Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rio de Janeiro

A week ago I returned from a 6-day trip to Rio de Janeiro. After visits to Brasilia and Sao Paolo last year, Rio left me with fresh insights into Brazilian culture.

Chaos and Order

Chaotic is a fitting word to begin describing Rio. I’ve heard many visitors describe Buenos Aires as a chaotic city; definitely an accurate statement when compared to cities from the North.

But Rio takes chaos to another level. I couldn’t fully appreciate Rio’s disorder until I returned to Buenos Aires and for the first time ever considered the city to be relatively calm.

Rio’s traffic, noise, crime, pollution, poverty and general disarray make Buenos Aires look like Geneva. Strangely enough, Cariocas seem happier and more laidback than their neurotic Porteño counterparts. I imagine the relaxing backdrop of beautiful beaches, tropical climate, and urban peaks covered in lush jungle have something to do with this paradox. Just take a look at Copacabana beach:

Rio is a unique blend of natural paradise and urban sprawl. The constant influx of tourists demonstrates the city’s continuing charm. Here’s a view from atop the hill where the famous Cristo Redentor is located:

Given my generalization that Rio is far more chaotic a city than Baires, I must qualify that I found peace and order in two places I thought I never would: in two favelas and in the Maracanã, Rio’s famed futebol stadium.

Favelas and Villas Miserias

The Brazilian favela (slum) has achieved international infamy for being a hotbed of violence and drugs. Argentina’s villa miserias have a similar reputation domestically but are barely known abroad.

One of my favourite movies, Cidade de Deus, portrays several decades of a government housing project and the evolution of a turf war between rival narco gangs. When trying to imagine a favela, gripping scenes from Cidade de Deus inevitably come to mind.

Given this preconception, I was curious to visit and learn more about Rio’s favelas first-hand. After asking around, it seemed that Favela Tour would be an educational, socially conscious, and non-voyeuristic option.

The tour was perhaps the highlight of the trip. Our guide, an Argentine who has been living in a favela for several years, was very informative and open about discussing favela life. Also, some of the proceeds from the tour were donated to an after-school program for kids in the Vila Canoa favela.

The tour started in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, and possibly the largest in all of South America, with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants. I was surprised by its level of urbanization and infrastructure. Houses are made of brick, many streets are paved, and a wide variety of services and businesses are available in the center. View from atop a house in Rocinha:

The government, along with the Inter-American development Bank played an important role in providing basic infrastructure. However, it is the narco gangs that are the ultimate authority in the neighbourhood. Police rarely enter the favela, and if they do, they almost certainly provoke attacks from the drug lords.

This excerpt explains the role of the gangs in much the same way our tour guide presented them:

Rocinha, like many of Rio’s favelas, was under the control of a criminal faction known as the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos), until the recent death of leader Bem-Te-Vi in October of 2005 at the hands of the police. Typically, Rio’s favelas fall under the control of one of three main factions, the CV (Comando Vermelho), the TC (Terceiro Comando), and the ADA. These groups are famous for providing much needed resources such as support for day care, medicine for the sick, and money for the poor. They also have been known to asphalt roads, host huge community parties, and even sponsor other recreational spaces and activities, such as soccer courts. These groups normally maintain a very high level of control over social behavior, strictly prohibiting street crimes such as rape, muggings, and break-ins within the favela. Even so, Rio’s criminal factions should not be glorified or romanticized as some sort of modern day Robin Hoods. Besides drug trafficking, such organizations in Rio have historically been involved in arms smuggling, bank robberies, kidnapping, and murder.

Given the zero tolerance for delinquency within the favela, our guide explained that Rocinha is a relatively calm and peaceful place. Indeed, I felt more at ease walking around Rocinha than strolling around seedy Avenida Copacabana, the main strip located a block away from the world’s most famous beach.

Our guide emphasized that favelados are generally happy with their neighbourhood and ever since basic services and infrastructure arrived, few have a desire to leave. I found this hard to believe considering the stark differences between the favelas and wealthy neighbourhoods only footsteps away.

For instance, as can be seen in this photo above, at about 200 meters away from Rocinha, lies the residence of a private American school. Monthly tuition at the school runs $3000 reales per month (~$1400 US), while the average family’s salary in the neighbouring favela is 1/10 that amount, at around $350 reales (~$160 US)!

Furthermore, if a family has to subsist on $350 reales, I wondered why the government didn’t lower the high public transportation costs. For instance, the subway costs $2.30 reales (US $1.00) per trip while bus fares usually run between $1.80-$2.15 reales. If someone travels to work twice per day, twenty times per month, that’s $92 reales – one quarter of the average salary spent traveling!

In Buenos Aires, the public transportation remains very cheap, especially when compared to Rio; between $.70 to $.80 pesos (~US $0.25) per trip. By using the same calculation as the one above, estimating that the average salary in a villa is about $500 pesos, or US $160, the transportation costs would amount to $28 pesos, or 6% of the monthly salary.

While I am making quick generalizations and calculations, I can’t help but think there’s a link between the widespread poverty and stark inequality, and the power of the drug lords. In Argentina, the relatively better economic situation of the villas must have something to do with the fact that narcos don’t hold anywhere near as much authority as their Rio counterparts.

It later occurred to me that a statement I heard from an Argentine artisan along Copacabana’s beach, underlies my hypothesis: “Acá hay pocos caciques pero muchos indios. En Buenos Aires hay muchos caciques, pero pocos indios.” (Here there are few chiefs, but lots of Indians. In Buenos Aires, there are lots of chiefs, but few Indians).

He went on to explain that the Argentine disregard for rules and their innate craftiness, contrasted by the deference and laidback attitude of Brazilians, is the reason why villas in Argentina are more dangerous than favelas despite being relatively better off. Similarly, as he smiled, he told me that this cunningness is why Argentines are doing so well in Rio’s tourism sector.

Futebol and Fútbol

Hours upon arriving in Rio, I was treated to another Argentine football humiliation at the hands of the Brazilians. The latest derby, albeit a ‘friendly’ in England, ended 3-0 for the samba squad.

When observing the surprisingly indifferent carioca reaction in the bars and on the streets, as well as reading newspaper headlines the next day, I could tell that this rivalry continues to mean more to Argentines than it does to Brazilians. Brazil continues to be a laidback football superpower, while Argentina remains an obsessed great power.

A few hours after Brazil’s victory, I crossed Rio to the Maracanã to watch a local derby between Vasco da Gama and Fluminense. I was curious in seeing how a carioca clasico would compare to a similar rivalry in Buenos Aires, say a San Lorenzo-Velez match up.

While I was pleasantly surprised to observe the relative calm and order of the favelas, I was utterly disappointed by the relative calm and order at the futebol match.

I might as well enjoyed the Maracanã on my own (with a Brahma, of course):

Once the world’s largest stadium, having held over 200,000 fans for the 1950 World Cup Final, and can now can hold around 80,000, the Maracanã was only a third full! The tour guide explained that the Fluminense fans are a wealthier bunch and not all that passionate. They don’t make the trip to the Maracanã since they would rather watch the games in the comfort of their upper class homes. Below is the Fluminense stadium section:

Vasco’s torcida (hardcore fans) managed to make a decent showing (pictured below), but still paled in comparison to the craziness of Argentina’s barra bravas. In Argentina, a match between two teams of Vasco and Fluminense’s stature would almost certainly sell out a 40,000 stadium, and the atmosphere would be far more intense.

Exemplifying that this wasn’t an off-night for the torcidas, were two stadium regulations which would never be permitted in Argentina.

First, fans were allowed to buy beer during the match. In Argentina, this would be a recipe for a riot. Secondly, the seats along the lateral parts of the field, where the middle and upper priced seats are, do not segregate opposing team’s fans. Once again, down here this would be a disaster waiting to happen.

As I began to draw these conclusions regarding the relative calm of Rio’s favelas and futebol, I was thrown a curveball.

In the midst of the jogo bonito, the laidback beer drinking, and the melodic chanting and cheering at a Botafogo-Fluminense match that same week, a torcedero was killed.

At that point, I realized that a lot more joins Rio and Buenos Aires than what sets them apart.