A Tale of Two Rios

April 13, 2010

There are two sides to every metropolis. On one hand, there is the picture-postcard ready city that invites tourists to come and marvel at its attractions. On the other, exists the city that most tourists and wealthier residents would rather avoid. While this happens all over the world, perhaps nowhere is this divide more pronounced than in Rio de Janeiro.

The famous wave-patterned boardwalk that parallels Copacabana is the icon of Rio's beach culture. Magnificently shaped hills and islands immerse your periphery as beautifully-toned beach bodies saunter up the shoreline. It's hard to believe that a city of over six million people has arisen right in the middle of such stunning scenery.

Many residents of wealthier neighborhoods such as Leblon, Lagoa, Flamengo, and Botafogo have the same spending power as someone from New York City or Paris. The trendy barrio of Ipanema is full of five-star gyms, apple computer stores, Los Angeles-inspired frozen yogurt shops, and high-fashion clothing merchants. Cariocas (Rio locals) who inhabit these areas have an undeniably privileged lifestyle...not to mention easy access to the many lush parks and dazzling beaches that populate Rio de Janeiro.

But life in Rio is far from paradise. Walk down any residential street and signs of fear become apparent. Nearly every building is a locked down like a fortress, with ten-foot high steel gates surrounding their exterior. Any edifice that is not protected has been covered with graffiti. Areas of the city that are bustling during the day become ominously empty after dark; the sporadic pedestrian moves with a quick determination wary of unlit alleyways. The root causes of this pervading anxiety are complex, but the modern day outcome is simple. Rio de Janeiro is a city of haves and have-nots.
In most places, the poorer residents live in different areas of the city, often pushed to the outskirts where the wealthier citizens will have little interaction with them. But in Rio, no such distance exists. Shantytowns, called favelas, are everywhere, with many separated from better-off neighborhoods by little more than a wall. Slums precariously climb the steep hills that dot the city, and tragedies such as the recent deathly mudslides can result. In Rio, you are are in constant contact with poverty, whether it be physically or visually.

Many of the favelas in Rio have no police presence, and in their absence, heavily-armed drug-lords have filled the power vacuum. The horrific violence that can ensue has been the subject of many films and news reports. However, the majority of favela residents just wish to make an honest living and provide for their families. I had the opportunity to visit two favelas in Rio, and walked away with a better understanding of their complex reality.

Of all the amazing people that I have met while traveling, Bender stands out. Growing up in the favela of Prainha, he overcame obstacles that would be insurmountable for most and has become an inspiration for his community. While attending a respected university, he received a grant to shoot a documentary on poverty in Latin America. Shooting in Asuncion, Paraguay, he met a backpacking friend of mine, Sandra, who was volunteering there with a community organization. By pure coincidence, Sandra and I ran into each other in Rio de Janeiro, and she graciously offered to take me along when Bender invited her to visit his favela.

After watching nightmarish movies about Rio's slums (City of God and Troop of Elite), I entered the favelas with a certain amount of trepidation. What was I getting myself into? But I soon discovered that there was no risk as long as I stayed with Bender. In order to get to his favela, we first crossed through another slum. In a mixture of Spanish and Portugese, he explained to Sandra and I that this particular slum was much more dangerous than his own. It felt as if I was walking through a war zone, with decaying buildings, piles of litter, and suspicious glares following in my wake. Sandra observed men smoking from a crack pipe down a filthy alley. Bender informed us that after dark, young men tramp the streets with pistols and assault rifles in full view. At the favela's border, we walked past a makeshift barricade planted in the middle of the road, vigilantly guarded by a sentinel. No police would be able to easily enter the slum by vehicle. 

We exited the first favela and immediately crossed into a more suburban area, where residents could afford the luxuries of personal automobiles and private swimming pools. Bender began to point out houses that were owned by the local politician, a crooked man who has exploited corruption in government in order to enrich himself while most of his constituents mire in poverty. It was distressing to hear stories of deception, political favor, and even murder that have resulted during this villain's reign. With Bender openly condemning this powerful person in their own territory, I suddenly wondered if I should be concerned for my own safety. But soon we moved on and entered Bender's favela of Prainha.

The atmosphere in Prainha was very different from the first favela we had passed through. Kids played in the streets with no supervision. The buildings were better maintained, and there were no shady characters wearing distrusting stares. It was obvious that Bender was somewhat of a local celebrity for the children, who after catching sight of us excitedly followed wherever we went. Many residents whom we crossed paths with were happy to see us, eager to tell us their stories, and even to show us their homes. In the past, I had only been bombarded with negative imagery of the favela, but I was seeing a different, warmer side. There was a greater sense of community in Prainha than in any suburb that I've visited in North America.

Still, tragedy abounded. All of Bender's childhood friends had gotten into drug-trafficking and most were now dead. Because of Brazil's dysfunctional public education system, the kids around us would have little opportunity to receive a good education and escape the painful realities of the slums. Inside of the favela there are virtually no businesses, and it seemed as if most legal commerce only takes place in the outside world. Indeed, a feeling of being trapped was discernible; Bender related to us that some who reside here have never even been downtown or seen the beaches of Copacabana because they cannot afford the bus ride. 
Sandra and Bender outside of Bender's home

We ended our visit at the house where Bender and his siblings had been raised. His mother and grandmother awaited with a home-cooked meal. Later on, Bender told us the story of the hardships that his mother had overcome in order to raise her children without the help of a deadbeat father, managing to put them through school and keep food on the table by working several jobs. It was for difficult for everyone in the room to contain their emotion. When it was time to go, I was left with a profound respect for both Bender and his mother. His mother had persevered through extremely challenging circumstances and succeeded in raising a remarkable son who she was visibly proud of. Despite the better living possibilities that his education affords, Bender wants to continue residing in the favela in order to set a positive example for the children of Prainha. I hope that more of the youth choose to follow in his footsteps, and slowly but surely, the two Rios can become one.


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