View at dawn from my house “The Maze” in Tavares Bastos Communidade (Favela)
Hi I’m Patrick Fitzgerald a freelance journalist (amongst other things) and i’ve been keeping diaries/ memos on phones/scraps of paper/emails/FB messages & voice recordings since i started living in the beautiful little favela of Tavares Bastos, Rio de Janeiro last June.. Its time to organise some of them and write them down somewhere where they wont get lost, stolen or eaten by the dog.
In this blog i hope to bring you on my journey with me, through some of the more interesting aspects of this amazing city.. if you want a blog about “high end” living in Copacobana then log out now!!!!! if you want a blog about fancy restaurants, 5 Star hotels, where to get the best cocktails or how to see a favela through the windows of a 4×4.. log off now!!!!!
This blog will scratch the surface, take you off the beaten track, uncover the heart, take the pulse & expose some of the underbelly of Brazil – A place i describe as Crazy/Beautiful (Maluca Beleza – as the famous Brazilian song goes) – every day in Rio is full of either or both in large doses and as someone who was tired of the humdrum “day in-day out” feel of life at home, i wouldn’t have it any other way. This city bursts with colour, life and happyness but it is far from utopia. Indeed, it is almost an insult to local people “Cariocas” (many of whom struggle with low wages and high living costs) to suggest it is..
Brazil is also rife with corruption and political shenanigans very similar to what we are used to in Ireland – Cariocas cant believe it when i tell them that our “politicos” would give their boys a run for their money any day. they howl with laughter when i tell them about the guy who was minister for finance and when investigated about massive overspending of public money on office/house upgrades, it was found he didn’t even have a bank account..
“Hehehe, Did he go to jail?” they ask.
“No”, I answer “we made him Prime Minister”
They go into convulsions before the seriousness of it all returns to haunt us – Brazilian and Irishman alike.
“Mesmo coisa aqui” (same thing here) they say shaking their heads with a resignation that tells me they have seen it all before – too many times.
“He ran the country into the ground and told those who questioned him to go and kill themselves” i tell them to re-inforce two things…
1 – that they don’t have a monopoly on crooks and 2 – to build affinity with my my new brazilian friends thru common struggle.
“Enserio!!” (Seriously) They say again with typically overstated brazilian exuberance.. the reinforcing has worked. I am not one of them but they now understand the difference between Ireland and Germany – they have learnt that Europe is not all the same – they have learnt that it is not a Utopia where everything works and everyone is rich – just like i learned that Brazil wasn’t a utopia after a little while living here.
The sad fact remains. however, that all this corruption, much like Ireland, holds the country back and makes it impossible for potential to be fully realised.
But that is not where the similarities end. Brazilians are like Irish in many ways (or at least like Irish people before we got carried away on a 10 year binge of excess vulgarity and mainlining property) They exhibit heartbreaking kindness, great sense of humour and are so welcoming to foreigners.These people will hold your hand as you leave the underground metro station and walk you to your destination – these people will carry the bags of foreigners through the narrow winding pathways of the favela and bring them safely to their lodgings, these people will cut up the last piece of linguica on the barbeque (churrascho) and share it with you. Cead Mile Failte how are you!
They have a special way about them that is very hard to explain.. the closest word i have to sum it up is “openness”
They also have less rules and regulations (with exceptions) and this leads to a society that appears freer & more liberated. All lifestyle types are free to be themselves here and while the poorer people are generally blacker (this is not racism, it is simple fact), you see most Brazilian groups of friends contain people of every colour on the spectrum (pasty Irish pink apart obviously!)
I must admit straight off i love this country – it is so addictive and alluring that it is almost impossible to not fall head over heels.. it will kick you in the balls when your not looking sometimes but the energy this city exudes will defeat or overcome anything if you open yourself to absorbing it!
so where to start a blog i should have started 6 months ago??
Ive decided to start with an email i sent to my sister when she was thinking of coming here on holidays – she asked me to describe a day in Rio – hopefully this illustrates some of the unique and interesting aspects of this city is but may also be contain helpful information for any potential traveler.
Days like this will leave your gast truly flabbered and your zest for life replenished in full…
Saturday 6th dec. Early in the AM
I was at a really nice churrascho last night with English and Brazilian friends in Pedra America but i am up early today to go for a hike up the iconic “dois irmãos” (two brothers) which sits at the top of Vidigal favela on the far edge of the city.
I arrive down for breakfast and the table is a busy spot with Maze owner Bob at the helm propelling the morning forward with jokes and old war stories from the ten lives he has led. He has worked on films with Kubrick, been kidnapped in Beirut, built the first proper house in this Favela and took on the drugs lords here in Tavares. (he was also great friends with some of them – more about that in my next blog).
Around the table with him are two south African oaks, James and Andrew – nice guys, if a bit reserved. There is Helmut the half tapped 45 year old German who is trying to learn how to be funny from a cheesy American “How to be a comedian” book – I wouldn’t bet money on him playing the Edinburgh festival any time soon.
Then there is Vanessa who lives here free courtesy of Bob and teaches music to favela kids, Malou (Bobs wife and top class woman), Magda (a 4ft 11 but amazingly built middle-aged blackwoman from the north-east of Brazil, who seems to be made entirely out of tits and ass) she is a family friend ever since bob made a documentary about her son Leonardo Santiago and he became a professional footballer with Ajax in Holland as a result.
Unfortunately he has gambled most of his earnings but still does some heart felt deeds like secretly flying back to Brazil and paying bobs kids school fees when he was in financial trouble a few years back (Brazilians are generous to a fault). Finally there is Yvonette – like Magda about fifty, a dynamo of a cleaning lady and always full of chat and good humour as she works (she reminds me a little of my Mam – Rest her soul)
“Bom Dia tudo”, I say, whilst pouring myself a cup of English tea from the holy grail . Bob is not passionate about most things English but he won’t hear of a morning without a pot of “proper” tea.The pot even has a union jack tea cosy on it which Bob happened to be wearing on his head the first night I walked in his front door. It was a first impression that could go either way for an Irishman i guess, but i with history i choose to look back but not stare. Soon however, I felt the chill (winter!!!!) breeze blowing in bob’s huge glass free window and realised that he was wearing it simply to keep warm rather than for any display of jingoism towards this his new “paddy” house guest. Anyway i digress.
“Voce esta heroi no communidade” (you are a hero in the community) shouted Yvonette across the breakfast table as i finished my pour of Earl Grey.
“All the people told Yvonette they say thanks for helping them bring water up the favela steps on Thursday”. Malou translated for me as my portuguese i still, shall we say, a work in progress!
“you can have any woman in the favela now” joked Yvonette and every one fell around the place laughing – even the quiet South Africans!
The favela – always the first to run dry and the last to be reconnected had been dry for ten days and when the water truck arrived it was bedlam but also time for action. Its nice that my help was appreciated and i felt all warm an fuzzy. As the tatoo on my arm in memory of my Mam states.. “It is in giving that we receive”
After further kudos from Bob I finally sat down and heartily enjoyed large pieces of mango and papaya washed down with Malou’s freshly made passion fruit juice. This was followed by a toasted blue cheese and ham sandwich with cold pineapple shoved into it accompanied by two heart shaped poached eggs. To crown a kings breakfast I finished with a cup of coffee and a large slice of chocolate cake. Now ritual every morning – cake for breakfast is really a Brazilian thing (i think) and something i saw as just plain weird the first time i saw it.
Belly full and in good spirits I head off down a favela hill already bursting with life. Kids flying kites, guys flat out in the paderia (bakery) making bread & “pasteis” (brazilian pies), women washing clothes, a game of football being played in the campo and the usual whizzing of motorcycle taxis up and down the narrow two way-one lane cobbled road that leads to the asphalt (where the other half live) below.
My buddy Cristiano zooms past on his bike before screeching to a halt. “vai gringo” he shouts beckoning me to hop on. He was on his way to the kite flying championships on Flamengo beach. They take it seriously the kite flying…. even the adults!
He drops me at the bottom of the hill as he doesn’t have a second helmet. Different rules apply on the asphalt! I don’t offer him anything except thanks. There is no need to. I learned soon after coming here that it is almost an offence to offer a friend money for favours such as this and it falls into line with the overall Brazilian spirit of generosity. They would share the last sausage on the bar b q with you. Even between friends they have dispensed with many of the ubiquitous platitudes we go on with at home. between buddies here there is no requirement to say “cheers or thanks” every time the smallest deed is executed.
At the bottom of the hill I chat as I do every day to Benjamin, a gentle old man who I share a passion for Vasco do Gama football club with. They got promoted this year, sacked their coach and are in financial dire straits so we always have plenty of Vasco fat to chew on. I have to cut this mornings encounter short however as the mountain is calling and the day is getting hotter.
“Vai vasco” i call back to my old pal as I head for the bike station.
The free orange “ITAU” bikes in Rio are a great way to stay fit and save money (R10 – €3 per month). My plan is to cycle thru the beach side neighbourhoods of Flamengo and Botofogo, around the beautiful Lagoa (taking in the new christmas tree at its centre) and drop my bike off at the station near Leblon beach (in one of Rio’s most affluent areas). i will then walk along the beachside promenade and up the busy cliff road to the entrance of Vidigal favela. I am excited.
I always get a buzz of excitement going to such places. the places that contain beauty but you have to earn the right to experience it. the places perceived as dangerous or edgy always have more of an allure for me. I’m not sure if i am attracted to the danger or proving the preconceptions of danger incorrect. Either way anticipation is one of life’s greatest pleasures and I enjoy every step of the walk. Stopping briefly to watch the surfers basking like seals in the blue/green water of Ipanema.
I enjoy the ice cold energy drink given to me by a really nice girl I met while signing up for a decathlon in Lagoa as i walk.
Among other side shows taken in on my cycle, which incidentally had induced quite the flow of sweat, were; a second football game, an old guy busking a classic samba song called Charlie Brown on the cavaquinho (brazilian ukelele), the helicopters taking off at the lake and the skate boarders dropping in at one of the many half pipes around city. Christ the redeemer was ever present along the way too and whether you are religious or not he dominates the amazingly blue skyline with impressive beauty.
I finished my energy drink and headed for the hills. I was ready for adventure as i walked past the human rights wall at the entrance to vibrant Vidigal. It was just as well i was because the motor cycle taxi ride to the top of the favela whizzed by in a flurry of narrow escapes, heavy breaking, blockages and sudden bursts of acceleration so violent, that they would give whiplash to a Polish nightclub bouncer. At the top he asked for R10 reais (€3).. a bit outrageous when a ride up my favela, Tavares Bastos (not much shorter) costs a mere R2.75. After some horse-trading we settled on six and I took off thru the running track stopping to watch a few minutes of my third soccer game of the excursion. This time it was “dois ou dez” (2 or ten) where 3 or more teams rotate on a winner stays on basis. The name comes from 2 goals or ten minutes – meaning the first to two wins or else the score after ten minutes determines who has to exit the campo – normally in a hail of drama and criticisim towards who ever made the costly error which lead to the losing goal. You wouldn’t want to be sensitive as the Porra’s (F**k’s) and the Caralho’s (more F**k’s) are normally flying! This profanity littered novella (soap opera) invariably lasts throughout the next game until its time to re-enter to cauldron again where it is immediately forgotten in the quest for atonement.
I didn’t hang around too long as I was anxious to hit the trail. I decided on flip flops as my choice of footwear due to an abhorrence I have developed in brazil for wearing shoes of any description. i did have an auxiliary pair of trainers in the bag just in case but actually ended up ditching the havaianas (flip-flops) after about ten minutes and completed the rest of the 35 -50 minute forest trail in barefoot bliss – lizards scattering noisily into the undergrowth throughout.
I stopped only once at a look-out point where I met a very friendly guy from Phoenix Arizona and his Norwegian buddy who has lived here on and off since 1988. Another self confessed Rio addict, his philosophy on the “Marvellous City” was: “if you can take all the good from Rio and not let the few bad things dominate, you are living in the right place”.
I also me a very friendly Colombian/Venezuelan couple (aren’t they all) and we chatted about how nice Cartagena is compared to Rio as well as the volatile the political situation in Venezuela. I knew eff all about either but i bluffed away.
I then pushed on for the top, walking briskly and jogging on flatter sections. When I got there I was absolutely soaked in sweat – trust an Irishman – white as a milk bottle – to plan his climb in the height of the midday sun! luckily I had a bottle of water stashed and I guzzled down it as I sat on the rock, as close to the sheer edge as the remnants of my hangover would allow. There was only 6 others there (the joys of going even slightly off the beaten track) so it was far from overcrowded and our small newly formed group mingled well, chatting and taking photos for one another to beat the band. It is a very romantic spot and I secretly envied the 2 couples sat whispering sweet nothings (or somethings) to each other with the the worlds most amazing cityscape stretching out before them. The city, like young love, full of endless possibilities. Their loving eyes feasting on the view and each other…. A shared memory being created in an truly unforgettable place.
I relaxed on top for a while, got a little more sunburnt and chatted some more to the Norwegian guy (who was now doing push-ups just inches from the edge).
My senses filled I took one last look at the mind-blowing “vista” before turning toward the lush green bush. My god in Rio the colours are so vibrant. The greens of the rainforest so green, the blues of the sea and sky so blue, the silver city weaving and shining under a sun so gold it is matched only by the sand on Rio’s beaches. It is an unforgettable burst of colour that would reawaken even the most morbid of souls to the beauty of this earth.
The view from Dois Irmaos contains it all… Cristo, Sugar Loaf, Pedra Bonita, The Rain Forest, Jardim Botanico, Ipanema Beach, Lagoa and the City itself knitted into the breathtaking landscape.
There was yet more sensory overload half way down where I stopped at a previously unseen look out which stood like a precipice over Rocinha – South Americas biggest favela. With approx. 300k residents crammed into a few square miles it is almost too much for the eyes to take in.. it certainly tested the pixels in my rather dodgy Bolivian bought Samsung. It is a truly awesome pastiche of little houses, colours and chaotic beauty – so dizzying in fact it made standing on the unprotected edge quite perilous. To regain composure, i turned to the left and took a look out to sea with monumental Pedra de Gavea and the beach below splashed with colours from the landing hangliders . The monoliths of Rio truly are unique. Rio is truly unique.
After I had finally halted the Rocinha induced reeling in my head I rocked on downhill at a lively pace and in what felt like no time I was back at the campo football pitch where i gave directions to a rather lost soul looking for the trail head.
I had stopped only once en route and chatted to three beautiful Portuguese sisters who were entranced by the activities of 8 little monkeys (macacou’s) skittering up an down a nearby tree with curiosity written all over their cute little faces. One of the girls had an apple and soon we all had a go of feeding the monkeys a nibble from the hand. The were really friendly and would wrap their little paws around your finger just like a new born baby. It was my first time hand-feeding a monkey in the wild!
Once back at the pitch I decided to walk down the hill and soak up the vibrant favela experience at one of its busiest times – Saturday afternoon. I bought a badly needed can of ice-cold beer, appropriately called Antartica (Brazilian custom is to have beer so cold that ice cream style brain freeze is a standard side effect) The beer vanished very quickly somehow!! (must have evaporated – Ed) and i was therefore forced into the pits for an oil change at a lively little botequim (tavern) near the bottom of the hill. There I chatted easily with one or two friendly locals but i mainly enjoyed the fact that my ass was now seated, not to mention the far more leisurely second beer – this time costing R5 (€1.50). The one at the top was only R4 – in Vidigal inflation rises as you descend!
I ambled on out of the favela with my thirst quenched and within ten minutes bumped into my buddy Damian and his Brazilian girlfriend Lu at a picture perfect snack bar at the end of Leblon. I love that about Rio – it is a big, small city and you bump into friends and acquaintances all the time. They were going to a sunset party in Leme (far end of Copacobana) and invited me along. We walked about 3ks to Posto 9 (all the beaches have handy marker posts every 500m or so) where we met Neirin Jones and his girlfriend Sian. There I had a well deserved swim in the fresh waters of Ipanema. It was truly glorious to bask in the cool waves after spending the previous few hours under the hot Brazilian sun.
The others then got a taxi while I took another free bike (i strongly recommend signing up for these bikes if you come to Rio) the 6 or 7 kms to Leme – a breezy, late afternoon glide on the beach side bike path, Rio’s beach life carrying on regardless as i sailed by. A happy place with a very positive energy is Rio de Janeiro!
I bought an absolutely heaving tapioca (a crepe made from cassava flour) filled with cheese and linguica from a street vendor (R5 – €1.50) and stopped to watch yet another football game as i devoured it – this time it was 9-a-side, full-on beach football.. physically one of the hardest forms of football, both in terms of the reckless tackling and the cardio fitness required for endless running in the deep dry sand.
This was obviously an “important” game as there was a few hundred people pitchside. some even formed an “ultras” supporters group behind one of the goals where they sang and drummed incessantly on 2 wheelie bins they had “borrowed”. Bateria’s (drums) are omnipresent in Brazilian life and another ever present – the smell of maconha (marijuana) – permeated the air every bit as much as the sound of drums.
I finished my carioca tapioca and rolled on happily towards the party. It was called “irregular heartbeat” and is a very chilled sundown party that works off crowd funding and only happens 4/5 times per year in summer. I was also invited to “trem de samba”- which consists of a train that drives around with different samba bands on each carriage – this mobile party makes numerous stops and you can tip away at a beer or two on board to keep down the dust.
There is always a myriad of diverse parties to go to in Rio and luckily they haven’t embraced silly rules on selling beer or having parties on the street just yet. i will mourn the day when they do this. A major part of their South American-ness will undoubtedly be lost on the quest for “progress”.
As a result of the current freedoms to do whatever wherever, you never see people falling around the place like you do at home. Brazil has magnified the horrific relationship we have with alcohol at home in my mind. And far be it from me to claim the rarified air of the high moral ground – i love a drink! There is just more strings to the Brazilian party’s bow!
Unfortunately, like the atom, i cant split myself and join the samba train but I was more than happy to stay and chill with my friends, playing the fifth wheel. I didn’t chat to any girls (a sin at a Rio party) as I was simply too wrecked but instead i lay on the grass in the cool of the evening and we sipped a beer or three at our ease.
At 9.30 the party wound down and by that stage our group had swelled 8 or 9. Some were heading home and others out for the night but I was done. The guys headed for the metro while I jumped on a bus and chatted to a girl stood beside me in the cram. As usual the Brazilian driver took corners without resorting to the use of brakes and every one standing was temporarily turned into a pole dancer swinging over and back whilst holding on for dear life. This pattern is normally only interrupted at each bus stop where their mission seems to be to accelerate like a Formula1 driver before climbing on the brakes & shunting to a stop as suddenly and as unexpectedly as possible – there they load up more white knuckle riders and the whole crazy circus starts again. Its fun as well though and normally leads to conversations breaking out as people keep bouncing off each other. Personal space or hangups about it apply far less in Rio. The upshot of this hectic ride to Flamengo was the procuring of Julianna’s number and the promise of a drink next week. Happy days! Carioca (Rio) girls are amazingly approachable, fun and many many other things as well. But they are not the easy girl stereotype that many people still believe.
So I sauntered through Catete merrily before getting another adventurous “Moto taxi” to the top of Tavares Bastos (the small favela where i live) with my mate Junio. He was hell bent on speed and trying to scare the daylights out of this “Gringo” but after a few months living here i know these guys know their job and i thought it was a great laugh – if just a little unnerving at times on the blind bends. It also used up the last of my energy and when my friends Pedro Paolo and Flavinho invited me to a “Forro” (Music of North-East Brazil) party in a local boteco called Bar-Celona, I had to decline. I went home to the Maze and lay on the bed, turning on the fan to cool the nights swelter – “only for a second” I thought to myself, ” before I take a shower”.
My eyelids were already struggling against Newtons law however, and pretty soon my whole body was falling too. Falling into that warm, gravity free realm known as dreamland.
The next thing i knew it was Sunday and the next adventure in this great city beckons!
That was the beautiful here is a sample of the crazy…
As i said earlier, Rio is crazy/beautiful and i will finish todays very long first post by attaching a synopsis i made of 2 news bulletins i watched early one morning last week (if you find crazier anywhere please don’t hesitate to make contact) it mixes the hilarious with the ridiculous…
16th January … Meanwhile in Brazil…
1. A girl was locked in her house and beaten by her father for 28 days for telling her family she was gay.
2. Guys were caught selling cocaine from a mobile fruit juice bar.
3. Video footage of two ambulance guys pushing their broken down ambulance to the hospital with one of them roaring for the minister for health to come help them push (hilarious)
4. Footage of students removing their clothes mid-lesson before jumping out the window of their classroom in protest at having to attend classes without air con (its about 40ºC)
5. Policeman shot at on his day off at the beach with his two daughters, plus footage of the resulting shoot out with on-duty cops.
6. A report on the ridiculous epidemic of selfie-sticks. Brazilians love a selfie or ten.
7. Footage of a group of civil servants attacking their local offices and throwing the cars of the top officials into the river because they haven’t been paid their wages
8.Footage of a vicious fight between 3 girls – one held another by the arms while the third beat the hell out of her with a motorbike helmet and the butt of a knife before lopping off all her hair with said knife. Why? because she kissed her boyfriend of course!
9. Video footage of people forced to get water from an alligator infested river due to the droughts.
10. A female vet advising the Brazilian population on the importance of applying sunscreen to your dogs ears!