Text and images by Mark Anthony Barquin Togonon
A sharp burst of gunfire cracks the early morning silence in the favela. I stumble back a step, my heart pounding like a trapped wild animal as I crouch behind the hostel’s half-opened gate. Rapid footsteps thud closer on the pavement. Within seconds a young man with a pistol darts through the alleyway, glancing backwards as if to check if he has left his pursuers far behind. He stops right across the gate, flattening himself against the frame of a concrete wall to catch his breath. I freeze in my place, terrified that if I move and catch his attention, he’d come after me. Cursing myself for choosing a cheap backpacker hostel in the middle of a cliff-side slum, I shut my eyes tight, hoping he’d disappear. Oh God, please, I cannot die in a foreign country!
Quickly, the armed man vanishes into the jumble of brick houses, stacked like precarious piles of colorful boxes, above the hill.
I only learned about the favelas’ notoriety the other night when the airport taxi driver flinched upon seeing my hostel’s address. The Portuguese word favela refers to the spontaneous and informal hillside settlements in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil’s former capital and second largest city, which, by the end of the 19th century was occupied by homeless civil war soldiers who built shanties on forested hillsides. Soon after, settlements on other hills were illegally built and occupied by freed African slaves and migrants who couldn’t afford proper housing. Today, there are around 1,000 favelas in Rio, and they are home to about 24 percent of the city’s population. Some of these densely populated communities have become hives of criminal activities and violence, constantly warring for control of illegal drug trade. The hostel staff, however, in his thickly accented and broken English, assures me that their area is safe and the neighborhood is friendly. “Don’t worry, it is normal to see expressive people on the streets,” he smiles. While he acknowledges the presence of drug cartels in the favela, he says that drug lords usually enforce strict rules inside their territory and surrounding areas, discouraging crime especially against tourists to avoid police attention and to attract foreign buyers. But some favelas are extremely dangerous. I later on learn through the news that only a few weeks ago, some lost tourists were gunned down after their GPS brought them to a gang-controlled district.
I anxiously make my way to nearby Copacabana Beach, almost on tiptoe, to meet my friends Aimee and Mau for sightseeing, walking past policemen with Armalite rifles on the street corner. Upon reaching the world famous beach without a bullet in my head, I heave a sigh of relief. Here, runners weave through bikers, power-walkers, and skate boarders, their sweat-drenched bodies glistening in the sun. Shirtless muscular men do pull-ups on sidewalk gymnastic frames while gorgeous women, fresh from a beach yoga class, parade down the wavy, black-and-white mosaic boardwalk in just their tiny string bikinis. Even on a Monday morning the beach, right across from the city’s most luxurious hotels and designer shops, is lively with surfers waiting for waves and children frolicking in the shallows, watched over by parents who sip coconuts and sunbathe on sands as white and fine as sugar. Minutes into my stroll, a gentle-faced man with a Labrador paces with me, puts his arm around my shoulder and offers me “cocaina” and a wide array of pharmaceuticals in plain sight of a policeman on duty, not to mention the children kicking and throwing balls on the sand nearby. I politely shake my head and disappear into a crowded restaurant. Exerting little effort to be discreet, he moves on to other prospective clients, a group of teenagers, not far away.
Into the Clouds
Our initial plan was to hike the entire 2,330 feet of the Corcovado Mountain, towering visibly within the city center, to reach one of the Seven Wonders of the World at its peak, the statue of Christ the Redeemer. As we approach the forest trail in Parque Lague, a public park at the foot of Corcovado, we find handgun warning signs fastened to poles and tree trunks: “Be cautious. Do not risk your life.” Soon, the policeman at the tourist registration booth tells us that armed criminals from nearby favelas have been sneaking into the forest, robbing hikers of money and gadgets before disappearing back to the mountainside. “Just the other week, we arrested five men for stabbing a tourist to death,” he says. Need he say more? Perhaps the gunfire incident at the favela earlier was a sign, some supernatural intervention if one believes in such, of a bigger danger if we pursued the hike. We decide to take the safest way to the summit instead, by cog train.
At the Cosme Velho station, we catch a rickety train that snakes up to the top of Corcovado Mountain through the world’s largest urban forest, Tijuca National Park. We climb into the clouds, past exotic vegetation and cathedrals of old-growth firs, until we reach a precarious perch on the edge of the world, and then we see it, or at least its silhouette. With arms flung open in a welcoming embrace, casting a watchful eye over the city, the 125-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer stands on a mountain peak where one can gawk at one of the most spectacular panoramas on earth. The statue was built after World War I, when Brazilian Catholics felt they needed a symbol to counteract the “increasing godlessness” in the country. In 1920, a Brazilian engineer named Heitor Da Silva collaborated with French-Polish sculptor Paul Landowski to build the enormous statue, which is covered with over six million soapstone tiles, atop the city’s highest peak. From afar, peculiar-shaped mountains of granite and quartz rise into the heavens from the water’s edge, towering over the gleaming beaches, and white skyscrapers of downtown Rio. We push our way through tourist crowds until we find a good spot to drink in the views of the Guanabara Bay below and the Atlantic Ocean a little further away.
Slouched in the backseat of a taxi, staring out at the dilapidated buildings outside, I notice that most of the their walls are plastered with bright graffiti caricatures of famous personalities, squiggles and abstract shapes that probably represent names of gangs and whimsical paintings of the Brazilian way of life. Some, sheer vandalism but many are thoughtfully conceptualized and executed as if they were legal, bursting with colors, emotions, social statements, and obvious talent. And it turns out I am right. Possibly exhausted from penalizing thugs and rebels who made canvasses of public properties, the Brazilian government legalized street art in 2009, allowing street artists to paint on rundown and decrepit walls as long as they have the owners’ permission.
We are dropped off at the Olympic Boulevard, a rejuvenated port district that hosted live entertainment, bars, food trucks, and nightly fireworks during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. Here we feast our eyes on the world’s largest graffiti called Etnias (Ethnicity), which covers the entire 3,000-square meter wall of a formerly abandoned warehouse. Using a repetition of brightly colored geometric shapes, Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra painted portraits of five indigenous people representing the five continents that participate in the Olympic Games: the Mursi of Ethiopia, the Kayin from Thailand, the Supi from Europe, the Huli from Papua New Guinea, and the Tapajos from the Americas. The acclaimed artist, who was once arrested for vandalism in his teens, used around 500 gallons of paint, 3500 cans of spray paint, and seven hydraulic lifts to finish his masterpiece before the Olympic Games commenced last year.
An hour before dusk we are enjoying a street musician’s soothing rendition of the famous Brazilian bossa nova “Garota De Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema) at Escadaria Selaron, a staircase covered in an explosive array of brightly colored tiles, ceramics, and mirrors. According to stories, decorating the steps was an accidental project of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron, who spent most of his youth travelling to more than 50 countries while working as a painter before finally settling in Rio in 1983. In 1990, he randomly began renovating the steps just outside his home but his wildly creative imagination pushed him to transform the entire crumbling staircase, which connects the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, into a fancy mosaic cascade. Quite obsessively, he worked with tiles that he collected from the city’s garbage piles but when the project’s popularity grew, tourists began sending and bringing him tiles from all over the world—in fact, the stairs feature tiles from at least 60 different countries. The vibrant steps, which he dedicated the rest of his life to until his death in 2013, were mostly covered in 2000 and immediately garnered international attention, with appearances in magazines such as National Geographic and Time as well as music videos of Hollywood musicians Snoop Dog and U2.
Soon, we are dipping our toes in the sands of Ipanema Beach as the sun descends behind the bold silhouette of Sugarloaf Mountain, scattering pastel hues across the sea and skies. One by one, lights from mountainside favelas begin to appear like fireflies. I sip my caipirinha, occasionally glancing at beautiful couples kissing away their fervid affection by the beach, at a bar and behind the seawall. Rio de Janeiro seems to live up to its moniker as the City of Passion. With its romantic views, gorgeous locals, steamy tropical heat, and extremely dangerous districts, the city will certainly have anyone’s pulse racing, adrenaline rushing, and senses tingling.
1. Philippine passport holders do not need a visa to visit Brazil.
2. There are no direct flights from Manila to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Find the cheapest connecting flights at www.skyscanner.com.ph .