Bruno took another sip of beer as we watched the sun set over Rio from the summit of Two Brothers Hill.
“I used to be happy we had this view to ourselves,” he said, as he looked down at the wealthy districts of Leblon and Ipanema. “But it’s so beautiful, I want to share it with the world.”
Unlike its more famous neighbours, Corcovado and Sugarloaf, the only way to reach the top of Morro Dois Irmãos is by going through Vidigal, one of the hundreds of favelas that dot the skyline of the Cidade Maravilhosa. Long derided as brutal dens of violent crime, drug dealing and murder, favelas are largely avoided both by tourists and middle-class Brazilians. But like everything in this fascinating land, the reality is more complex. I had come to teach at a community centre in the neighbourhood to find out the truth for myself.
With over 30,000 homicides a year, Brazil has more gun murders than any other nation on Earth. These overwhelmingly take place in poor, urban barrios like Vidigal or its neighbour, Rocinha, the largest shanty town in South America. Every favela dweller shares similar memories that seem incomprehensible to outsiders. A friend lost to the drugs trade. A family member hit by stray gunfire. Stepping over a bullet-ridden corpse on the way to school. But to Bruno, the neighbourhood is a world away from the hell on Earth portrayed in films like City of God.
“We used to joke that the kids down there were in prison,” he said, gesturing towards the grand townhouses of neighbouring Gávea. “As soon as night fell, they’d be safely locked away, while we could stay out for as long as we wanted.” During my time in the favela, Bruno told me many shocking stories about life there. And yet all his tales spoke of his home with great warmth and affection. Trapped between the drug dealers above them and a distrustful populace below, residents had forged a close-knit community that stood in stark contrast to the barbed wire fences and security guards of Leblon and Lagoa.
“We have many problems here,” Bruno said. “But we are Brazilian. We know how to enjoy life.”
As night fell and we made our way back down the hill, I could see he was right. On one side of the road, a group of barefooted boys played football on a small patch of tarmac. On the other side, a trio of young girls danced to funk music. Unlike so many American and European children, who couldn’t live without a host of expensive gadgets, the kids here could be happy with just a kite, a football, or some marbles.
Over the next few months, I got to know a lot more about the barrio in greater depth. My students came to chat to me at the centre or invite me round their house for lunch. A quiet after-work beer turned into a friendly conversation about the ways of the world. My young neighbour, Thiago, made sure to always wave to me from his balcony window. I began to see why so many people like Bruno loved this place, despite the violence, terrible sanitation, and lack of social mobility.
Around the time I arrived in Vidigal, the Rio Police installed a Pacification Unit in the neighbourhood. Suddenly, the drug dealers vanished and the police were everywhere, questioning people going in and out. Our community centre received a comic called A Conquista da Paz (The Conquest of Peace) which promised an end to the years of turbulence and bloodshed. After years of being a very public symbol of Brazil’s failings, the process of bringing the favelas into the city had finally begun.
I began, too, to see a change in myself. On my arrival, I had been the very stereotype of a formal, reserved Brit. But as the days wore on, I began to relax. I stopped worrying about being on time. I had rice and beans for lunch every day. I exchanged my heavy shoes for flip flops and a shirt became an optional accessory.
I quickly forgot about the bright lights of London, with its stressed out people and terrible work-life balance. Instead, I started to appreciate the simplicity of life here, like a game of volleyball on Leblon Beach or a quiet beer with friends.
On my final day in Brazil, I met Bruno on his way to his first ever job as a waiter in a high-class cocktail bar. Despite the fierce heat, he was wearing a shirt and tie. I wondered if he had ever worn one before.
I asked him how he thought his community would change now the gangs were no longer in charge of the barrio.
“Change?” he laughed. “This is Brazil. Nothing ever changes.” He shook my hand and wished me luck. As I watched him disappear down the hill, I wondered what the future held for this unique neighbourhood.