A Travellerspoint blog

Favela Rocinha

The truth behind the City of God..

sunny 30 °C
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"Não, not you. Her."

The moto-taxi driver winked and gestured to the brunette behind me, ushering me in the direction of his colleagues. Two humiliating rejections later, I secured myself a ride and we began our trip into the heart of Latin America's largest favela.

What followed was perhaps the scariest journey of my life (bear in mind I've been travelling in South America for the past 3 months..) as we raced through the shanty-town, ducking alarmingly in and out of the on-coming traffic. Finally, breathlessly, we came to a stop. We had arrived.

Favela Rocinha (O-seen-ya), just like all of Rio de Janeiro's many slums, sprang from nothing. Thousands of migrants from the countryside and ex-slaves, forced by poverty and hunger to the Ciudad Maravillhosa, simply seized a patch of vacant Atlantic rainforest and built. And built. As more people poured in, the buildings grew higher and the streets narrower. Today, the favela is home to over 200,000 of Brazil's poorest people.

As I hopped off the motorbike and waved goodbye to my maniac of a driver, my nostrils were assaulted by the smell of raw sewage - a powerful reminder that the favelas were (and in many cases, still are) rarely ever recognized by the government. As such, very few of the favelados pay tax; in turn, the government refuses to provide them with even the most basic services. Most of the electricity and water used in the favela is illegally tapped from the grid and most of the neighbourhood's garbage and sewage lies rotting in Rocinha's labyrinthine backstreets. In fact, virtually the only thing that the government does commit to is free education for all of the favela's children - an offer that, for reasons I will come onto later, is often rejected.

After a short walk, we reached a vantage point at the top of the hill. From here, the entire favela unfolded beneath our eyes: higgledy-piggledy houses, painted brightly and crammed together, competing as it were for a share of the precious sunshine. There were kites as well, fluttering and dancing on the gentle mid-afternoon breeze, their owners practising for the evening's kite-fights. What really struck me though, was the gap between rich and poor. Just over the road from the favela lie some of Rio's most exclusive beachfront flats, home to many of the city's wealthiest and most important people. All that separates them from Rocinha is a single dual carriageway, yet the two neighbourhoods are worlds apart.

These days, Rocinha's colourful façade hides something more sinister. The favela is run by the gang ADA (Amigo dos Amigos), one of Rio's three major gangs. According to our guide, the man in charge is an agreeable thirty-something called Nate, who lives, along with all his henchmen, firmly within the favela's confines. The police estimate that there are around 2,500 ADA living in Rocinha and that their slice of Rio's booming drug scene generates the gang about $5m a month in profit. As we ambled down winding alleyways, we passed men - and boys - carrying walkie-talkies and bags full of fireworks and guns. These were the dogsbodies of the organisation, constantly on the look out for cops and rival gangmembers. The gang runs the favela with an iron fist, clamping down on petty crime to make sure that wealthy outsiders feel safe buying drugs inside. In our guide's words, the same man who will mug you on Copacabana beach will do nothing more than shake your hand in Rocinha. After hearing about the ADA's form of street justice, the notorious micro-ondas, microwave, (which involves putting a live person, soaked in petrol, into a ring of flaming car tires, thereby carbonizing the victim's body), I can see why.

The most tragic thing is that the ADA - and other gangs like it - suck young men in, luring them with the promise of easy money and fast living. Once in, these men are little more than pawns in organisations driven by alcohol, cocaine and machismo (you can find a video put up by a gangmember here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nKyy9oXDQg&feature=related). Many die and for those lucky enough to survive, there is nothing to fall back on. Even the most successful gang-members rarely reach their forties - it's hardly a profession with a pension plan..

Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom in Rocinha. At the present moment, there are about 10 NGOs actively working to improve conditions for the favela's inhabitants. The organisation that runs the tour is one of them; as part of our visit, we were taken to see the nursery that they had built with tourist dollar. As one would imagine, the place was full of adorable Brazilian toddlers (not to forget the single token gringo baby) and it genuinely seemed like our money was being well spent. As we left, the kids piped up and began to chatter away.

We walked out of Rocinha with their goodbyes in our ears.


Posted by scholars08 20:25 Archived in Brazil Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


In search of the beautiful game

sunny 23 °C
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The stadium thundered to the sound of 120,000 clapping hands. Beneath our feet, the concrete shook as thousands of fans started jumping in unison. All around us, flares, fireworks and smoke bombs were let off and rolls of toilet paper hurled towards the approaching players. Amidst all this chaos, the man to my right turned to me and, with a wry smile, whispered something into my ear. "Welcome to fútbol".

We were in the home stand of the colossal Cilindro de Avellanada (bigger even than Boca Juniors' ground), in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The spectacle about to unfold before our eyes was the final game of the season: a crucial relegation play-off between Racing Club F.C. and Club Atletico Belgrano. Racing, the home team, are a club steeped in the history and tradition of Argentine football, having won the league title 16 times (most recently in the 2002 season). This year, however, they finished last in the Primera Division (Argentina's Premier League). Their opponents, Belgrano, had just finished 3rd in Primera B (Argentina's version of the Championship) and were vying for promotion. The game´s result would determine which of the two teams would be playing top-flight football next season. The stakes could not have been higher.

As you would expect, the atmosphere was electric. The ground was packed out almost an hour before kick-off, with the rival fans taking it in turns to blast out their full array of chants. The rustle of prawn sandwiches was nowhere to be heard.

The game itself was a classic - characterised by breathless end-to-end football, individual flair and unmistakeably Latin passion. The visitors dominated the beginning of the game, squandering chance after chance. Then, out of nowhere, Racing´s 5ft 2 inch pocket-dynamo of a number 10 conjured up some space in Belgrano´s box and slammed the ball into the back of the net, throwing the home fans into delirium. The crowd surged forward, pressing up against the barbed wire fence and trying to cross the pitch-side moat (you can watch some footage here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=uUu1fyiBkyc). Visibly lifted, Racing went on to dominate the rest of the game - Belgrano were allowed just one more chance (the visitors' number 9 got around the keeper, only to trip on the penalty spot and watch the ball trickle agonisingly past the post).

As the final whistle blew, sending the crowd into raptures, more fireworks and flares were set off and the concrete floor started bouncing again. Exhausted, we left the stadium to the sound of drums. As we started to make our way home, my eye was caught by a banner being waved around by a small boy:

"Fútbol - la unica pasión"


Posted by scholars08 16:26 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Easter Island

Moai madness!

sunny 25 °C
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We were greeted by the sight of old ladies making flower garlands and the smell of the tropics.

A couple of days earlier a group of four of us had decided that a quick - 7,400km - jaunt to Easter Island (known in the local language as Rapa Nui) might be in order. Thus, somewhat groggy after a 5 hour flight, we hopped off the plane and into the hazy Polynesian sunshine.

Almost immediately, I was forced to overcome two fairly major disappointments. First came the shocking revelation that the Easter Bunny does not actually live on Easter Island. Then, seemingly just to compound my misery, our taxi driver went on to shatter my childish hopes that the islanders would use Easter Eggs as currency. As one would expect, these devastating blows took time to get over. Eventually though, I came to terms with life, made my peace with the world and readied myself for some Polynesian fun times.

Having heard all about the reefs and crystal-clear waters off the coast, I made a bee-line for the Island´s dive centre. Given that I had no prior scuba experience, I thought that I would just do a little bit of snorkelling. Unfortunately, Diego, the owner, had other ideas. As soon as I asked him about snorkelling, he started to giggle and asked me in Spanish whether it was just because I was too scared to go on a dive. Obviously, he was right. Naturally, I denied this fact as vehemently as I could and made the arrangements to go on the next dive. I didn´t regret it - diving the reef was like swimming in the tropical tank in Southend Sea Life centre (aside from the regrettable absence of Peter Pan´s Playground)!

The following day came the island's main attraction - the moais. There are over 900 of these colossal heads, which measure up to 21m in length and weighing up to 80 tonnes. The heads themselves played an important role in the ancestral tradition of the tribespeople - it is speculated (although no-one can be sure, as the writing system used by the Rapa Nui civilisation has never been deciphered) that they served to represent the spirits of the dead. Moreover, as the islanders only had access to the most rudimentary tools and equipment, the construction, transportation and erection of the moais was virtually a full-time occupation. Somewhat unfortunately for the generations of tribesmen who spent their entire lives building moais, there was a civil war in the 16th century and virtually all of the heads were destroyed. Of the extant heads, the best preserved and most ornate is in the British Museum! Having said all this, the moais still make a breathtaking sight, especially when set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

For me though, the most interesting part of the island was the so-called ´Birdman´ cult of Orongo. To cut a long story short, the cult´s purpose was to select a new chief for the island each year. In order for this to happen, young men from the island's various different tribal groups would jump off a 1000ft cliff and swim 2km out to sea to an islet where the sooty tern (a migratory bird) was known to nest. Once the athletes reached this islet, the aim of the game was to find an egg laid by a tern, collect it and swim (and climb) back to where the tribal elders were gathered. The first man to make it back to the elders with his egg intact - no mean feat in itself - would then nominate a tribal elder from his particular tribe to be the chief of the entire island.

Seems to me like politics was a heck of a lot more interesting in those days!


Posted by scholars08 07:57 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Devil´s Mine

A morning in the Cerro Rico..

sunny 25 °C
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Darkness enveloped me as I stepped across the threshold. The air was dusty, dank and cold. Almost without warning, the tunnel narrowed and I began to feel claustrophobic. By this point, I felt that I had come too far to turn back.

I was crawling through one of the thousands of mine-shafts dug in the Cerro Rico (´rich mountain´), close to the city of Potosi. For over two hundred years, these mines were the the beating heart of the Spanish Empire, pumping tens of thousands of tonnes of silver to all of Spain´s most distant colonies. For the Spaniards, the mountain was a source of wealth beyond their wildest dreams - even to this day, there remains a phrase in Spanish valer un Potosi, which literally means ´to be worth a fortune´.

Suffice to say, these riches did not come without a human cost. It is widely accepted by historians that around 8 million indigenous people died (or, more accurately, were worked to death) in the Cerro Rico during the Spanish rule. Eventually, the local workforce became so depleted that the Spanish were forced to import African slaves to work in the mines. These men, completely unaccustomed to the bitter cold and the altitude (4200m), were also destined to die in their thousands in pursuit of Spanish glory.

These days, the mines are run somewhat more humanely. Groups of miners (there are between 5 and 10 thousand in total) rent segments of the mountain from the Bolivian government and are then free to exploit the rapidly diminishing mineral wealth as they will. With the exception of this alteration in administration, there have been very few changes in the Cerro Rico since the Spanish era.

Even in the 21st century, the lives of the mineros are nasty, brutish and short. On average, a miner begins work aged 12. Each day, he will spend between 12 and 24 hours working underground, using only basic tools and dynamite. Most contract silicosis (a disease of the lungs, caused by poisonous dust in the rock) within 10 years. Many go on to die by the age of 30, almost all by 40. While wandering, I bumped into a cheerful 54 year-old, named Bruno, who claimed to have been mining for over 36 years. As we walked away, our guide, himself an ex-miner, explained that Robert had all the symptoms of advanced silicosis and would probably be dead within 6 months.

For me, the most tragic aspect of the Cerro Rico is the fact that there is virtually no hope of escape. Families work in the same co-operatives for generations; as each father dies aged 35 or 40, so his son is obliged to take up the family business in order to provide for his female relatives. Some of the more progressive co-operatives encourage their child-labourers to go to school, but our guide explained that these children often struggle to save enough money to pay for their education. The lucky few that manage it are usually ostracized by their classmates. Along the way, I met Braulio, a 15 year-old (whose aspiration was to go to university). I asked him whether he thought that he would be able to save enough to leave the mines - he responded with a characteristically Latin American shrug and a cheeky grin.

There are 22 levels in the Cerro Rico - as one descends, the mineral veins become richer and the life expectancies shorter. I met Braulio on the 3rd level (we only descended as far as the 4th) and he explained that, as a miner, he faced a choice between money for his family or his own life. In order to realise his dream, Braulio was going to try and seek work in one of the larger (and deeper) mines, fully aware of the potential cost. To quote him directly:

"Yo voy a sacrificar mi vida para mi familia. Pero yo soy minero, y soy orgulloso".
(I am going to sacrifice my life for my family. But I am a miner and I am proud).

The final, and most puzzling, aspect of the miners´ lives is their religion. On the surface, they are practising Catholics, no different to the vast majority of Bolivians. However, inside the mines, they believe in something altogether more sinister - Tio, the Devil. Our guide explained that this belief was introduced by the Spanish, in order to ´motivate´ the natives into working harder and longer. In fact, the word Tio is a Quechua corruption of the Spanish word Dios, meaning God. Each of the 500 or so different co-operatives in the Cerro Rico has its own statue of Tio; the one I was taken to was made of clay and about 6 feet tall. It was adorned with a massive penis (said to represent the mine´s ´fertility´) and covered in offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol. Our guide explained that the miners believe that the Cerro Rico is the Devil´s domain - the temperature in the lower levels fluctuates between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius, making it truly Infernal - and that God has no power inside. In order to satisfy the Devil´s many wants, the miners sacrifice llamas and make regular offerings to their idols. Even so, whenever a death occurs, it is blamed on the Devil and such is their fear of Tio that most miners won´t even look their mine´s idol in the eye. As we squeezed through a mine-shaft and re-emerged into the daylight, our guide, Raul, told me that he personally believed that, if displeased, Tio would rise up from the ground and eat his soul.

Whether or not Tio really does exist, I think that it´s fair to say that the Cerro Rico truly is the Devil´s mine.


Posted by scholars08 13:20 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Prison Break

Passing time in San Pedro..

sunny 25 °C
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The guard smirked as he accepted my money. He stood up, snatched my passport from my outstretched hand and walked over to the gate. My palms began to sweat.

The evening before, after about 3 days of frantic searching, I´d found someone with a contact on the inside. I paid them 100Bs in advance and they instruced me to wait outside the main gate of the Iglesia San Pedro at 9.00 the following day.

The morning came and, eventually, a man in dark glasses and a hat walked up to me. By this point, I had been standing outside the church for about 10 minutes and I was starting to feel like the ethnic James Bond. Unfortunately for me, all this mysterious character wanted to know was when Mass was going to start. After an incredibly awkward conversation (involving a lot of shrugging, a nod and an exasperated ´Por favor!´), I carried on waiting..

Finally (i.e. about 30 seconds later), a malodorous Chilean man, clad in some severely lairy yellow trackies, strolled up and tapped me on the shoulder. He told me his name was Cristian and that he would be taking me to the prison and making the necessary introductions. His ´unique´ odour (he smelt of wee) didn´t inspire much confidence; he quickly proceeded to shatter what little remaining faith I had in him by revealing that he had just been released on parole after an 11 month sentence for drug trafficking. Then he bought me an orange juice and everything was cool again.

As we drank our juice, Cristian began to tell me about the chap who would be meeting me. Apparently, I was to have the good fortune to be shown around by the boss of the most notorious cocaine syndicate in Bolivia. Great. Minutes later, having bribed the guard on the door, the gate of San Pedro prison creaked open.

Standing on the other side of the gate was a small, fragile-looking man of about 50, with a hearing aid in his right ear. He nodded at Cristian and extended his index finger to me, beckoning me over. He shook my hand and, in near perfect English, introduced himself as Luis. He pulled up a chair and, with the niceties finished with, began to talk.

I will never forget the beginning of our conversation.

Luis: Pranav, my name is Luis Amado Pacheco Abraham. I am here because I was found guilty of trafficking drugs.
Me: A lot?
Luis: 4.2 metric tonnes of crystallised cocaine.
Me: Ah.

(If anyone is interested, you can have a look at this website to find out about the full extent of his various misdemeanours: http://www.geocities.com/corruptosdb/dea.htm ).

We talked for about half an hour about various things, including the Bolivian legal system (Luis is now a practising lawyer, having studied the law while in jail), football and the international drugs trade. Apparently, times are tough at the moment for the Latin American cocaine syndicates - Luis advised me to wait a couple of years before trying to start up my own cartel. (Only joking Mum..).

After we finished chatting, Luis stood up and said that he would like to show me around his ´section´ of the jail.

Basically, San Pedro is nothing like a Western jail. The rule of law doesn´t count for anything - all that matters is money. Inmates are forced to buy or rent their cells from other prisoners and to buy their own food for the duration of their stay. This means that drug lords, like Luis, live in high style (Luis´ ´cell´ consisted of 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, an office - complete with computer and internet - and a DVD room) and the poor share cramped cells with several other inmates. Unfortunately, cameras are forbidden, so I couldn´t take any photos, but you can find some on this website (about a book written by a British drug dealer who spent time in San Pedro): http://www.marchingpowder.com/content.php/12.html.

There are shops, restaurants and even pool tables within the jail, all run by prisoners desperately trying to scrape a living. The one thing that I couldn´t find was prison guards: Luis explained that the inmates make their own law (rapists and child molesters are often killed or forced to commit suicide - exactly like Sona, the fictional jail in Prison Break).

As far as I am concerned though, the most shocking thing about San Pedro was the fact that the jail was literally overrun with little kids. Extreme poverty forces these children to live with their fathers in jail (they are free to come and go as they please, and most go to school) but, according to Luis, many of them eventually end up being imprisoned in their own right. Sad as this is, I find it hardly surprising - what else can you expect to come from a childhood spent in the company of crackheads and murderers?

Luis and I continued to walk and eventually I ran out of time. Just before I left, I asked one further question - what was Luis´ biggest regret.

In response, he quoted a couplet by Borges, the Argentine poet:

"He cometido lo peor de los pecalos
Que un hombre puede cometer. No fui feliz"

("I have commited the worst sin that a man may commit. I was not happy.")


Posted by scholars08 07:06 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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