In an instant, the visage of a happy-go-lucky traveler wandering to a new place was ripped out with my breath as panicked cries I didn’t understand being shouted from somewhere I never had time to see, spurred the favela street into chaos. One moment I was following a stranger to my hostel in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo de Alemao favela, ignoring the friendly warnings from a group of teenagers to not go any further under the assumption they were trying to scare the only gringo in sight, huge backpack and blonde hair not exactly an everyday sight for the residents here. But when the military police took a moment from pointing their assault rifles down an adjacent alleyway up ahead to wave us back, the first prick of unease grabbed me. Joining the crowd of teenagers and other locals, we waited in hushed conversation and for me, awkward smiles. Out of tense stillness, those shrieked warnings swooped through the calm like an axe, loud and suddenly, and the crowd swarmed in panic, bottle necking as they squeezed through a small door behind us into an internet cafe. I entered last, still fresh as to what was actually happening as a guy no older than me yanked down a roller door behind me and we all cowered in the highly charged silence of our protected den. A boy about 16 was playing a shooting video game, through the chaos he never glanced from his screen, even once the real shooting started. The first crackle of the gunfight was monstrously deafening, sickeningly terrifying, and forced a surge of adrenalin that yanked the present moment into transparent focus. It extracted gasps and cries from the locals cowering behind me as they jutted their trembling bodies further to the floor. A woman behind my shoulder began crying hysterically, clasping a young girl whose expression was neither fear or calm, but complete bewilderment as she tried to comprehend a reality far beyond her. The fighting lasted no more than a couple of minutes, followed by a short period of calm. The teenagers, muttered jokingly amongst themselves as if this was nothing new. Even they went quiet as the lengthy rumble of an assault rifle sliced through the room and seized everyone’s attention once again. Outside was a war zone. A few minutes later, against another period of calm, the roller door was pulled up. On the opposite side of the street a chubby teen stood in the doorway of a small superette. The young guy shouted to him and teen retreated, reappearing a moment later with a bottle of water, which after a quick glance of caution, he threw across the street. Our guy passed it back for the terrified woman who was now hyperventilating. An old man walked past the window down the street, either unaware of the situation or disinterested in it, either way, the room erupted with Portuguese cries for him to hide. From where I was crouching, I could see one of the police officers positioned behind a jutted wall, just waiting there with a worried mouth, clenching his black rifle. I watched him for an age, until a woman behind me made a joke, the word ‘Gringo’ standing out. The crowd laughed, and I joined in just to try to free the fear stuck in my throat, the situation about as different from the sheltered haven on the end of the world I call home as you can get.
My host Ellen later tells me, the war is between the police, and the gangs of the favelas. The ‘Pacification’ project being undertaken in Rio is essentially a military operation designed to remove the gang presence in the slums, by any force deemed necessary. For the locals, it’s a case of same old. Before, the gangs controlled the favelas, now, the police do. This is a tense time I’m told. During the world cup, the area was tranquil, the police were relaxed and less intrusive, and the area was full of the fiesta’s and the community vibe the favelas are famous for. After the world cup, the police have cracked down on the gangs and are seemingly more forceful, I just so happened to pop my favela cherry during an operation. After about 40 minutes hiding in the internet cafe, it was deemed calm enough to leave, and I chatted over Google translate with a local. He explained this area has always been this way, comparing it to the Gaza strip. I told him I was staying at Barraco #55, and two teenage girls walked me five minutes up the road, through pockets of police and loitering old men, down a thin alley to a bolted door that opened into my new home.
More a house than a hostel, everybody who stays in Barraco #55 chips in with the cooking and maintenance, creating a comforting family vibe. During my stay, with all the tension, Ellen advised we limit our time outside. From the rooftop terrace, I could get an incredible view of the favela snaking across the valley as the afternoon sun pried the jagged brick neighbourhood, illuminating its messy features like that of a battered cliff face. That first night, the shock of the shootout still stiff in my bones, the beauty of the favela vista became tainted with the tragic realisation of what life is really like for the locals here. Outside heavily armed police are everywhere, on every corner, alert, pointing the barrels of their rifles down each alleyway as they pass, including ours. In fact if I walk out the front door, the first thing I see looking up the alley, is the top of an officer’s head; he is peeking around the corner from the main street, the silhouette of his hand gun clearly visible, aiming down the alley where I now stand. I slide past him on my way to a cheap favela burger, a monstrous thing with a meat, egg, bacon, beetroot, potato crisps, lettuce and tomato, for $1.25. Upon my return he is still there, gun raised in locked stance in case a target comes into view. When I squeeze past him, we are both aware the gun is pointed more or less at my back. Innocent locals do get shot here, trigger happy cops mistake umbrella’s for guns or get surprised down the labyrinth of streets here. One of the residents Dave is warned not to stand too close to the edge of our rooftop, the tension is very high tonight and a jumpy policeman is dangerous in the maze-like neighbourhood and multi-story residences where spotting a gang member from a local is tough pickings. Occasionally gunshots ring out from somewhere in the distance, and in the night a huge explosion rocked me awake in bed, apparently a bomb simply designed to scare the police.
Last two days, I’ve barely left the hostel. A gang member apparently got shot the day before last, so all the shops are closed under the order of the gangs. The streets are close to empty and there is nowhere to go, most people are simply staying indoors. Ellen, who after immigrating from Holland started the hostel with her Brazilian partner Eddu, explains this is exceptionally rare. Usually the streets are bustling, the community vibe bursting with life, locals interacting with the people who stay here; Barraco #55 serving as a front to bring together artists and other creatives to collaborate with one another and foster a relationship with the community members. I would love to come back during a more pleasant time; I have heard incredible stories during Carnival and when the hostel is bursting with visitors, and no doubt it will return to that state when this all dies down.
Staying in the favela, although for me just a short and somewhat limited experience, has proved to be equally inspiring and eye-opening. The residents of the favelas, ahead of poverty and low standard of living, are living in a dangerous environment, yet they still go more or less about their lives. Residents young and old lounge on the sidewalk, greeting everyone who wanders as if they’re family. Their homes are as connected as their relationships, with none of the privacy barriers that blot Western lives; fences, long driveway’s and the like. Most evening’s you can look across the valley of shacks and observe a ‘Where’s Wally’ level of visual stimulation. A cluster of brick and cement, half finished rooftops and walls of dark mold, is from one perception, an architecturally dull vista. From another, its vast beauty washes over you like a wave and immobilises you. Beige homes sprout up from the ground at varying heights dependent on their stage of construction or the lay of the land from which they grow. Their organic construction means many roofs consist of walls which snake up to nothing, allowing you to peer into a bare story where clothes lines and wash basins live. A dog wanders around a seemingly inaccessible top floor before slumping onto the concrete to bask in the sun. Jubilant jeers yank my attention to dark void between buildings which the afternoon light ignores. A child has just become a football superstar. His older brother lifts him triumphantly to celebrate the collision between wall and football, a screamer of a goal. I take a photo and hear a voice; a shirtless man smoking a cigarette is calling to me through a huge smile a few rooftops away, but I can only shrug in reply. Behind me samba music blasts from some unknown source while across the favela laughing and chattering rise from every nook and echo across the valley in continuous waves of boisterous joy. Looking across the valley a huge ridge of Atlantic rain forest marks the edge of construction, and in that same line of sight, over a dozen tiny kites skitter erratically on the air currents, some 100 metres up or more. Their masters are scattered across rooftops throughout the town, tiny bodies from where I stand, their arms yanking swiftly in an effortless dance with the string, allowing the thin plastic kites to do the same at the other end. Down at street level in this moment, little of the magic exists, a hard edge of tension cultivated by intimidation and firearms, but in the sky far above the heavy weight of fear and violence, the locals dance.
Barraco #55 is an organisation designed to foster a closer relationship between the community of the favelas and wider society through art and culture. They organise events and workshops in a variety of disciplines with a focus on interacting with the community, and also run a hostel in the heart of Complexo de Alemao, one of Rio’s many favelas, for $12 a night – http://www.barraco55.org