With (what looked like) a wing-tip skimming the sides of Pão de Açúcar – iconic ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain and a sunset just kicking in; Iberia flight 6025 touched down in a light lilac haze. I had arrived in the ‘marvellous city’ known as Rio.
With a backpack I’m not used to hoisting around and pacing it out of customs a little heavy footed, I was met by a carioca – a local Rio resident; kindly alleviated of weight and transferred to Copacabana for the night. After managing to un-wedge myself and pack from the bedroom door frame of Che Lagarto Suites, it was a cold shower and an early night to bed, for me, with air-con purring.
Kathy – Ross’ other half/artistic photographer/lover of all things purple and cats…and my travel partner; tapped on my door early morning of day two. Managing to backpack-jump, jig and tap-dance her excitement to me at having arrived (finally?) she had a story to tell….
On leaving London Heathrow Kathy was to discover her Brazilian visa had already activated and she was down by a handful of days. And not only this, but her cabin luggage (camera equipment) was tipping the industrial scales at triple the allowed kgs. With brimming eyes and persuasion only Kathy can pull off – she actually made it onto the plane and with all her belongings in tow.
It doesn’t stop there… On arrival into Rio, the dear soul stood for an hour at her baggage carousel and collected nothing. Mr baggage-delivery-man eventually popped up and indicated she was waiting at the wrong delivery belt. A single backpack was circling close by – Kathy’s.
09:00 saw us fed on super sugary cereal and now teetering under the weight of packs but at least out of the barbed-wire confines of ‘the suites’ and onto Rocinha (pronounced Ho-seen-ya) – home for the next two-ish weeks.
Rocinha is Latin America’s largest favela (shanty town) and apparently also the world’s largest slum area. Somewhat apprehensive, we were deposited onto the side of one highway under a limelight screaming ‘gringas who have no idea where they are and don’t speak the language’ and, thank heavens, after some skimming of the crowd we spotted a waving fellow gringa. Danielle, as it turns out, works for an NGO in the favela as an English teacher and she’d heard of our imminent arrival and felt we might need a hand embracing our new neighbourhood.
Horrified at Kathy’s triple kgs and the pack looming above my lofty 5f 3.5’’ frame, Danielle scouted two muscular cariocas to assist with the carrying. And there we were….striding up and into Rocinha’s bulging slopes. Ascending super narrow streets, well, really they’re half meter wide slabs of concrete/dirt/water-piped/pooped/slick/crumbling patches/bridges of space in flimsy slops; is a fine art. Even Brazilian branded Havaianas are questionable in their protection of my feet and one must be quick footed in order to dodge kids barrelling up and down with balls, folk moving ‘stuff’ across backs and rogue, balding dogs – as much residents as anyone else and not pets!
Gracious, are we really doing this?
Passing shacks and throw-to homes, the thought of what our abode might be like was a little alarming. Arriving half way up, or perhaps 10 minutes into our ascent – actually I have no idea as orientation isn’t possible; we were met by Paolo and a spacious triple storey house. Basic, but an actual house with roof top patio and views to rival all postcard shots you’ve ever seen of Rocinha.
The bright yellows, reds, greens and pinks across the way reminded me in some way of the vibrant Cape-Malay quarter in Cape Town and the Italy’s higgledy-piggledy and multi-coloured Cinque Terra.
Unpacking and gawking at our situation could wait though, as our main reason for being here is to voluntarily work with “Union of Women for the Betterment of Roupa Suja” (UMPMRS) – a community run (just 12 ladies), non-governmental, not for profit organization located in the neighbourhood of Roupa Suja. Roupa Suja is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Rocinha.
UMPMRS’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the children and families living in the community and the little Kathy and I would be offering – playing with and entertaining up to 50 little ones at a day care centre.
Having led a super organised six and a half year career at STA Travel and with negotiation and communication being pivotal to my role; I naively climbed the steps to the day care centre believing there might be a sort of welcome pack or few points on what to expect and how our days would follow (and hopefully in English).
Nope. It was literally the deep end of anything I’ve ever experienced before and boy did we jump in. The rest of our day was spent corralling three to five year olds, breaking up biting matches, collecting what little toys they had and assisting with mini lunches, afternoon showers and naps. And, all of this achieved with our dignities and Havaianas flung aside, miming and gesticulating our way through the language barrier.
Evening found us slip-sliding our way back down Roupa Suja (heavens, it looks even more unfamiliar going the other way and in the half-light) being led to local supermarkets, fresh legume stalls, crowded spots which signified a multitude of bus stops and given a minute, ground level orientation of Rocinha.
Running across roads, dodging motorbike taxis (honestly, they’re like hornets on cocaine) and generally trying to stay abreast of the humanity here – it’s a lot to take on board.
After a few near motorbike hits (…there are no driving lanes or street rules) Kathy and I made the executive decision to recuperate from the safety of a street bar. With Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) in hand, our evening drifted to the sounds of funk, samba, ‘hornets’, street vendors and we watched beautiful, proud and smiling locals come and go all night.
Are we really doing this? Indeed, we are.