Yesterday, I visited a favela (slum). I am lucky to have met Rodrigo… as everything I want to do, he happens to know someone who can help. We’ve been working out in the evenings at the park near his house, and I met Jefferson, a friend of Rodrigo’s a few times. Jefferson is a charming guy from the moment you meet him. He has one of those quick smiles that spreads through his face, that makes you want to smile at whatever he’s talking about, even if you don’t understand. I trusted him immediately.
Jefferson works at a grocery store restocking goods, and because of the low wages (about US$200 a month) for such work, he lives in a favela with his wife. He’s intelligent, honest, and obviously hardworking. From what I understand, he had worked for 6 years with American Airlines, but was laid off a while back. He was all too happy to take Rodrigo and I into the favela and show us around. It is known to be slightly less dangerous than others in the surrounding area because after it’s drug lord was killed a few years back by the police, they set up a small police station at the top of the hill.
I think Jefferson understood why I wanted to see the favela… out of curiosity, if nothing else. I felt safe walking around with him. Between him and Rodrigo, we met tons of people they knew. I am continually impressed with how Rodrigo knows people in every walk of life here. Not very common, from what I can gather.
We entered the favela (situated on a hillside, with perhaps the best views of Niteroi I’ve seen as yet) and walked up a maze of haphazard staircases, with the open sewers right alongside. At the top of the hill, were a few open stands that sold food/snacks and beer, and seemed to be a general meeting place. It was insanely hot after walking up the stairs so we sat down and Jefferson brought us beer.
I’ve seen many slums before, on my trips to India, but I’ve never entered one. These were better off than the slums I’ve seen in India… the housing seemed more permanent and was constructed better, from what I remember. However, this experience was distinctly different for me because I could understand the language. In India, I think I always felt a separation from the slums because I viewed from a passing car, on the way home to my family’s comfortable housing. These were the same people that I passed on the street, the same people I was working out with. These were the same people I was scared of when walking around along at night. Rodrigo pointed out one man nearby with blue shorts on, who used to play soccer with him. A year ago Rodrigo was about to be robbed on the street when the guy with blue shorts recognized him, and stopped his friends. “No, not this one.”
We spent a few hours at the top, drinking beer (which I might add, Jefferson insisted on paying for… another reminder that generosity is a trait independent of others), watching the soccer game, and at the request of Jefferson, I made balloons for a few kids. This soon turned the place into a zoo, as word spread and more and more kids showed up. Meanwhile, the guys around were betting beers on who could blow up a balloon, but no one succeeded. 🙂
We then walked around, and visited Jefferson’s house, which he had constructed by hand three years ago. Two rooms, and a bedroom on top, a small grill and water tank around the back. It was surprisingly normal inside.
The whole experience was quite shocking. The difference between my life and his seems so arbitrary. Even the difference between his family and one of similar status back home makes my jaw drop. Jefferson laid the foundation, and constructed the whole house. Right down to laying the tile. In the States, with similar skill one could easily earn enough to support a family.
In comparison to the kids running around the favela, my life would look like the set of a Hollywood movie. In fact, I’m sure these kids have had exposure to my life, through television and movies. I wonder if they disassociate from it in the same way that I do when I finish an article about the 1000’s that died yesterday in (insert 3rd world country) and then go back to my bowl of cereal.
Until I learned about the changes Mohammed Yunus initiated with Grameen Bank, I used to look at situations like yesterday’s and shake my head with despair. But Dr. Yunus’s work with micro credit has bordered on magical over the last 30 years. There is a solution to the problems with drugs, violence and poverty in this country. In my short time here, I hope I can gain a further understanding of the problems. In the very least, I will endeavor to return with renewed appreciation for the cards I have been dealt.
More pictures from this trip are here.
Visiting the Other Side