Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Cheek by Jowl

After a marathon bus ride from Florianopolis we are now in the spectacular city of Rio de Janeiro. After the near biblical day of rain in Florianopolis the weather came good for our last couple of days and the charm of Santa Catarina began to shine through the off-season gloom. The tennis continued to be a regular fixture as we followed a Canadian player, Peter Polansky, that we got chatting to on the first day as he made his way to the Quarter Finals only to be knocked out by the narrowest of margins. Watching these guys slug it out in the blistering heat of the midday sun was a fantastic and unexpected experience. The overnight bus trip to Rio was more comfortable than expected but it is nice to think that we only have a mere six hour ride remaining to take us from Rio back Sao Paulo next week.

Rio is without doubt one of the most visually spectacular cities in the world and quite unlike any other city we have been to on the trip so far. The city is punctuated by steep mountains that separate the regions and make it feel more compact than it actually is. The main beaches of Ipanema and Copocabana are some of the most densely populated areas in South America as the high rise apartment buildings are crammed into the few blocks between the beach and the lagoon, just a few hundred metres inland. As there are a couple of public holidays this week the beaches were packed with people enjoying the last throws of autumn. The beaches reflect the diversity of life in Rio with each section of the beach ‘claimed’ by a different group: the pensioners playing suttlecock, favella kids playing beach football, bronzed poseurs playing beach volleyball in the tightest speedos they could find and only marginally more modest than the beachwear on show in the gay section between the rainbow flags. On Sundays and public holidays they shut down an entire carriage-way of the beach road for runners, rollerbladers and promenaders. This is where people come to see and be seen. It is fair to say that Ipanema beach takes the award for the most inappropriate exercise clothing I have ever seen; who would have thought that an octagenarian would wear a pair of speedos to go running.

After Chile we thought that we had left the most expensive country on our trip but Brazil has been a real eye opener. Our room in the Mango Tree Inn is possibly the worst value for money we have had thus far at $65 US for what if effectively a damp shed with a bunk bed. The restaurants are equally extortionate with fish and meat main courses in the region of $30-35 each we are talking London prices. As we head up the coast tomorrow to Buzios for our final attempt at a sunny beach stay we are hoping for a little self-catering to ease the strain on our already hemorrhaging budget.

The strangest thing about Rio is the proximity of extreme wealth and poverty. This morning we went on an organised tour of a couple of Favellas. These areas of the city house the poorest of Rio’s inhabitants and are effectively outside of government control. The Favellas are controlled by organised crime syndicates that run drug franchises around the city and are de facto no-go areas for the police. Robberies and street crime rarely occur in the Favellas as the dealers don’t want to draw attention to the area, this is usually reserved for Ipanema and Copacabana. However, as the balance of power ebbs and flows within the gangs there are regular shoot-outs as turf wars reach their inevitable conclusion. Recent investments by NGOs and the Inter-American Development Bank have improved infrastructure in these makeshift areas bringing rudimentary healthcare and eduction to the families that desperately need it. However, what is most striking is how close the Favellas are to some of the most affluent parts of town with single roads lined with million dollar houses on one side and tenements on the other. Education is the only path the kids in the Favellas have to escape the cycle of poverty but few have access to good quality public schooling. Hopefully this will change as the government begins to provide the much needed investment that address the needs of this underclass, until then the dealers will rule and have plenty of willing recruits with a shortened life expectancy.

No comments: