Monthly Archives: February 2008

On to BA

We´ve had a good run in Ilhe Grande. Hiked, boated, swam, body surfed. We are all tan and well fed as we leave this place with many good things to say about the island. Mike, Autsy and I will be leaving Kenny in Rio today to embark on our longest journey yet–40 hours! Wish us luck. More pohotos when we get to Tom and Maya´s.



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Finally, photos!

I know it has been a while since we have posted new pictures, so here is a little taster from our day hike to the other side of the island.

Swimming in the ´Soldiers pool` just before reaching the prison town. We later rinsed off here before starting our journey back to town.

The kids play in the sand and build a pool for their fish (they later let them go unharmed)

Mike studying the fish at the mouth of the river. Merry Fishmas!

Autsy floating in the clear green seas.


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Ilha Grande

We made it to Ilha Grande, a big island off the coast south of Rio.  There are no cars on the island, only one and a half towns.  Today we hiked 2 hours over the hills and descended to this little colony type thing where there used to be a prison (up until 1994) but now it´s a overgrown by the jungle, the prison was imploded.  There appeared to be a few residents, but I don´t know if they stay there at night.  It was cool to see a town reclaimed by nature.

Behind the prison is a beach where two rivers flow into the ocean, one on either side of the flat beach.  It´s so flat that waves just roll and roll and roll perfectly in.  We walked way out and never got in past our waists.  I wish it had been wavier so I could have ridden them more, but it wasn´t to be.  We spent most of our time at the mouth of one of the rivers playing around like 10 year olds, rolling on the sand, catching these little fish and keeping them in an improvised fish bowl, jumping off rocks, playing in the waves, covering our arms with sand.  The place where the river & ocean met was this pool of turquoise water against a steep jungle wall where we heard these terrifying monkeys screaming like they were at war.  Never saw them though.  It was pretty idyllic, with the river going back into the jungle and our own little pool of warm water.  The sun wasn´t really out much today, which was good because it meant we could play for hours without worrying.

We knew we had a long walk back, so we left at 4 to beat the darkness and stopped for a minute to rinse off at a place where a river pooled in the jungle, then we took a secret shortcut route through a bamboo forest which we all agreed was a little claustrophobic.  When we exited the shortcut, a downpour started, again, just like Iguazu!  We couldn´t believe it, we had just been telling Kenny about it earlier in the walk and now it was pouring and cold for the rest of the 1.5 hours.  Our hands and feet were pruny, everything we had got soaked and our ankles were SO sore from walking in flipflops the entire way on the bumpy road.  It was raining so hard that there was a little river running with us the whole time, the color of milk tea.  When it rains like that, the area seems to expand upwards because everything has become so socked in, I just notice the height of the trees more.  The jungle is darker.

We made it to town before dark, monkeys screaming in the valley, and everyone was packed into pubs watching a soccer game and staying out of the downpour.  We got warm, dry and went to get dinner at our favorite little buffet place.  It´s only 8pm here, but I think Azure is asleep in the room. 


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Still learning in Rio

I´ve had a few experiences here that have stood out in my mind, that have kept coming back to me.

The first was when we went to a fruit & vegetable market in one of the plazas – the sidewalk was crowded with vendors and all sorts of food that was unfamiliar. Some of the more colorful stands were the ones with dozens of different kinds of peppers. A few stands had taken their produce, diced it up then wrapped it in a plastic bag for quick stirfry or salad makings. People gave out free samples of mangoes and papayas and other stuff I didn´t recognize. At one point I wanted to know whether the market would be there the next day so I walked up to a vendor and asked, ¨El mercado es aqui maña?¨ The market is here tomorrow? In Spanish. The guy looked at me and looked to his friend and said something like, ¨Why´s this guy trying to speak Spanish to us?¨ I felt pretty bad about it – it just slipped out, I forgot I was in a Portugese-speaking country. I recommitted myself to making sure I ask, ¨Fala Ingles? Espanol?¨ before starting with the language theatrics. Azure suggested we tack on ¨I don´t speak Portugese¨ (in Portugese) at the beginning, which is a good idea.

Later that day we went to the beach and I decided to try my hand at body surfing. Well, the waves were huge and the beach was strange, I couldn´t get a feel for the bottom, so I was really shy about it. There were only a few people attempting each wave, and they were really good, so I decided to sit back and watch rather than injure myself immediately. They ride differently than I have – I´d always gone straight down the wave, trying to catch it in the middle and go straight to the beach, but the guys here seem to catch it higher up and then ride the momentum down and to the side, like a surfer does. I tried it and it worked better – this way, when the wave breaks I barrel roll instead of crashing head first onto the sand, which my mom will be happy to hear. Also, as BK taught me 14 years ago (half my life), and I STILL remember, somehow, if I ride on my side with one arm extended I get the best hydrodynamics, as the guys here do, too. I have a lot to learn, I´m sure I´m screwing this up somehow. But my mind keeps coming back to how frightening the waves were when I first got there, the feeling that I was way out of my league in something that was so familiar – the water.

A couple nights later we went out to grab a beer at the corner bar while a big game was played out on TV. A guy came around selling peanuts and gave us a little sample. There was a bunch of miscommunication about the price and, essentially, I shook him off because I thought it was too much. Then I tasted the peanuts and they were amazing and I decided I had to have some. So I called him back over and misunderstood the price again. But this guy dealt with me in the most patient, respectful way, he just kept smiling. And the smile was so genuine. Our approaches to the same exchange were so different that it revealed a major differences between our perspectives. Ellen eventually reached over and gave me a couple coins to give him because I had become incoherent. I couldn´t believe what a monster I was, not only for haggling over a couple cents, but also because only once in our lives would this guy and I interact, and I took that one interaction and made it about money. Anyway, it also showed me how an interaction can be made much more positive by just being patient, pleasant, smiling.

So, this morning Azure and I went on a favela tour and – like the all-you-can-eat sushi we had afterwards – it´ll take some digestion before I really understand it. I´ll send out a detailed email probably tomorrow, but for the time being you can read my overly-defensive justifications below.

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For good or bad

Mike and I went on a favela tour today. Tours are not something that either of us choose to do on a regular basis. Perhaps a bus tour here or there when we are trying to kill time, but for the most part we do not fit into the target market of most agencies. To be honest, I was not excited for it. I wasn´t afraid like I thought I would be, but worried about the exploitive properties of being guided through an historically poor and reportedly dangerous neighborhood. I think the only reason that I decided to go was that I am always curious about how people live. I know that I could go without passing judgement good or bad about the place.

At 10am, the company picked us up to go to the base of the favela. It only took about 10 minutes to get to the base from our $6000USD per month apartment in Ipanema. We got out of the cab and each person got onto the back of a motorbike driven by one of the locals. Apparently this is a major form of transportation up and down the main road. I think my driver was showing off a little, since I was one of very few women who took the tour and was constantly cutting in front of the other bike guides and taking more chances than the others. It was a road that switchbacked constantly straight up the side of the hill. From the top, we walked down one of the main passages to get to the bottom. On the way, we stopped at an art gallery where some of the local artists had a studio. They taught classes for the local youth and other community projects. Later we stopped at a school for kids in the favela before making our way down to the bottom to be taken back to our apartment.

I don´t want to glorify this experience. Many people choose not to go and I totally understand and respect that. But since I went, I might as well share some of the insight I gained from this time.

Since my main goal in this tour was to promote my own understanding of the situation, I was totally the person who held the group up with tons of questions. I found the guide to be honest, open and he passed no judgement on the people who lived there despite being from one of the nicer areas. I´ll share the questions and answers with you. I think they are interesting.

Q. First question I asked–how does this tour negatively or positively affect the favelas and the people living there?

A. He answered by saying that there were no known downfalls to the tour. It promoted understanding and peace and that the tour agency contributed to relief efforts each week with some of the proceeds. Since the spread of knowledge, many foreigners had started community enhancement programs, like the school we visited, which was started and funded by Italians. He claimed (and I think there was only a little joking in this statement) that many people from Rio think the problem could be solved by bombing the area and starting over with more worthwhile structures and people. Very few people from the lower areas ever venture into the hills in their lifetimes.

Q. I heard that the favelas were run by organized crime, who ruled by exploitation. Is this true?

A. There are three gangs in the city. This particular favela was run by ADA (Amigos do Amigos). Approximately 1.5 Million USD per month are made from drugs each month. Only 2% of that is sold to people within the favelas. Most of it goes to the rich areas of the city. For this reason, the gangs control violence within the favelas, so that those outsiders feel safe enough to come in and buy their drugs. I forgot to ask if they threaten people and for what reason. I might email them that question.

Q. If I were to buy a home here, would I have any problems?

A. People might be suspicious at first. They could be closed off and skeptical, but once they got to know you there would be no problems. (The guide was really nice to everyone and most people would stop and talk to him or shake hands or want to walk with us. I could tell that they were actually familiar with him and that it wasn´t for another reason — good time to bring up, no one ever asked us for money or tried to rip us off).

Q. Do people like living there?

A. Some of them want to get out, but many of them find it a good way to live cheaply and with a strong community, but still be within close proximity to the rich neighborhoods where many of them work. The education rate in the favelas is only around 55%, so I´m sure most people don´t know any other options, but the general feeling was that people were just living their lives, as Mike says, like everyone in the world did 400 years ago (except the favelas use electricity and other modern wonders).

Q. How much does it cost to live there?

A. The people who live in the favelas for the most part don´t pay any taxes. There is one main street that does, they get electricity, running water and some serveces. However, about 40 years ago, people just started building around the main street and have never paid taxes since then. They don´t have running water sometimes, but every 3 hours, the community pipes are turned on and people can go get fresh water. Electricity is pirated from the main lines, making the power poles look like massive spiderwebs of wires. Since they don´t pay taxes, they don´t get public services like police or mail, although when the police enter the problems start. The upper houses, which really resemble the small streets of southern Europe can be as much as R50,000 and the lower ones with the sewage issues as cheap as R3,000 to buy. ($1.75 = R1.00)

Q. What are the main social issues?

A. Education and child birth!!! Each woman has an average of 5 children. So many kids with many different fathers and a low education average leaves a lot of people who will never make it out. Brazil is obviously no different than many other poor and uneducated areas (including ones in our own country) in this respect. I can never get over this topic. If every country in the world put education (including sexual health) as their number one priority, this planet would be able to sustain itself for another 8 million years. Why don´t we ever learn that learning is what builds us up?

I´m sure I am forgetting some, so there might be a part two to this post. The bottom line is that despite what I thought before this experience, the three hours I spent walking through the favela today only helped to increase my belief that people are just living their lives. People want family and friends and community. They want to talk and laugh and communicate just like me. I am grateful that they allowed me to take my tour and learn about them. I´ll never forget it.


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Favela Tour Part I – Justification

I´ve been questioning whether I should go on this favela tour or not and it took me a while to really come to grips with going on it and not feeling exploitative. First of all, to get this issue out of the way, I don´t know whether the tour company exploits people or not, nor do I know whether the residents of the favela like tourists going through their neighborhoods to see how they live. I have no idea. I, personally, hated being quacked at by the people on the duck in downtown Seattle when I worked there, but that was just because they were quacking. There will be no quacking tomorrow. In a city of 200,000 nobody can speak for everyone, so even if someone did claim to know what the residents felt, it would only be true for a portion of them. I can´t sit here and try to hash out what they think of me. All I can do is approach it with the best (or neutral) intentions, and if someone takes offense to that the issue is their´s.

The tour company seems to check out – I´ve seen nothing but positive reviews of it online, and, in general, the only criticisms I´ve seen of the favela tours is from people who haven´t been on them. I imagine the companies do have to pay off the gangs to operate their business in the favela, but it´s not that much different than me paying taxes to operate my company.

The only thing I can do – the only real thing I can control – is my presence there. So, am I going in an exploitative way? I don´t think so. Going to see how people live in a different culture is exactly what I´ve been doing for the last howevermany years I´ve been traveling. It´s what I did in Paris and India and Israel and Thailand and Buenos Aires and now Brasil. On the other hand, this IS different: If the people weren´t extremely poor, I wouldn´t be going there. So there is something to it.

Is it bad to be going to a place just because the people are poor? In my opinion, a thing like this is only as bad or good as you make it. I could go there and look at them like animals in the zoo, but that´s not how I´ll approach it. I could go there and make them out to be noble or to pity them, but I won´t approach it that way either. The reason I´m going is the same reason I´ve gone to all the other places I´ve traveled: to answer the question/statement, ¨How to Live¨ (?/.) What it comes down to is that I´m consistently interested in the different ways people choose to (or are compelled to) live and make a living and this happens to be a neighborhood with a notorious reputation. I don´t want to go there with a mission, I just want to go see what´s there.

So, that´s how I justify my moral role in this exchange.

In broader terms, I want to do this because it´s an experience, and experiences are the cornerstones of both growing and living in the present. The more I can do of those things the happier I´ll be. (and, if I believed in making the world a better place, the next justification would be, ¨the happier I am, the happier I can make the people around me, and make the world a better place,¨ but ultimately my actions are nothing but selfish, so that statement wouldn´t be sincere.)

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Well, that was auspicious

So, I did get sunburned.  In fact, as I was writing that, two days ago, the sunburn was gathering strength.  It´s here now.

This morning we went up to that statue of Christ the Redeemer you see in all the postcards and it was pretty impressive.  It´s as tall as a 13-story building, apparently, and the entire thing is mosaicked in these small, triangular tiles.  The view from up there was amazing, you can see why Rio was settled in the first place… bays and lakes everywhere.  The city is in a gorgeous location. 

My mom asked me to write more about what we´ve been eating — every day I´ve been having at least one acai (ah-sah-ee) juice with granola.  It´s a purple berry that grows on a palm and it´s very high in antioxidants, higher in fact than blueberries and cranberries (though I´m still eating a couple tablespoons of cranberries every day, this batch brought down by Kenny).  The acai isn´t too strong in flavor, except that the juice is very very sweet because they pour sugar into the thing.  I´ve also been drinking a lot of coconut juice because it´s apparently good for the skin. 

Last night we had dinner at a Portugese restaurant, though to be honest it didn´t seem any more anything than any other restaurant here.  So I´ll call it Brazillian.  It was a buffet, as a lot of the places here are, and I had grilled salmon, lobster in cream sauce, a wheatberry-like salad and a piece or two of california roll.  The buffet, however, was not all-you-can-eat — it was by weight.  We ended up spending quite a bit per person, when all was said and done – about $20.

On the beach we found a place that sells these great sandwiches of grilled meat, onions and special sauce on a soft roll.  Unfortunately I won´t be going to the beach for another day or two with my burn.  Or maybe I will and I´ll just stay in the shade.  There are stands selling coconuts and sandwiches and drinks all up and down the beach, not to mention vendors walking around and always asking if you want whatever they´re selling — shrimp, fried cheese, acai, beer, empanadas… lots of options.

Ellen and I are cooking tonight (last night we went to that buffet) and – as a surprise for our housemates – the appetizer course will be Pringles with beer. 

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