The Myth behind Rio :
How dangerous is this city?
Before I had even packed for my winter term trip to Brazil, my mother told me her worst fear was that I would be drugged and have my kidneys removed while I was in Rio. As the days grew nearer to my departure, more of my friends and family expressed their own concern for my safety. Why were so many people worried about me in this city?
For many, Rio means string bikinis, late-night caipirinhas, and Carnival dancers in giant headpieces. I wanted to find the life beyond the Copacabana.
The city of Rio de Janeiro is not unlike many of the world's largest cities. It has over 6 million people in the city, and over 14 million in the surrounding metropolitan area(1). Still it has the stigma of being one of the worlds most dangerous cities. The CIA fact book ranked Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as the 1996 World's most dangerous city(2). This is understandable because over 80 percent of Rio's population live under the poverty line of 900 reals a month (about 300 dollars).
Still, I wanted to find out what the Cariocas were truly like, so I set out with a clear opinion.
We arrived in Rio de Janeiro mid afternoon on January 4 th . I could not get my own sense of the people until later that night when we had some free time. My roommate Dan and myself walked down to the main street Av. Atlantica. There we were greeted with an uproar of drums. The local Samba school was practicing in the streets. People were dancing and singing in unison. We looked over the beaches of Copacabana and Leme at sunset and saw a full rainbow. This is the when I changed my previous misconceptions and first began to understand what being a Cariocas was about.
Over the rest of my time in Rio I spent some days at the beach and some nights out enjoying the nightlife. In both of these scenes I found the people very approachable and even able to talk in some broken English they knew. In fact everyone I met made a great effort to help me out, even beyond the call of Duty.
One friend I met in Rio is a twenty-year-old young man named Gustavo. He was so willing to help all of the Americans in our Elon group have a good time. He acted as a guide showing us the best parts of the city, and as a translator helping us when ever we needed it. He would take time out of his schedule to make sure we were enjoying ourselves in his city. This really amazed me. Not many places in the United States would I expect such kindness. I surely didn't expect this sort of helpfulness in one of the world's most dangerous cities.
The true test of the city's myth was found in the Favelas. These are the city's poorest neighborhoods. Our group went on a tour of these back allies and crowed streets that stack the surrounding hillside. In it I found something I was totally unprepared for.
The Favelas are completely controlled by drug cartels. They wield a inescapable force. Because of this, as our guide told us, there is no crime in the Favelas. No theft and no rape. Our guide continued by saying that the people know that if they are caught committing a crime, their punishment by the hands of the cartels will be much worst then by the police. This backward type of power system makes for a more safe environment then any outsider could imagine.
We went to Favela Mangueira on January 24 th to their samba school. At night the Favela's come alive like the Amazon after sun down. People were everywhere at their community's heart. Children as young as four where in the streets until as late as I was. They traveled around in packs, seemingly unaware that they lived in "the worlds most dangerous city".
This trip to the samba school Mangueira gave me the clearest look at what it is to be a Cariocas. Young and old came to hear the band, and we danced as if we were locals. At 12 the party really got going but we had to leave. I have never been to a place with such a strong sense of community and culture. The party outside in the streets was just as wild. I realized that people should not be afraid of this city because of its late hours and crowed streets. If they could take the time to talk to the people, and learn of the great love they have for their culture, no traveler would be afraid.
As I left Rio de Janeiro , I could already not wait to go back. The city had made me fall in love with her. Now when people speak badly about Rio as a dangerous city I can give them my own account and change their minds.
In Rio I found a poor community with many problems. The Cariocas, however, were able to overlook their personal hardships and live life with an insatiable appetite. In Rio I never found a pick pocket, or a drug dealer. I did find friends that acted as if they knew me for years, even after a few days. They were helpful and selfless in there actions; often caring more for my well being then their own. Rio , like any big city, has problems. As long as one goes there with an open mind, they will find a city unparalleled in the world for beauty and carefree attitudes.
1. Draffen, Andrew and Schlegel, Heather. Rio de Janeiro . 3 rd Edition. Lonely Planet Publication. Melbourne , Australia . 2001.
2. Price, John. The Cost of Living Dangerously , InfoAmericas Pub. May 2001. http://Tendencias.info