Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A return to São Gonçalo

One of the first things I’ve done since returning to Brazil was visiting the community in São Gonçalo, a community in which I wrote about last year during my first stay. To quickly recap, the Fazendo dos Mineiros is a former trash dump, and the town formed around the city's necessity to manage the waste. Ironically, the trash site has since left and there is now an employment vacuum. Now the residents are left with even less than the garbage that was dumped upon them. 

Roberto is the first friend I met in Rio. He's worked and lived in this community for 15 years, motivated solely on the intention to ease the suffering of others. The image that drove him to this work was seeing parents and children eating discarded and rotten food from the trash piles. And this is when there was some form of employment still left in the community.

I had wanted to start some sort of project that worked towards somehow bettering the living conditions there, but with all that had been going on in my life, I just never got around to it. I meet with Roberto two weeks ago to discuss the prospects of starting a project in his community this time, for real. He is, of course, ecstatic anytime anyone shows a remote interest in the place in which he cares so deeply about. We planned on meeting in the community a week later.

He picks me up in a new Hyundai SUV, very different from his old four door Volkswagon sedan he drove before I left Brazil last year. He tells me the reason is because he needed a vehicle elevated higher off the ground in order to maneuver the terrain in the neighborhood. I see an example of this when we are going to his house - a giant, sludgy mud hole that sits in the middle of a principle road showing clear evidence of struggle in the erratic tire patterns. We struggle even in the SUV so I doubt any other vehicle would have made it through. I begin to wonder how anyone leaves by car when it rains.

We go back to his house and it more or less looks the same. I think he may have painted an outside wall a different color, but aside from that, nothing much has changed. We do a 45 minute audio interview that I one day plan to turn into a narrative photo essay, so to satisfy the other half of that project, I ask if we can take a walk around the neighborhood.    

We begin our trek and I ask if I can snap photos along the way. He tells me it’s fine. The landscape is the same as I remember it. Dry, barren, with sparse patches of vegetation littered with plastic bags and bottle lids. Roberto tells me that in about 15 meters I’m going to need to stop taking pictures as we are about to pass a major drug point. We see a sole kid, about the age of fifteen, with a walkie-talkie in his hand sitting on a rock as we pass by. Roberto gives him a wave and asks something about his family. He responds in kind and sorta gives me a nod.

This community is controlled by the "Comando Vermelho" drug faction and since the pacification project in Rio has started, the fleeing traffickers from this faction have been coming here, thus increasing the amount of crime and violence in the community. São Gonçalo is a common place for drug traffickers to flee since it is off the international radar in the beautification process of Rio, so ever since changes have been made for the World Cup, things have been changing here as well.

Soon after we pass by what first looks to be a horse stable constructed out of rotting plywood, but there is in fact someone living there. Roberto peeks into the place to see if its resident is awake. I can see through the cracks a frail woman laying on a worn couch. He makes small noises to see if maybe they will stir her from her slumber. After a few moments he gives up and tells me she’s asleep.

“This woman is very sick,” he tells me. “She has HIV and some other diseases. I don’t know how much longer she’ll be around.” 

There are 600 families here in Fazenda dos Mineiros, each one averaging about 5 members. For that quantity of residents there is one health post that is serviced once a week by one doctor for about 5 hours. Roberto tells me it is common for people to sleep in line the night before, and even then, the majority of the people get turned away. He wanted me to meet this woman so I could understand the gravity of sickness in the community and how it's affected by the current rate of medical visits. 

We continue walking and end up at a residence I visited once before. It is the home of an elderly woman that had (and still has) a still-stream of raw sewage outside of her home. The house is like the other we passed, forged flimsily of discarded wood with a leaky roof to top it off. The woman sits in her bed, just awoke from a nap. On the small television next to her streams a scattered broadcast of one of those mega-church services, most likely Evangelical. Her face lights up when she sees Roberto. It is weathered and tired, but it does show a tinge of rosy revival the moment he steps through the door. He asks how she’s doing and she says something about her bones aching. He asks if she remembers me, to which she confirms and I give a slight nod in reply. There are flies crawling over nearly everything in this room, on the pots and the plastic dishes, on the stove and the creaky refrigerator in the corner. There is also a smell that is wafting throughout the room, one in which I recognize. It is the smell of burning garbage. I remember I smelled that smell everyday when I was living out in the campo back in Nicaragua. I walk out to the field and sure enough, there is what seems to be the tail-end of the burning of a plastic bag. 

We step outside and there is this thin woman who has an old face, but is dressed rather young in a cross-strapped turquoise tank-top and short shorts. Even though her skin shows her age, her body still fits clothes that could be worn by a teenager. She's out there sweeping the dirt, trying her best to shake loose the unending presence of plastic bottle caps littered throughout the ground. I'm not exactly sure of the purpose to this exercise, as her entire, I guess you would call "yard", is more or less composed of various forms of trash. I guess you have to keep yourself busy with something during the day, and everyone has a right to keep their space neat and organized, even if that space is composed mostly of garbage. 

A large woman pulls up behind a wheelbarrow carrying three large blue jugs of water. It looks like she just got finished running a half-marathon. She greets Roberto and gives him a big sweaty hug. After Roberto introduces me, I give her a friendly handshake and a smile. There is something very strong in her face, something that looks like it has endured a lot. Her name is Marça Ribeiro, and she's lived in the community her entire life. I find out later that the woman sweeping earlier is her mother and the woman in the house is her aunt. 

Marça had just returned from retrieving water from the community's only point of fresh water. Most of the households do not have potable water (or even any sort of running water system for that matter) as sewer lines have not been installed in the majority of the landscape, so residents are forced to walk to a point to retrieve water. I ask her how long the trip took.

“Three minutes,” she tells me. Roberto laughs and immediately contests that estimate.

"Three minutes?" he says, "No way it's three minutes. We were talking to your aunt for more than three minutes."

I find out later that it is definitely not three minutes. Ten would be the lower estimate, but I'd say fifteen would be the fairer one. The terrain also isn’t exactly the smoothest one either, one full bumps and holes, jagged rocks and fallen trees littered throughout the way. I imagine trying to navigate that with a giant wheelbarrow full of water gallons in the hot sun, and Marça looking like she ran a half-marathon begins to make more sense. 

"Someone who is already suffering in these conditions, and says the trip is only three minutes..." Roberto comments shaking his head, "...that is what the people here are like."

There is some kind of drama going on with Roberto and one of the people in the community. One woman is accusing him for being responsible for the loss of her children. What happened was that the woman left her children (2 out of a lot of 9) with her uncle, who according to Roberto, was of unfit health to even care of himself, let alone a pair of children. He'd often see them playing in hazardous waste or just see them doing things that they probably shouldn't have been doing. What worried him the most was what would happen to these children when they grew up. With virtually nothing to capture the attention of children in the community and the strong presence of the drug trade, there was a high likelihood of them joining the traffickers when they became older. So Roberto reported them to the government officials and the kids were eventually adopted. The woman later found out and was angry, accusing Roberto of sticking his nose into business that wasn't his. 

I have to admit, in some ways I see her point, but at the same time Robertowas looking out for the well-being of the community and of these children, so I don't necessarily blame him for the actions he took. Either way, news spread throughout the community and the opinions are mixed. The topic is brought up and Marça interjects her own. 

"I don't care what anyone says about Roberto, he did the right thing,” she says. “He saved my first son so I know his heart." 

I ask later what she meant by that statement and Roberto told me that when she was pregnant, the child’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck while still in the fetus, and in hearing about the news, Roberto, being one of the few in the community to own a car, drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night and the child survived. There was no sense of arrogance or altruism when Roberto retold the story, just a cold hard statement of facts, as if recounting an incident in the evening news. I guess the best way I'd describe his attitude is that it came from a sense of duty, like it was the only thing one could do when faced with such a situation. By the way Roberto speaks and the look in his eyes when he recounted the story, sometimes I really believe he would die for his convictions, die for these people he cares so deeply about.   

Soon the focus shifts to me, and Marça says something about Japan, indicating it as a guess to my cultural heritage. I explain to her that my parents are from Taiwan, which in Portuguese and my continued struggle to grasp it, often gets confused with Thailand. I later tell her that I speak a little of Mandarin Chinese to help clarify things. She tells me that her uncle is Chinese and points to the woman that was sweeping the ground. The woman smiles and tells me her brother-in-law is Chinese. 

"My mother," Marça says to me, pointing back and forth between the two of them.

We end up talking at short length but with full intensity about languages and how crazy it is to witness people communicating in a tongue that is not yours. We discuss how when an exchange becomes incomprehensible with words, we turn to hand signals and other non-verbal indicators, and the hilarity that can often result. There are a few instances of great laughter from this discussion and for a moment, you forget that you're standing in the middle of a wasteland with people trying to survive in it. 

What is happening in this community is a crime. There is really no other way to put it. I don’t say that without knowing the severity of that claim either, but people being forced to live this way is a crime, plain and simple. I understand and at times agree with the arguments that are found in the responsibility we all hold as individuals for our livelihood, but you need to give people something to work with. It is the job, no, the duty of a government to take care of its people, or at the very least, provide the means in which they can take care of themselves. 

But this has been neglected in Fazenda dos Mineiros. They have been left nothing, and while the beneficiaries shower in their riches from the investment of the World Cup, these people have been left behind, to die. This is a very real cost of this event. I don't say this with exaggeration to be dramatic. I say this as a fact. People are dying because of this. 

So yeah. I guess maybe that’s why I’m still fucking pissed off about the World Cup.  

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