Words || Joanna Marciniak
He stood proudly, gazing over the city, feet planted on the pedestal, body carved by Swedish stone. His outstretched arms invite peace. His concrete eyes have no peripheries; so when I pace back and forth, his gaze never leaves mine. Hundreds of people around me, standing on the paramount of Corcovado mountain, experience the very same sense of awe. How could you not feel that way in the presence of Christ the Redeemer, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World?
Known for its annual euphoric celebration, ‘Rio Carnival’, aromatic coffee, the sexy samba, stunning coastlines, and the most beautiful women on the planet, it’s too easy to be enchanted by Brazil. It appears to be one of the happiest countries in the world. And in many respects, Brazilians are prosperous, welcoming, happy people.
But sometimes, the country can be glossed over by these romanticised elements, which obscure issues involving inequality, poverty, and crime that lie beneath the surface.
Last September, I landed in Sao Paulo on a ridiculously hot night. After catching the first available taxi, I planted myself yet again, having already spent twenty-four hours in transit. The language barrier between us was quickly apparent: the taxi driver couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t understand a word of Portuguese. It wasn’t such a problem – we were getting by – until he started driving at race car speeds through intersections, ignoring obvious red lights.
My eyes widened, and heart palpitated with the speed of the cab. I discovered that a new kind of fear exists, one that jolts through you and collides with a feeling of hopelessness. I couldn’t communicate with the driver and request him to slow down. I was surprised later on to discover that the actions of the taxi driver were for my own safety. The following day, I was told that one of the most dangerous prone areas in Brazil is stopped at a red light.
This experience is but one example of a culture of violence in Brazil. A stream of stories reach our ears, telling the horrors of ‘flash robberies’ in Sao Paulo, where a criminal gang heists a restaurant with guns or machetes, and takes the possessions of every customer. Likewise, during the recent 2014 Football World Cup, international attendants received safety brochures, which advised you to avoid ‘reacting, screaming, or arguing’ when being robbed, suggesting instead to simply comply.
The high crime rates in Brazil are a consequence of the social disparity within their population, some 200 million. A bi-product of these conditions is massive underground drug running syndicates, which facilitate large extents of gang and territorial warfare.
In fact, I was shocked to discover that Brazilians struggled with crime, as so much of their beautiful culture was contrary to this realisation. And it’s a shame that a lot of this crime intrudes on people’s lives in Brazil, because, for the most part, it doesn’t happen. At least, not in the places I was exploring.
Yet crime prevails in the poorer areas of the country, most frequently reported in Brazil’s slums, known as favelas. But there is an unfortunate ripple effect of criminal behaviour in the more popular and gentrified areas of the country. The reason is quite simple: wealthy, tourist-dense hotspots exist in close proximity to impoverished favelas.
During the next week of my travels I took a guided tour through one of Brazil’s largest slums: Cantagalo Favela, in Rio de Janiero. For hours, I trekked past barefoot children playing with shopping trolleys, raw sewerage running freely though concrete slab homes, hungry and disreputable cats and dogs, and claustrophobic alleyways decorated with hanging washing. It was hard to believe that roughly 7,000 people lived in such horrific confines.
When I reached the peak, I saw the illustrious and gentrified party beaches Ipanema and Copacabana. I couldn’t fathom how close this other chic world was to poverty.
The strangest thing about my experience was that I did not know how to feel. The beaches are picturesque, with soft Australian sand, pristine New Caledonian waters, and enormous European mountains breaking up the horizon. Yet I was inside one of the largest favelas in the world, crammed with residents, animals, disease, ersatz homes, and other ruinous conditions. It saddens me to say it, but here lies the real contrast of Brazil.
Many residents of the favelas work some kind of low paying job. On average, they can earn the Brazilian Real equivalent of $250 a month. If you work for a gang, however, those numbers are set to rise, and a man can earn close to the same amount every week. For somebody living in the slums, the attraction toward a life of crime is pretty hard to resist.
Brazil is the twelfth ranked country in the world for levels of social inequality. For many, this isn’t news. But what a lot of people might not appreciate is the proximity of poverty to luxury. I’m sure everyone has seen the vibrancy of Ipanema and Copacabana countless times, with their flamboyant parties, beach babes, and sun-kissed skin. But a stone’s throw away, kept in the shadows, stands a polar opposite world: the grim and struggling Cantagalo favela.