August 1, 2006

A Week of Insanity

Finally managed to organise myself enough to get on a bus and leave Argentina once again. Arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday 26th after a 22hour sticky uncomfortable bus journey and was immediately jolted awake by the surroundings. Rio, possibly one of the coolest and most striking cities in the world, is surrounded on all sides by depressing and dangerous slums which dont exactly put the frazzled backpacker at ease! Tourists are constant targets in this city, and from the moment you step off the bus you sense it in the air. I decided, after some consideration and recommendations from fellow travellers, to stay in a hostel in Copacobana called Mellow Yellow. If anyone is going Rio way, I HIGHLY recommend it! if only for the comprehenisve breakfast every morning!
My week in Rio began quietly enough as I ventured tentatively out from the hostel to some of the city's markets, leaving all valuables "at home" and taking with me only enough money to buy a few souvenirs. These markets are crazy places - you can buy literally anything you need! You name it, its there. Managed to pick up some fake Chanel sunglasses for about $5. Ah, it had to be done!
Events took a slightly crazier turn later that evening. A group from Mellow Yellow piled into the hostel minibuses armed with VIP tickets to the Brazil Cup Final. The drive to the station was half terrifying and half exhilirating as our slightly inebriated driver weaved in and out of traffic at high speeds, hopping lanes and missing cars by millimetres! For some reason, we all expected to be ushered quietly through some "special" channel into the stadium avoiding the riotous rabble outside....but then, I suppose we were not real VIPS, just lowly backpackers who paid through the nose for a "security escort". Hmph!
WHAT AN ATMOSPHERE! I will never be able to get across what it was like to be mixed up in the pre-match antics outside the stadium. I think eveyone agreed it was quite frightening for all of us at times. To begin with,police armed with swords (YES< src="">, and thankfully found out guides again! Fireworks cracked and fizzed overhead, the tribal beat of drums and fans chanting rang in our ears and police helicopters hovered shining spotlights into the crowd. After what seemed like an eternal wait, we were directed into the stadium, after which we had to climb over huge barriers, standing on toes, fingers, heads, who knows! to get to our seats. But boy was it worth it! The stadium inside throbbed and pulsed in pre-match anticipation. Flamengo fans on one side seperated from their rival VAsco fans by police and guards dogs and LOTS of barbed wire! We happened to be with the Flamengo fans who eventually won the match. All throughout the game, the fans taunted each other, vaulted beercans as far as they could over the fences, and then all hell broke loose in a corner of the stadium as bombs went off and the ;police dived in with batons! A few definite KODAK moments there, but of course none of us dared bring out our cameras THAT night! Somehow, the All Ireland Hurling Final will never seem quite so exciting again!
Next day at 2, I was picked up by a guide from the Dont be a Gringo, Be a Local project and was taken on a tour of a real Brazilian favella. For those who are in the dark, a favella is a Rio ghetto as depicted in the movie City of God. I was lucky enough to wtness what life is like in one of these places.....and I will never forget it. Ever. The beginning of the tour was a high as I zoomed on the back of a motorbike (helmetless I might add!) up through the crazy winding streets of the favella. At the highest point, we were met again by our guide who explained a few key things to us before setting off through the slum:
- We would not be robbed.
- If we took photos of the kids we should show them. They think they will be famous some day because of these pictures
- We should not under ANY circumstances photograph the boys carrying guns or the police at the perimeters of the favella.
- We should not attempt to buy drugs in the area
We began to walk down through the ghetto, and i dont think any of us knew really what to expect. All the houses are built on top of each other adn the streets are extremely narrow, winding steeply downwards through the maze of delapidated buildings. As we walked, our guide explained the basic dynamics of life in the favella to us. It is controlled totally by a group of druglords and operates a system of street justice. The cops have no influence in this place and rarely interfere. If the residents need to build or buy something, they get money from these druglords (who, by the way, earn up to 10 million reals a month..thats about 5 mil US). In return for these "favours". the residents harbour the criminals and hide their weapons in the event of any raids, searches...attempted assassinations! No-one knows anything and no-one makes mistakes in this place. To begin with, it felt extremely voyeuristic wandering through these people's personal hell with a flashy camera, staring openly. But, bit by bit, it became clear that we were welcomed. Indeed, I am sure, if one of us wandered into a ghetto alone, it would be an entirely different story, but by being with this tour group we were accepted. 60% of the money generated by the favella tours is pumped back into the slum in donations - this is independent money, uncontrolled by the barons, and so the people are glad for this. We stpped intermittently, spoke to receptive individuals, joked with the kids and bought souvenir bracelets to take away as reminders that we come from a different planet. The deeper into the favella we went, however, the darker and seedier it became with bullet casing strewn on the streets and eyes peering from darkened windows. Raw sewage flowed down the streets and slogans were daubed on every wall. Part of the tour included a visit to the local school which was a bitterweet experience. It wasnt easy to look at these little angels and contemplate their futures. Our guide explaned that, while these people appear to live in utter poverty and squalor, they DO have a few "perks", as it were, as favella residents. For example, they dont pay for electricity or cable TV, simply connecting whatever they wish to the main supply. Local gas meters have read 0000 since 1995 when they were installed and no one pays for utilities. Like the Potosti mines, this tour was a profound experience and a look at the dark underbelly of the "shiny happy" world we live in.
Days were spent covering Rio tourist attractions of which there are many - trip to Christ the Redeemer statue (a classic picture of Rio which we have all seen many times), an very enjoyable afternoon wandering in the bohemian district of Santa Theresa with my roommate, Becky , a stroll along Copacobana beach. Nights were spent in a whirl of Brazilian funk music - one at a Lapa Street Party in the open night air mixing it up with the locals, and another at Favella Funk Party, which involved another trip out into the slums to bust some moves in a cordoned off area of a dark and seedy club. Myself and another girl, Chloe managed to get down and dance with some of the locals which worked out fine and i learned some great Brazilian moves! It would take forever to really describe the last week here in South America - suffice to say, it was INTERESTING!
I left on 31st, speeding to the airport in heavy rain to make my flight. A short hop to Santiago was followed by a long 14 hour flight to Auckland which actually passed quite quickly. What felt strange was that we seemd to be chasing the night as we flew west, night never turning into day. At NZ Immigration, I was expecting an interrogration, or worse DEPORTATION not being in possession of proof of funds and my working visa for NZ. HOwever, I was fortunate enough to meet a decent guy who turned a blind eye and let me thourhg without much To Do. Andy, however, ran into some more officious types who pulled him aside for a 15 minute grilling about the nature of his travels.
And so, HERE I AM, in Auckland, hanging tired, body clock in some serious disarray, not really fully realising that this is going to be my home for the next while.
Job hunting is going to be begin IN EARNEST next week. But first, Andy and I are off to tour the North Island in a rental car, taking in some skiing en route! We are picking up our car at 9 in the morning, so I am now getting my ass to bed.
Goodbye South America. 'Sta luego!

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