There was a feature on NPR’s Morning Edition today on the police “pacification” program in Rio meant to clear out the drug gangs and crimes in the favelas, a term for shanty town, paving the way to Brazil presenting itself to the world for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. Click here to listen to the story.
It’s been said that only in Rio do the poor people live on the hill; elsewhere those neighborhoods are usually upscale. Not so in Rio. Many people, like superstar Caetano Veloso, didn’t like the 1959 French film Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus‘ idealized depiction of the hillside shanty towns. Veloso thought the more recent film Cidade de Deus (“City of God” which the name Rio slum) was more accurate. Another music superstar, the contemporary artist Seu Jorge, starred in that film, which depicted the violence of life in the favelas.
Once in Brazil, I drove up through the beautiful Jardim Botanico–Rio’s Botanical Garden–to the top, where there is an aboriginal forest, filled with trees and flora that were indigenous to Brazil when the Portuguese arrived in 1500. Brazil was, after all, named after pau brasil, Brazilwood, the reddish wood and tree native to the huge country. It was beautiful to observe this time capsule up there on the top of the hill.
Pausing to look down on the scenery below, I was met by a very different sight: a gunman with a ski mask on, holding an assault rifle. He was the sentry guarding the entrance of a favela below. It was in startling contrast and a wake up call to all the beauty I had been admiring just moments before.
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