Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Invisible Man

  • fa·vel·la (\fə-ˈve-lə) : a settlement of jerry-built shacks lying on the outskirts of a Brazilian city.
On one of my last days in Brazil, my family and I decided we wanted to learn about the history and culture of the favelas that lie in and outside of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike America where real estate generally gets pricier the higher it's built (for stunning views, etc.), in Rio the poor live in shantytowns that drape across the hillsides. We found a tour company that offered favela tours (for a steep price) to curious travelers, but we decided we'd rather go at it on our own with a private, experienced driver. We found a stout, well-dressed one with a sense of humor at the Sofitel around the corner from our apartment. Ivano's English was impressive considering the fact that he'd never taken English classes and his knowledge of the history of the poor in his country painted just the picture we needed as we waited in traffic through downtown Rio.

Ivano explained that the Brazilian government has been making a conscientious push to rid many favelas of drug crimes, which is essentially where most of Rio's the violence stems from. Drug cartels and gang members vie for territory with one another or they war with the local police force for obvious reasons. Stray bullets often fly and those caught in the crossfire die. According to Ivano about 70% of the murders in Rio are tied to those involved in the drug trade. A common misconception by tourists is that random civilians are likely targets, which he said wasn't the case. But he also reiterated that though Rio is unsafe, it isn't as unsafe as its reputation makes it out to be.

With that we began our ascent up a dirty, windy little road flanked by dilapidated two-story cement buildings. Fabric hung where many doors and windows ought to have been, and the narrow main street we began to climb in our SUV was filled with favela dwellers and their children, buying fruit from stands and other essentials from shanty shops. Dozens of bags of trash lay piled along many of the gutters, some ripped open by stray dogs scavenging for food. Guys on rusted motorcycles and vespas zoomed past our car with inches to spare as they gave people at the bottom of the hill rides up to the top for a small fee. The mood was hectic and lively, like the bazaar scene in Casablanca. Ivano continued on with his lecture, telling us that this was one of the better favelas, and that there were a handful he wouldn't feel safe driving through. My sister and I (sitting in back) asked if we could snap a few pictures from inside the car during the winding drive; Ivano said no problem, as long as they were just of the street life. (If we wanted a picture of a certain person or house, he said, it would only be polite to ask permission.)

So I snapped a picture here and there of favela life as we continued on, when suddenly a guy in his early 20s pulled out of the pack of whizzing motorcycles and stopped abruptly in front of our car. Right away I noticed the guy was wearing a giant semiautomatic rifle across his chest. My blood ran cold. My parents immediately got worried, especially when he pulled the brake on his motorcycle, got off and came up to Ivano's window. At this point, I was thinking "Oh my god. I really really don't want to get shot..." I was scared, but also excited. Stupid me. My sister was shaking next to me. Ivano and the armed man exchanged words, and then our driver began rolling our window down in back. "He says you took a picture of him, and he can't be seen in any pictures. He wants to see your cameras," Ivano said. The guy held his gun in front of him and peered in the back window, demanding in Portuguese that we turn on our cameras.

Oh. my. God. I was inwardly freaking out. I quietly realized that he was in a wide-shot picture of a busy intersection I had taken a couple blocks back. I hadn't even noticed he was wearing a gun as there were hundreds of people in the shot. At this point I was thinking two things: a.) Please don't hurt me or my family, or make us get out of the car and go somewhere with your gang-member buddies who are quickly stepping out of the crowd around you and joining your side with their guns, and b.) Please don't take away my camera and smash it on the ground in front of me. I've already had enough camera problems lately.

I swiftly and discreetly erased the picture he was in before I showed him my last sequence of pictures taken. Surprisingly I stayed calm under pressure, although I felt like I was going to hurl (I'm not a big fan of guns or being threatened by them). My sister, visibly shaking now and on the verge of tears, also showed him her pictures. She later described the scenario as feeling like "her heart was going to fall out of her butt." Apparently the armed guy was satisfied with what we showed him, so he briefly told Ivano that he didn't mean to stop us like that, but he could not be seen in any pictures. The connotation being that neither the police force nor rival gang members could 1.) see him alive, 2.) see him armed, 3.) be able to pinpoint his location, or 4.) all of the above. He basically needed to live as though he were invisible.

After we drove away, our stomachs all in knots, Ivano told us that in all 10 years of him driving tourists (including the 80s band Roxette) through Rio, nothing like that had ever happened, and that we were lucky we came face-to-face with a "nice" gang member. "If he hadn't been nice, he'd have no qualms shooting you in the head, to take no chances. I've read about it in the news," he said behind the wheel. Good to know.

I have to say this experience wasn't half as scary as the time my family and I were stopped in Mexico in the middle of the night on a long empty stretch of desert north of Guadalajara. Our SUV was packed with luggage and a lead pipe my dad kept under his driver's seat as a weapon in case something "bad" happened, but the pipe suddenly seemed inconsequential when four or five guys stepped out of the SUV that had stopped us, each of them brandishing a large black machine gun. Luckily they turned out to be actual plain-clothed, non-corrupt policemen and they simply asked my dad if we had any drugs in our car that we were taking up North. They saw my little brother and sister sleeping in back as they surveyed our car, their guns in hand, and left us alone without taking any bribes or asking for anything else. Though I was young I remember thinking as they approached our vehicle in the dim moonlight that there was a good chance I was going to die that night. It was terrifying.

I guess in comparison, my favela experience wasn't that big of a deal, but still important to note. There's nothing like being threatened with a semi-automatic rifle to get the adrenaline pumping!

(Ed. note: I arrived in Buenos Aires on Friday afternoon and have not only fallen in love with how cosmopolitan and fashionable this city is, but also how affordable it is. Oh the joys of a severely collapsed economy. More on that later...)


Andi said...

WOW!! Now that was an unexpected tale from your vacation!

Glad you and your family are safe!

Mandy said...

Holy crap! I would have shit myself. You definitely have a way with keeping your cool under pressure. Thank gawd all of you are safe and unharmed. What adventures you are experiencing! Thanks for sharing your stories and reminding us of this whole other world out there that exists beyond our safe U.S. borders. I'm sure this experience will stick with you forever and make you a humbler, more appreciative person.

P.S. - I'm glad you're coming back home where you don't have to worry about guns being shoved in your face!

paisley penguin said...

Yikes - glad nothing bad happened. Can't wait to see photos!

Janine / Being Brazen said...

Sounds so interesting...Cant wait to see photos!!!

Janine / Being Brazen said...

PS - I live in South Africa, so I know the paranoid feeling well .lol

MsTraveling Pants said...

I'm shocked that you got your camera back.

Hannah said...

Your trip sounds amazing. I had never thought of traveling to Argentina, but your blog certainly makes me want to visit that country now. Submit CUTE or FUNNY photos and tell friends to vote for them. No entry fee.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin