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A Day Out in the City of God

 A Day 
        Out in the City of God

There
is a different, heavier atmosphere on this side of the road;
a lot of loitering young men, soldiers of The Red Command who
rule the roost, watch us intently…. Now we walk through tightly
packed, identical blocks of flats all tied together with washing
lines and low-hanging electrical cables.
by: David
Alexander Robert

 

City
of God is the Brazilian film of the moment. Suddenly the name of
one of Rio’s so-called most dangerous favelas is sprawling across
cities. A place previously avoided by most Brazilians and known only
to a handful of foreigners working for NGOs, Cidade de Deus (in its
native language) has now attained fashionable status. Thus, I could
not resist the opportunity of spending a day there. It’s not the sort
of place I would just wonder into, especially in the capacity of a voyeur.

I had
an inroad, a contact in the local community who would accompany me during
my day. I had met my facilitator, Tony, long-time resident and photographer,
when I had been taken in one evening by the NGO Viva Rio, for a night
of rap music, part of the Urban Connections music project. I was to
learn that far from being a neighborhood of violence, it is a land of
creativity.

Though
I awake early, the day is already cruelly hot. It takes me two buses
to get from my apartment in the safety of the southern zone. I arrive
punctually at the agreed hour of 9am at the designated meeting place,
the district’s main square. No sign of Tony. I wait and watch a world
already in full swing of activity, when my mobile rings. It’s Tony:

"I’m
just going to take a quick shower. I’ll meet you at the bakery."

There’s
no tea at the bakery, only coffee. They can’t do the standard Brazilian
breakfast of hot French bread with cheese as the hot plate’s broken.
I have it cold. I’ve already been clocked, my clothes are different,
I’m different and I speak Portuguese with a strong accent. Shoeless
individuals drift towards me requesting coffee and bread. Young teenage
girls with mobile phones stuffed down their impressive cleavage stop,
stare and smile.

Tony
arrives, greets me fondly and buys some bread so we can have breakfast
at his sister’s house. We enter the street where she lives and we are
confronted by a burnt out VW transport van. I should explain that such
vans are the key to the local transport system. Drivers rent them from
co-operatives and for the same price as a bus (about 36 cents) they’ll
get to any one of the neighbouring districts or right into the southern
and central zones anytime of day or night.

The
driver and door-opening, fair-collecting assistant get half the money.
A guy and his son, neighbours of Tony’s sister, are scraping off the
burnt paint of the van’s interior. They amusingly explain that this
is all about a tale of the green devil, since an embittered wife set
light to the van in a jealous rage and now the co-operative is taking
civil action against her. The husband’s paying for the repairs.

I receive
a warm welcome at Tony’s sisters where I finally get a cup of tea, anise
taken from the neighbour’s overhanging plant. The small, yet cosy, front
room is full of sun-kissed children with bright eyes and dazzlingly
white teeth. They tear their gaze away from the television, featuring
the infamous Xuxa (once girlfriend of both Pelé and the formula
one driver, Ayrton Senna), to talk to this guy who speaks Portuguese
funny.

Tony
asks me what I want to do during the day. Good question, what do I want
out of my day? I just want to go walkabouts really, see the different
parts of the district and taste a bit of daily life. "Ok,"
he says, "I’ve got people to see, people I reckon you’ll find interesting
and I’ve got a bit of work to do." Sounds good to me. Our first
stop is the local Samba School, Mocidade Unida de Jacarepaguá.
Amongst discarded costumes of frogs, alligators, princes and knights,
a woman tells me that they’re awaiting the result of the parade of Group
E, the bottom group.

The
result is due at 3pm, and if they win the now dormant drums of varying
sizes resting behind her will get swooped up to make their musical magic
in street revelry. Tony reminds the two women present about a project
meeting taking place that evening at 8pm at the Residents’ Association
Centre. They already know about it and they’ll be there. Off we go again,
passing the motorbike taxi stand. I’m offered a tour of the neighbourhood
on the back of a bike, visiting all the tourist attractions, including
the places where the movie was filmed. "No thanks, I’m here all
day. I’ve time to walk around."

We
pass the Residents’ Association Centre to check everything is organised
for the meeting. I meet Maria Terezinha Justo de Jesus, the ex-president
of an NGO that supports youths and senior citizens. She now gives needlework
classes to the elderly and orphans. She’ll be at the meeting, as will
her friend, Benta, the president of The Senior Citizens’ Committee based
at the local orphanage.

A hand
written for sale notice on the wall grabs my attention: there’s a house
going for 1.600 dollars. We go next door to the Community Citizenship
Centre where I’m given a tour of the various administrative offices.
With beaming pride they show the new, fully equipped odontological room.
Unfortunately there’s no dentist, they’re still waiting for the government
to send one. We nip into Tony’s place, which doubles as a photographic
studio.

Local
Beauty

We
can barely squeeze in as the place houses seven young beauties who are
models in The Lens of Dreams project. As soon as they realise the American
(British, actually) speaks Portuguese, questions bombard from these
short-skirted and even shorter-shorted lovelies. Where am I from, how
long have I lived in Brazil, do I have a girlfriend, and what the hell
am I doing in CDD, as they fondly call it? I bounce questions back at
them and find out about the numerous European fashion magazines and
clothes designers that have come to CDD to shoot with the local models.

I also
learn about their plans to set up a web site called Pure Beauty
offering beauty tips. Heh, did you know that propolis, the resinous
substance used by bees for hive building is good for spots? And that
washing your face in the water used to rinse rice is good for the skin.
I ask if I can take a photo and amidst the cries of "not in these
shorts," "no way, I’m pealing," and "but I haven’t
washed my hair;" make-up gets passed around, clothes get exchanged
and hairbrushes get tossed between mirrors.

"What
ever happened to pure beauty?" I enquire.

"Not
during a photo shoot, darling."

I get
to take my photos out on the street in front of crumbling walls supporting
inclined bicycles. As I look through the viewfinder of my cheapo camera
I notice that only one of the seven is even approaching the height required
to be a catwalk model. Tony gets in the photo, as does a three-year-old
nephew of one of the models, and as the midday sun punishes their bare
shoulders, a beauty, a pure beauty radiates from them all.

Off
we go again on our travels, popping our heads into auntie’s house to
be told `lunch ready in 5.’ We take a walk over the footbridge, across
the Yellow Line, a major road that splits the district. On the other
side is the housing estate, the first part to be built back in the early
sixties. Tony explains that various favelas in the southern zone
suffered floods in 1966 and the inhabitants were moved to these buildings.
Inhabitants were also moved from other favelas that weren’t affected
by the floods but were demolished anyway in a campaign to clean up middle-class
areas. That’s what brought Tony to the neighbourhood himself, when he
was five years old.

There
is a different, heavier atmosphere on this side of the road; a lot of
loitering young men, soldiers of The Red Command who rule the roost,
watch us intently. I am not to take the camera out here. Tony goes to
speak to a middle-aged man in a wheel chair. I am summoned over and
the man in the wheelchair offers me his hand and welcomes me. Now we
may continue, walking through tightly packed, identical blocks of flats
all tied together with washing lines and low-hanging electrical cables.

We
pass the home of Coroado, one of the two local blocos _ that’s
a carnavalesque group that Pied Pipers through the streets. It’s nearly
lunchtime, so we make our way back to the footbridge. A VW van screeches
to a halt and an excited man jumps out clutching a chit of paper. Coroado
has come second in its bloco group. They’ll be a party on the
streets tonight. As we leave, the riders of the motorbike taxi firm
on this side of town offer me a guided tour of the major tourist attractions.

Seconds
a Must

Lunch
is ready, so a table is improvised in my honour and apologies are made
about the fact that the tablecloth is not clean. A huge plate of rice,
beans, polenta and dried meat with pumpkin knocks my recently manifested
vegetarian principles back down to a polite corner somewhere in my bowels.
I accept the offer of seconds but my request for just a little is ignored/not
heard/not acceptable. A man arrives delivering a stack of boxes. It
turns out that auntie, as well as making a mean dried meat and pumpkin,
is an Avon representative. I get given a musk marine deodorant which
I immediately take to the bathroom and slash all over in an attempt
to counteract the effects of a punishing sun.

Back
on the street the guy has got the engine out of the incinerated VW van.
Every rubber seal and tube and all the electrical cables have been burnt
out, but the block is still OK. He chuckles to himself and thanks the
lord for the thoroughness of a jealous wife who has given him a good
week’s work. It’s 3 o’clock, so we decide to pass the samba school to
find out the result. A couple of nearby gunshots divert us into another
aunt’s house for a glass of water.

Fireworks
go off: that means the police are in town. We spend a sufficient length
of time at the aunt’s house, while things settle down outside, as Tony’s
advice is sought about whether his cousin Wagner is responsible enough
to be bought a motorbike to become a mototaxi rider.

Passing
the samba school, we learn that the judges are still in conference.
We go on to DJ Duda, the king of funk. DJ Duda has been producing funk
for years, he discovered the band Bonde do Tigrão,
which has toured the world. He tells me of his recent moment of
fame when he got to play five tracks during DJ Marlboro’s set at the
Urban Connections gig last week.

"I
was there mate," I tell him.

"Great.
You should come to one of my funk parties on a Sunday evening at Coroado’s."

"We
just heard they came second in their bloco group"

"Nice
one," he exclaims. "They’ll be a party there tonight."

Tony
tells Duda about the evening project meeting but he already knows. I’m
starting to get a sense of the rhythm of my day. A lot of interesting
people need to be told about a meeting that they are already well aware
of. Clutching my second gift of the day, a funk compilation CD, we go
to visit the director of a young filmmaking group called Mouth of Films.
They’ve just completed a documentary made with borrowed equipment called
Frontier, which compares the two sides of CDD, "the
poor and the miserable." The poor are those who live in the housing
estate, the miserable those who live in an area called Rocinha II, with
its constructions of nailed together bits of wood with discarded pieces
of asbestos as roofs.

They
tell me how the film crew donated food baskets to help the poor families
being interviewed. They go on to describe some of the highlights of
the documentary. There’s Dona Rose, who’s been pregnant thirty times,
but only seventeen of the children are still alive. Then there’s the
five-year-old, blind, deaf and dumb boy who lived in a cot. When the
crew returned with food, the family had moved back to the Northeast.
Another glass of cold water is downed and we have to make a 5 o’clock
photo shoot with the models.

"You
know about tonight’s meeting?" Tony enquires.

"We
sure do. We’ll be there."

The
models have undergone a transformation since I last saw them. Now heavily
made-up, hair dripping with gel and tight clothes clinging their skinny,
adolescent forms, they are all involved in a heated discussion. With
them all squawking at once I find it hard to follow. As Tony calms things
down a bit, I am treated to a potted version. There was a street party
on the Tuesday night of Carnaval and model Elisa is out with Pepé,
who’s the ex-boyfriend of Dani, friend of the model Shirley. Now Shirley’s
got the hump with her boyfriend, Philipe, `cos he’s been flirting with
the model Carol. Meanwhile Dani gets her friend Gisele to spray Elisa,
who’s out with Dani’s ex-boyfriend remember, with some Carnaval spray
and Carol gets hit in the crossfire. Carol is so pissed off she goes
to tell the authorities, i.e. one of the young soldiers of the Red Command.
When available he comes over and reminds them of the laws of the land:
no disputes, no attracting attention during parties.

It’s
a time when the Command needs a police-free environment to conduct business
activities. "Do I know the punishment for breaking the laws?"
"No." I’m informed. It’s headshaving for women and a beating
for men. The incident gets nipped in the bud; a shaven head is not the
way forward for a young model. By now a fresh argument has started.
Carol went to Gisele’s house and borrowed a hairdryer without permission,
saying it was for Gisele. Tony reminds them they are here to work and
that if they can’t be professional he won’t bother wasting his time.
The mood changes dramatically and all of a sudden models set up lights,
load cameras with film, clear the mini stage, fix each other’s hair
and straighten each other’s clothes. What goes on from hereon is pure
work, pure professionalism, pure beauty.

Meeting’s
Off

It’s
now nearly time for the meeting. We grab a slice a cold pizza on the
street and have a look in a second hand shop. I spot a kerosene lamp
which I ask the man to put aside as it will be useful for camping. Tony
is also into camping and so picks up one of the many of Vespa satellite
telephone receivers and tells me that we should buy some. I can’t see
the connection between camping and a now defunct telephone system that
nobody uses since the price of mobiles has gone down and more landlines
have been laid. He’ll tell me later.

We
make it to the Residents’ Association Centre a bit after eight and there’s
a large crowd assembled outside. They can’t enter because of a double
booking, there’s a church service going on which consists of a man on
an organ and a woman singing to a congregation of three. There’s a great
deal of grumbling going on in the assembled crowd as it’s now 8.30 and
the president of the Residents’ Association hasn’t appeared yet. This
is more of a problem than I imagine as the meeting has actually been
called by him to discuss accommodation problems.

Tony
has a small crowd assembled around him in front of the centre. I join
the huddle and find all the faces that I’ve met during the course of
my day. "You’re still here then. Having a good day?" they
enquire. Tony decides to call the project meeting off as the priority
is housing and he doesn’t wish to sidetrack this. They all disperse,
bidding me a fond farewell.

"What
would the meeting’ve been about?" I ask.

"I
want them to get behind a system of centralised funding where money
comes into the neighbourhood and is then shared among projects. Some
people were a bit reluctant at first, as it seems bureaucratic. But
I told them that they’d just be doing what they’ve always been doing,
but in a more organised fashion and with some forward planning. And
it brings in more money. They’re coming round to the idea."

Tony
decides to take me to Rocinha II, to see the misery of improvised housing.
Finally we give some custom to a mototaxi firm and cruise over the river
into a labyrinth of pothole-filled lanes lined with wooden shacks. As
our bikes brush past people freeze and we are stared at by big-eyed,
pot-bellied children, women with babies in arms, men in improvised bars
clutching glasses of beer and old people knowingly chewing. With our
bikes side by side, Tony shouts above the noise of the engines. He tells
me that there are about a thousand dwellings in the area.

It
gets its name from the fact that after landslides in the mid-nineties
in Rocinha, South America’s largest favela with a population
of over two hundred thousand, many of the homeless moved here. The tour
is rapid and we get dropped off back at the second hand shop. We pay
the riders, 55 cents each. Tony has found a hair dryer, the type you
sit under. He decides to buy it for his photo studio cum dressing room
cum home.

"That
should put an end to arguments about borrowing hair dryers," I
chirp.

"Are
you joking? They’ll just argue about who uses it first."

Tony
explains to me the connection between camping and satellite telephone
receivers. I’m impressed and I buy a couple together with the kerosene
lamp, though embarrassingly I have to borrow some money off him. We
go to Tony’s for a demonstration of what you can do with a satellite
receiver. Hooking up the 12 volt, rechargeable, sealed lead battery
to one of those emergency strip lights that you plug into the place
where the cigarette lighter is in your car, gives you about 12 hours
of strong illumination. He is the envy of the campsite.

Clutching
my bags of shopping I am walked to the main road by Tony and the model
Gisele, who’s really chuffed with the new hair dryer, and we learn that
the Samba School came near bottom of their group. A van stops and Tony
and I embrace each other warmly as I thank him for a great day out.
I sit in the van, which will get me home for 36 cents, and start drifting
off already planning my next visit.

The
funk party on Sunday? Another weekday visit with a better camera? It
all seems a bit inappropriate now. The next time I come I want to give
something rather than take. I don’t want to be yet another visiting
gringo, the type who has exploited these lands throughout their history.
I too must seek to be an angel in the City of God.

 

David
Alexander Robert is a British freelance writer and journalist who
has been living in Brazil for over five years. He can be contacted
on: davealexrob@yahoo.com 

 

 

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