Beaches, Favelas, Romance, Sights, and Sounds; Tudo Bem no Brasil

My stay in Brazil was quite eventful. Perhaps, more eventful than even I would have liked.

Before I start, can I just quickly rant about two things? Ok, thanks. Firstly, laundry service in Brazil is ridiculously expensive; about $15 ridiculous; for one week’s worth. Ridiculous. Secondly, I was perplexed at the rate at which people don’t speak English in Brazil! I mean, you would expect a few English speakers in a cosmopolitan city such as Rio de Janeiro, but alas, most people in the service industry spoke little to know English; and this included Taxi drivers, hostel staff, bar staff, etc. Before you accuse me of being an imperialist, I will have you know that I speak three international languages quite fluently and I “get by” on a handful of others, so I’m by no means a conquistador; but I was severely hampered, at least for the first few days, by my inability to speak Portuguese which frustrated me greatly. Ok, thanks for your patience; on with our show.

The first thing that struck me, besides the beauty of the women of course, was the Brazilian way of life. Those guys live on easy street. No lie. From their liberal romantic ways, to their casual street parties, Brazilians know how to have fun; even when poor.

I spent my first few days in Rio hitting up tourist attractions; from Christ The Redeemer to Sugarloaf mountain and the beaches; there was quite a lot to do.

Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
Christo Redentor (Christ The Redeemer)
Escadaria Selarón (Selaron Steps) was renovated/created by Chilean artist, Jorge Selaron over a 20 year period. Mr. Selaron was found dead one morning on these very steps, next to his house.

After a few days in Rio, I traveled to Salvador, because you can’t go to Brazil and not visit Salvador!

I arrived in Salvador excited to see what it had to offer. I had heard many tales about this city that was the first slave port in the Americas and its Afro-Brazilian culture, so I was pumped to finally be here. When my Uber arrived in a Fiat to pick me up at the airport, the driver looked a little different from his picture, so I asked in my broken Portuguese if his name was Valdilson and he responded positively.

As we drove out of the airport, I noticed that every other car was a Fiat. I also was never really confident I was with the right guy, so I asked again, this time in a mix of Spanish and bad Portuguese:

Me: Is your name Valdilson?

Driver: No. Is your name Fagner?

Me: No. Oh Lord. Take me back, I’m in the wrong car (this was in some mix of English, Spanish, and perhaps Portuguese).

Driver: Calma. Tranquilo.

He then pursed his lips and gestured that he would take me anyway. Great, the only problem was that he didn’t know where I was going, and I couldn’t tell him. Anyway, after about an hour of wrong turns and getting lost in translation, we somehow got through the language barrier and understood each other enough to find my hostel.

I got to my hostel thinking I could relax, only to find that nobody spoke English there either. As I mentioned before, this happened quite often. The first few days were really tough, but after warming to the language, I had a much better experience.

Pelourinho, named a World heritage Site by UNESCO is a huge tourist attraction.
Left: The square where Michael Jackson shot the “They Don’t Care About Us” video. Right: Nigeria Cultural House, which seemed to be permanently closed 😦
This guy tried to rob me moments after taking this picture. Long story, but thankfully I was on top of my game!

I had a very good time in Salvador; I joined a Capoeira class, caught an Olodum practice session, experienced the famed Salvadorian nightlife and escaped an attempted mugging. One thing I heard a lot from the locals in Salvador was how it was the real Brazil, and not the fake Brazil like Rio. They didn’t seem to be fans of Cariocas (people from Rio). I didn’t quite understand it because I love Rio and couldn’t wait to go back!

Yes, life seemed easy in Brazil, but this is obviously not the entire story. There is a lot of economic strife and/or poverty experienced by a lot of the Brazilian people. A short stroll through one of the favelas, and you see a totally different picture than what is painted in Copacabana or Ipanema. Another obvious observation is the racism. Some don’t even bother to mask it. Non-black Brazilians wont be very happy to read this, so let me address them: you should never tell a black person or a person of minority for that matter, not to feel discriminated against when they do. Please accept that there are certain things you are bound to not understand, not through any fault or shortcoming of yours, but simply because you do not walk our walk. And that goes for all non-minorities by the way, not just Brazilians.

Whilst at the airport, on my way back to Rio, I was asked for my ID at every turn, even after going through security; it was most glaring when just upon entering the plane, I was again asked to present identification. Of course, no one else around me (all non-blacks) were subjected to this treatment. I was once followed around a store, yes that happens everywhere, but I’ve never experienced it at this level; the looks I got were so intense that I actually wondered if I came to steal anything. I have one more anecdote, not sure if this is due to racism or old age, but I will share. Whilst I waited for a bus in Copacabana, there was an old white woman next to me. When the bus came, she extended her hand and yelled at me to help her, while I didn’t think she needed to yell, I was only too happy to oblige. As I led her unto the bus, she again yelled at me, this time to let go of her hand. After speaking briefly with the bus driver, she realized that she was on the wrong bus. Turning to where she expected to see me, she yelled again, extending her arm, to help her off the bus. Again, I was happy to assist. Of course, upon reaching the bench, she pulled her hand away from me and once more, yelled at me to let go. Honestly, I think this falls more under old age shenanigans than it does racism, but I needed to find a place to tell this story!

Copacabana and Ipanema

Coming back to my original point, race relations in Brazil have deep roots in slavery and the immediate aftermath of slavery. It may not be obvious to the casual visitor, but for someone who studied the history of Brazil, I was attentive and very sensitive to all things race.

Ok, now that I’m done race baiting, let’s talk alcohol!

Caipirinha has always been my favorite cocktail, but after tasting it in its home country, my love for it has reached unthinkable levels. Goodness me! It is a cocktail made with Cachaca (local Brazilian liquor – sugar cane brandy), sugar, and lime…and whatever else you want to put in it. I am (not)ashamed to confess that drinking Caipirinha became a daily affair for me, at least until a Carioca I met took me to a place that specializes in all types of Cachaca and bought me a shot of Cachaca de Jambu. That was the last time I tasted Cachaca in any form; My tongue and lips were numb for almost 24 hours. It was without doubt, the strongest alcoholic drink I ever tasted and probably is at the same level of industrial alcohol. Of course, the staff and local guests had a great time watching me wonder if I had just committed suicide. I maybe should have taken a picture or video of it, but I guess I had temporarily lost my faculties at that time. Lastly, I’m not really into giving unsolicited travel advice, but I will make an exception here: If anyone offers you a shot of Cachaca de Jambu, Run. For. Your. Life!

Upper right: Cachaca blanca; Lower right: where I tried the infamous Cachaca de Jambu. Don’t tell my mum.

Much of this trip, I have sought adventure for reasons I discussed here, but even when I didn’t seek adventure, adventure seemed to find me.

A few friends came to Brazil, so we got an apartment together. It so happened that this apartment bordered a pretty dangerous favela. I later learned that some small favelas are actually surrounded by nice/rich neighborhoods, which was the case here. Anyway, one day I took one of these friends to buy groceries and on our way back, we made a wrong turn.

About 10 minutes into our walk, we found ourselves in the favela. It probably wasn’t too late to correct our mistake, but perhaps due to being black men with pride and not wanting to show the other fear, neither of us objected to the idea of continuing on the path. It was after another ten minutes or so did we realize how stupid we had been. The looks on both our faces must have told an epic story because I could see the fear in his eyes and I’m pretty sure he could the fear in mine as well, but it was too late to turn back.

Maybe it was the grocery bags we carried or just the fact that we were new faces, but everyone seemed to look at us and call out at us in a language we barely understood. And when an old man took it upon himself to tell us in English, “go back, no safe for you”, we were thankful that we were only one more turn from our street. We got back very thankful and excited about our brush with “danger”. A little story that made the others envious of us. This would not be the only time I found myself in a favela. The next time was not going to be without incident.

About a week prior, I met a young Brazilian, Oli, on Ipanema beach who offered to take a picture of me and a friend. It turned out, Oli spoke fluent French and about four other languages including Portuguese of course. Anyway, I was leaving town the following day so we agreed to get in touch upon my return to Rio. Even though he told me he would take me to a favela, nothing could have prepared me for what we would experience.

It started off pretty normal; we met up at Ipanema beach and after soaking up the sights and sounds of Ipanema, we set off for the favela. “Vidigal”, was his response to my question of which favela we would be going to. I thought the name sounded familiar, but what the heck? I was in good hands. We got off the bus at the central bus station and proceeded to make our way to the top (you would recall that favelas, Brazilian slums, are usually up in the hills away from “regular life”. I believe the first favela was built by soldiers after the War of the Canudos because they had nowhere to live).

To get into the favela proper, you can either take a minibus or hop on a motorcycle taxi. These taxis are actually young men on power/race bikes, so it was a no-brainer for us! At least until my taxi hit first gear. I don’t know if they planned to race each other, but it certainly felt like an unnecessary race. I’ve never been so sure that I was going to be in a motorcycle crash. Besides worrying about the recklessness of my motorcycle “ruff ryder”, I also had to worry about the fact that neither I nor him knew where we were going. Even worse, I couldn’t see Oli and his bike; we had either dusted them, or we had gone farther than we were supposed to. Of course, when ruff ryder asked me where to stop, I had no idea how to tell him in Portuguese, and even if I did, I had no idea where to stop. Ruff ryder decided to take me to the very top and drop me off in front of a park. He then spoke excitedly and though I barely understood him, the high-five he offered me made me realize that he was praising himself for getting to the top first. Using his hands, he told me to wait for my amigo. I put on a brave face and responded, “valeu!”

After about two minutes of waiting and wondering what I had gotten myself into, Oli and his not-so-ruff ryder appeared. Phew! Oli then said hello to a group of menacing looking men, I thankfully didn’t see, standing behind me. I’m not sure I would have maintained composure. We then set off on foot to check out Vidigal; there was something he wanted to show me. On our way, we ran into a police post. A few years ago, the government, after realizing that their “total war” on the gangs was not working, finally acquiesced to community policing, where the police force would move into the favelas, use less force but get more involved in the community. This had worked for a while, but over time, much of the police force had reverted to their old ways.

Just as we walked past this police post, the policemen stationed there decided to go on a patrol. What was worse is that this heavily armed men seemed to be following our path. There were so many things unsettling about this. I had heard so many horror stories of the police in favelas, shooting and killing innocent people with their shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach. Also, there was often sporadic fire between police and gangs, so I was a bit nervous when they followed us, guns in arms. After about a minute of walking, the policemen were still behind us, so Oli asked that we speed up to avoid people associating us with the police, but we had to be careful to not seem like we were trying to lose the police either, lest they chase us for looking suspicious.

We succeeded in losing the police after cutting through alleys and jumping a few walls. As we went through one alley, we witnessed what I would describe here as an “exchange of merchandise”. Though we kept walking, I wondered if the “players” noticed us, but I could see that Oli was a bit relaxed, which in turn made me relax. A few minutes later, we arrived at an iconic spot where parts of the movie, City of Men was filmed. However, just as he was taking a picture of me, a group of young men motioned towards us and asked that we join them, when Oli politely refused, they clarified that it was not a request. I kept looking at Oli for some reassurance, but when I didn’t see it in his face, I knew we had a situation.

They wanted to know who we were and why we “brought” cops to the area. While they interrogated us, one of them decided to rest his gun on the table in front of us. Of course, we explained what happened, well, Oli did, while I smiled, but they didn’t seem eager to believe us. After pleading with them for about 10 minutes and dropping names of the people he knew in the area, they finally recognized one of Oli’s friend’s names, which turned out to be our saving grace. After the dust settled, they offered to host us to drinks, especially because they wanted me, the foreigner, to enjoy their favela and take home good stories. When Oli translated their generous offer, I started to say yes, but Oli quickly declined and used the excuse that we still had to hike up the famous Two Brothers hill just outside the favela. I was disappointed we didn’t get to hang with the gang, but glad that Oli saved me from myself.  As he would later tell me, taking them up on their offer could have been one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. In hindsight, while I’m sure I would have had a better story to tell if we accepted their offer, I don’t know how bad the experience could have been.

If you have watched “City of Men” you might remember scenes on the top and bottom right. I was looking to pose for a picture in the same spot before trouble came.

After they let us go, we immediately made our way to the hill and hiked up almost an hour to the top. There I found breathtaking views of the city of Rio. I also, at the urging of my new Brazilian friend, stood and sat on the hill’s edge at various times to fully appreciate the beauty. It was so liberating to do something so dangerous, something I would never do, at least not under normal circumstances. Do. Not. Tell. My. Mum. Please.

At the top of Morro Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers Hill)

Darkness broke, so we made our way down Two Brothers. We agreed that we would take the first bus we saw going down the favela, so I’m not sure why we decided to walk down. Yes, it was a beautiful night, but Vidigal is not necessarily a place you want to be walking through at night. 15 minutes into our descent, Oli said there was another thing he wanted to show. He stressed that it was safe and since the first place he showed me was an iconic scene in one of my favorite movies, I thought, “Eh, why not?”

We left the main road and meandered through a couple of alleys and stairs, and as we were about to cross a field, a few young kids yelled at us to stop. We weren’t sure of their exact location, nor were we certain they were even talking to us, so we kept going, but the call came again, and this time, even more furious. Looking above us on building tops, I saw what looked like shiny objects and then realized what was happening.

We apologized and hastily made our exit. Oli and I had planned on grabbing a bite at the bottom of Vidigal, in the more commercial and safe part, but I believe that we had had enough drama for one day, so without saying a word, we walked right past the restaurant.

Oli later explained to me that the armed guards/kids wouldn’t let us through until they could identify us and/or unless we had a good reason to be there. I got home that night quite thankful that it was my last night in Brazil. With all that had happened, I thought I needed a change of scenery.

Part of the reason I delayed this post was because I wasn’t sure whether to include my experience in Vidigal. I don’t want people worrying and I also don’t know where this information might end up, but what happened, happened.

Check out my Instagram page for more pictures and videos.

Song of the Day: Another very tough choice but I settled for Loka by Simone and Simaria. Loka is a massive hit in Brazil; I heard it so many times, I pretty much know the lyrics now! It wasn’t my first choice for song of the day, but I was afraid someone might look up the video for the other song. It is quite the video. You know Brazilians, hehe.

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