Tales from a Rio favela – Part 1

I wrote the following article for an online magazine which seems to have gone kaput. 


O, padeiiiro….o, padeirooo….o, pão quentinho!!”

I’d love to think my 7AM wake-up call was some sort of audio reminder that I had set up on my phone, but it was just the bread guy walking the alleyways with a big basket of hot bread on his shoulders. He even comes in ascending and descending ringtones, but they aren’t exactly customer-defined.

There are mornings when it he reminds me to seize the day but there are also times when I’d prefer to perhaps kindly, perhaps not so kindly tell him to sell elsewhere because some people are trying to sleep around here. I suppose the fact that he’s human should be a positive thing due to his ability to actually respond to me. I can’t say the same for the coordinated rooster crowing that starts around 330AM, preluding the baker.

Did I mention the groups of people that pass by on their way to work? They fit right in between my two other wake-up calls and their noise of choice is either loud conversation, news radio, or their favorite tunes on a on a mini boom box. If you can imagine groups of people hurriedly walking by as if your ear were to the pavement right where they pass, then you’d have a mild idea of how noise plays a major factor in favela-living.

An easier exercise would be to just imagine yourself living your life in public, in a house without walls, where space is considered shared (or open to be audibly invaded, depending on your outlook). Windows and doors are left open for ventilation but they also obviously let the sounds in. Not that such a thing matters because the walls are already thin and every doorway is a bit bigger than the door that resides there, meaning sounds abound through every nook and cranny.

On my many residential bouts in Rio de Janeiro, I’ve spent the better part of a year in three different favelas that overlook the noble neighborhoods of the Zona Sul. I realized almost immediately that anyone who lives in a favela is someone who lives out in the open. Their life is exposed to the elements, both natural and man-made. And by “man-made”, I actually mean every aspect of the human condition. Sorrow, joy, friendship, love, it’s all there for the witnessing because, as I mentioned, all space is basically shared.

One aspect of noise-making that never made sense to me is why favela residents shout instead of talk. I used to have a Russian friend and every time his father spoke with him, I wondered what kind of trouble he had got himself into. Apparently, everything was fine and that was just the way his father spoke normally (i.e., yelling and with a commanding tone). Residents of favelas are like my friend’s father, only they don’t seem angry when they yell…I mean, talk. Two people can be right next to each other in the favela but they’ll talk so loudly that anyone could walk ten houses down and still hear their conversation well. In one of Rio’s favelas, there’s an elevator and it was there that I truly realized that distance, or lack thereof, had no bearing on such loudness. Try talking in the loudest tone you can, but without necessarily yelling, and that’s what I lived every day and every night.

Having lived in several Brazilian cities and with people from all kinds of economic classes, there’s a common thread that binds them. Of course, there are many threads, both positive and negative, that bind people in this country but my focus here is anthropogenic sound and my background is as an American. The thread in question here is a lack of civic sense to the right of auditory peace, or rather, the idea that I won’t make loud noise if I know I’d bother others with it. It really is a head-scratcher because in the hospitable sense, Brazilians think a lot about the other person.

Going back to the baker, I am well aware that he’s just a guy from the same favela I’ve been living in, doing his job, trying to make some money. I can leave, he probably can’t. And as for the groups that pass by in the early hours of the morning, I understand that they’re glad to have found some camaraderie on their way to work. As for me, I could live day in, day out with ear plugs in if all the noise bothers me that much, but by doing that, I wouldn’t be getting the full picture. To understand the noise, it’s important to know that is a country that’s fluid, not rigid. It’s a country in movement and if one day there were a lack of sounds, they might find that just as odd as I find their lack of silence.


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