Favela travel writing Travel Literature
Travel Writing / Travel Literature

A steel fence with white bars welcomed us at Marcela’s home. Next to this was a small brick office fitted with a glass booth and speaker. This was a gated community.

‘There’s a favela up that hill,’ Marcela said.

I looked in the direction of Marcela’s nod but saw little, other than a dark hill scattered with the occasional dim orange light.

A grey-uniformed man walked out of the brick office. He had a black square badge with the word ‘Segurança’ embroidered in gold. His dark face gave a glistening white smile, then an electric gate opened.

‘Boa noite, gente!’ the Segurança said. He tucked his shirt into a thick black belt fitted with a baton and handgun. Then we entered.

Security like this is required in Brazil where homicide rates can be as high as 50,000 annually. The country is also considered a kidnapping hotspot. In 2006, Brazil was ranked fifth as one of the kidnapping capitals of the world.

Inside the gated community was a lush green garden with a freshly painted, beige high-rise building.

Upstairs in the high-rise was Marcela’s home. Marcela’s mother cooked dinner for her father, Arcturo, when we arrived. Arcturo was watching a local soccer game.

‘Are you happy Brazil’s hosting the Soccer World Cup?’ I asked Arcturo.

He pointed to the television and said, ‘I’ve always had the Soccer World Cup.’

‘Dad!’ Marcela screamed. She was in another room.

Marcela’s mother delivered a plate of black beans in sauce, smothering white rice, with a lump of steak hanging off the plate.

‘You like feijão?’ Arcturo asked.

I didn’t know what he meant. He pointed to black beans overpowering his plate, then gave a proud smile.

They’re not amazing.

‘Beautiful,’ I said.

‘Thirty billion dollars this World Cup will cost,’ Arcturo said. ‘The last three combined cost 25.’

Arcturo ran a local Brazilian buffet, which provided traditional Brazilian dishes – with feijão. Marcela’s grandparents migrated to Florianopolis in the state of Santa Catarina during the early 19th century. Marcela’s crystal blue eyes, light brown hair and pale skin are much fairer than many Brazilians further north possess. Many German and Austrian immigrants came to Brazil’s south from 1828 onwards to work in agriculture. Now, 45% of Santa Catarina’s population has either German or Austrian ancestry.

‘They say the Soccer World Cup was an incentive to look after our people,’ Arcturo said, grinding his knife into his meal. ‘Did the United States need incentives to look after their people?’

He thinks I’m American.

Marcela entered the room. ‘I’m ready!’ she said. Her eyes gave a non-verbal apology saving me from replying. Then we said goodbye.

Downstairs, ‘Segurança’ opened the exit gate. Marcela explained I’d got her father onto a touchy subject, then, shrugged it off.

‘We need to buy some weed,’ said Marcela.

We drove into a Brazilian shanty village two minutes away. The car’s dash said 11:30 pm.

‘Welcome to the favela,’ Marcela said.

My skin went cold.

We drove up a 40-degree road paved with ridged, zig-zagged, grey bricks. There were minimal streetlights, and concrete walls ran into more concrete walls, most without paint, but some walls had faded orange paint, some ocean blue and some aqua.

‘Don’t speak,’ Marcela said. ‘This is Morro do Horácio. They can’t know you’re a gringo.’

Why the hell did you bring me up here?

‘I’m not saying a thing,’ I replied.

We drove slowly between seven-foot high walls with concrete carelessly splashed onto grey bricks. These ran up both sides of the street. They acted as security defences for residents or the external walls of basic box homes.

Dark shadows of people at street corners stood out from the moonlight. These were young men – still teenagers. They gave signals to even younger teenagers who stood at other corners. Some stood on the tops of shanty-homes. They also gave signals to others.

‘They work for the Dono,’ Marcela said. Some had guns. They weren’t from German ancestry; their skin was darker than Marcela’s. Marcela called them ‘soldados’, and said, ‘They watch for problems.’

The first shanty village to be called a ‘favela’ was in Rio de Janeiro – Morro de Castelo – in the late 1800s. This was built for army veterans returning from the War of Canudos in the northern state of Bahia. Bahia is home to a skin-irritating plant – Cnidoscolus quercifolius. The military called the plant ‘Favela’, then decided to name Morro de Castelo after it: ‘Favela Hill’. When the army moved on from ‘Favela Hill’, it was occupied by African slaves. This was the case with most shanty villages. Before the term ‘favela’ spread throughout Brazil’ the shanty villages were called ‘Barrio Africanos’. Morro do Horácio is 1140 km south of Rio’s Morro de Castelo, but like other shanty villages in Brazil, it is now also called a favela.

Then, a man with dark skin ordered Marcela to turn her car around to park. We sat in front of a grey brick rectangular building fitted with a sturdy steel door. Next, the man approached my window. He wore a hat which shadowed his face.

‘O que você quer?’ he said.

Marcela sat on the driver’s side opposite the man so his eyes looked straight at me.

I didn’t reply. I nudged Marcela’s leg. Then, she spoke in Portuguese and handed money past my chest. The soldado received the banknotes then walked to the steel door. Two teenagers stood above the door, on top of the building, each with a handgun. They had a concrete barricade built up to chest height. The young soldados yelled in Portuguese from the roof to underneath it, inside the building. A slot opened horizontally in the steel door at the height of a pair of eyes. Marcela’s money was handed through the slot.

‘You want to stay here, gringo?’ Marcela asked.

I wasn’t impressed.

‘Problems of the Third World,’ she said.

‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’

‘You think they’re going to the World Cup?’ Marcela said.

The man returned to the car with a small parcel the size of a matchbox.

We drove out of the favela.

‘More than 11 million people live in Brazilian favelas,’ Marcela told me. ‘Many can’t even read.’

I witnessed poor infrastructure inside Morro do Horácio. It was clear little money was being invested into the village, given the minimal lighting and poor construction. I’m not sure where residents got water and waste supplies to their homes. Favela hygiene is normally poor.

‘The government and police rarely visit favelas,’ Marcela said. ‘Many youths are from broken families and have little regard for the law.’

Rocinha is a favela in Rio de Janeiro, which has 4,500 visiting tourists each year, generating income for schools, water and electricity. Perhaps Rocinha will benefit from the Soccer World Cup – at least during the week of the World Cup. Morro do Horácio, like many favelas, is outside Brazil’s hosting cities, so it’s difficult to say if its residents will benefit from the 30 billion dollar investment in the Soccer World Cup. Tourism to the favelas is permitted in the larger cities, as tour guides bring money into the favelas. This was also why Marcela and I were permitted to enter Morro do Horácio.

Marcela’s proud of her country and her soccer team. They’ve ranked highly internationally throughout her entire life. Many Brazilian teenagers are proud of their team. But many will continue to work as links in a drug chain before, during and after the World Cup – some out of respect for their ‘dono’ and some out of fear.

The money from the World Cup will go to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the people who originally had the 30 billion to invest.

‘We don’t need more stadiums in Brazil,’ said Marcela. ‘We don’t need to invest money into beautifying tourist areas to paint a pretty World Cup’.

We drove down to a car park near the ocean. This was near both Marcela’s home and Morro do Horácio. A main road with speeding cars ran behind the car park. In front of the car was the ocean, glimmering in the light of the moon.

‘People may say I’m bad for buying weed,’ Marcela said.

I thought about the people with money in the gated communities. I thought about the people in the favelas. I thought about the 30 billion being spent on the World Cup. Then I thought about the money going on stadiums.

Then Marcela said, ‘It’ll be the people that already have money that’ll say this.’

By Gaston Cavalleri.

Gaston Cavalleri is an Australian travel writer, novelist, screenwriter, and jiu-jitsu fighter. To support his travel writing & literature give a “like” to the Facebook page.

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