”Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why.” - Hunter S Thompson.
Certainly no story about Rio de Janeiro is complete without mentioning the seedy side of the ”Sin City”. People who come to visit this place are almost certain to ask THE QUESTION sooner or later – How could anyone possibly live amidst all this abject poverty and nerve-wreaking violence ? Truth be known there is no simple answer to such a query, as many of us are well aware that ”for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” However, there is an explanation which makes perfect sense to my current compatriots.
What I’m about to tell you is the public opinion. However covert this opinion exists and can be demonstrated. If these should seem to the reader to add up merely to bigotry, ignorance and even untruth, I shall regret it. Facts, however, remain facts.
But first, let us dispose of certain myths and half-truths one so often hears about Rio. Devil, after all, is only as scary as people see him. And lets be honest, if all the stories about Rio de Janeiro were true this place would long since have toppled into the Atlantic Ocean, drowning enough cut-throats, hustlers, perverts, madmen, gangsters and degenerates to make a bridge of bodies all the way to Europe. This is unlikely to happen because many of the stories you hear are simultaneously being true AND blatantly exaggerated .
I could, of course, explain poverty/crime conundrum, but no one is better suited to the task than Ruy Castro, Brazilian eminent journalist, a writer and a Carioca who has made Rio one of his favorite subjects. This is his take on ”the Boogeyman” from the book ”Rio de Janeiro, Carnival under Fire” - ”… since Rio is in Brazil, a country where the rich are ridiculously rich, the poor frighteningly poor, and the majority fall into the latter camp, the city has always reflected this disparity. Even so, at least until a short time ago, it was the city that had best learnt to live with this problem. Here, over the centuries, rich and poor have kept the friction to a minimum by frequenting the same spaces, like the beaches, football stadiums, bars, samba schools and Carnival clubs – there’s no more demographic and less apartheid-minded than the Carioca. No one is more used to danger, either. In the 18th century, as the historian Maria Fernanda Bicalho has shown in her book A cidade e o Imperio [The City and the Empire], Rio was already living on high alert. At night the streets were taken over by men wrapped in cloaks, armed with knives and daggers – footpads, assassins, tramps, beggars, gypsies, slaves, either on the run or practiced in the art of capoeira, all of them with the worst of intentions. It’s hardly surprising that, even on a moonlit night, social life in the colony was a fiasco. Smuggling was part of daily life, with ships being relieved of their cargo and bodies left to the mercy of the tides, all with the already efficient connivance from the police. And then there was external menace; the gold that flowed out of Minas Gerais came through Rio, which turned the city into a consumer’s dream for foreign pirates; invasion was a frequent possibility. It only actually happened twice, in 1710 and 1711, but even when the pirates didn’t come, the rumor-mongers spread panic and then ransacked abandoned houses. Little by little, the Carioca population incorporated these perils into their lifestyle, learning to recognize whether the danger was real or not. By the 19th and 20th centuries, they had achieved a savvy enviable even by the standards of much more violent cities like Chicago and New York.”
Many years have gone, yet the violence and poverty still remain the twin specters that continue to haunt the streets of Rio. But as strange as it may sound there is a positive side to all of this. Because Brazil is a unique mixture of indigenous, Asian, African and European values and traditions, theirs is a culture of tolerance, forgiveness and flexibility. Regardless how mind-bogglingly different and stratified Carioca society might be, there has always been plenty of common ground for people to stand on. One may find this ”feast in time of plague” slightly baffling, but that’s what Rio de Janeiro is . No matter how ”gloomy” things sometimes may seem, Cariocas stubbornly refuse to give in to defeatist attitude. There is also another tremendous factor in favor of RJ. It has been this city good fortune to be blessed with the exotic location and life abundant. Everything here has always conspired to make one live his life to the fullest. ” In Rio, the payment is in a hard currency : excitement. Its one of the most exciting cities – perhaps a bit too exciting…”- R.C.
”The city is far too grown-up to allow itself to be engulfed in fear”, continues Castro, ”and Cariocas are born with the genes to face it. At the same time as, in some street in the center of the city, there is a running battle between street-salesmen and the police, there are people 200 yards away researching 16th century documents in the National Library, or hunting out rare Bossa Nova LPs in the open-air marked on the Rua Pedro Lessa.”
The media hacks continually blow the whole thing out of any reasonable proportions further causing damage to already ”not-so-marvelous” reputation of our city. ”Almost every day there is some violent scene, with car chases using the latest models, shoot-outs between the police and drug-traffickers, an occasional burnt-out bus, and innocent people are caught in the crossfire. For anyone from outside who knows Rio from television, its as if no one here has any respite. However, that’s not exactly the real situation.”
The greater part of the fighting takes place on the morros [hills] themselves or on the motorways into the city. Just as the rest of the country, ninety-nine per cent of Cariocas only find out about it on TV. In Rio, unfortunately, everything tends to be visible for the rest of the country that any occurrence is magnified. ”Im not afraid of the facts”, the humorist Millor Fernandes once wrote, ”only of headlines.”
As for me, I had to learn not to get too wrapped up on the account of crime and poverty as there are only two choices available to a man – either to live ones life in a way that is viable to let others live theirs, or not. Whining and bitching has never done anyone any good, has it ? Rio may not have been the easiest or safest of rides, but, by God, – what an incredible ride it has been ! And for that I am grateful.