Describing the indescribable (part 2, the end)
Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
27Trip End Nov 09, 2010
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………………As noted previously and in the photos, Tamara left the bottom of the hillside for the top before me. I thought we would all go off fairly close together, but that was not the case. Seemed like several minutes went by before any more bikes returned to the bottom to pick up the rest of us camera toting tourists. You could just tell that we stood out like sore thumbs, but we were IN now. I wondered if Tamara was at the top of the hill wondering where the hell I was, was I coming or what. As mentioned, my bike did arrive and we took off up the hill. Before hand, I had it in my mind that this place would be very run down, but would also have next to “nothing” around. Run down, at least by my American standards was indeed the case - but there was much more than nothing. In fact there was everything! From the very bottom starting spot all the way to the top (1-2 miles) the entire roadside was jam packed with nearly every kind of ultra small business. Small grocery stores, small hardware stores, ice cream, bars and so much more. During the mildly scary ride (the back of motorcycles is not a common occurrence for me), we even passed one small store that was a funeral home! I couldn’t help wonder how that whole process transpired. Certainly people die - but what the heck do they really do with them? We saw nothing remotely close to a cemetery.
Finally, my bike rounds a corner and we’re at the top. I see Tamara standing with a few of the other early riders and we all quickly gather back into our little group. They have been there a few minutes already, so have already taken in the sights. The most amazing sight I first saw was the electric wires. Nearly all of the light poles have the typical single light, but nearly all of the same light poles have perhaps hundreds of different, random wires twisting and turning into each intersection. Think of your worst Christmas light disaster and this will be worse. Then imagine the possibilities with all these wires running through live currents, fully exposed, some no higher than you can reach and none with any sense of rhyme or reason. For any techies out there that have ever done anything with “cable management”, this is how not to do that!
Our guide joins us at the top, gives us some quick follow up instructions (no pictures yet, please) and points us in the direction we’re going to go. Essentially we’re going to walk back down the hill to where we started - but we’re not going on the road we just rode up. We’re going into a side “road” (alley is even too much for what this was), which for the entire length of what we traversed is no wider than 2-3 bodies. You can almost literally reach from one side across to the other for nearly the entire length of our walk. As you can see from the favela “sea” photo I posted, you can’t really even tell there are separations among the structures, but there are. There are many small cavities that are the paths through the favelas.
But these are no ordinary paths. These are paths crammed along each side with trash, open drainage ditches (sewage; and we’re reminded that “shit flows downhill”, so it will be worse at the bottom), boxes, crates, pallets, dogs and cats, children and people just living their lives. That’s a key phrase I believe (the living lives part). As shocking and unreal as this is to us, this is very likely all they know. As a result, they are just living their lives and are very likely perfectly content with their lives. There are small stores all along these alleys, so there are delivery men with dolly’s bringing new supplies of water, beer, food, anything that might be in a small convenience store. We all step aside when we see someone, to give them room to get by. Remember, at such narrow widths, there is little room for much to pass without some effort to make the transition work. Our guide is clearly known along the trail we take. He yells greetings to most of those we pass, shakes hands with many and briefly high-fives some of the children as we pass. He’s told us that he is not from “in” the favela, but it’s easy to see he is well received; and it’s also easy to see that he gives them all the respect they should have as we trample through their neighborhood. As much as we are touring their town, they are getting a daily free tour of gringos - what kind of folks will Daniel (our guide) be showcasing for us today they must wonder?
As we make our way into the early part of these alley’s, our first stop is a small (everything we saw was small and cramped by most of our standards) building which houses a gallery of paintings from two locals. We have to climb a couple of very narrow and steep stairs to get there. There are many different paintings on all four walls of a room and the two local artists are there to meet and greet us. 99.9% of the talking here is still done by our guide, but he briefly introduces the two and they somewhat shyly wave hello to the dozen or so of us. Daniel tells us about the work these two do, and it’s fairly evident to see two things. Most, if not all, of the work seems to be about life inside the favela, and it’s very likely much of this entire tour will be about providing these residents with some exposure to us outsiders who may just bring in enough cash to provide them with some extra income. All of the paintings we see are for sale. It’s just like most other “tours” that just happen to go by “Johnny’s Bar” on the way to the beach, or “Suzie’s Crafts” on the way to the museum, etc. I’m pretty sure Tamara is the proud (happy) owner of some jewelry from a place in Thailand we visited. The stop was supposedly so our guide could stop and pick up her engagement ring……………..but somehow Tamara ended up coming out with the big rocks! I’m not complaining about either situation, but it’s just the reality of it all. If I ever have a taco stand on a beach in Uruguay (!!), I hope we can arrange for all the tourist traffic to stop on their way to their hotels. From our group, one lady bought a painting. The prices were actually quite high compared to a beachfront fair we visited just the night before, which made the previous days purchase for Tamara feel that much better! J It may have been allowable, but this place did not feel like the place to haggle over pricing.
Before we continue down the hillside, we spend some time on a balcony overlooking the entire favela and the hillside looking down to the beach. The weirdness of this view is that the extreme downtrodden view of these favelas is on real estate that has to be literally million dollar views anywhere else. You couldn’t pay most anyone to live here, but you can see literally across the freeway that cuts these two worlds in two the difference of night and day.
We start down again, winding our way through the inner neighborhoods. There is a LOT of graffiti, along with the trash all along the way. Daniel tells us of the gang markings for the area we are in with the spray painted “ADA” letters on the walls. We’ve gotten past the vast openness of where we started at the top, so we’re told it’s okay to take pictures, openly. It’s strange to do, but nearly all of us have cameras and we’re all clicking away as if we were in a museum. You can hear the others in the group muttering about how amazingly shocking this world is, how can this actually exist, etc. I think I said it before, but walking these alleys will make your Thanksgiving have that much more impact.
Our next stop is in an even smaller structure, but this time it’s a bakery. We’re ushered into a front room which is crammed full of a table of pastries. We’re introduced to the baker, who is a very nice looking, proud man about to display all his wares to us. The stuff all looks delicious and as we all find out - it is! I had a coconut cookie, but Tamara had the most amazing sugar donut I’ve had in a long time. Locals come and go as we’re all standing around eating our treats, but it seems easy to see (20-20 hindsight perhaps) that he’s been waiting for us. It’s all okay though, as the pastries really were excellent. His kitchen is in the basement of the two story building he occupies.
Next up on our journey is just continuing through more and more areas as run down as you can imagine. I think they must have some kind of trash removal, but it’s clear that a fair percentage of trash is just thrown outside, on the ground, in the ditch and on the existing pile. The weather is warm and in the 80s (F). I would have thought the smell would have been unbearable, but for some reason it’s not. It’s not the pleasant though and it looks even worse. There are numerous seemingly stray dogs and cats, along with the droppings they leave behind. Clearly there is no pooper-scooper rule either in effect, or in practice.
We continue down, passing more and more and more of the same. Looking at the vista of the favela, it’s clear to see this is just more and more and more of the same thing across each hill. Scores of unfinished buildings, glassless holes in the mortar for windows and those completely exposed wires running in all directions overhead. There is almost no color to the place, other than the gray color of unfinished cement and the unfinished color of red brick. It’s like the cement and brick phase of a “normal” building, but they just never actually finish the work. I’m pretty sure there is not a piece of insulation or drywall in the entire favela, so when the weather is unpleasant, this place must gets that much more unkind. We pass children that just look at us innocently. Some are playing together and put on a little show for us. A boy and a girl with makeshift horns (from old pvc) see us pass by and start blowing as if in a recital. Others see our cameras and excitedly huddle together for their photo to be taken. Still others are much more uncertain and quietly watch as we pass by.
A typical question was what do these people do for livings? The answer was not that they are all drug dealers or gang members. Daniel said that “most” had relatively normal jobs either inside or outside the favela walls. With roughly 200,000 residents, it is in fact a city of its own. It’s going to have all kinds of businesses just to survive by itself. It just happens to be that they live here. Drugs and crime are real events (anywhere), but there seems to be a real effort to keep that outside these walls. The last formal stop we make on our tour is of a day care. To assist with all those that do have jobs during the day, there is a formal childcare center to look after their children - and there are many children. We’re told that while outside the favela many families have the typical 2.1 kids per family - but inside the favela the number is more like 5 kids per mother, with many of those five coming from different fathers. Hearing that brings back what seems like some of the sadness from our outsider viewpoint.
As we get back down to the bottom of the hill, we’re told again to stop taking photos. It seems as if the perimeter is the most guarded areas of this favela. While there are still many interesting and shocking things to see (the open sewers that have collected “everything” from all the hills that flow down), we all just simply stop clicking our tourist lenses and follow our leader through the final street market back to our waiting van. The market we walk through at the bottom looks like any other flea market on any street. This one just happens to be at the bottom of such a unique and unknown world on its own.
The general consensus of those that we talked with in our group both during and following our tour was that we were very glad to have done this. It was beyond anything we could have imagined, it was not the deathly scary and unsafe experience we thought it might have been, it was clearly very eye opening, which in the end was a good thing for many reasons. I know most, if not all, of us that went on that tour will not think of it often - but when we do we’ll at least have the relatively firsthand knowledge of what this favela world is like, and hopefully be a bit more mindful of the circumstances that each of us lives in every day.
(I had several more photos I wanted to include, but our current internet connection is too slow to upload them now. I will add them separately later on).