City Of God, Rio de Janeiro

I had not really heard of the City of God, at least not enough to know anything about it. Was it a book or a movie? Yes, a movie was made in 2002. I hadn’t seen it. It was nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language section. I have it now to watch.

Here I was on a brilliant Sunday morning, just after 10 am, about to embark on one of those magical mystical tours, for which you have no expectations, no knowledge of at the outset, and yet by travels end, leaves you permanently changed.

After my five days in Belo Horizonte at the State of the World Forum event, I discovered just before departing for the airport, that Nicky, one of the State of the World Forum participants, a world expert in working with cities and sustainability, was not only on my flight, she was in Rio de Janeiro for the same three days as me. We had not really connected at the conference, although I had had several experiences of her.

The first, as I was checking in to the hotel, was in noticing this woman, very determined and quite demanding at the reception desk. Yep…I judged her. Shame on me. Of course, she is me and my behaviour, which is precisely why I recognised her and reacted…and while I have managed to tone down my ability to be aggressive and bossy, it is still my default pattern, particularly if crossed, tired, or determined. I have no problem being aggressive, demanding, somewhat angry, even rude.

I know that much of that behaviour for me has been learned behaviour to cope with a man’s world where I have felt smaller, and…as a single parent, I thought I had to fight for every scrap…and yet it is also part of my inherent nature…I was the child who’s first words were bugger, bugger, bugger…angry at not getting my way…!

I do like that part of me. When the chips are down, I am good to have on your team, because I make impossible things happen, and I do not take no for an answer. In my wiser days, I have learned that there are other ways to go about this, far less aggressive and bolshy. However, the Universe was as usual plotting for me to get a stiff lesson in the bad habit of judging people so quickly. Touche.

My other experience of Nicky was in a dialogue where her foresight and insight were so astute one could only be in deep respect towards her immeasurable skills.

I was to find that she was a lady with enormous heart…

So I find myself sharing a car to the airport, and then a flight, and then the bus. We were like two lost souls in a foreign land, as indeed we were, and we bonded. I noticed she had a red coloured string around her wrist, the kind you get when visiting India. There was more to this woman than meets the eye…of course!!…I am sure the Universe was laughing at me …

Here I was Sunday morning, invited by Nicky to set out on this magical mystery tour with two women she had met in Belo.

Maria, tall, generous of heart and spirit, a native of Denmark, local resident of Rio, musician. Giselle, equally as tall, exquisitely beautiful, the epitome of the Brazilian girls you would expect to see dancing samba at Carnival. Giselle doesn’t speak English well, Maria is fluent in both English and Portuguese.
Giselle is a model, and an entrepreneur. She started the first fashion school in the favela’s. She is now working with Maria on a project combining music and fashion to get support to bring kids out of the slums.
Joining us is Nicky’s Godson, Cato, recently graduated with a Ph.D. from Oxford University in English Literature, raised by Nicky after his parents death.

We drive down the coast for about 45 minutes to get to the City of God, one of Rio’s many slums, or favela’s. This one is peculiar in that it is flat, not clinging to the hill side as most of Rio’s other favela’s are.

Before we enter the favela we meet Giselle’s father, a tall and handsome man who runs a fruit stall. I was immediately impressed by the amount of genuine love and affection that Giselle and her father had for each other.

Giselle’s home and birth place was not far inside. Our odd little group didn’t seem to attract too much attention. I don’t know why…maybe staring at strangers is considered rude, or maybe we are not that unusual, or possibly because people are used to the strange.

For the most part, the streets and walkways were very clean. Old, broken down, rutted and pot holed, but clean. I found this throughout Rio. The animals that I did see seemed reasonably well cared for.

Giselle’s house was down a very narrow lane way where washing was hung against the walls. Her mother had lived in this house for a very long time, and born and raised 7 children here to two fathers. The house was about the size of two king sized beds, with a very small anti-chamber and single seater couch, which was where Giselle had slept. (I am not sure how?) Inside was a three seater couch, a TV and stereo, telephone, fridge, sink, stove and a screened off area I assumed was the bathroom/toilet? Electrical wires ran along the walls, the roof was corrugated material, probably asbestos. Giselle used a ladder to slide back one of the roof sheets so we had fresh air and light. A built in sun roof! I am not sure how a bunch of children managed to sleep in here, but I am sure it was cosy.

Giselle made us a delicious fresh fruit cocktail, we met her mother, who is about my height (short) and a very happy soul, we met the neighbours beautiful infant daughter and the family cat. There was love and joy overflowing.

From here we walked to the other side of the creek…which was more like an open sewer, to visit Giselle’s brother family. Their home was larger and more modern. Again, love was everywhere.

Along the way we met one of Giselle’s sister’s. She was short also, and had only a few teeth. And a very big smile. One of Giselle’s brothers has a daughter who is pregnant at 13 or 14. This is normal.

Next stop was to visit a friend who is both an astrologer and a web designer. His office/home was fully decked out with computer, sound equipment and such. Valdomiro is a bundle of joy. He was so excited to meet us and to learn that my mother is an astrologer. Within moments he shoved gifts for her into my hands. Such spontaneous generosity. Rare in most cities I have visited.

From the City of God we drove back towards Rio and stopped at Rocinha, one of the famous favela’s in South Rio. Rocinha does cling to the side of the hill and is busy, busy busy, like an ant hill. Since Giselle is not a local, the rules here are slightly different, we need to be a little more respectful, and a little more mindful of our guest status.

I am told that each favela has its rulers (drug lords) and laws. You do not steel from your own. There is no prostitution. Electricity if off the grid, so at no charge. (Also looks so haphazard I am sure people must get electrocuted regularly). There are no city services like garbage day.

In Rocinha we had lunch. It was about 4.30 in the afternoon and this is considered normal for lunch. It was Fathers Day, so the restaurant was busy. Lunch was the traditional Brazilian fare, meat, rice, beans, and the ever present caipirinhas (cane liquor and lime cocktails).

Cato was taking photo’s and Giselle told him not too. The street was very crowded, with motor bikes going too and fro, missing people by inches. However, there was also activity in the street, of the drug kind. And photo’s were a no no.

My eyes were not trained to see this kind of activity. To Giselle it was obvious. It reminded me of the story of native indians not being able to see boats when they first arrived. Their eyes had no ability to see boats. Or my little dog, unable to see/respond to her reflection in the mirror. I was blind to the workings of the street.

What I was not blind to was the guy who went right by me on a motorbike, inches from me, with a very nasty looking machine gun over his shoulder. I was reminded that I was in another world, with different rules. Street rules, and they seemed to work well.

The entire day was devoid of any kind of fear. Or disgust. Or shame. Indeed, I experienced the opposite. Love, generosity, joy, care and respect.

Maria tells me that most of the people that work in Rio’s hotels and bars live in the favela’s.  Those lovely people who stand at the door of my hotel and smile when I enter, or help me with my bags, or serve me for breakfast, or clean my room.

Sure, some of them steal, and crime in Rio is supposed to be very bad. But most of the favelados, the residents of the favela’s, are the working class, and they have dignity and pride, and work with respect and care for others.

When I look at Giselle and her family, at their spontaneous expression of love, their openness and joy, I see the beauty of the favela’s. Their values are different from ours. Less complex.

I feel very lucky for what I have. For being born in a country like Australia. At the same time, I feel sad that so many of us born to privilege have been overcome by a disease of wanting ever more, of deep dissatisfaction with the level of what we have, of being insanely driven to get more. It is a sickness that creates entitlement, whinging, obsession, debt and spiritual poverty.

Several days later, standing on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, looking down upon the beauty of Rio, with all its light and shade,  I asked myself what can we do…what do we do to turn the world around from the mess we are in…from our crazy silly lifestyle that is killing mother earth? Over population, rotten waterways, pollution, over consumption, over use of chemicals in farming…lack of water…all this…what do we do? And part of the solution has to do with getting people out of poverty. Poverty has to to with our economic system, which is no longer viable to support the healthy future of the world and its inhabitants. At the same time, we must also be mindful of protecting against spiritual poverty.

Are we able to lift that 80% out of financial poverty without turning them into us…insatiable machines who have forgotten real joy and value? That is our work. It requires love and compassion and deep integrity, tempered with great wisdom and courage.

What a day…back at the hotel at 6.30 pm, tired, dusty, and at peace, I thought about what a special day I had had.

Maria, sharing the heart of her beloved adopted Rio, Giselle, sharing her transcendent beauty and love, Nicky, a beautiful soul with a warriors heart and a genuine care for people, Cato, at that golden point in life where we need to take a deep breath and choose our path, and me…surrendered to the magical mystery tour that is life and that constantly has me in awe. And then people of Rio. Alive, pulsing to the music of samba.

My friend Alexandra, Rio local, tells me that few non favela locals have had the kind of experience I had on this day. Few people get to go inside the slums as a guest.

I feel gratitude…and for the remaining days in Rio, I ride the bus, and walk the streets, absent of fear, deeply in love with this city and its breathtaking beauty, and immense poverty, its magnificent light and shade, its heat and passion reflected in the rhythm and sound of the drums, the samba, and the down and dirty of life lived loud.

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