Sunday, August 3, 2014

The favelas of Rocinha and Vila Conoas, and beyond: our last day in Rio

For our final day in Rio de Janeiro, we made reservations for a tour of some of Rio’s favelas, the internationally notorious shantytowns that we had previously known only as the crime-ridden slums depicted in the movie City of God  as well as frequent press reports as we were preparing to come to Brazil.  We took taxicabs down to a very fancy looking hotel facing the Copacabana beach, where our tour guide, from the Marcelo Armstrong favela tour operation, met us with the vans that we would use for traveling to and within the favelas.  As we made our way along Copacabana, then Ipanema and Leblon and around Vidigal favela to the entrance to Rocinha, our guide laid out the company’s the perspective – that favelas are just communities like any other, where working people live because that is where they can afford to live; that the notorious criminality was the product of drug cartels that ran and ruined the communities; that, in at least some favelas, police-led pacification campaigns (UPP or Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora) have driven out the cartels and established peace and security for the residents; and that through constant police surveillance and massive allocation of police resources, the cartels have been kept at bay; and massive policing is all to the good.

The favelas were originally created by people who could not afford housing in Brazil’s middle-class neighborhoods along the ocean and baysides and who squatted on the public lands that ran up the inland hillsides where there were no roads.  Brazil has a strict five-year rule on adverse possession, that provides that anyone who resides continuously on land for at least five years gains the right to stay on the land, if not right to official title to the land; and unlike the United States where adverse possession (with a much longer term of years) runs only against private landowners, in Brazil it runs against the public as well.  So, as the squatting gradually spread up the hillsides, and as the government failed to respond by removing them, the entire hillsides were eventually occupied and were under private ownership.

On our way in a van up the winding road up into Rocinha, the first of the two favelas we visited, we passed by the American school; this was where Nancy’s sister Jean, who has spent her career teaching in American schools around the world and who taught in Rio many many years, had been a teacher.  We stopped at a small crafts market hugging the edge of the hillside, where we were urged to buy some paintings or other souvenirs (and we did).

Across the street, floor upon floor of dwellings were piled on top of each other.  The round blue tanks, we later learned, are collective collection facilities for rainwater.

Eventually, the road left the edge of the hillside and we drove into the favela.  We stepped into an apartment building along the road, walked through a basement/garage and stepped onto a concrete porch that afforded a view of the favela spreading our below and running from the beach edge all the way up to a steep ridge

The highrises in this photo are middle-class housing outside the favela

The colorful apartment buildings in the photo above are in the favela, but are newly constructed by the government’s Minha Casa Minha Vida program, which is giving poor families in large municipalities the opportunity to own their own homes.

The photo above shows the favela running up against a sheer cliff.  Because there is room for expansion outward, construction in response to the growing population goes to only way it can – upward.  The owners of existing structures can sell their air rights to enable such construction top of their buildings (does adverse possession apply to that, too, I failed to ask).

The white line running along the bottom of the cliff at the back of the favela is a water pipe that brings water town from the top of the ridge.  The cable TV, satellite dishes and internet access that can be seen in the photos are all a recent phenomenon that have sprung up since the UPP of Rocinha in 2011.

I had been wondering why middle class and upper class people were not coopting the favelas running up the hillsides given the fabulous views they afford, and I got one answer from this fact — in all the vastness of the Rocinho favela there were hardly any roads; the winding one we had followed from the bottom, and that we were still following to reach this apartment building, and would continue to follow until we left the favela, was the ONLY driveable road through the center of the favela.  It was around this road, which was originally used for Formula One road racing through the steep hillsides around Rio, that the favela grew up.  If you live close to a road, you can actually get a ride down the road if you can afford it, or at least you can easily walk out of the favela to a job in the wealthier parts of Rio.  But if you live deep in the favela, the only way to get around is by walking the narrow alleys between buildings (there are some photos below of the entrances to some Rocinha alleys; when we reached the Vila Canoas favela, we walked through a few alleys, and yes, they were amazingly dark and narrow).  In Rocinha, it could take an hour of navigating the alleys just to reach the winding road.  And the cost of apartments  tends to be a function of proximity to the road — in the apartment building from which the above photos were taken, rents were as much as 600 reais per month; those living an hour’s walk from the road will pay much less.

Still, our guide said, some gentrification is occurring in the favelas as more middle class people see the advantages of the favela locations(presumably, this is only in the pacified favelas, but I neglected to ask that specific question).   (we had heard of B&B’s in favelas that were available for accommodating World Cup visitors, for example) Who knows what the future holds in that regard, she said.

We got back into the van and drove into a commercial area,

There were incredible tangles of wires where people had tapped into the electrical lines

There were groups of police officers walking around the streets

and tooling about on motor bikes

Apparently, even three years after the "pacification," it still took a huge commitment of law enforcement resources to keep the community safe from the gangs.

Eventually, we were able to get out and walk around, peeking up the alleys

where we could see children playing futebol

In addition to the ever-present street art, some of the local enterprises  had their own art advertising their presence

We emerged at the bottom of the commercial strip to see an archway designed by Oscar Neimayer that allowed favela residents to cross a highway running past the favela so that they could reach a special athletics facility for residents only

Apparently, Rocinha had its OWN world cup competition, reflected in this bracket:

We then drove from Rocinha to the second Vila Canoas, which used to be a golf course until squatters took it over and obtained the land through adverse possession. 

It is across the street from an upper middle class neighborhood

Our guide explained that Vila Canoas has much more infrastructure than Rocinha.   For example, in Vila Canoas all the alleys have names,

and the houses have numbers so that the residents can receive mail there; the houses have electric meters instead of everybody patching into lines and stealing power (although, as you can see below, the same amazing tangles of wires could be seen in the alleys

We began our visit to an after-school, Para-Ti, that was originally financed by the head of Fiat’s Brazilian  operations, and  that receives 50% of the revenues from the Marcelo Armstrong favela tours.  The operation is designed to engage local children in activities that keep them off the street, and well as providing help with homework, lessons in English and the like.   There were hardly any children there when we came through in the late morning

Hanging in the gift shop, which sells handicrafts made by the students, was a Rocinha carnaval robe

Then we were off on a ramble through the alleys of the favela

Some of the alleys are so narrow that, even though the sky overhangs and it rains in, there isn’t room to put up an umbrella.  Sometimes, the sky was wholly out of sight; other times there was enough of an opening that we could plainly see the characteristic one-on-top-of-the-other construction’

seen here by looking down an enclosed space between several houses

We passed this nicely advertised chapel

At the end of our tour, we stopped at a small boteco where many of us ordered caiparinhas; the wall was decorated with heroes of the Seleção

While we drank some folks darted back into the alleys to browse at this craft market that we had just happened to pass

We left the favela and drove back toward Copacabana along the coast road, which was also part of the Formula One racing circuit.

But there was no racing today: it was another one of those traffic jams

As we got into Copacabana, we passed a row of footvolley courts on the beach

These children had apparently just got out of school -- all public school students throughout Rio were apparently required to wear this uniform shirt to school.

Sam and Nafisa had to get back to the hotel after lunch, so we took a wistful look at the Copacabana beach scene, then headed for lunch

We had decided that, for our last lunch, we were going to feast on meat at a churrascaria.  The guidebooks touted Porcão above all others, and Lance had suggested that we head for the Porcão in the Flamengo neighborhood, because it sits on the water and had great views.  Our favela guide, though, said that Porcão has become very expensive but opined that its quality has goner downhill; and she warned that we could not be sure of getting one of the tables with a good view.  She recommended that we try a churrascaria in her own Copacabana neighborhood, Carretão.  We found it easily and had a very nice lunch there.  It was the more typical kind of churrascaria where the wait staff bring skewers of meat to the table and you indicate whether you want them to slide a piece or cut slices onto your plate;

They also use the two-sided coin system – if you want the waiters to keep bringing selections to the table, you leave the green side of the disk up; but if you are stuffed and need to slow down, you turn over the disk to expose the red side.  Obviously, they get a fair amount of customer traffic from English-speaking tourists

Sam and Nafisa were in a hurry to get back to the hotel and get packed, but Nancy and I decided that we wanted  to take the subway back – could we really go to Rio and not try out the subway.  It was easy to use, and not at all crowded

We got off at the Gloria station and had no difficulty finding the right cobble-stoned street to climb back up to Santa Teresa

We arrive in plenty of time to hang out with Sam and Nafisa before their cab came to take them to the airport to begin their multi-leg flight to Zanzibar.

We were not heading home until the following day, so we were able to find a place to watch Argentina play the Netherlands – and what better place than Bar de Gomez around the corner from our B&B.  A voucher for a free chopp or caiparinha for each room resident came with the room, so it was time to use it.  We got to the bar an hour before the game; the tables were already taken, but the bartender indicated that we would eventually be able to have the table then occupied by a single woman who was nursing her bottle of beer oh-so-slowly.  She was still  nursing it gametime approached; she seemed to have little interest in what was appearing on the large TV screen  at the end of the room.  The bartender spoke to her and she begrudgingly indicated that we could sit with her.  We struck up a conversation with her – turns out her name was Francis and she was a Canadian who had moved to Rio more than 20 years ago.  She slowly finished her drink and headed off.

The bar was an old-fashioned place with gorgeous furniture and fixtures made out of marble and old wood.

By the second half, the place was packed. The game, however, was a disappointment.  Messi was well-controlled by Holland, and Arjen Robben did not look nearly as dangerous on TV against Argentina as he had looked in person against Costa Rica.  The game came down to penalty kicks, and although I was certainly rooting for Argentina, I have always liked Wesley Sneijder, and it was sad to see what is likely to be his last major game in a World Cup end with his penalty kick being saved.

For our last evening in Rio, Nancy and I decided to try Rio Scenarium , which we had skipped the night before. We had no trouble getting a table arriving before 9 PM. we had a simple dinner and caught the first set by samba singer Allessandra Crispim.

We made a fairly early night of it.  We still had to pack for the next day's long flight home -- we got very cheap round-trip tickets, but the price for that was having to fly from Rio back the Brasilia before we began our flights to Sao Paolo, then Miami, then finally back to National Airport in DC.  We had a big day ahead of us.

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