Fears dispelled

We arrived in Rio two days before the opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. I was a little nervous and apprehensive about Rio. Media portrayal of the dangers of the Favelas (where we were staying), needing to watch your belongings at all times, “you’re bound to be pick pocketed at some stage”, anger and protests about how the Brazilian government and FIFA were neglecting the Brazilian people. I wasn’t so sure about it.

We arrived in Rio late at night and were met by Gabriel who showed us to our room in the hostel he’d recently opened in anticipation for the high demand for accommodation during The World Cup. He was exhausted, we were tired from our trip from London, so we said good night.

During the night, sounds of explosions filled the air. Sleep was disturbed with nightmares of gangs, guns, hiding, feeling terrified. All the documentaries I’d watching back in the UK about the dangers of the Favelas were coming to life. What had we got ourselves in for? 

The next morning I woke with the sun and stepped up onto our rooftop terrace to take in this place. What a beautiful view! Beach, Favelas, mountains. Rio looked so beautiful and our neighbourhood, so peaceful and calm. Layers of colourful houses, open terraces, surrounded by jungle; a fair contrast to what I’d expected.

I was quick to ask Gabriel what was going on last night. What was with all those loud bangs and explosions? “Oh, that was just kids playing with bombs”, he reassured. Over the three weeks we stayed in the Favelas, this sound became almost like the soundtrack to our time there. Out of excitement for the World Cup, people were celebrating in whatever way they could, whistles, painting their houses, setting off fireworks and for the kids in the Favelas, setting off home made bombs. 

To really understand life here, I had to live it and experience it for myself and realize that sometimes you have to go beneath the surface. I was reminded by “The Dangers of a Single Story” TED Talk I’d watched, where Chimamanda Adichie speaks about the fact that you cannot judge or form an opinion on people, a place or culture by a single story. I feel that perhaps, lately, the single story we’ve been hearing of life in Favelas is that of drugs, trafficking and violence. It was nice to experience and to be able to tell a different story.

A different story

In the Favela’s, particularly in Chapeu Manguera and Babelonia where we spent most of our time, everyone knows everyone. You pass the same people on our way down to get your morning swim at the beach and again on your way up after a day of exploring Rio.

Half way down the hill, where the two Favelas meet is a community centre. Each day we witnessed new activities taking place; football matches with local kids, dance classes with young girls dressed in elaborate costumes, aerobics classes for adults and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

We heard, first hand from people living within the favelas, what life was like for them. 

We met 18 year old Anderson through Spin Rocinha, a DJ school that has been set up to provide free training for young people within the largest, and perhaps most notorious Favela in Brazil, Rocinha. Anderson is a pretty remarkable kid, and a perfect example of a different story, one which highlights the importance of tight knit communities of favelas. 

Since he was a baby, it’s just been Anderson and his Mum at home, but Anderson’s Mum works in domestic care, so spends most of her time (Monday to Friday and some weekends) living and working away from home. As a result, Anderson had to learn, very early on, how to cook and clean and look after himself. He described one incident when he was about 10 years old. He’d gone to sleep, forgetting to blow out a candle and woke to his small home filled with fire and smoke. He laughed as he told us the story, but admitted that it was a pretty scary experience. 

I felt so sad and protective for this young kid who had to grow up, essentially on his own. He quickly corrected me. Throughout his whole childhood he always has people around him; if it wasn’t his Mum, he had his neighbours, his aunts, cousins, friends. 

Visiting his home in the back alleyways of Rocinha, we could understand how this could happen. Houses piled upon houses; windows and front doors, facing right into someone else’s home. Whilst with Anderson, he jumped on facebook to message some friends. Five minutes later three of his best mates were at his door-step, all ready to hang out. I could understand why he seemed like such a happy and stable kid.

He explained that when his Mum did come home, he’d give her the biggest hug and they’d talk and talk and he just loved that. He reassured that he was never really alone and that, to him, is what is so special about Rocinha.

Seventeen-year-old Vitoria also offered a different story. She admitted that she is unique among her school friends as being one of the only ones who hasn’t fallen pregnant. She explained how the Brazilian culture is very sexy; the music, the fashion and it is so easy for young people to get caught up in it all and miss out on other opportunities. As Vitoria attested, opportunities do exist and favela life is not always about struggle and hardship.

Despite growing up in a favela ad coming from modest means, she has taken and created every opportunity possible. Currently, Vitoria, is taking part in a free fashion design course offered by a French organization in a neighboring favela and has set her sights on a scholarship to study fashion in the US. Based on her passion and determination, I have every belief that she’ll make it happen.

Tomaz (53 years) provided perspective from someone who’s been around a bit longer. Tomaz values his role within the community of Babelonia very highly and is respected and loved for it in return. Despite working three jobs (this is apparently typical of people living in Favelas), he is always around and takes every opportunity he can to look out for people.

Babelonia, like many of the Favelas, has had its fair share of issues with drugs and violence.  What Tomaz taught us, however, is that this darker side of favela life is the exception, rather than the norm. It’s more of a case where a small few have created a reputation for the entire community. What seems more prominent is the sense of a tight knit community, where people look out for and do what they can for each other. 

Tomaz explained how he’s always hanging out with the young people; asking what they’ve been up to, how they’re doing, taking care to steer those who’ve been led astray back in the right direction. He’ll also talk to parents about their role. At parties, he’d warn parents that by bringing their kids along, they were putting them in a situation where it was easy for the traffickers to seduce and recruit the young and naïve.

My guess is that Tomaz has the advantage of being one of the coolest, funkiest 53 year olds I’ve ever come across, so I can see how the young would look up to him with respect. At one of the many parties within Babelonia, we witnessed Tomaz take centre stage with some of the funkiest dance moves I’ve ever seen. So much style, so much swagger, oozing charisma. Babelonia was lucky to have this great man and we felt lucky to meet him and be considered his amiga and amigo!

Copa del Mondo

Tom convinced me that coming to Rio during The World Cup would be the perfect opportunity to witness people from around the world come together (Yes, that’s right! It had nothing to do with his obsession with football at all ☺). But he was right. When we’d walk down Copacabana beach, we’d see Mexicans hugging Algerians; Argentinians engaging in friendly banter with the Germans; people from all over the world decked in yellow and green; celebrating Brazil and the beautiful, vibrant, passionate culture of this amazing country. 

In the Favelas it was an opportunity to celebrate; to dance, shout, throw BBQs with locals and foreigners, blow whistles, set of fireworks and show us a side of life that may not always get seen and to be known and celebrated for that.

All the controversy and corruption aside (that’s for another day), I guess what The World Cup does is allow people from very different economic, geographical, social, cultural and religious backgrounds to come together as equals, as players in the same game; football. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if this could continue long after the final whistle is blown? If, despite our differences, we could take the one-ness and togetherness of The World Cup and be seen as equals in the game of life?