June 16, 2009

Nightlife and Inequality in Rio

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Friday night after the conference, my roommate, Yajaira, and I went to Lapa with Gabriela, a friend of Yajaira's. Lapa has a street on it called Avenida Mem de Sá, where samba bands play live music on the weekends. We settled on a small place where we could find standing room close to the stage, and watch people dance samba. As the night went on, and I realized that most of the people were not really expert samba dancers, I joined in the dance floor action. I really love live music, so I am glad we got up the energy to go out.

On Saturday night, Yajaira, and I decided we would walk from Copacabana to Leblon to meet up with some colleagues of ours for dinner. We set out onto Avenida Atlantica, on our way to Ipanema. Walking down Avenida Atlantica brought back memories of how I met my husband, Fernando. I had to tell Yajaira the whole story, and the landmarks helped bring it back to memory.

In February 1999, I met a young man, Beto, selling earrings on the beach. He invited me to meet up with some friends of his by the Rio Othon Hotel, where they sold jewelry on the streets, made music, and had a good time. I didn't have any friends in Rio, so I agreed I would come by later on that evening. I arrived around 7pm. Just at that time, something happened, and all of the lights went out. And, it began to rain. I sought out shelter under a veranda. There, I met several people who made jewelry and played music. I began to chat with Gaucho and Abel, two musicians. After that initial bonding experience I hung out with them most nights for the weeks I spent in Rio.

One evening, I was with Gaucho and Abel, where they were playing music at a restaurant. A tall, long-haired Peruvian man showed up, and turned out to be a friend of theirs. He pulled out his zampona, and began to play a song with abundant energy. That was how I met Fernando, my husband. Fernando and I left Rio soon after meeting each other, but we returned a year later. The second time we were in Rio, we stayed together in a guest house at the foot of Rocinha, a large favela in Copacabana.

I explained all of this to Yajaira as we walked down Avenida Atlantica. As we were on our way to Ipanema, we turned off of Avenida Atlantica onto Rua Sa de Ferreira, which happened to lead right by the entrance to Rocinha. I was reminded of this by the four small boys who approached us and asked us if we wanted any cocaine. I told them, “no, thanks,” and we kept walking.

As we approached the corner, I saw an African-American man on his bicycle, filming the traffic with his video camera. I thought to myself that that wasn't the best idea – to have a fancy piece of electronic equipment out after dark in the back streets of Copacabana. When we arrived at the corner, the four small boys arrived at the same time, and the man began to get nervous, and told them to keep on walking. They told him “no problem” but continued to get closer. I grabbed Yajaira's elbow, and we crossed the street, through the traffic. The man got away on his bike, but it obviously was a tense situation. I told Yajaira that we were almost to the main street, and that this was a shortcut to Ipanema.

We kept walking and got to a place with a lot of construction. It looked to me like the street that led to Ipanema, so we kept going. I asked a woman if the street had an exit to the other side, and she said it did. When Yajaira and I arrived at the end of the road, we had reached a dead end. We looked to our right, and there were stairs that went straight up to Rochina. On the stairs were about twenty young man. We looked up the stairs, looked at each other, and turned around. I passed the woman again, and she told me that the street to Visconde de Piraja in Ipanema was the other street. Once we made it, we were relieved to see the lights again and be back on the main street.

The inequality in Rio is palpable. We went from an outrageously wealthy neighborhood with everyone wearing designer clothing and walking designer dogs to a shantytown by making a wrong turn and walking a few yards. Turns out we were lucky, as there were many stories of other conference attendees who were accosted in Ipanema and robbed. One man I met had his laptop with all of his work on it stolen from the bar in his hotel.

The commonplace nature of robbery in Copacabana and Ipanema is not surprising, given the extreme inequality and the proximity of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio to one of the poorest.

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