The panorama is stunning, as the sun slides down “Dois Irmaos” mountain, it paints the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro in shades of muted apricot, flint, and lilac. Indeed, a “Cidade Maravilhosa”. After a sip of Heineken, I curse myself for not bringing my iPhone or DSLR, and then I quickly remember why. Cantagalo was one of the most violent slums in Rio just 8 years or so ago. Teenagers, bystanders, and the occasional police officer, were murdered here, daily. Now, middle class “cariocas” (citizens of Rio) and I are sipping martinis and micheladas atop the slum, as a DJ spins funk, soul and hip hop records at a party sponsored by Chandon.
Rio de Janeiro’s greatest irony has always been that the poorest people, those found in Cantagalo and other surrounding shanty towns (“favelas”), have the best views of the city. I’ve yet to find anything else like it in the world. Though I’m sure it exists elsewhere, I would venture to say nothing matches the scale. Equally unrivaled would be the locations of these favelas, nestled, mere blocks off the bustling beach zones of a major South American metropolis.
There’s a window closing now in Rio. It’s part of a roughly 20 year South American cycle that goes something like; stability, boom, corruption, inflation, bust, violence. Argentina is familiar with this cycle, just ask someone from Buenos Aires. Picture it as the infinity symbol. Turn one curve, and sure enough, you’re destined to head back to either prosperous or distressed times. I guess in your lifetime you just hope to bank more of the enjoyable loops, and pray it eventually breaks, for the better.
The past ten years may have been the best up cycle of a generation in this city’s history. Spurred by a massive discovery of oil off the coast, the voracious appetite for goods of the Chinese dragon, and the awarding of the World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016), Cariocas have enjoyed more peace and upward mobility, not to mention entertainment, than those before them, and likely those yet to come. As an outsider, it’s been amazing to witness.
I first came here in 2006. Marred by two decades of a volatile economy and alarming crime rates, the city was finally starting to emerge from a very dark period. One so beautifully, if tragically, depicted in the movie, City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002). The film captured the juxtaposition of life in Rio; poverty in paradise, love amidst war, the quest for freedom in a system designed to keep you trapped, and it exposed the seeds of what grew into 20 years of gang violence and turmoil. If you’re first visit here was in the last 5-6 years count yourself lucky…very lucky…you likely have no idea what Rio has been, can be, and I fear, will be again.
In a hostel I recount my stories of that first visit. I use them as cautionary tales so travelers do indeed know what was, and might be possible now. Stick up kids hoping on busses in broad daylight, robbing the cashier and subsequently every rider before stepping out the back door. Favela gangs hijacking military weapons shipments, and Brazilian special forces entering the shanty towns 50 deep to recover them. Hustlers and thieves roaming the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, looking for easy targets or unattended belongings. Theft was so prevalent on the beach, that even today, on the wealthiest stretches of sand, people will ask you to watch their bags or drop them next to you for you to protect while they take a dip. A drug circulating nightclubs, called “Goodnight Nancy”, would knock you out, but leave you blindly coherent so your assailant could obtain your ATM pin, directions to your house, and if you were unlucky, access to your body.
I haven’t heard those stories during my trips back in 2010 and 2014. You can largely thank Brazil’s visibility on the world stage for that. As all eyes began to focus on it’s endowed shape, the government launched a massive program to pacify, by force and presence, the more violent favela communities and their drug gangs. It was effective, albeit crude as a blunt ax, with the murder rate in the state of Rio de Janeiro dropping 44 percent from 2001 to 2011. For it’s residents, and the all important tourist dollar, this allowed a freedom and access to the city not seen in almost 30 years, which brings me back to that stunning view and the closing window.
As my friend and I made are way down from that rooftop bar shortly before 9pm, I became overwhelmed with perspective. Stuck behind an oversized truck trying to wriggle itself free from those narrow favela streets, the sound of falling water came through the open window of our old Volkswagen bus. Cascading down vines and sheer granite, it fit the sense of paradise Rio can wrap you in. As my nose quickly found out, it wasn’t water, it was open flowing sewage making its way down, much like us, to the bottom of the mountain.
When the money is finally gone (Brazil has been spending what it hasn’t had since 2011 and corrupt elites have been stealing the rest), when that cool light of the international stage turns down after the Olympics in August, when the police presence and non-profits shrink back, this community and these people of Cantagalo will once again be left to fend for themselves. Most likely in an environment infested “de novo” by drugs and gang violence, all bred, like mosquitos, from a stagnate pool of neglect and desperation. Don’t believe me? Crime in the city center is already up 40 percent in recent months. A rash of robberies at knife point finally left one dead after an Argentinian woman was stabbed to death on the iconic sands of Copacabana beach. With 60 percent of Congress under investigation, and the economy in the midst of the longest recession in 80 years, the city and country are scrambling. Speaking to locals, they communicated an increased sense of doubt for the future, and an escalation in fear and precaution throughout the city.
I hope I’m wrong. For my friends in Rio, and for all the cariocas that have treated me so graciously. Sharing the beaches here has been one of my greatest joys over the last decade. Carnaval is the most beautiful man-made production I’ve ever witnessed. It’s also been a privilege to walk through favela communities like; Vidigal to climb “Dois Irmaos” mountain and take in the best view of the city, Rocinha to listen to the latest “Funk” hits, Rio das Pedras to meet a new friend and her family, and Cantagalo, where I was able to catch up with an old friend and share stories over a beautiful sunset.
I hope the past 10 years in Rio wasn’t just some drawn out Carnaval parade for the world, and that when the Olympics are over, the makeup and costumes come off. Stripped bare by corrupt officials, and inept policies. I hope there’s a commitment to life after the spotlight, to sustainable change. Mainly for the favelas, but for the city as whole. I know I’m biased, but as stewards of this marvelous city, they all deserve it.