Nearly every favela shack in southern Rio de Janeiro has what, in the U.S., would be a multimillion dollar view – panoramic vistas of sapphire ocean, verdant hills, sub-tropical paradise.
This is because the famously rough shantytowns are perched on the sides of steep hills with few obstructions. In class-riven Rio, the fancy condos, hotels, and houses sit and preen on the flat land by the beach.
Concrete and cinderblock favela apartments, scant on building codes or inbound plumbing, are tossed up on impossible slopes like dice in a crapshoot. With no HOA to dictate exterior painting, from a distance the favelas paint the hillsides with a riot of color.
No leg workout has ever worked better for me than being afraid of riding double on a motorcycle taxi (the only viable transport on the crowded, crumbling streets) and every day having to walk a half mile up a 45-degree slope and up five flights of stairs to my rented room in a non-profit favela guest house.
We never ran out of water, but occasionally the power would go out. If it happened at night, candles would be lit in windows, and the humid air would fill with the hooting, hollering, and singing of impromptu festivities. When the power would unexpectedly come back on, a deep cheer rose from every building and cranny, every winding footpath and dead-end alley.
My favela, Vidigal, was relatively safe, but Raquel, a young Brazilian that I met hanging out on the beach in Ipanema, took me to some rough ones. Rocinha, Mangueira, Morro do Alemao. I didn’t see violence, but I saw cultural pride, grit and grime, sweaty dance parties, and crushing poverty – a child of maybe two, unbathed and in underwear, attempting to fly a kite made of twine and a plastic grocery bag. I had to sit down.
Raquel was 19 with dreadlocks and soulful blue eyes. I had a huge crush on her. She came from means but was deeply interested in favela restoration. As we sat in the breeze atop Morro do Alemao watching this half-naked toddler do a DIY kite run in front of an epic view, Raquel asked me in her limited English, “Is it true that American parents make their children leave home when they are eighteen?”
Caught off guard, I answered, “Usually the kids want to go … but sometimes the parents do kick them out. In the U.S., living with your parents as an adult is considered a little shameful.”
Raquel bowed her head, her dreads half-obscuring the impact of my words on her soul. “That’s so sad," she whispered