Rio de Janeiro: Slumdog samba
It's party season in Rio de Janeiro and the city is in party mood. Roisin O'Sullivan ventures into the gritty shanty towns where samba has replaced the sound of gunfire
I remember being conscious of the bead of sweat trickling down my nose as I pressed my back against the wall. I was face-to-face, toe-to-toe with a Brazilian drug dealer, his rifle cold against my shoulder as he brushed past.
In the stifling heat of Rio de Janeiro's slums, the cool touch of metal was the only relief from the rising humidity.
A month from now I would be watching the aftermath of a police siege of the slums that left at least 45 dead -- an attempt by Rio to air out its dirty laundry before the FIFA Championship in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics.
But that day I believed my tour-guide Luiz's soothing words.
"Don't worry," he said, "no one here will harm you. They usually only use their guns to fire in the air to signal that the police are coming."
As we wound our way down alleyways too tight to accommodate a pram, between the hotchpotch redbrick shacks, one stacked clumsily on top of the other, we passed huge mounds of putrifying rubbish stowed in every available space.
We backed into walls to let pregnant women, drug dealers and schoolchildren pass -- the kids happily swinging their backpacks and tearing around corners on their headlong rush home, the dealers chatting lazily to friends, cigarettes dangling from idle fingers.
By the time we had reached the centre of the favela (slum), a whole other world had revealed itself. While gun-toting boys selling cocaine patrolled the edge of the neighbourhood, the centre was a refuge for thousands of families.
Here, teenagers banged out samba rhythms on empty buckets, women hummed as they draped their washing on lines, dogs stretched out in isolated cracks of sunlight yawning widely, and shopkeepers sat out on their stoops, tapping their toes.
From the staff at the local juice bar to joggers on the beach, everyone in Rio de Janeiro was moving to their own beat. And back in the favela, I was learning that the beat was surprisingly uplifting. Slowly, I started to lower my guard, letting out a deep breath I hadn't realised I was holding.
With Luiz leading the way, we climbed four floors up a cramped staircase, sidestepping crumpled steps briefly illuminated by flickering neon lights. At the top we shoved through a splintered door and gazed upon one of Rio's most memorable sights.
On the roof of the city, far away from tourist-board images of Carnival, volleyball games on the beach and Christ the Redeemer, we were presented with a view of Rio not usually printed on postcards.
The government has plans to change this part of the city radically before the Olympics in 2016, executing a South African-style clean-up. There is talk of building a walkway system around the slums and rehousing many of their tenants.
When the tourists land in the run-up to the games, they will probably be directed away from the favelas and towards the luscious rainforest and beautiful beaches that the city boasts.
But not yet. For now, Rio is still laid bare for all to see and, from my vantage point that day, I could see the real Rio -- a city of unimaginable beauty, worrying crime levels, friendly faces and music. A city of contradictions.
Dripping from every hill and valley was a sea of houses, almost all of them built brick-by-brick by owners balancing full-time jobs and families. In the early afternoon it was strangely mundane. Mothers collecting their kids from school or folding sheets that flapped in a rare breeze, old men fanning themselves on their stoops and teachers keeping a close eye on their lunching wards at a nearby playschool.
It isn't always this quiet though. These days, this part of the city is filled with noise -- cheering crowds, beating drums and the clicking sound of 1,000 rhinestones colliding. In March, the favelas welcome the return of Carnival and, with it, the return of samba.
Across the city, tourists and locals take to the streets in what started as a religious celebration but has now morphed into one of the world's greatest parties -- three weeks of music, dance and reckless indulgence.
The biggest celebration will be in the favelas, though, because it is in the favelas where samba was born. Back at the start of the 20th century, when Rio was reaching its zenith as the holiday destination of choice for jetset superstars and the super-rich, the favelas were undergoing a change of their own.
An influx of African immigrants brought many Bahians to Rio's working-class neighbourhoods and Afro-Brazilian culture was starting to spread. Bohemians, artists and musicians flocked to the favelas to experiment with new forms and instruments and, in the house of one famous Bahian matriarch, Tia Ciata, they found a home.
Over long, hot afternoons and late nights, they dipped in and out of cultures, creating a sound that was heavy on percussion and required light feet and substantial hips. And at the same time as Afro-Americans in New Orleans penned their first jazz song, Rio de Janeiro heard its first samba tune over the airwaves.
After some initial resistance from the elite, samba swept Rio de Janeiro and transformed the fledgling Carnival from an elitist European affair into the hip-swinging, feather-shaking, all-inclusive party that it is now.
"Life here," said Luiz, as he steps out on to the roof, "is not as bad as the government says. Many people live here and work in the city. For many families this has been home for generations. Their parents lived here, as did their grandparents, and in the future their children and grandchildren will be raised here. There is community here.
"Life in the favelas isn't perfect, of course, but what neighbourhood is?"
Listening to the rhythm of life in the favela, it wasn't hard to see it as the birthplace of samba. Between the towering houses, suffocating alleyways and looming shadows came dizzying cracks of light. The screeching sound of little girls reciting a skipping chant rose from the streets below and mingled with the sultry tones of Amy Winehouse drifting from a nearby window. Leaves rustled. Luiz drummed his fingers. Doors slammed. A mother called out to her children.
Electricity lines fizzed. A gunshot cracked through the sticky air. Over the next few months, Rio will face both natural and man-made disasters, but come March it will sweep itself off the floor, strap on its dancing shoes and celebrate life, love and samba.
Through December and January, the world watched in shock as entire neighbourhoods were destroyed by mudslides across Sao Paulo and the state of Rio de Janeiro. More than 600 people were killed and thousands more injured in what has been deemed the worst natural disaster ever to hit Brazil. Contrary to popular belief, though, it was not the city of Rio but rather its suburbs that were destroyed by the mudslides.
Teresopolis, 40km outside of Rio, was the city hit worst and the popular tourist spot Ilha Grande was badly damaged.
But, as a wise man once sang, the show must go on and, despite these disasters and a fire that destroyed a third of the floats and costumes recently, it will be business as usual in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.
Need to know
USIT have return flights from Dublin to Rio de Janeiro starting from ¤389 plus tax. Visit usit.ie or call 01-602 1600 for details.
Home to the best restaurants, bars and beaches, Ipanema and Leblon are the favourite neighbourhoods to stay in. For those on a budget, Ipanema Beach House (0055 213 202 2693; ipanemahouse.com) is a beautifully designed, central hostel with a pool and a small bar. A little more upmarket, the Ipanema Plaza (0055 213 687 2000; ipanemaplazahotel.com) has fantastic views and a rooftop pool.
Or for total opulence, try the magnificent Philippe Starck-designed Hotel Fasano (0055 213 202 4000; fasano.com.br).
BOOK BEFORE YOU GO
If you visit Rio during Carnival, you should book activities you had hoped to do before you go. Also try to get your hands on tickets for the parade in the Sambadrome. For more information on Carnival and to book tickets to the parade, balls and other events, visit rio-carnival.net.
FIVE WAYS TO GET THE BEST OUT OF CARNIVAL
Best vantage point Don’t be tricked into buying seats in touristy sector nine for the parade in the Sambadrome. Instead, sit with the judges in the front box of section seven or with the VIPs in section two.
Best parade Sunday, March 6 and Monday, March 7 are the best dates for heading to the Carnival parade, as this is when the top six samba schools compete in the special group.
Best party During Carnival there are two types of parties. The first are the Carnival balls, where you dress up in elaborate costumes or black tie, and the best is in Copacabana Hotel on Saturday, March 5. For those who prefer less formal affairs, Lapa hosts the best street parties from 8pm until dawn every night.
Best practice Before you start dancing in the street, take a few pointers from the experts at Mangueira, Brazil’s most famous samba school.
Best food Da Silva at 340 Rua Barao de Torre (5521 2521 1289) in Ipanema cooks up honest Portuguese food without the fuss. And if Da Silva is full just take a wander — you’re on one of the best foodie streets in the city.