I am writing this from a balcony in the salubrious area of Rio called Leblon. If Mayfair was below the equator, it would be here, with improbable-sized butterflies floating past, and some of the most exclusive restaurants in the city located just below. However, it wasn’t always thus.

A stroke of fortune has brought me here, but only on Tuesday I was thrown out of my last place. In truth, it had been hell since I moved in, more or less, due to a parade of noisy flatmates and a series of unfortunate events (if it hadn’t already been used as a book title, I would be bagging A Series of Unfortunate Events as my autobiography title).

The landlady moved herself in on January, and proceeded to do works inside at all hours, including weekends, though somehow failed to replace the rusty, 12-year-old washing machine with anything that didn’t turn my white clothes yellow. Grey would have been ok, but yellow just looks unclean. Anyway. I finally complained about this last Saturday, when I awoke to find a fat man shouting into his phone on the balcony, various hoovering and drilling sounds reverberating around the flat, and the contents of the cupboards in my hallway all over the floor.

Due to my complaint, she sent me an email two days later ordering me to leave by the end of the month, as well as informing me that the British Empire was now over, as was my stay in the flat, and the insult that I have a temper “like the Iron Lady.” I managed to put myself up in this flat (courtesy of ex-pat friends) but returned last night to get some of my things, only to find she had put most of them out for rubbish, and to find her screaming at me some of the most colourful Portuguese I had yet heard spoken outside of the football grounds. The porter had been told not to let me in, and “get out of my house!” was the most repeatable thing she said, regardless of my having paid rent until the end of the month.

This series of unfortunate events was precipitated partly by the “mercado parallelo” that exists for renting out here. If a foreigner (or anyone) wants to go through the formal renting process, they must find a fiador, a kind of guarantor who will agree to pay your rent if for some reason you find yourself indisposed. As with many bureaucratic laws here, it is so cumbersome and impossible for many to fulfil, including many Brazilians themselves, that a large alternative market has sprung up, informal, and without any paperwork whatsoever.

The politicians in Brasilia have beavered away to create a mountain of laws which would have protected me as a tenant; but since I did not have a contract, that protection doesn’t exist. Similarly, the laws governing buying a kettle or mobile phone require the showing of identification so as to prevent the use of certainly mobile phones in prison (kettles maybe not so much) which has created a huge black market for electronic goods. Hop down to Uruguaiana market in the centre of town and you can buy kettles and phones to your heart’s content, using cash, no questions asked.

The housing market here, when it comes to renting, is complicated further by the fact that many Brazilians still live with family members regardless of age. I know of many people with good jobs in their 40s who live with their parents, usually having moved back there after getting divorced. There is certainly no shame in it as there would be at home, and this has the twin effect that there are less places available to share and less people used to doing so. Landlords themselves seem unaware of the rights and boundaries tenants might expect to enjoy; but then again, if your mother still lives with you aged 40, perhaps the concept of boundaries is somewhat different.

It is partly because of this that couples go to motels routinely to sleep together, since privacy at home is often not a realistic expectation. This is as much true for established couples as those having affairs or one-night stands.

The irony of my situation is that while my landlady was keen to throw all the exploitative deeds of my country in my face, but now Brazilians are in a position to exploit Europeans and Americans at will, knowing that we are frequently forced into this parallel market where we don’t have rights, if we even know what they are supposed to be. I am still smarting over being described as being like Margaret Thatcher, regardless of the other expletives she flung at me. Just as in this city, you can be in the midst of what seems like hell, guns, noise, violence, etc, then turn a corner into a gentile, bucolic neighbourhood, I have found myself out of hell and into a peaceful haven – for now. How long this calm will last nobody ever seems to know.

Who we are

Never is the mix of reality and illusion that makes up this place stronger than during carnival, specifically the official parade. Lack of sleep may have been a contributing factor, but the last two nights I spent there I was swinging from desolation to hysterical laughter to tears of emotion from hour to hour. A huge inflatable naked woman, complete with ridiculous-sized buttocks, was one such comedy moment.

Carnival comes just over a month after I wrote this, about the dubious funding of the Greatest Show on Earth. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16634941

Somehow or other I winded up spending most of Sunday night in the VIP seating with members of the Beija-Flor school, the one presided over by Anisio. He’s the alleged boss of the illegal gambling game which traditionally funds the breathtakingly lavish parades every year. Anisio has been moved from prison to a hospital, following what someone’s mother would call a funny turn. Someone looking suspiciously like him was wandering up the Avenida, however on Saturday, in the obligatory uniform of the organisers of the samba schools, white trousers and spats. Come to think of it, they do all look like carnival fancy dress versions of gangsters.I suspect though cannot be certain that it was Anisio’s brother, himself the mayor of Nilopolis, the region where the supremely successful school Beija-Flor comes from.

He was gone before I had time to think of a tactful way of asking my companions for the evening who he was, replaced by a troupe of children singing which probably, I admit, brought a tear to my eye. What remained in his wake was a glossy brochure producted by the Beija-Flor school. “Anisio, only those who know you can judge who you are,” was the headline of a long piece about the man himself. Scattered with pictures of his charity projects – the Christmas parties with children’s smiling faces, the jiu-jitsu classes he made possible, the creche set up in his name, etc – it went on to ask how anyone could judge such a man, who brought the joy of carnival to millions. “We remember those great men and women who were misunderstood in their time, and persecuted by the authorities,” the authors wrote. They write that playing by the rules is all too often associated with mediocrity, something no one could accuse Anisio of.

It’s true that the jogo do bicho game is a contravention rather than an illegal activity in the same way as murder, for example. However, murder is one of the very real crimes linked to it. The authors of this apologia of Anisio ended by noting the impossibility of discovering hard and fast truth, intentionally leaving their subject shrouded in the mystery he has cultivated for himself. Absent, yet very much present at the same time, we will see if he is back next year in person.

The strong arm against the law

Since my last post regarding protests by firefighters and police, an unimaginable sequence of events has unfurled. Today marks the end of a 12-day strike in Salvador, in the north east of the country, which has seen at least 160 people die, burning buses, shops destroyed in scenes Dilma described as “appalling.” Rio’s police and firefighters also decided to strike, putting a big question mark over carnival celebrations, but this has quickly come to a halt.

I wrote about this here: Police strike brings chaos to Brazil

The threat to carnival seems to have angered a fair few people, but at the same time, it has drawn attention to the terrible salaries both have to survive on. Society depends on law enforcement to stay in one piece, but public workers are not valued here. As one policeman put it, it can seem as though the militias and corrupt cops tend to go unpunished, while it is those honest police who are simply demanding a dignified wage who end up in Bangu (notorious Rio prison).

It is interesting however that in Salvador, police have been accused of being behind murders of people living on the streets, as well as other violence and mayhem designed to convince the authorities a society without policing is a kind of hell. They definitely succeeded in creating a kind of hell.

In Rio, cops have gone for the peaceful approach, albeit the authorities appeared to crush it with mass arrests and threats of explusion. Some people I know were saying they were afraid to go out, but every time I have it appears there are the same number of police on the streets as usual. The little unit outside my house has been occupied since the strike was declared on Thursday night, and friends in favelas occupied by police in the UPP project say they turned up to work as normal from Friday morning.

There has been a dispute amongst judges over whether or not the striking is legal, with the majority coming down on the side that it isn’t. Rio’s peaceful approach seems to me however to be a fair enough way of attracting attention to dismal wages and conditions. The money exists here to change that – the problem, as always, is what happens to all this money if it isn’t going on public services and wages.

All Fall Down

It was one of those weeks in Rio where the shiny surface somehow crumbled away to reveal the ugly truth behind it. A few hours after I was at a meeting in the bustling financial centre (once the financial city of the country) on Wednesday, three buildings just tumbled to the ground. A journalist friend who was on the scene just a little while later remarked on how the pile of dust really didn’t seem substantial enough to have once been a 20-storey office block. Yet 17 people so far have died and there are others still missing.

The sad thing about this is that like the tragedy in which six people died on the tram in Santa Teresa, my former neighbourhood, a disaster in which people die only uncovers the neglect and cutting of corners that have somehow been going on all this time. Unregistered works were going on in some of the buildings, with theories varying from the removal of a beam central to the structure of the tallest, 20-storey block to the weight of piles of cement being posited as the cause.

It does seem as though there is much hand-wringing during these tragedies, but people are quick to forget when it comes to calling to account those responsible and making sure it doesn’t happen again. The best example of that is the rains which strike every year, flooding people out of their homes and killing many, provoking headlines and outrage but no tangible change. I would be wrong to say that this is a culture which doesn’t take to the streets or form any kind of protest however. Perhaps inevitably, young people use social networks, in a country which is one of the heaviest users of Twitter in the world. I saw the picture here on Facebook, shared by about 1,500 people. It shows the firefighters searching for bodies in the rubble of the buildings which fell, not all that surprising as this is one of the jobs one expects to see firefighters doing,albeit that such disasters are hardly an everyday occurence. The words relate to the arrest of many firefighters earlier in the year, when they were protesting peacefully about their abysmal salary, and described as “vandals” by the Governor.

Today, as chance would have it, marks a day of protest in Copacabana about the salaries of police and firefighters. An ordinary copper in the Military Police receives about R$1,200, about £440. Per month.

It’s hard for me to believe that the state would consider embarking upon a project like the UPPs, which puts a great deal of responsibility in the hands of ordinary police like these, when they are still rewarded with such a paltry salary. A salary which you can’t expect someone to live on, certainly not with any dignity. My straw pole of everyone I know has veered from saying that about 10% of Policia Militar are corrupt to 100% (yes, a Brazilian journalist really did tell me 100%). The salary is not an excuse, as Deputado Marcelo Freixo correctly pointed out to me that politicians do very well for themselves in terms of salary and expenses and corruption is still endemic. But for those who do take propina (bribes) it isn’t very difficult to see why.

This is a complex issue as the culture of the police would not change overnight even with a much better salary, and we mustn’t forget that not too long ago, they received bonuses for killing more people when entering favelas to conduct operations there (now the bonus is thankfully paid to those who kill less). In some respects, one could argue that giving your public workers who are forced to run considerable risks in the line of duty a dignified salary is a separate issue to the battle against corruption. It is certainly true that you won’t remove the corruption easily when the temptations to augment a meagre salary are manifest.

Firefighters too sometimes are involved in the militia gangs here, and a friend who saw them arrive (late) to a burning building in Barao de Torre, Ipanema, last year said he saw them rob the place of its considerable riches while extinguishing the fire. That doesn’t change the fact that it was the firefighters who unearthed those 17 bodies this week.

It might not be the last time either. Today, another report surfaced of a neighbouring building in the city centre, which is already home to 75 families who purchased them on the official market, even though it is unfinished and does not even have plaster on the outside.
When I first arrived, the lines between formal housing and informal housing seemed very clear. The self-built favelas on the hills, with their aluminium roofs and exposed bricks, seemed clearly to belong to the informal, unofficial housing, while those apartments and office spaces on the asfalto must surely have been subjected to all laws regarding construction and property ownership. Now I am starting to realise that many homes in the favelas do in fact have the right to be there (a government scheme called Minha Casa, Minha Vida has in part seen to that, as well as much evidence that people have been given the rights to their homes in return for votes). And, it seems, those built even in the centre of the city, close to the huge Petrobras monolith and the Central Bank, can just tumble to the ground, revealing that their foundations were as insubstantial as the flimsiest wooden hut at the very top of Rocinha.

“Woman are here to have sex with, not ask questions”


"Presidenta" Dilma by Alexandre Vieira

This was what a man told me this week when I asked if I could join him and his friends for a barbeque. It’s true there was little chance of his accepting, since the story I wanted to do was ultimately not a favourable one. The reason still took my breath away somewhat. It reminds me that at its most serious, harrassment of female journalists can take the form that it did to CBS reporter Lara Logan, assaulted in Egypt last February while reporting on Mubarak’s resignation.

I’m not expecting this to happen to me, and the statement meant more to inform me that a particular door was closed to me rather than anything sinister. It did let me know in no uncertain terms that there are places I could insert myself were I male that aren’t going to be open to me here as a woman, well, unless I’m willing to offer more than my company.

It doesn’t come as a huge surprise. In a country with a female president – who nevertheless gets referred to by some as “presidenta” Dilma, somewhat patronisingly – woman are a long way from being regarded as equal. This kind of barring from social events is something I’ve got used to. An ex-boyfriend told me women watching football games were “pe frio”, or cold feet – like Mick Jagger in an earlier post, this means they bring bad luck and it should be avoided at all costs. It’s more usual for men and women to stick to their own sex when it comes to friendships. This is a generalisation of course, and I happily find exceptions all the time. However, I’ve politely declined the girls’ night out on several occasions, consisting as it does, apparently, of standing in a row with your hair down on one side of your body, boobs out, for photos to appear on Facebook later.

Totally unscientifically, I’ve noticed that most women talk at a pitch which must only be detectable to dogs and dolphins, its so high. I can’t help but conclude the Minnie Mouse register of so many women is connected to a less equal society.

It turns I’m right, not about the voice theory (crackpot even for me) but the chauvinist society. A United Nations survey put Brazil 80th in a list of 138 countries for gender equality. The survey was based on factors including positions of men and women in the job market, number of women in parliament, number of teenage pregnancies and education opportunities.

So where does that leave me, working here as a journalist, not invited to the game and shut out of the barbeque? I’ll do what I can to make sure that door opens, and if the time arrives and I think a little too much is expected of me, I’ll do what all self-respecting reporters do in times of trouble – make my excuses and leave.


Security matters

I went to a debate last night at the ABI, a sort of press union here. ‘Journalists in the middle of gunfire’ is how I can best translate it if I was going to do it literally, or perhaps “journalists in the crossfire” sounds better. In these post-UPP times, it was fascinating to hear journalists and a few academics talk about the ethics and safety issues of reporting on violence today in Rio. The excellent photographer Alcyr Cavalcanti showed his photos over the last 30 years. Apart from their quality, what was striking to me was the number of times previous police invasions, looking exactly like the recent ones, have taken place. I had to check if I was reading right when I saw the photo “army invades Alemao, 1995”. It had the same pictures of soldiers planting the Brazil flag on the top of the hill, or other symbols, including a white cross or graffiti that read “paz” (peace). Consumers of news have short memories generally; and as a relatively new addition here I have no memory at all. It was a troubling reminder that we’ve been here before.

This provoked the question in me, as always, about how cynical or not one has the right to be. As ever, there is that doubt hovering over me about whether all reporting is essentially reactionary. We don’t want to look at the bigger picture, we just want to cry outrage and then move on to the next story. I was grateful to watch a bit of the excellent documentary by Guillerme Planel about the work of photojournalists. His documentary interviewed a selection of Brazilian photographers, several of whom wept at remembering the things they had photographed. What he said which I thought was so important was that here, the ugly reality so often stays hidden or unreported. People in the communities see one reality reported on TV or in the papers while they can see another one in front of their very eyes. Police rob from the community then the community sees the public cheer in restaurants at the TV news that the police have come to take over. For this reason, it’s not unduly pessimistic or negative to show violence in the media here or elsewhere.

I think I’m only just beginning to learn more about the complexity of Rio de Janeiro’s problems, and like everyone else I don’t expect I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. One of the things that has made a recent impression on me is how everything is a negotiation. You have to get your hands dirty and make a deal with the devil at some point, or at least buy him a drink, if you want to progress your particular interest. This can be as true for NGOs in favelas as politicians in Congress. At the same time, I’m always impressed by the balls of so many people in standing up against some pretty sinister forces.

Sociologist Edna del Pomo, based at the UFF university here, tackled some of the things that have troubled me about reporting on crime that goes on here, especially on TV. She spoke about the recent event of the arrest of the boss of Rocinha, Nem, and how his head was shaven and he was put in a green uniform like an animal that has been captured. It certainly appears he has committed some pretty gruesome crimes but it always troubled me that there seems an absence of concern about contempt of court in Rio’s media. Also this kind of parading of trophies, hunted in the favelas, has more than a tinge of inhumanity about it. Edna Del Pomo, a pretty formidable character herself, reminded the journalists there about the language sometimes used (though I believe by the State rather than the papers), such as the need to “clean” the favelas, as though the people living there are themselves somehow dirty and need to be cleansed, even in the most brutal of ways. As the ever-knowledgeable Globo crime reporter Jorge Antonio Barros put it, in the eyes of many folks here, everyone in the favelas is a bandido or a supporter of the crime that has taken such a strong hold in some of these areas.

The overall impression was of a group of pretty brave and conscientious journalists who are adapting to changing times. Crime here is part of the fabric of the city, it is impossible to experience Rio without being affected by it. Even holidaymakers must take care not to leave the house with their bankcards, in this oil-rich city riding the waves of the BRIC optimism. Yet many people just don’t want to talk about it or even see it. It’s worth adding that Jorge Antonio Barros works for Globo, but while some criticise that organisation for not showing the downside of the UPPs or the police corruption, he takes a microscopic look at crime in the city and was keen to stress he doesn’t get his work censured. The reality is rich and complex, and there are many voices involved. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic that the problem of violence will be solved by these latest measures, but I do feel optimistic that there are people working hard to make sure we don’t turn a blind eye to it.

Positive news, everyone!

Two things struck me at the same time last week, while I was in belligerent and slightly drunk mode. I noticed the existence of a thing called Positive News, a “solution-focused” newspaper that writes about fluffy, nice things like sustainability. This provoked the desire in me to commit something definitely negative, maybe even criminal, upon the perpetrators of this online rag. Yes, it’s a free interweb and there are certainly more harmful things out there on it. Bless them, they are only trying to do something good I guess.
Another memory from my local paper days springs to mind however. And I thought I was wasting my time there! As happened on a daily, perhaps hourly basis, a right wing battleaxe called to complain. This time, her complaint was that we constantly covered “bad news” and we ought to have reported on the mural that children from the local school had painted to decorate a subway. When I checked, it had in fact been on the front page, due to our dubious policy at the time of putting some jolly unrelated picture on the front page next to the main story, usually featuring children or flowers. As it was so dull, the old dear had simply failed altogether to engage with it, but nevertheless had taken the opportunity to beat us with that old stick, that the media only focuses on the bad, which is wrong, as there is so much good out there.
Yes, sustainability is a good thing, but how do we know we need it? Could it be that good quality, investigative reporting has revealed issues such as deforestation, often against the will of the powerful perpetrators? Will “positive inspiration” be enough to make people want to change the world?
It’s a dilemma I often face here. A piece I read in the Australian press about Rio’s crime in the lead up to the Olympics was a beautifully-written dramatic account of an incident in which a helicopter was shot down – two years ago. That was before a whole series of measures have seen a lot of change in the city, but plenty of editors believe no one will be as gripped by the complex reality as they might be a tale of children cowering under tin roofs as bullets and grenades fly ahead. However, you can have responsible journalism without the need to sanitise. Democracies allow us to do that, however complex this becomes in a free market which encourages the excesses of the Murdochs of this world.
The other nugget which had me spit out my chopp was the disclosure that Cariocas, Rio’s residents, are the happiest citizens in the world. Due of course, to some scientifically watertight survey. It was in fact a Forbes survey of 10,000 people in 2009 which put it down to “the spirit of celebration” here. Of course it’s true that a city which has summer all round, beautiful beaches, sociable people and an emphasis on physical exercise and partying is pretty jolly, certainly in my experience.
Plenty of intelligent folks here have also talked to me about the legacy of a dictatorship which only ended in 1985. Protests were met with violence and dissidents imprisoned. According to many of those folks, what we have here today is far from a truly independent media, but I imagine in those days the emphasis on “positive news” from the leadership was pretty high. Paste a smile on your face, you won’t have to confront anything unpleasant that way, or go to the Big House for that matter.
I prefer the view of Vinicius de Moraes, the songwriter responsible for Girl from Ipanema, who said it was more important to live than be happy. Exactly what you would expect from a depressive alcoholic who married six times (so at least you could say he was optimistic in some ways).

London burning

This is the second time in a row I’m writing about the UK instead of Rio. Seeing riots there on a day when nothing of note was happening here – well, ok, a bus was hijacked, but you know… it’s not what you expect.
Yesterday, another correspondent I know currently posted in much tougher terrain than either Rio or London posted on Facebook “London doesn’t look THAT bad” which was immediately met with rebuke from most Londoners. Of course, they are right, as much as violence is relative and the looting and fires don’t seem much when you’re living in a war zone. To anyone whose business was trashed or who was frightened or injured, not to mention the four people so far who have died, it is very real. There is nothing worse than using violence as a kind of badge of honour, not least treating it as if it were normal and to be horrified is to be somehow wet or missing the point.
In my first job on a local paper in Surrey, rich, elderly readers were constantly complaining that everything from wheelie bins to potholes in the road was an indication that we were living “in a third world country.” Laughable of course, and even then from my flat in Crystal Palace it looked like the loss of perspective of the terminally spoiled. Now that I’m in the far more heavily-armed and socially unequal Rio de Janeiro (more so than Dorking, certainly, even taking the estate into account), the violence in the UK is still shocking, but the explanation of wealth disparity just doesn’t ring true.
In November, the last time there was widespread violence within the city itself (of course, that is, violence affecting middle class people who don’t live in favelas), the army was sent in and drug dealers paraded like hunting trophies on television. In Britain, the initially cautious response of the police and government was in stark contrast.
However, lest we think we are somehow more civilised, let’s not forget there is something really wrong if large groups of people will use any excuse to start looting from shops. These were not people living in poverty albeit they might have been on the lower earning scale. They wanted free stuff. Somehow they thought it was ok to just go and take it.
It’s clearly not the case that the severe implementation of law and order, as has been called for in some quarters, will always solve violent disorder. Here, I’ve seen how this sates the desire of those not directly affected to experience the catharsis of punishment, but more often than not displaces the problem or perpetuates the violence.
Seen from here, the UK is a terminally spoiled nation, with no values other than striving for a celebrity lifestyle funded by credit. Follow your dream, says the X-Factor! It has discovered its lifestyle is no longer sustainable. As ever, the poorest strata of society is most affected, but what a pity there is no sense of society left anymore, no pride, no self-esteem, to take that nation through its economic problems. The times of unified political protest have been replaced by a time where people scrap for a widescreen TV. Suddenly it looks THAT bad.