Reality Rio

By Sean Green
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2003

Naturally, I had apprehensions about going on a tour of Rio de Janeiro's favelas. I worried that I would be joining the equivalent of a 19th-century slumming party, in which Manhattan elites hired police officers to lead them through the Five Points neighborhood to ogle the other half. I thought, "Could I be such a voyeur? Am I really so bourgeois? Did I really just use the term 'bourgeois?' " As I was on the verge of an identity crisis, our tour guide arrived in a white minivan.

Favelas -- the densely crowded neighborhoods of makeshift houses and impoverished residents that dot the hills of this notoriously festive city -- are an indelible part of Rio's landscape and culture, although many would prefer they were not. The geographic landscape of the city's economic classes is the opposite of most other cities: The poor live high in the hills, encroaching on the lots of the city's wealthiest residents, and look down on the middle class, who live below. This is primarily because the city's hills originally were zoned as public land but were taken over, and continue to be taken over, by destitute families who flock to the city to find work. Consequently, some of Rio's poorest citizens are privileged to some of its most impressive views.

"I am taking you to a place where most Brazilians would not go," our guide, Marcelo Armstrong, said as we pulled into the traffic on Avenida Atlantica, where the beautiful chaos of New Year's Eve preparation was taking place on Copacabana Beach. "Rio is far more than Copacabana, Ipanema and Sugarloaf Mountain."

Now I felt better. "I'm no voyeur," I thought. "I'm just a tourist who wants to experience as much of the city as possible." After all, according to one guidebook, Armstrong's tour is "highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Brazil beyond the beaches." Of course, I wanted to experience it safely, which is what landed me in the minivan.

I've always believed that organized fun is no fun, which is another reason I felt odd on this organized tour. I prefer walking aimlessly through every city I visit. Two days earlier, however, this thinking had led me under a bridge where three young boys had encircled me, trying to grab at my pockets.

It was innocuous enough, this attempted mugging. They walked away with nothing, but I felt emasculated by their attempt. The fact that my 115-pound girlfriend frightened them off with an assertive "Hey!" and a lunge in their direction did not help matters.

Although I was lucky, no one venturing into a favela on his own should expect to be so fortunate. Permission and protection come from one source in the favela: drug dealers. Favelas operate almost outside the governance of the city. Inside these neighborhoods, the dealers fill the roles of legislature, executive and judiciary. They make the rules, enforce them and, when they are broken, issue punishment.

Armstrong assured us that we would be safe, telling us he had received permission from the resident dealers when he began giving tours of Rocinha, Rio's largest and most visible favela, 11 years ago. Nothing happens in a favela without their approval. When director Fernando Meirelles made "City of God," the critically acclaimed Brazilian movie about favela life, a convicted drug dealer approved his script and gave him the nod to shoot the film about his neighborhood.

As the van climbed the narrow road to Rocinha, we witnessed, as Armstrong said, "the social contrasts we have here." Rio's poor and rich seem to live in closer proximity than anywhere else in the world. Rocinha is adjacent to Sao Conrado, one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, with its white mansions strung like enormous pearls along the green hillside. The size of the homes and vastness of the properties juxtapose starkly with the labyrinth of concrete boxes that spreads down the hill, somehow accommodating 60,000 residents in its cubes and crevices.

"There is one of the city's most prestigious schools," said our guide, pointing to the American School with its "Home of the Panthers" sign in large red letters that hung above the entryway. Despite such close proximity, Rio's socioeconomic classes do not mingle. It is clear that most Cariocas (residents of Rio) go to great lengths to avoid the favelas.

One of the preconceptions Armstrong said he wants to alter is the belief that those who reside in the favelas are inherently violent, lecherous and miserable. "Poverty is very different than misery," he said as we arrived in Rocinha.

He invited us to get out and walk around, saying we could leave our valuables in the unlocked van. Robbery, he said, is strictly forbidden in Rocinha -- a mandate from the drug dealers. This is not the result of idealism or respect for one's neighbors; the no-robbery policy, like the permitted tours, is good for business: If Rio residents are afraid for themselves or their valuables when they enter the favela, they will not come to buy drugs. The added attention from the police would also threaten their trade.

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