Sweet sensual lovers, the Huffington Post recently wrote a detailed article about “What Brazil Can Teach us About Living Well”. I wanted to give my own account of Brazil in response. Brazil is a beautiful mess and the favelas are the glorious, ramshackle epicenter of that.
I recently moved out of the posh, yet soupy Copacabana. I needed inspiration to write ‘Be the Flower- the Aromatherapy Recipe for Sensual Living’ (out February 2015 by Skyhorse), and I found it in Vidigal. Vidigal is a favela on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea, right beside the most expensive real estate in Brazil. The views are breath-taking, as is the steep climb up. Favelas are Brazilian slums and rife with negative stereotypes. (I have been told that people in the favelas prefer the word ‘community’). Favelas are traditionally associated with poverty, gang violence, murders, and drug trafficking. It’s a tough image to shake. The favelas are also the cultural and community hubs of Brazil. Samba and Brazilian Funk were born here, and the community spirit is palpable and pumping every night of the week. (Confession: I did skirt the truth when I told my parents where I was living).
A lot has changed with the implementation of pacification a couple of years ago; the ambitious plan to rid the favelas of drugs and bring peace to an apparently lawless land. On some levels, pacification has benefitted the communities. I am a foreigner living in a favela. A few years ago, it would have been difficult, if not impossible in the midst of gunfire and gang warfare. People appreciate foreigners and the money they contribute to their local economy. I feel no more unsafe here than I do anywhere else in Rio. In fact, I probably feel safer because in the community, people look out for each other.
In other favelas, pacification has birthed warring gangs clashing against corrupt police. Just the other day in Rocinha (the largest favela in South America with over 1 million people and very close to me), intense violence erupted. My friend Benny sent me of a video of machine guns firing and people fleeing; I trembled. My British friend said that before pacification, there was one drug dealer per neighborhood who would lay down the laws and create a self-imposed peace. Without that central figure, people are now more inclined to start fights, steal from others and disrupt the status quo. It’s a mess. Without being here before and after, I can only rely on the stories of others for information.
Vidigal is a cultural hub. Many artists, writers, designers, musicians and actors live and work here. There is amazing, colourful tag art adorning the walls, and sculptural displays peeking out of corners and crevices. There are theaters, acting schools, and some of the best food in all of Rio (and at ½ the price). I constantly hear music being practiced or played while walking through the streets. I have been told that the Baile funk parties in Vidigal are some of the coolest parties anywhere. As a lover of old school Jungle music and deep dubby riddims, I’m sure I’ll fit right in.
Vidigal is also beautiful. Favela architecture is a fascinating display of human ingenuity and creativity. People build their houses on top of each other with criss-crossing concrete staircases and colourful pastel facades. There is simple pride in the uniqueness of their living spaces and what can be done with limited, if any, means. My friend lives in an inspirational and totally groovy plastic house.
The magnificence of Vidigal leaves me speechless. Flowering trees, often with intoxicating aromas peek out of people’s houses and decorate the streets with brash purples, yellows and pinks. Every time I turn around while hiking up the very steep hill, I am in euphoric elation. I somehow manifested a stunning villa at the end of a quiet dead-end street. I have a pool, a courtyard and a sublime view. This ain`t the favelas you see in the movies. I have adorable monkeys, colourful hummingbirds and dense verdant nature all seen from my bedroom window. I often feel drunk on happiness (while always maintaining a medium level of awareness and caution at all times).
On my second night here, I saw the sunrise from the highest peak in Vidigal. When the sun crested over the horizon of the sea with stunning purples, oranges and reds, I felt alive and at home. The scene was truly god-inspiring. Little islands jutted out of the Atlantic. There was a 360 degree view of the beach, the lagoon, other favelas and the expanse of the sea. On our walk back, I spotted a snake slithering across the path (apparently one of the most venomous). Snakes are powerful symbols of regeneration and rebirth. It was a sign. Vidigal is going to treat me right.
Brazil is a complicated and evolving place and magnified in Vidigal. There is a 5-star hotel being constructed at the top of Vidigal and homes are selling for over $1,000,000. Pacification is making the neighborhood safer and in doing so, displacing the people who originally settled here. In reference to the Huffington post article, people are happy and also scared about their futures with sky-rocketing inflation, poor education and a terrifying health care system. There are fruit juice stands on every corner but fried food is the norm and there is an exploding diabetes and obesity epidemic. Diversity is alive but just this week, black people were banned from Shopping Leblon (a couture shopping mall) due to racial tensions. The beach is sacrosanct (and so damn sexy) but also one of the few places families can go for free.
I love it here and I am happy. I maintain that Brazil is a beautiful mess. With so much change and propulsion forward, I hope that Brazil is able to find its footing to be the dynamic, prosperous and healthy place it so longs to be.