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Published: January 27th 2006
Ok, so I couldn´t find a rhyme for "Being". If you are a fellow creative and have some serious financial backing, seek out a good IPR lawyer and try to obtain what is called an "Artistic License". Clearly reality is often too boring (Big Brother) and hence to create interest one must focus on a particular aspect, and, well, exaggerate. Hence the worthy writers of the "tall and slender, lean and lovely" Girl from Ipanema might, but for a license more easily obtained in days of yore, have more accurately written ...
"Short and stubby,
fat and ugly,
the guy in the too tight speedos is walking,
and when he passes,
everyone he passes goes - uuugh."
On our taxi ride in from the Airport it was immediately obvious that Rio de Janeiro is one of the worlds great cities, the massive ships lining the harbour testifying to a long history as a convict stopover on the way to Australia and a more modern incarnation as a major manufacturing power. But it was not quite what we expected - tall, architecturally perfect skyscrapers, gleaming in the tropical sun, lining the centre, along with tall, architecturally
perfect people, gleaming in the tropical sun, lining the beach. Instead, the buildings, whilst tall, were somewhat frayed, rough around the edges - they had seen better days. And to be honest, so had many of the people. I felt quite at home.
The most important fashion accessory in ultra-fashionable Rio is a good tan, and hence, if clothing were priced by the square metre rather than by the brand, Rio would be the most miserly market on Earth. It is important to have great clothes, if only to leave them behind whilst wandering the streets wearing almost nothing, be you ultra-sleek goddess or ultra-sweet sugar daddy. I declined to add my contribution, not so much from shyness as from a feeling that the slide into decay had already gone too far, and I shouldn´t really be helping it along.
Rio is a complex, hedonistic, semi-organised, semi-anarchy, that really takes some time for the visitor to understand, if that is at all possible. However, what must be understood immediately is how to be streetwise, or very quickly the naive tourist really will be wandering the streets wearing nothing. Locals, "cariocas", like to say you need to take the
same precautions to avoid theft and mugging as in any major city. This is of course nonsense - Rio is far more risky than most major cities. In one breath they´ll tell you that the last time they were robbed was in Manhattan, and in the next reel of a list of recent muggings where they have negotiated, harassed, captured and/or beaten their antagonists. This, of course, is quite a shock, but perhaps more shocking was then listing all the robberies, break-ins and vandalism that have happened to us in Britain in the last few years - it really mounts up.
We personally experienced no problems whilst in Rio, but we were ultra-careful. For the majority of our stay my camera gear rested secure in a steel locker supplied by the hostel, and when in dangerous areas such as the centre and Santa Teresa I only took my small Ricoh GR1 film camera, which looks rubbish even though it takes great pictures. Whilst clarifying the "Rio is as safe as any major city" claim with Rob, the excellent Kiwi who part-owns and manages our hostel, I stated that in St Petersburgh I wandered the streets after midnight with my
camera and tripod and, whilst scary, it was fine. He laughed and said - "Nope, in central Rio you would lose it for certain."
So, don´t be a gringo, be a carioca. Carry nothing you aren´t prepared to lose. Don´t take your passport - they are worth lots of money. Distribute your credit cards and cash wisely. Don´t carry a large bag - it will attract attention. Take a lot of care on the buses. Don´t do the Lonely Planet walking tour of Santa Teresa - it goes close to some very rough and unpoliced areas - stay close to the tram lines and the police, and above all, listen to trustworthy locals and do as they do. And you should be fine.
Even so, almost everyone staying in our hostel had some first-hand tale of robbery, or attempted robbery. English Matt´s mate was pickpocketed at New Year. The pleasant Australian couple were involved in an attempted mugging just two blocks from our hostel in normally safe Ipanema, but they realised what was happening and legged it. The three Swedes, to whom "partying is like a job, from 11.00pm to 6.00am every day" amazingly managed to avoid confrontation,
despite their constant nocturnal foraging, except for the time they were seriously shaken down by police looking for drugs and a bribe.
None of these tales had the same air of woe and frantic desparation as that of two rich-looking Italians I met in the offices of Aerolineas Argentinas. Four days previously they had been stepping into their taxi in Copacabana about to head to the airport when the leather attache case of the larger gentleman was removed from out of his hands forever. Of course it contained passport and flight tickets. The latter proved relatively easy to replace, but the Italian Embassy would not issue a new passport in under two weeks. They had a letter which allowed him to travel, but only back to Italy. Normally this would be no problem, except his flight back to Italy was in two weeks time from Buenos Aires. Still not a big problem, except they were both working on a movie based in Buenos Aires in its final two weeks of filming - the director was arriving from Italy the next day and the whole project would be jeapordised without them. They had already tried to fly to Argentina and
been turned back at the Airport. I told them to get their company to talk to the Italian authorities in Italy, but they didn't seem keen - "This is Rome, not London". Instead they were contemplating embarking on the 48 hour bus trip from Rio to Buenos hoping they would be able to talk their way across the land border, 22 hours into the trip. Not a lot of fun.
But perhaps that is still better than what happened to a bunch of elderly British tourists on a high end tour
So what is the cause of all this free-market opportunism? Looking back onto the shore of Copacabana from our dive boat in Rio Harbour, we really appreciated what a stunning location Rio has. Mile after mile of sandy beaches pressed up against sheer towering mountains and broken by rocky headlands and bullet-shaped peaks. The beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, are lined with skyscrapers, and rising impudently right behind them, clinging improbably to the steep mountainsides, are the crumbling, decrepit, tumbledown favelas - home of the poor, the dirty, the down-trodden, the great unwashed. And in Rio they´ve all got guns.
When I left college one of my mates went to
be a foreign exchange trader for Chase Manhattan bank, a job in which he excelled, and as far as I know still does. I visited him in New York during his training course, listened in awe to the antics that went on and subsequently read Michael Lewis´ excellent book about how real thieves will part you from your money, Liar´s Poker
. After that I began to wonder how much Lewis´ documentation of the grotesquely bad behaviour of the money men actually defined and propogated the culture for those who came after. In the same way I wonder how the excellent and disturbing movie of life in Rio´s favelas, City of God
, in the 1970´s influences the culture that exists today. The movies ends with a gang of street kids, aged between five and fifteen, all armed, wandering casually through the streets discussing who they will kill next.
I guess in both cases the movie exerts some effect, but far stronger are market forces themselves. Our understanding of the way things work in Rio has been gleaned from discussions with several locals, with very different backgrounds. How can Ipanema and Copacabana remain relatively safe when heavily armed drug gangs live just up the
road ? Quite simple. The drug-barons operate on the simple principal of "don´t pee in your own paddling pool." In fact many of them live the lives of the ultra-rich in ultra-expensive Ipanema apartments, instructing their gangs to avoid robbing nearby locals and tourists, so that both should feel safe and comfortable enough to dispose of their large incomes on the drugs and prostitution that the gangs happily profit from. No doubt extortion and protection-rackets are also common, and from what we understand the whole system is propped up by underpaid police and corrupt government officials. This is truly Gotham City, except here a guy in lycra underpants doesn´t look out of place.
Understanding all this actually made me feel an awful lot safer, but be aware that there is nothing stopping kids from other favelas hopping on a bus and robbing you right outside your swanky Ipanema apartment.
On our last day in Rio we went on a tour of Rocinha favela with the excellent Be a local
tour company. Almost every backpacker we talked to had taken a favela tour, and the praise was universal. Interestingly, as in Soweto near that other capital of crime, Johannesburg, locals very
rarely bother to go on such tours, preferring to limit their experience of the local poor to the occasional bag snatch or mugging. Our hosts Rob and Sylvia had told us it was fine to take cameras, even my monster package, as it were. This didn´t seem to make sense until the penny dropped - the tours are all squared with the drug gangs. In fact, on our way down the mountainside our guide pointed out the gang organisation, ensuring we didn´t point our cameras in their direction, chatting to the guards, displaying their bullet wounds, pointing to the streets on the favela´s edge where the rich come to score, and paying serious serious respect to the more senior lieutenants we met on our wander through.
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio, and our trip started with a motorbike ride up to the top. The main street itself seemed no different to that of any poor neighbourhood in a developing country - in fact it was very reminiscent of La Paz. But, after abandoning the bikes and heading off on foot we came to realise just how squalid life in such a slum can really be.
next section is a direct quote from Rocinha Project
, who have pretty much described what we saw but in more detail than I could muster. This interesting site documents a project to help the poor children of the Favela and you can donate via Paypal.
Rocinha, however, has shown how the poor could evolve into a working-class district. It is known as "The First World of the Favelas" for many reasons, primarily being one that has constructed a working system for itself. There are shops and transportation. They have about 4 schools as well as clubs and other organizations.
Don't let all this fool you. In the light you will see the dilapidated homes and the children who are running around in filth. Then you turn a corner and you find yourself coming across Rocinha's main canal, polluted by raw sewage. There is no official power grid or water line for most of the residents of Rocinha. Most people tap into the power lines and water mains that crisscross the slum. At the top of hill you will find heavily armed guards who keep watch of the turf of the drug lords and crime gangs. It is estimated that $500,000 worth of drugs go in and out of Rocinha every week. Police never patrol the favelas. If there's a problem they shoot from a helicopter down into the slums. Its a city of crime and poverty existing within a city filled with riches.
Of course the people we met whilst in Rocinha were incredibly friendly, and this included not just the excited kids as is normal in poor areas the world over, but the adults also. In a great irony Rio is known to be one of the friendliest cities on the planet and the poor and destitute epitomised this friendliness and welcome - even as their mates were relieving some rich tourist of his wallet, passport and flight tickets at gun-point down in some other part of the city.
One illuminating encounter we had whilst in Ipanema was with a budding British author. In search of cheap food and reasonable wine Rob had directed us to the local supermarket, Zona Sur, where, in the corner by the meat section is a small Pizzeria. You can pick a bottle of wine from the shelf, paying supermarket rather than restaurant prices, and sit and eat excellent thin
and crispy pizza whilst drinking decent Chilean wine. Marvellous.
Here we sat and chatted to our new expat friend, whose past twenty-eight years in Rio seemed only to have increased his Britishness. He expects his first book to be published by Bloomsbury this year, and we wish him luck, particularly with his erudite punning. In the meantime he runs a translation agency, employing between 30 to 50 translators on a contract basis and around seven permanent staff, mostly for admin I understand. He described his life in the trendy Santa Teresa area, a place of faded colonial glory populated with beautiful old mansions and surrounded by dangerous favelas. We had visited the area the previous day, riding the popular tram up through the crumbling streets and stopping for a tasty portugese curry at a cafe comfortably close to a gaggle of armed police.
He estimates his house, which he has restored over the years, would be worth more than ten million gbp in London. Once inside the fortifications he has a life of luxury, waited on by trusted servants. Each time he wants to leave, he must check several security cameras to see who might be lurking around.
He is happy to entertain guests, but is well aware that most jobs are inside ones, and so is extremely careful about who he lets into his home. As he says, hostels are often done over and the security guards tend to be the weak links ... one day they are sitting around sharing a drink with some mates when a gang member says ... "You work at that hostel ... let us in or we´ll kill you." What choice does he have ? (Again it seems the best security for hostels and hotels is the fact that their occupants are buying up the local wares and services).
Lamenting the idleness of the native Brazilians, he described how some of the poor started to build a favela on the land opposite his house. His neighbours did nothing so he paid some heavies to evict the intruders, and then had a huge wall built to seal off the area. His neighbours thanked him but contributed nothing.
Running a business is also a tricky affair. There are two risks associated with terminating someone´s employment. The first is simply that they take revenge with a gun. The second, more common, is
that they take revenge with a lawyer. Essentially you will be sued for unfair dismissal, with large damages claimed against you. These will then be negotiated down to a matter of a few thousand dollars, almost a form of employement tax or statutory redundancy. In a sense this is a good thing, except that the whole business of dealing with lawyers and the courts takes unecessary time and costs unecessary money.
He also claims to be the most highly taxed individual in the world, and perhaps he is right - 75% of his income goes in taxes, whilst studies have shown that only ten per cent of Brazilian tax money reaches legitimate targets, most of the rest disappearing directly into the pockets of the powerful.
Still, he wouldn´t trade his life in Brazil for one in Britain, and I actually don´t blame him. As he says, within an hours drive, as long as you don´t get shot at whilst passing through a favela, there are beautifully empty tropical beaches and wonderful tropical mountain scenery. Weekends are spent, very literally, in paradise. Within an (artistic) hours drive of Sheffield are Hull, Leicester, Warrington and Bradford.
Our first three
days in Rio were a bit of a wash out, with grey skies and intermittent rain, so we avoided spending money on tours and stuck to relatively cheap activities. On our first day we took the bus from Ipanema to the centre and did the Lonely Planet walking tour, which in this case we found to be very good. Surprisingly there is not really much to look at in the centre of such a great city, but our meanderings through the local markets, ever vigilant for pickpockets - we only spotted one pair, who quickly retreated when we started at them - were entertaining nonetheless. The most fascinating of the shops were those that sold the costumes for the Rio Carnival, sequined bikinis and large elaborate headresses, but sadly it was too hot and sticky for Kim to want to try some on.
The other site that made our jaws drop was an old library building (I don't have the guide and don't remember the name - sorry), a still functional colonial relic whose interior, with floor upon floor of ancient books surrounding an open central atrium packed with original wooden reading desks, resembled something from Ghormenghast (or Hogwarts
if you haven't found the hard stuff yet). Aftwerwards we sat and drank a couple of reasonably priced beers in the central square whilst watching the police arrest a couple of miscreants, a fitting end to a pleasant and cheap introduction to Rio.
An interesting afternoon was spent browsing Santa Teresa the next day and then finally, after three days, the weather cleared and we saw what Brazil was really about. We had already booked to go diving in the harbour, not because it is a renowned dive location but simply to say we had now been diving on five of the six continents (Europe, Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas) - not bad in a year. With poor visibility the diving wasn't great, but the views of Rio from the boat were worth the price on its own. The first dive, about 28m to a wreck near Isla Rasa, was typical Brazilian chaos - rather than follow the divemaster in an orderly fashion the locals buzzed around each other, bumping, divebombing, smashing flippers into faces, like a school of frenzied fish feeding. To add insult to injury the divemaster brought us up early despite having more air remaining
Not the street kind, Isla Rasa, Rio Harbour
than most of the other buffoons. The second dive was much better, following the wall of the island at around 20m with just the two of us and the dive master, whilst one of the locals buddy teams split up in the low visibility and instead of following safety procedures and surfacing swam around on their own for fifteen minutes.
Our final day was spent in the Rocinha favela and on Ipanema beach. We had been briefed about the locales of the beach - the gay area, the rich kids area, the dopeheads area etc etc. Just outside our hostel was the gay area, which Kim rather enjoyed. Then we mosied on down to the rich-kids area, which suited me better - I began to see what all the fuss about bodies and bikinis was really about.
A twenty two hour bus trip, which turned into twenty five after the driver got lost in the middle of Sao Paulo, took us to the famous Igaussu falls on the border of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The bus was fairly comfortable and I felt in a lot better shape at the end of the trip than I do after ten
Isla Rasa, Rio Harbour
hours on a plane. The only problem was the French version of Mr Bean sitting on the seat next to us, who decided to keep himself warm overnight using an 'emergency space blanket' - one of those ultra thin, ultra light, ultra noisy sheets of shiny metallic material that are supposed to insulate the wearer in an emergency, such as the end of the London Marathon. Of course in true Mr Bean style he couldn't get comfortable, couldn't stop the "blanket" from sliding off and generally kept the rest of the bus awake with his tortured contortions.
Iguassu Falls are rather magnificent, stretching for 2.5 miles and plunging 269 feet (82m) in some 275 individual cataracts. To appreciate them properly you need to see them from both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides - the pictures from the Argentinian side are in the next blog. Pleasant enough, we found them more spectacular than Niagra but less so than Victoria. One of the charms of Victoria in particular is the possibility to escape the tourists and hang around at sunset, as long as you are carefull of errant wildlife and muggers. In Iguassu you are always with the crowds, and boy,
Ipanema (or Copacabana)
Typical Rio - beach, tower blocks, mountains and favela. From Rio Harbour.
in January, were there a lot of them. Still, our two days spent wandering around and observing them were two days well spent. The surrounding rainforest is also quite interesting, complete with large lizards that will attack pestering tourists, families of coatis
(long-nosed coons) scrabbling around and playing with the tourists, and on the Brazilian side an excellent bird sanctuary housing local tropical species in open enclosures, along with a selection of interesting brethren from around the world.
After a pleasant day on the Brazilian side of the falls, we bused and hitched across to the Argentinian side, where the story will continue in the next blog.
I guess I'll round off with a few statistics cribbed from Amnesty International's
recent newsletters, plus some comparative numbers off the web, all from official sources. In 2002 there were more than 50,000 homicides in Brazil, in a population of 170 to 180 million - this rate is higher than many war zones. Apparently in the five years preceeding 2004 Police killed 9889 people in the states of Rio and Sao Paulo in situations registered as 'resistance followed by death', whilst 52 police were killed on duty in Rio in 2004 alone.
Plus the statue of Christ the Redeemer, 30m tall with a 92ft armspan.
Murders in Brazil are concentrated in the poor areas - in Sao Paulo's Jardim Angela district there were 309 murders in in 2001, that is 123 per 100,000 people. The nearby middle class district of Moema suffered only 3 per 100,000 in the same year.
By comparison the overall homicide rate for the US was 5 per 100,000 in 2002 which, with a population of 295 million, gives 14,750 homicides per year (which would equate to 8750 per year if they had the same population as Brazil). Even in the worst cities in the US over the past twenty years the homicide rate has never topped 50 per 100,000. They've got a lot of catching up to do. The worst average rate in the UK over the last ten years is 1.6 per 100,000, but the general trend is rising fairly steeply, whereas the in the US it has declined by a similar rate since the early 90's.
There are roughly 17 million small arms held in Brazil of which 15 million are owned privately. Of these around 9 milllion are held illegally and 4 million are believed to be held by criminals (presumably defined as those who
Why do we travel?
Kim, after a good days diving.
have commited more crimes than simply illegal possesion of a firearm).
Sadly Amnesty notes that in the referendum of 23rd October 2005 on the question of banning the sale of guns and ammunition, 64 per cent of Brazilians vote against a ban. The 'No' campaign had exploited people's fears - the police can't protect them (accurate perhaps) and that the government were trying to take away their rights (oh grow up). There is some hope - the December 2003 law which made it illegal to carry guns and tightened other restrictions and penalties appears to have led to an 8% decrease in gun-related deaths in 2004, the first such decrease in thirteen years.
Of course, you'd expect Amnesty to have a pessimistic view of the world - why can't they lighten up a little? Still for the time being it looks like the good and friendly people of Brazil will keep clinging to their first amendment right to have their children slaughtered by their classmates whilst at school.
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