Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “favela”

Lost Samba Chapter 08/01 – Brazilian social inequality under the microscope.


The Clube de Regatas do Flamengo was one of several of upper middle class clubs clustered next to some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The Flamengo club, home to the world-famous football team of the same name, was on the shores of the filthy waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon), near our own Clube Paissandu as well as near to the Clube dos Caiçaras, the Clube Monte Líbano, the Associação Atlética Banco do Brasil, the Clube Piraquê, the Clube Militar, the Jockey Club and the Equestrian Club, or, as it was usually called, the Hípica.The Flamengo’s grounds were the largest of all the clubs and it was the easiest to join. Perhaps because of its size, the Flamengo was the only one to have proper sports facilities including an Olympic-sized pool, where some of Brazil’s top swimmers practiced, and where I took lessons three times a week.

After the swimming classes, I would walk to the Paissandu down the block. Despite being so close, everyone considered the walk dangerous as although this was a major route for cars, there were no shops, houses, offices, or  street life, only tall concrete walls protecting the clubs. Because of this, the area was a fertile ground for assaltos, or muggings. One afternoon three favelado boys approached me, asked what I had in my bag, threw me to the ground and then ran off with my belongings.  There was nothing of value – just a wet towel and my trunks – but the feeling of impotence for not being strong or courageous enough to react was traumatic.  I was only twelve and when I arrived at the club house in tears, Mum’s British instinct set in and we immediately went to the local police delegacia to file a complaint. The delegacia was across the street from the Paissandu Club. The bored receptionist took us upstairs to talk to the delegado who did not even bother to move from behind his heavy metal desk. The fat, dark, moustachioed  commander barely glanced at us through his sun glasses, tossing towards us some mug shots of dangerous criminals to see if I could recognize any.

The station was a yellow bunker-like construction with thick bars on its windows and had all sorts of police cars parked around it and had the insignia of Rio de Janeiro’s military police plastered over the door to make everyone take notice of  the menacing importance of the building.  The Fourteenth Delegacia de Polícia faced the Cruzada São Sebastião, a narrow alley that hosted the only social housing in the neighbourhood.  This was by far the most dangerous place in the otherwise exclusive Ipanema and Leblon districts, somewhere we had always be warned was a complete no-go area. In fact, the Cruzada was very much like a refugee camp, its residents being the remnants of Praia do Pinto favela that until the 1960s had existed in the midst of all those exclusive clubs.  Shortly after the 1964 coup, the military authorities backed its burning down after several “peaceful” attempts to remove the inhabitants. The land was conveniently freed up for friendly building contractors, and the families who then moved in were mostly of the military’s middle ranks.

The people lived on one side of the Cruzada São Sebastião in prison-like rows of eight-storey buildings. On the other side of the alley there was a tall wall, topped by a fence covered in barbed wire, which separated that silently angry enclave from our five-a-side football field. We often played at the same time as the boys on the other side of the wall. If our balls flew over, they would never come back. The same was true for their balls but, as they were better players, few landed on our side.  There were occasional exchanges of rude words and stones, and sometimes more daring kids climbed up to threaten us but, in so doing, they then became easy targets for ball kicks.


Boys like those from across the alley and like my muggers worked in our club as tennis ball boys, their parents sometimes being part of the club’s under paid staff. Without exception those moleques were miles tougher and fitter than even the toughest and the fittest of us.  Occasionally, we would play against them but we might as well have sat back and learned something from their genuine Brazilian footballing magic.

We feared them but, at the same time, we also secretly respected them.  The truth is that every carioca male was a bit jealous of the archetypal black man, admired for being good at football, fighting and samba idealized as being supremely virile and with tons of sexy women running after him. The only desirable feature that they lacked was, of course, our  white skin.

The people who we classified as favelados were the great proportion of Rio’s population, but they only emerged into our field of vision and respect either as football stars, as artists or, for some of us, as drug dealers.  Otherwise, as far as we were concerned dark and poor people were servants and maids in our homes, clubs, schools and office buildings.  Outside work, they were carnival dancers, beggars and muggers, people waiting to be put in prison and deserving their fate for being lazy, dishonest and libidinous. Ultimately, with the backing of the middle and upper classes, Rio’s undemocratic administration was working hard to keep the masses as far from us as possible. For them, people who had committed the crime of being born with dark skin and poor were to be no more than extras in our closeted existence, similar to how South Africa’s non-white population lived under apartheid.

In our homes, the link between the rich and poor world was embodied in our maids. Those female servants, and the attitudes to them, were remnants of the days of slavery, which in Brazil only ended in 1888 – not even seventy-five years before I was born. Every flat or house built for the lower middle class upwards had a servants’ quarters, and we all had at least one maid at home to clean, do the laundry and cook.  They would labour all week doing long hours, and sleep in stuffy, windowless rooms with the sole comforts being a crucifix on the wall and a cheap radio set on top of a small cupboard.  Outside their door, ironing boards, brooms and dirty clothes waited for them. The contrast with the rest of the comfortable homes where white Brazilian middle class families enjoyed their tropical paradise was staggering. This almost unnoticed element of the social gap was a constant in daily life no matter the head of the family’s profession, religious belief or political views. Leftists were no exception; their political fantasies did not inconveniently interfere with their domestic comfort.  They viewed “the proletariat” as “noble savages” who they liked to imagine lived in a permanent samba party and were inherently good, just as all exploited members of the underclass surely were. But somehow the maids were just too real to be idealised, although – depending on their disposition and looks – plenty of patronizing chatter went on, as well as occasional flirtation and sexual contact.

When I was little, one of the many domesticas who passed through our lives risked her job by secretly bringing her son with her to live in the flat in weekdays. As the rigid code of conduct was concerned, this was beyond the pale.  Naturally I knew nothing about such rules and I was the only one at home aware of my hidden friend who followed me everywhere but who hid behind curtains when my mum was at home.  One day Mum discovered what had been going on. There was no question of tolerance: Mum fired the maid on the spot.  This harsh attitude was in line with the ethics of that time and place, and it went without saying that all our neighbours and friends supported her decision.

In contrast, our last maid, Dona Isabel, stayed with us for over fifteen years.  She was a Brazilian version of Mrs Two Shoes, the Tom and Jerry cartoon maid – she was pitch black, short and stocky, and had a gigantic backside above her thick and bent legs. It was common in Brazilian homes for emotional ties with the maid to develop, and certainly this was the case with Dona Isabel:  my sister Sarah and I regarded her almost as family.  Even so, the general acceptance of the status quo never allowed us to imagine what was passing through Dona Isabel’s mind. We will never know. All we really knew about her background was that she had grown up on a farm in the state of Minas Gerais and had a very typical accent from there, and that she found comfort in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion. Dona Isabel was barely literate but really smart and she managed to teach herself to understand English .

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From Gabriel Mascaro’s film Domestica

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/03 – The Marvelous City


Later in the morning, like schools of little fish emerging from the mouths of rivers, children flowed onto their street’s section of the beach. The morning began with our nannies or our mums planting an oversized parasol into the sand with circular motions until the tip was deeply and firmly embedded. If they were hopeless, there were always plenty of ice cream vendors, chair-renters and lifeguards around to lend a hand. After they completed the process, they could open up their cloth shade and allow them to become part of a landscape of colourful dots on the golden sand. Next came the time-to-stretch-out-the-towel phase, then the unfolding-the-chair phase and then, finally, releasing the body boards, the balls and the buckets for us to play with our friends.

The beach was like a funfair set beneath the baking sun. We would play in the shallow water, chase schools of tiny fish, bury ourselves in the sand, construct barriers against the waves, dig tunnels, sculpt castles, have sand wars, and watch the constant flow of people walking by. In the intervals, the grown-ups would ask us to clean off the sand and then they would call one of the strong men who walked the beach with boxes of Kibon ice cream or Matte Leão iced tea, and buy some for us, their sweet iciness soothing the scorching heat.

The ocean signified complete freedom. The salt-water felt a million times better and more refreshing than any shower or any swimming pool ever did. Beyond the breaking waves, seagulls plunged to catch their prey, which would struggle to escape the beak as the bird flew away. Sometimes dolphins leapt out of the water and harmless shark-like fish showed their fins causing excitement and concern on the beach. As we grew more confident, we discovered waves and learned how to dive under and through them as well as racing the white foam and allowing the sea’s natural force to crash on us.


On windy afternoons, kids came down from the favelas to fly kites. Their fun was to have air battles with their colourful hand-made toys, some of those moleques glued broken glass powder on to their strings to make them more effective. A swirling and uncontrolled kite was a sign that another group had seized their flying coat of arms and the kids ran in the dozens to collect it as it crashed onto the sands below.


As the sun descended, the beach seemed to relax. The heat grew less intense and the buildings began to throw shadows on the sand. The sun’s golden colours reflected on the water creating a special light that made people and everything else on the beach and around it, look special. Sometimes groups from the favelas enjoyed the sunset playing samba and gave that time of the day a special musical flavour, like the sound track to a film.
My usual beach companion was Pilar, a pretty Portuguese nanny in her late twenties. The only clear memory I retain is of her naked body when we showered together after we returned home. In the bathtub, I could examine everything my friends had talked about but which we could not figure out how they worked. Pilar would eventually end up marrying my barber, the friendly Senhor Ribeiro, who was also Portuguese but was short, had a moustache and curly blond hair and who always reserved for me the latest football magazines and the best sweets.

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The early gangster days of Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro – part 01

ZonaSulThis was already in the nineties.
I had come back from Europe after the storm of the Fernando Collor years to begin my career as a computer graphics artist. In my luggage was the strange experience of being a salesman/semi-legal smuggler of visual effects equipment travelling between France and the UK and then as a Sales Manager for the same sort of goods in Portugal, this time in a bigger company where I wore suits and had a secretary. I promise to write on those crazy times in another post but this only comes in because it shows an unusual background for a Carioca at the time.
I had fallen in love with those image manipulation and three-dimensional softwares and my mind was made up to be part of the circus. However, succeeding in Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro was a steep mountain to climb: in 1994 one could count on the fingers the people who were doing it professionally. I didn’t care and reckoned that if I came back home, bought a PC and ran after my dream the chances of making it were higher than in the European market where the absence artistic or computer related training were a serious handicap.
My guess was spot on; I began calling production houses and most of them were happy to talk to me. As expected they had state of the art video editing equipment and were starting to open their eyes to the possibilities of Computer manipulated images. This was happening abroad and was bound to happen there sooner or later. The people I met were evasive about a possible partnership or about having me as a computer graphics department in their premises  However something struck me: all the studios I visited had signs announcing that they had been recently mugged by an armed gang and asking for any possible leads.
In one of the houses, I bumped into an ex-colleague from University, she had studied art in London and had actually worked at Framestore a facility that would become one of Soho’s biggest. She was on her way out and with her recommendation the doors opened and I got my first job as a CG artist. The owner was the son of the Teresa Rachel theater, see my post about the venue, and it was not by chance that the studio was in the same shabby gallery in Copacabana. The job would not last long, the owner was into video art and had no patience for the slowness of what I wanted to introduce.
Magnetoscopio was quite a trendy place, they had done several music videos with the biggest pop names of the time: Renato Russo, Blitz, Titas and many others. The highlight of my three months there was an exhibition he organized with the american videoartist Bill Viola, for me the greatest artist of the end of the 20th century. It is not that I had an important role in the show, I was there helping to hang things from the walls and from the ceiling and making sure that the equipment had not suffered from the journey. Anyway I made some new friends there and one of them, Marcos, got interested in what I did and promised me to put me in contact with more people.
In the meantime my dentist sister talked about me to one of her clients who was a big shot in one of Rio’s biggest advertising agencies, Artplan. It was a thrilling invitation but in a few days I discovered that this was all about bringing in an extra computer for free to the office rather that doing anything related to footage for commercials. To my luck, the time as a useless artist for tests that the cocaine head art directors asked for was short-lived; one day I received a phone call of a guy calling himself Hoarse Duck (Pato Rouco) saying that Marcos had recommended me and asking me to come in to discuss about a commercial to be done in Computer Graphics.
Nervous, with a demo-reel containing the few experiments I had done with the software I went to meet the guy in his studio that was in one of the worst parts of town; the Feira de Sao Cristovao. As I came into his office the bearded muscular guy in his early forties who seemed to have popped out of a Honcho magazine was sitting with a fat man from Sao Paulo. He got up from his chair and greeted me as if we knew each other for a long time. He presented me to his client and said.
“This is our computer graphics artist!”
The next thing I knew was that I was working on a thirty second commercial for an English course in one of the roughest areas of Rio de Janeiro, and a few weeks later I was seeing my work on TV screens all over town.
Things happened so fast that I never stopped to think what I was getting into. After the second commercial, work went quiet and I started to observe better what was around me. Computer Graphics is a profession known for late nights and going home was one the unsafest experiences I have ever had; I had to walk alone through a unpoliced area famous for having the highest mugging rates in Rio. My work colleagues were all from the most modest areas of town and were street wise rough and kept on insisting that I bought a gun. Their stories were horrific, one of them had witnessed a gang war in a favela where the rival faction hung the head of the defeated leader on a post. On another occasion some others were stranded for three days in a favela at war.
The only two other guys from the South Zone were the editors. One of them only appeared occasionally, he lived in Sao Paulo and liked to brag about how much money he was making. The other one, Luis, was a more shadowy character who lived in Botafogo. He was my age, big and looked like a corrupt police officer, we got along well and were lunch companions; he was curious about Computer Graphics and I was curious about the crazy stories he had to tell. It must be said that I was considered the lovable nerdy guy and the conversations between me and my peers never went further than talking about computers, football and women.
One day one of the runners said that he had heard that Luis and his brother were part of the armed gang that was stealing the other production companies and that the owners had found him out and were going to kill him. Not sure of what to do, we approached him and said that we did not want to know if this was true or not but we had heard this, this and that and that he should be careful. His reaction was to laugh about it and get back to work.
However, a week later he received an urgent phone call while working, asked someone to finish what he was doing and rushed out. Two days later he was on the front page of one of Rio’s crime dedicated newspapers, dead with his body full of bullet holes. After that the owners of other studios left town while Hoarse Duck productions was in a pandemonium.
I over heard conversations about cameras that only went from his house to shooting sessions and back and other creepy stories. I though to myself that I had been introduced to the CG world through a very bizarre door and that now my new mission was to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Adventures in the Favela – Part 02 – Tania became a prostitute.

Rosa was from Florianopolis in the south of Brazil, a city known for good waves and for beautiful women. Marquinhos lived there and only came to visit us on weekend. When I met her she had just arrived in Rio with a friend, Tania. To be honest the night we met at a party of the Green party, I had fancied Tania’s wild looks. She had curly hair a small backside but breasts way bigger than the Brazilian average. Rosa was prettier but quieter and less sexual. However, she was more receptive that night and after a short courtship we fell deeper for each other and ended up living together.

I soon discovered that Tania was in fact too sexual. Every week she told us about a new guy: a waiter, a tourist, a surfer, a rich guy, a poor guy, a guy from another state; she was very democratic. The two girls continued to be friends and I got to know their story. They knew each other from Florianopolis and had come to Rio for the same job, subscription salesgirls for a left wing magazine. Tania didn’t last a month in the job and was fired after having a huge argument with a boss who tried to have sex with her. Now, jobless, without any money to pay her rent, with drug habits, with a great sexual appetite and knowing no one except Rosa in town, she ended up in the oldest profession in the world; prostitution.

With money coming in, she lived in several places, but everywhere she landed, she managed to argue with someone, be hated by everyone and being kicked out of the house. She would come to us when she was in a crisis, after so many bad experiences we ended up having pity on her and allowing her to rent a spare room.  In the beginning it was pretty cool, the friends she started brining to visit us in the Favela flat were actually interesting. One day she appeared with two legitimate Italian mafiosi, a scrawny pale guy wearing a heavy ring and the other one was a huge guy with a beard, together they resembled a duo that had starred a series of western comedy films called Trinity, with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. The Italians were cool and had plenty of money, they took us out for many times dinner and were very generous with their never ending supply of cocaine. Another time she turned up with a South African yacht man who was touring the world and who was happy to find someone who spoke English when he met me. To my disbelief, he ended up confessing to me in tears that he had fallen in love with Tania, who perhaps because of this had a deep disrespected for the poor fellow and kept loathing him in Portuguese. Then there was Pierre Alain, a Swiss guy on a sexual safari through Latin America who ended up becoming her boy friend and a personal friend of mine to this very day.

Because I was her best friend’s boyfriend nothing ever happened between us and I became a kind of paternal confidant who gave her a lot of advice. Our friendship made me take her to work every evening. Her “point” was in a night club next to Lido square on avenida Atlantica, Copacabana’s beach promenade. This was the the place with the best girls on the entire strip. I would leave here there and watch girls of all sizes colors and ages swarm over rich and strange lookimng tourists from all over the world. As a gesture of gratitude, she not only paid the rent and for the gas, but she also constantly supplied us with generous small plastic bags filled with white power.

On her spare time, Tania had a talent for reading tarot cards and was into Umbanda the Afro-Brazilian religion. She sometimes gave us reading sessions “incorporating” a demonic spirit called “pomba gira” – turn-around dove -; and sometimes she guessed some pretty amazing things. When she was not doing her sessions and got drunk, the “pomba gira” business got heavy and stopping her was a problem. Things got worse when she started calling her work colleagues for card sessions and partying after work at dawn. I began to get pissed off with the whole thing because, despite living on the border of the Favela I had a job and had to get up early to give English classes.

On one occasion, she was going to travel that same morning with a suitcase I had lent her. She arrived with some friends at four in the morning and started doing her Umbanda stuff. That woke me up on the wrong foot. I got very angry and I went in to the living room to tell her to cut it out because I had to work in a few hours time. The “entity” didn’t like that and started swearing at me, at one point she started calling me a dirty Jew, and that was it, I got my suitcase back and told her not to come back after her trip.

It took a long time for me to hear about Tania again, a few years later someone told me that she was working in the sex business in Switzerland and was buying a house for her mother in Florianopolis. The old woman thought that she had found a great job as a secretary there.

Adventures in the Favela – Part 01 – The Body


From far away it looked like a drunkard who had stumbled and fallen asleep on the dried up football field but as we got closer, it became obvious that this was not the case. The body was still fresh and dressed in shorts and Havaianas, and was lifeless in a fetal position, abandoned in the open for everyone to see. He was around 25, a northeastern mulato. The shot had been through his anus and although the blood had already coagulated, it was clearly visible.

As we approached in silence, the sun falling behind the hills was making the sky look orange. This, and the emptiness of that open space gave a tragic film-like feel to that solemn moment; the cars in the distance and the noise of the children playing far away were the sound track. There was some kind of celestial peace in the air; we felt the serenity of the breeze that seemed to comfort the corpse and take him to a more serene world. However, there was no way ignore that anonymous man’s silent cry of anguish and pain. Our day had been fine until then: Rosa and Marquinhos, her 9-year-old son, and I were in our beachware coming back from an entire day in Ipanema, under the sun and in the sea. Although we were in shock, we tried to hide it from Marquinhos who began to laugh thinking that this was a drunkard who had let his bowels loose before fainting. We changed the subject and walked away wondering how safe our new address was.

We were living next to the northern exit of the Reboucas Tunnel; the lush forest at the end of our street had made it a respectable spot in the past, but now a favela had crept in and reduced the old mansions into empty ruins. Only one of the original luxurious constructions had retained its opulence as the owners had been smart enough to transform it into a popular venue for wedding parties and other expensive occasions, the Le Buffet. The football field where we were was in front of it, on a valley that separated the expensive cars in its garage from where we lived. That open terrain ended at a river, the Rio Comprido, which gave the name to the neighborhood down below.

Our three-storey building was the only middle class enclave around although two hundred meters uphill on the stood was the Scuderie Le Cocq, better know as the Esquadrao da Morte, or Death Squadron. This paramilitary brotherhood was famous for making political dissidents vanish during the military dictatorshiop. Now, in the eighties, it had turned into a gun-for-hire organization focused on eliminating criminals. Above its gate under lush trees was its infamous insignia with to guns crossed behind a skull. Beyond that sinister house there were favela’s huts, alleys, a small commerce and the poor people who lived there.

Who found me the flat was the university clerk who used to sell me dope, which made us marginally part of the “context”. Because of this introduction, we were able to circulate untouched and even feel safe in an area where Rio’s middle class would not dare to set foot. I occasionally used the phone booth in the Favela, bought beer and other small things in the grocery and was wise enough to said hi to the guys of the “movement”, which was good politics. What also helped was that we were friends with Josimar, a gigantic and cool black guy who lived in the street and who was friends with Barreto, the guy who had told me about the flat. Josimar was a navy deserter and had a girlfriend from Ipanema, he had grown up in that street and was a childhood friend of our next door neighbor. Soon after we arrived, he told me that the best politics was to keep it friendly with the armed guys, and not let them know that I was a potential customer. By no means should I get too close.

Soon after the body incident, he told me the story of how the body had appeared on the football field. As I had imagined, it had been the gang who I said hi to every day who had knocked him out and had left the body exposed there as an example and a warning. The dead guy had wronged the owner of the boca – or drug den –he had ran away without paying a debt but had decided come back to put things straight. The reason he had re-appeared to talk to the traficantes, was that he had managed to get some money was back to pay his debt and ask for forgiveness. However there had been no mercy and they executed him on the spot. The gang did not fool around: one Sunday at lunchtime, when we about to leave for the beach, we saw a policeman crouched inside our entrance hall aiming a machine gun and making a sign for us to get back into the flat. After that, his team moved on and soon we counted eighteen police cars storming up the hill while two helicopters covered them from above. That same night Josimar, told us that the operation had happened because a police commander had discovered that his daughter was living with the “boss”. On other nights we saw the police exchanging shots with dealers on the other side of the river. Marquinhos would say that we didn’t need to watch TV because the action happened outside our window. Still, in some bizarre way, that place felt more connected to reality, friendlier and safer than the South Zone where we had come from.

A bit exaggerated but not entirely untrue article about the state of some Favelas
in Rio


Parallel Worlds

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

Bandit country. Apache territory. The Red Zone. All too often the press is responsible for labelling places as ‘dangers zones’ with little reason. I was in Sudan within a few days of president al-Bashir rise to notoriety as an internationally recognized war criminal: according to international media Khartoum was in a state of rioting and anarchy. I was amazed to find myself in what I still say is the safest city I have ever been in. A similar situation on arrival in tranquil Bali just a month after the first bomb and in hospitable southern Algeria during bombing in Algiers. All hype aside, here are a few places that could genuinely have features on any list of the world’s most unpredictable hotspots.

Over the next few days we’ll bring you stories from ganglands. Be warned they might not be what you expect…

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Cool article of an expat living in the Vidigal favela


Vidigal is the favela where my husband Rodrigo and I are currently living.

I was lucky enough to have had the chance to house sit here, and then basically handed over a new home shortly after that.  For anyone who has tried house hunting in Vidigal, you can understand my lucky strike!  It’s no easy feat to find yourself a livable, reasonably priced, dwelling here in Vidigal.  The house did have it’s difficulties like having to climb a ladder to get inside, but the view was marvelous! It was everything really.

It’s easy to become wowed by the grandeur Vidigal has to offer as Cariocas and foreigners alike.  As a foreigner, once you start to live here, and I mean really live here  (not be on a long term vacation), you begin to see the hardships people pass in their day to day, and pass them yourself too, view or…

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