried and I am the self-appointed dish washer. However, we do have broadband internet, with the wires from the computer passing out through the living room window, which then connect to the greater network of cables strewn around the neighbourhood. This is one of the many visual charms of the area.
This narrow space was already housing 3 adults and 2 kids before I arrived to complete the picture. I have a room all to myself, with the kiddies sleeping in the 'master' bedroom with the parents in the same bed. Douglas’s brother, Nildo, lives on the couch and spends most of his time shirtless, so I don't complain. Especially, when he prances around in a towel after showering; after all I came to Rio for the scenery.

Now, it is customary in Brazil for people to frequent each other's houses without invitation. So on my first morning in Rio I found about 8 people in the house. It was crammed enough with the 4 adults and 2 kids that lived there and it became much smaller with additional bodies. I dreaded having to push through all the human traffic to reach the bathroom which was of course located on the other side of the living area. Melissa managed to stem the amount of people coming over but not entirely as such is life in Rio. Being a westerner, this was a big issue for me initially as I am accustomed to space, so I tried living with Melissa's cousin for some privacy, her place being empty most of the day. The tenant that had occupied it prior to her had been involved in drugs and was now serving a prison sentence. There was still a bullet hole in the living room window from the police raid and I had already heard gunfire, which took place at the front of the favela, very close to Melissa's cousins' apartment. Yet it did not seem to move me; perhaps it was the sense of it all being unreal.
Instead, what worried me was the walk from Melissa's place to her cousin's place of an evening; it was dark, enclosed and deserted.
Additionally, it seemed I had begun to adapt to the living arrangements, I came to realize that it was like living with family and that we co-existed in harmony.
There was also the magnificent view my accommodation afforded me; I have the Christ on the right, the Sugar Loaf on the left and the city of Rio de Janeiro in the middle.


Life in the Favela

Although my friends live in a fav or vela (translation 'the hood') as I now call it, many people don’t lock their doors. We don't have a lock as such, just a small padlock which is to be used when the house is unoccupied for long periods of time, which is virtually never. The danger of theft is low and if anything did go missing we would speak to the 'owner', meaning the person in charge who oversees the proceedings of the favela, such as the trafficking of drugs. Although they are involved in criminal activities, the 'owners' usually have a sense of honour and take care of their own.

Gunfire is an unavoidable part of life in the favela primarily due to police raids, and the fact that there is a high level of corruption within the police force only exacerbates matters.
During my first week I heard the gunshots that resulted in the death of the 'supervisor' of drug trading. I heard gunfire on a few other occasions but it all seemed very surreal and I think I have a minor death wish.
The news is dominated by incidents of shootings and I suspect that as with all things that transpire on a regular basis, however awful, desensitization is inevitable.
Overall though, life in this particular favela is quite sedate in comparison to others.

Clearly, you cannot enter favelas at your whim, you need to have friends there (this is of course conditional) or be involved in a volunteer project. Such projects are abundant and to become truly conversant with life in Rio I think you need to become acquainted with life in favelas.
Now Melissa knows many people within the community and they are aware that I am a close friend who's staying with her, specifically I’m a Gringa (a white foreigner) but this term is not used in an offensive manner. However, I still need to take precautions when taking photographs, obviously certain people cannot be photographed and when taking pictures at night I can't be too conspicuous because I might be mistaken for a journalist.

Nevertheless, the majority of people living within favelas are hard working people that simply do not have the luxuries we enjoy so liberally in the developed world.

Additionally, and unexpectedly, I experienced a sense of community closeness that I have never encountered before.

Welcome to the favela! That's Nicholas (my bestfriend's son) striking a pose.

The favela entrance by day. Inviting.

The main pathway of the favela.

Our place is the one at the very bottom on the left.

The view from the living area that greeted me every morning.

Our front door. The aliens have landed.

Night view out of our window.

The joys of doing laundry. Thankfully our friends let us share their improvised clothes line.

More joyous laundry.

Just inside the entrance. Quiet night.

Favela pup. He didn't like the camera flash all that much.

Going down into the depths of the favela.

This is the same slope but leading up.

The back stairs leading out of the favela.

The back stairs ascending. They really worked my gluteus maximus.

Endless stairs.

This was the main street at the front of the favela. It could take you up down and all around.