I’m not sure exactly what it is that made me find my comfort zone in Rio so quickly, on a bus rolling through downtown past Praça da República, but when I first set my eyes upon the shores of Ipanema, it’s hard to understand how I was ever nervous in the first place. Children playing,stunning bodies laying, and green trees swaying amidst turquoise waters under the watchful gaze ofPedra da Gávea…it seems such a contradiction to the chaos I was pre-conditioned to expect.
And that’s what I couldn’t get my mind off of the entire time I was there.
How can a place this beautiful, this festive…this free (because yes, the beach is public)…be so full of discontent? How can people turn a setting like this into a war zone? Especially when I feel so comfortable here?
I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my mind the entire time I was there. It was like although I was enjoying the scenery immensely, there was an element of awe with every person I walked by…
“I wonder if she lives in Rocinha?,” I’d find myself thinking.
“I wonder if he’s ever been in a gun fight?”
When I went to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil to see an exhibit of M.C. Escher’s work, I noticed a photo documentary of Rocinha (which is the largest favela in Brasil, and one of the most notorious for its violent reputation) in the bookstore. It was a striking image of a boy, no more than 7 or 8 years old, guarding a stash house with a Glock in his hand, staring into the camera. It was this image I just couldn’t shake from my mind with every step I took in the seeming paradise just a kilometer or two from the hills of Rocinha.
Naturally, this is what I’d want to learn about from every native of Ipanema or neighboring Leblon, and I learned something interesting. Firstly, that element of fear. Quite simply, it’s reality. You learn to live with it. And become conditioned to being able to go about your business, live your life, and enjoy the stunning beauty of the scene in front of you even if you did get mugged yesterday, or even if you did know someone who was robbed in a traffic jam last week and left for dead. You just don’t dwell on thoughts like these.
Number two, how this came to be. Apparently, the influx of mass quantities into the favelas ramped up in the 1950s and 1960s, when hordes of people would come from small villages throughout the country in hopes of cashing in on the economic opportunities the big city provided. Because they couldn’t afford proper housing, they would squat illegally on the public lands that surrounded small villages that had already been formed, and over the years, those villages grew and grew. No property was bought, nor taxed. The land was taken because the newcomers had nowhere else to go. Politicians didn’t want to stop the growth for fear of losing those votes, and a few decades later, Rocinha had grown to its estimated 250,000 residents—all squeezed into an area of about .86km². Introduce drugs into the community and not only did addiction set in, but it created a multi-million dollar industry amidst the dead-end career options that existed, and drug dealers have been controlling most of the favelas since. With the World Cup coming in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, this may be set to change…but for how long? Stay tuned.