Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Other Rio

Walking into Nilopolis, Rio.

There are two Rios. One is downtown, next to iconic, gorgeous beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana flanked by dramatic geographic features like Sugar Loaf and Corcovado defining its instantly identifiable skyline. This Rio is clean and modern and filled with museums, banks and global commerce. This is the Rio most of us picture when the city's name is mentioned - an exotic and romantic destination reserved for high society.

The other lies on the fringe, two hours by car across a seemingly boundless metropolis. This is where I spent most of my time in Brazil. During the course of my trip, I scrawled the following descriptions in my notebook:

Sprawling. Dirty. Crumbling infrastructure. Favela? Trash burning on the roadside. Mangy dogs everywhere. Some sleeping. Some dead (?). Graffiti. The occasional horse tied up on the median strip of the highway. The smell of wood, charcoal and pork hangs in the air perpetually. Terracotta masonry. Compact cars - Fiats, Renaults, Chevys (models you've never heard of). Graffiti. Ethanol. Buses constantly rumbling past. People/families running across multi-lane highways (directly beneath a pedestrian bridge). The smell of natural gas in taxis. Neglected public spaces. No street signs. No obvious civil planning, no building codes. Dichotomy. Graffiti.

A "favela," or as they are now called, community, up the road from Eduardo's school. The word favela is derived from a plant that commonly grows on hillsides in Brazil. When slavery was finally abolished in Brazil (roughly 30 years after the U.S.), the slaves were forced out of the city centers and up onto the hills. These makeshift shantytowns became known as favelas and have been notoriously dangerous places to live, ruled by a handful of well-armed drug lords. The poorest of the poor live here. Police even refused to go into these communities. Recently, through a program called "pacification," police have established a presence and rid many of these places of violence. Rio is poised to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, so this has influenced the government's increased involvement.

Graffiti outside of a city school in Rio.

I realize some of this may sound unkind. I certainly don't mean it to be. I'm trying to be as objective as possible here. I even think that our host teacher, Eduardo would agree with much of this. In other posts, I sing the praises of just about everything Brazil. There is just good and bad with everything. A lot of this is admittedly bad and I think Brazilians recognize this. Even though the gap between rich and poor is widening, the Brazilian government views education as the key to its country's prosperity in the 21st century. Social programs, such as Bolsa Familia (which I talk more about in another post) have helped to lift millions of people out of poverty and will hopefully continue to do so as Brazil becomes more and more influential on the world stage.

Rio is on the move. I used the word dichotomy in my notes because everywhere you look, luxury high-rises are sprouting up in the midst of decay. See below:

This development is occuring directly next to...

Brazil is now the world's 6th largest economy and growing rapidly.

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