Give freely, or else

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 5.11.43 PMMy day shift at the hostel in Ipanema had ended and, as usual, I stuck around chatting with the friendly manager and some of the guests. Upon noticing it was already dark out, I said goodbye, then ran a quick errand before heading to the nearest Zona Sul supermarket, kiddie corner to General Osório square, to pick up some spaghetti for later. With the errands completed, I went a few blocks towards the beach to catch a public transport van back to Rocinha. Numbered according to their trajectory, I was hoping to catch the less frequent of the two lines that went through Gávea because it would leave me closer to my apartment.

I waited there like on any of the other hundreds of times I had caught a van back home, aware of my surroundings, even though this was Ipanema and I was dressed in the usual shirt, shorts and flip-flops. As I held my grocery bag with its one item inside, I thought about the dinner I’d soon share with friends, accompanied by a beer from the bar across from my front door.

Right then a lone young man (reminiscent of those I saw daily in the favelas) appeared on the median strip, shouting out to someone on the sidewalk where I was.

Rio wasn’t a stranger to me and I had always kept my wits about me while living there. Even though I had never found myself in any kind of unwanted situation before, this guy didn’t immediately make me think twice, but he made me want to think twice. “Calma, just be cool”, I thought to myself, “I’ve got nothing visible he can steal,” knowing full well that prior to the supermarket, I had made a stop at the bank to take out R$60 for the next week. Luckily, while still in the bank, I had folded the bills up and stuck them, along with my bank card, under the waistband of my underwear.

He shouted again, across the sparse lanes of traffic, which prompted me to take a quick look around me to see whose attention he was trying to get. It was mine. I was alone and it was dark. That’s when he went for my bag, with his eyes.

Tem comida aí? Me dá alguma coisa,” he suddely mumurred.
(You got food there? Give me some.)

É macarrão, tem que ser cozido,” I reluctantly responded.
(It’s spaghetti, it has to be cooked.)

E daí, dou um jeito, cara.
(So what, I’ll find a way to cook it, man.)

Não posso, é pra janta.
(I can’t, it’s for dinner.)

I didn’t want him to think I was an easy target, and by that I mean gringo. I considered playing the sympathy card, telling him I was a resident of the morro, the comunidade (favela), without specifying which, but that might lead to more talking, and more talking might reveal I’m a foreigner. Two or three more times he asked for food but as many times as he asked, I denied him. That’s when he changed tatics.

Então, me dá um real aí.
(So give me R$1.)

Tem, não, cara. Preciso pro transporte.
(I don’t have it, man. I need what I got for transport.)

Ô, me dá um real!“, he repeated, a little more directly.
(Hey, give me R$1!)

Não posso“, I said.
(I can’t.)

I realized this was going to continue for a while unless I either gave him money or food, which meant getting close to him physically, or I would have to go back to General Osório and walk down ‘Visconde’ (a main street in Ipanema) all the way to Leblon where I could also catch the same van. Just as I was about to offer up R$1 to get it over with, I heard another person shouting at me. It was the cobrador (fare collector) of the van I had been waiting for. Giving him a quick wave to stop the van, it blocked out the view of the lone peddler and I got on and went home.

To this day, I don’t know what would have happened if I let him approach me. At the most, I suppose I could have lost a simple bag of spaghetti or maybe the bus fare. In the least, I would have helped someone in need. He was the one breathing thing that could have stood in the way of my belief that, crime-wise, Brazil isn’t as bad as others say it is.

What your momma gave you

I often wonder where the Weapons Convention is being held. There are so many of them: barely pubescent, fledgling girls, all of them strapped to the nines. Their weapon of choice? Their own sexuality, seemingly ready to be used at a moment’s notice. Micro shorts, meaty thighs, bare midriffs, an unadulterated sway of the hips. Considering their age, the only thing missing is their innocence.

All it takes is that “olhar 43”, to use a somewhat antiquated slang term that means a desiring glance in a fleeting moment. In the favela, it’s the moment that matters and it begs to be taken advantage of. In the same way that a chair might be seen as inviting one to sit on it, that look (that a teenage male from the favela learns early on) is an invitation to employ their bodies in what lies just around the corner. That is, some excitement along with the unspoken acceptance, or reaffirmation, of that which makes her desirable.

Many times the discharging of the weapon they carry results in a paradox – the ‘loss’ of a life (hers) and the gain of another life (her babies’). No longer can she reach the point where every young adult begins to question their place in the world and what they want from it (“Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Where am I going?”). Instead she gets pregnant because she trusts the guy who says it feels better without a condom and thereby continues a long-held cycle of babies having babies. Of course, this isn’t always the case, as the instigator can also be the young girl who believes it important to secure social status and financial stability. The result, as I witnessed on a daily basis, means one sees at least two dozen pregnant 12-16 year olds per day in the larger favelas.

Coming from sunny California, my own privileged view of these aspects of life are not lost on me. I grew up, like many of my fellow “United-Statesians” (as Brazilians sometimes like to point out), with the belief that the sky is the limit. From a Western viewpoint, I’ve lived most of my life on the poor side of the economic tracks but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the choice to live well, I do. It’s just that consumerism confuses me and makes me uneasy.

In the favela, one can’t always consume things, thus they consume moments and, inevitably, each other. In my year living in these Rio favelas (I only recently left), I got the sense that the day was just a break from the night and work was a break from partying. In my imagination, the favela comes carpeted and the youth walk around rubbing their sock-wearing feet on the ground. While the sparks are just a touch away, I wonder when the shock becomes less attractive.

In the dozen years that I’ve spent studying Brazil, the desire to refute one oft-repeated stereotype has waned. In terms of it being a highly-charged sexual culture, I’d say that it is (at least amongst the youth), both on a personal level and in social settings. Like the lyrics of one popular funk song say, “senta, senta, senta, senta” (“sit, sit, sit, sit!”), the proverbial chair doesn’t just invite one to sit on it once. It either makes you sit or it tires you until you do.

(As for the first photo, it’s from a favela beauty contest but it’s pretty close to the typical way of dress for teen girls)

Shadow Soldiers: Brazil


National Geographic will be airing a documentary a la Elite Squad tonight at 9PM with correspondant British Chris Ryan (pictured). It is called Shadow Soldiers: Brazil. Here’s the description (and here’s the video introduction)…

“Chris Ryan travels to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil where he spends a week training with and operating alongside BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion of Rio’s military police. The squad’s specialty is crime fighting in the city’s slums or favelas where they have to face armed and drugged up gangs of youths who protect a vast drug dealing network. Chris Ryan trains with the squad, learning techniques for fighting in the favelas before accompanying them on a real mission to confront a drug gang holed up in one of the city’s largest favelas. After a dramatic shootout in the streets of the favela, the BOPE unit succeeds in dispersing the drug gang and disrupting their drug dealing activities.”


I finally got a chance to check out “Shador Soldiers: Brazil” and learned that was just what National Geographic called it. The actual show is called “Chris Ryan’s Elite World Cops” and the host has extensive experience as a former member of the SEC, the British Special Forces.

The show itself, while entertaining, is a bit ‘softcore’ but I’m sure that was the plan all along, to take a journalist into a real battle might not end too well for the journalist. Plus, doing an easier mission allows BOPE (the Brazilian Special Forces) to show off their skills. Chris Ryan praised their methods highly and while he knows better than I do, I can’t help but wonder if he highly praises all teams he works with on his program. Then again, Special Forces units are supposed to be in top shape, so perhaps my point is moot.

Two Brothers Foundation – Redefining Rocinha

I’d like to talk a little about an organization working out of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, who is helping to redefine the way favelas are looked at by bringing in volunteers to work within them. Through two institutions, the Two Brothers Foundation and the Two Brothers Institute (called the ‘2bros’ and ‘i2i’, respectively), the organizers and volunteers have the opportunity to redefine their vision of poor communities in developing nations as well as directly affect the communities themselves. According to 2bros, here’s a little of what they do in their own words, taken from their ‘About Us‘ page…

Two Brothers

“The mission of Two Brothers is to provide educational opportunities in neighborhoods such as Rocinha through local and international community service and cultural exchange.

Of course, one of the strongest and most important aspects of 2bros/i2i continues to be the intimate interaction between scores of international volunteers and researchers who come to live and work with 2bros/i2i in Rocinha and students and other residents of the favela. Over the past twelve months alone more than 100 people from around the world have volunteered their time and skills with Two Brothers. These dedicated men and women, along with the students and staff of i2i, help make our organization a sort of “organic university” in which the educational experience goes far beyond book leaning and the confines of the classroom into a firsthand, lived contact with the complex and intensely human realities of the lives of everyday people. It is difficult to calculate the enormous value and far reaching benefits that come from such an exchange. On the one hand, this exchange creates a tremendous flow of information, experience, and perspectives that enrich the lives of the volunteers and those of the residents of Rocinha alike. On the other, it contributes greatly to the general understanding of the profound humanity of people living in poor communities like Rocinha and helps raise consciousness about issues of social exclusion and violence in Brazil an around the world, as volunteers and researchers pass on the knowledge they gain through word of mouth, the dissemination of the audiovisual material they produce, and the publication of research results coming out of their intense interaction with their students and neighbors.”


To get a closer look at the day to day activities of 2bros/i2i, check out their Photos & Videos page, which houses several thirty minute videos on the subject. I reccomend checking them out as they will change your impression of how the favelas are (as opposed to how they are portrayed in international hits such as Cidade de Deus).

One of the people bringing awareness to the 2bros is DJ Zezinho who I’ve met here in California a few years back. I spoke with him recently and although he doesn’t remember me, he got a chance to tell me of his day long tours of Rocinha which can be set up by contacting him on his site. Another interesting character is the Aussie Tahnee who has been living in Rocinha for almost a year and started a fashion line called Hijinx, which showcases clothing made inside Rocinha itself.

Here’s an idea of where you could be housed, if you volunteered with 2bros and wished to live within Rocinha in order to get a firsthand experience.