Because we were in Brazil for the express purpose of reporting, that is what we did. Without giving ourselves more than a moment to adjust, we grabbed our cameras and tripod and met up with our translator, Thiago.
Thiago is awesome. It is because of him Roshan and my trip was one of the best weeks of our lives. It is because of him I now understand more than ever that being in a new place with a local is a must. I will detail the adventures we had more thoroughly in a different post, but if I have one word of advice for the hopeful traveler, it is this: spend as much time with locals as possible. They open the city for you like it’s an oyster, revealing a pearl you’d never have been able to find on your own.
One of the funny things about Thiago is that he’s Brazilian. That, in and of itself is not funny, but because he was so fluent in both languages, it was so easy to forget that he hadn’t grown up in America all his life. We’d be gently reminded periodically. For instance, the first time we met up with Thiago, he was 30 minutes late—it took us less than an hour in Brazil to become familiar with what locals call, “Brazilian time.” We eventually learned to tell Thiago we were meeting a half an hour before we actually needed to meet, just so we’d only end up being 15 minutes late. One day, Thiago showed up 20 minutes late and congratulated himself throughout the day for his punctuality.
Another great thing about Thiago was that, no matter what we told him was on our itinerary for the day, his response was always, “Alright, let’s get a snack and then we go.” Snacks are of the utmost importance in Brazil. There is nothing that needs to be done so urgently that a snack break cannot be squeezed in. But, because of Thiago’s inherent need to snack, Roshan and I got to try a lot of different, great Brazilian foods. After a week, I decided that the following are my favorite Brazilian delicacies:
Coxinha de Frango:
How did I find out about these two delicacies? The first time we met up with Thiago, before we got on the bus, of course, he wanted to stop for a snack. Considering it was my first afternoon in Brazil, I said, “What should I get, Thiago?” He told me to get both, and I never looked back.
A quick refresher: we were in Brazil to report on the human rights abuses sustained by citizens in the Brazilian favelas as a result of its government’s preparations for hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The government is bulldozing their neighborhoods to build stadiums, parking lots, freeways, you name it. For the first day of reporting, we went to the favela, Manguinhos. (Favelas are Brazilian ghettoes.)
We had to take two busses to get there. Brazilian public transportation is 10x better than anything I’ve encountered in Chicago. Sure, every time you get on a bus in Brazil might be your last time because the streets are small, the drivers are insane and the roads are so bumpy you feel like you’re on a roller coaster—but if you asked me to choose between a Rio bus and the CTA, what do you think I’d choose? Never before have I seen busses drive faster than motorcycles, but in Rio, you can see pretty much anything at least once. As reckless as the driving may be, all the busses are on time, and they’ll get you anywhere in this magnificent city you’ve gotta go, so help them God.
But the thing that really got me about Brazilian public transport—and the busses especially—was something that really defines Rio in a beautiful way. Each bus is equipped with two television screens, and on the screens, in between news clips, videos of babies laughing or cats falling asleep or puppies doing cute things play. When Roshan and I first noticed this, our hearts melted for Rio. Don’t you think that everyone in Chicago would be a lot happier if, in the morning when they’re all crammed on a tiny L car, they could watch a cute video of a kitten falling asleep? Or a puppy chasing a laser? Or a montage of different babies laughing? Rio gets it. We’re just getting there.
On the way to Manguinhos, I noticed an older man on the bus talking a lot to Roshan in Portuguese. I had no idea what he was saying, so I ignored it, but I noticed that Thiago was laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “This guy, he’s hilarious,” Thiago said. “He’s telling Roshan she is beautiful and that if she wants a nice barbecue dinner, she should come to his house. He’s also telling her he has a jacuzzi—”
But before Thiago could speak, the old man broke into song, and proceeded to serenade Roshan for the next 5 minutes. (I’m not going to say the cute cat videos didn’t have anything to do with this.) Luckily, I was able to capture this in photographs. Note, in the photographs, Roshan is also capturing this on video.
Now, I don’t know what you think about this, but Roshan and I have talked, and we decided: we thought it was the cutest thing ever. Why? Because, having just gotten off a plane from America, Roshan and I are used to hearing whistles and cat calls when men want to let us know what they think of us. Never, ever, have we had a man we don’t know become so overwhelmed with our feminine allure that it compels him to break into song. When the bus ride was over, he kissed our hands and said things in Portuguese to us that we didn’t understand but that Thiago assured us was flattering.
One of my goals in coming to Brazil was to experience the culture—and I remember thinking it would be difficult because I didn’t know much of their culture before I got there. But, obviously, it didn’t take me long to discover what it is: Brazilian culture is centered upon enjoying life as much as possible, as often as possible. From the Samba circles to the snack breaks to the romantic ways in which they flirt (I’ll explain more in another post), it was clear from the very beginning that these are an honest people who are more concerned with making each other feel good—and feel good themselves—than playing the games and enduring the stress that is a basic staple in everyday American life. Granted, our dollar is literally twice as valuable, but that’s a different story…
Once we got off the bus though and were faced with Manguinhos, all the good cheer we’d just felt on the bus literally seconds ago felt so far away. Manguinhos is a favela with areas that are being demolished to build extra lanes in the highway next to it. We met a man named Vandeson who lived in a rail-thin, three story house sandwiched between two other houses that had already been demolished.
Vandeson’s story was a sad one. He spoke in Portuguese, so I never understood what he was saying, but when Thiago would translate immediately after, my heart would break—I felt so awkward having such a delayed reaction from the time Vandeson said his stories to the time I reacted appropriately. He told us that the government pacified Manguinhos because they wanted to be able to build on it. But, when favelas become pacified, the value of the favelas goes up. (Favelas are usually dens for drug dealers, and therefore always in need of pacification.) The government is offering all the people in Vandeson’s area of the favela a price to leave their home and go elsewhere (the government doesn’t have alternate housing for them), but the price they’re offering them to leave isn’t even a fourth of what the house—rubble and all—is worth. Furthermore, the money they’re offering isn’t enough to buy any kind of house even remotely close to Rio.
This is particularly difficult for Vandeson because he has a wife and young, twin daughters. He wants to be able to provide for them, but the government keeps trying to force him out of his home. They’re playing mind games with him, he said. Every day, garbage trucks dump trash into his front yard, and every time someone takes the unfair payout, the city comes and knocks down the house immediately, leaving dust and mold and unsanitary conditions in its wake. The contaminated air has already made one of his daughters sick, and if this continues, he says, he’ll have to send his wife and daughters away so he can stay there and fight. He showed us around his neighborhood, and I took some pictures along the way.
On the tour, we met other families who were more than eager to tell us their stories. We met the woman below, whose daughter developed a terrible sickness from the mold that grew from the rubble and had to send her daughter to live with her sister in another, cleaner favela. The mother cannot leave her home, though, because if she leaves and no one is in the home, it will be knocked down. She is being held prisoner in her own home—a home in a neighborhood that infected her child.
Because we had cameras with us and were clearly speaking another language, neighborhood kids came over to see what was happening. One thing I noticed in all the favelas I visited, was that the toddlers were always being taken care of by their older, 9-13-year-old sisters. Also, all the kids were fascinated with English and people from “los Estados Unidos.” And, finally, they all loved their homes. Barefoot, running through murky water and breaking in fruit-fly air mixed with dust from plaster, they loved their homes like I loved mine.
It was a heavy first day to say the least. But it wasn’t the last favela we were going to. Far from it.
Two days later, we went on an aerial favela tour, where we boarded a lift that sailed us over an area that is a conglomeration of five favelas.
Seeing the favelas roll on for miles and miles like that was overwhelming in many ways. First of all, it was tragic, but second of all, we didn’t know how to feel about how beautiful it was in its tragedy. That is something that’s difficult to come to terms with when in Rio in general. There is such beauty in the purest sense of the word, but there are also so many things so tragic and ugly—but on such a magnificent, sprawling scale—it becomes beautiful in its colossus. We got a lot of excellent b-roll footage from that trip, and geared up for the final favela we were to visit: Vila Autódromo.
In a later post, I will explain the sunburn I received in Rio in more detail, but for now, I’ll tell you, that we went to Autódromo the day after I received a humbling sunburn. Therefore, I wasn’t able to do much reporting, but I made sure I went. We were there for about two hours gathering footage. Vila Autódromo is on the chopping block in order to build the Olympic Village.
We did some interviews in the visitor center in the favela, but when Thiago and Roshan went to get b-roll, I knew I had to stay in the shade. I sat on a step and waited for Roshan and Thiago to return. The step I sat on was across the street from a playground, and it did not take long for the kids to notice the white girl in strange, polka dotted clothes covered in calamine lotion sitting yonder.
First, one came. Then three more. Before I knew it, there were 12 kids, not more than 11 years old, surrounding me, shouting things at me in Portuguese, trying to get me to communicate with them. The first one that came over, Mariana, had my back. Mariana was otherworldly adorable and about 6 years old. From the week I’d spent in Brazil thus far, I’d learned how to say “No falo portugues,” which means, “I don’t speak Portuguese,” and “Não entendo,” meaning, “I don’t understand.” At that moment, I sounded like a broken record and looked like a broken robot. I just kept lifting my shoulders up and down and repeating “No falo portugues,” and “Não entendo.” But thank Christ for Mariana. Whenever kids would shout too loudly at me, she’d turn around to them and, with her little hands on her hips, she’d say very loudly and clearly, “EL. LA. NO. EN. TEN. DE. POR. TU. GUES!” Or she’d say, “EL. LA. NO. FA. LA. POR. TU. GUES.” Then she’d smile and wink at me, and I’d say, “Muito obrigada,” which means “Thank you very much,” which just made the other kids think I spoke Portuguese, which just it a vicious shouting cycle. Never had I wanted to see Roshan and Thiago more.
At one point during the melee, Mariana ran away, and my heart sank. Who was going to save me from these kids now? But three minutes later, I saw her running back with a book bigger than her head in her hands. It was an old English/Portuguese workbook that was at least 15 years old. She held it up to me and I took it, saying, “Obrigada,” but it was only a workbook and not a dictionary. I tried my best to communicate—and luckily Thiago returned shortly thereafter. He was then able to translate. The kids figured out that my name was Emilia, I was 21 years old and I was from America. That left them all in awe. That was another thing I grew to appreciate while being abroad: my American citizenship. It’s easy to start hating this country if you watch C-SPAN too often, but going to another country and seeing how coveted American citizenship is made me appreciate the title on the front of my passport more than ever.
When we left, I turned to Mariana and said, “Ciao, Mariana!” I turned around and began walking, and after I took three steps I heard, “Good bye, Emilia!” I turned around and Mariana was smiling and waving at me.
The favelas had never been so beautiful.