Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Lion of Latin America

“I bet you’ve been spending a lot of time on the beach at Copacabana and Ipanema, huh playboy?” my friend Roberto said to me the other day. “Why don’t you come to my comunidade this weekend? See how the other side lives.”

I know he was joking, but I took it as a challenge. Shoot, this guy didn’t know where I’ve been. I’ve been to some of the toughest hoods in Latin America. I’ve been to Olaya. I’ve been to Callao. I lived for a month in one of the shadiest red light districts in Tegucigalpa and last week I was just in Maré. I was ready. I could handle it. I found out later that I very much didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

Roberto lives in the favela Fazenda dos Mineiros, a neighborhood inside the Complexo do Salgueiro in São Gonçalo, a city across the water from Rio de Janeiro. If you want to get an idea of the public perception of the area, just Google image Complexo do Salgueiro and see what comes up.

My friend Stuart and I land in Niteroi, a middle class neighborhood located about a twelve-minute ferry ride from Rio. Stuart is fellow Fulbright scholar, doing some coolass research on digital media in and about the favelas. He’s also probably one of the only people I trust that wouldn’t exotify the shit out of this day, so I ask him to come along. 

Roberto pulls up in his gray Volkswagon and we hop in. We drive through the city making small talk. Niteroi is pretty nice. It has shopping centers, office buildings, it seems like a self-sustaining city with enough economy and entertainment to exist outside of Rio. As we start entering São Gonçalo, the shopping centers start to drop off, the office buildings dwindle and there is noticeably less commerce flowing through this part of the city. “This is a lower class neighborhood,” Roberto tells me. “Not as nice as Niterói, and nothing like Rio.

Soon the paved road begins to disappear. The ride becomes bumpy. We’re managing our way through dirt pot holes. Roberto tells me that before we enter the community, he has to put on the emergency blinkers to let the residents know someone familiar is entering. He flashes them momentarily as an example. 

I can’t tell when we’ve entered the community and when we’re still on the outskirts. At this point, the places all look at the same to me. Typical Latin American poverty. Small concrete boxes plastered with stucco sheltering a small store or private residence. Business names are graffitied onto white walls sprayed in the primary colors of red, yellow and blue. Roberto presses the emergency blinkers. We’re entering Fazendo do Minieros.

The second we drive in a motorbike with two passengers pulls up alongside. The passenger on the back looks into the window and flashes an approving thumbs up. Roberto returns the gesture. The bike speeds past us. There is a black machine gun strapped onto the passenger's back.

Now the road has completely disappeared. I mean this shit is barely drivable. The dirt has hardly been excavated enough where it is distinguished between a road and earth. We drive a bit longer. Now all the stores have disappeared. The buildings are no longer made of concrete. They’re quilted amalgamations of discarded wood. Some pieces are the bottom of loading crates, others are pieces of rotted 2x4s, some are just discarded political campaign ads made of thick cardboard. The faces on the campaigns have been painted with mustaches and devil horns. Out of the edge of my eye I see a kid standing around a corner store with a M-16 strapped around his shoulder. The butt of his gun touches the floor. He peers over with four other people. 

We turn the corner into Roberto’s home. The dirt road meets a cleanly paved white tile driveway. We get out and enter a miniature mansion, at least compared to the surrounding neighborhood. There are two bathrooms etched with designer tiling. He has AC units in both the living room and his master bedroom and his washing machine is bigger than my kitchen. A place like this in Copacabana would cost upwards of 8000 reis, but he pays 300, about 150 dollars. The old adage of real estate value rings true here as in anywhere else in the world: location, location, location.

We accompany Roberto to his neighbors home. She’s prepared the rice for lunch. Favelas are like that. You know all your neighbors and they help each other out. I see the kid with the M-16 around the corner. He’s staring right at me. We go back towards Roberto’s and the kid is walking in our direction, but he’s not alone. He has about 6 other people with him, all armed to the teeth. None of them can be older than 20. Now the rifle is no longer strapped around his shoulder; one hand is gripped around forearm, the other around the trigger, ready to fire. For a moment I think he’s pointing it at me, but he walks right past us. Three other people appear from behind. A motorbike whizzes by and there’s a teenage girl on the back. She’s holding a 9mm pistol and passes it onto a very small child. The bike turns around and they all walk down the dirt path. Roberto asks the neighbor what’s going on. The police have entered the favela and they’re going to meet them down the road. Roberto causally raises one eyebrow and walks inside as if this happens everyday. I guess in places like this, it does. 

We go inside and Roberto has prepared a feast. Mixed green salad tossed with tomatoes and seasoned onions. Chicken broiled in beer and cream sauce. A pot full of perfectly steamed white rice courtesy of the next door neighbor. She pokes her head in with a bottle of olive oil. Roberto tosses in the oil and she takes a plate of chicken and rice for the trouble. Like I said, in the favela, neighbors take care of one another.

We stand around the pristine kitchen making more small talk. I ask Roberto about the minimum wage in Brazil. 600 reis a month. He tells me that a trafficker earns about 800 reis a week, as if already knowing why I asked. Let’s see. Work a “legitimate” job where you’re shit on the daily by larger society, or work as a trafficker and make more than five times the money. What would you choose?

We sit down in the living room and begin to eat. The food is spectacular. My friend Stuart begins asking him about the neighborhood. There was one NGO in the neighborhood and Roberto is the one who created it. He lived on the second floor of the building for over 5 years to get the place started. Since then it has shut down due to internal politics and now operates as a daycare center. The place he lives in now was supposed to work as a place for the community to receive social services, anything from medical to education courses. He put every cent he's ever earned into that center, but since the NGO shut down, the funding ran dry, and with no more second floor to live in, he decided to move there instead. Now he works as a social worker in another community for underprivileged youth. I ask him about how all this started. 

All favelas have a different story. Some started because the poor were tired of making the multi-hour commute into the cities to work for the rich, and built communities in the unincorporated land nearby. Others are a result of the slave emancipation that left former slaves homeless and broke, so they built their own communities where they could. This one is a result of the trash.

Complexo Salgueiro is one of many places where the city’s trash is dumped. It started in the landfill Lixão de Itaóca and the overage spilled into Fazenda do Mineiros. The residents came from other cities under the pretense that there would be employment available in the cities. Decent jobs, government jobs, jobs with a steady income and some level of respectability. What was actually available was the trash. And you think they would pay someone the minimum wage for wading through trash?

So now the question is take a job literally working through shit for less than minimum wage or become a trafficker? Again, what would you choose?

And like any job, it’s not always about the money. It’s about the status, about the recognition you receive from your neighbors on how you chose to spend your working life. Roberto shows us a picture that looks like it’s taken from the 80s. It is a picture of a white teacher with her hands huddled around a group of young black students. All of them are looking in different directions as if there were multiple cameras all taking snapshots at the same time. He points to this pudgy black kid in the corner holding something in his hands. I think it’s supposed to be some kind of plush stuffed animal but it looks like a feather duster. He has the blankest expression of all the children in the picture. A look of loss, a look of complete absence. 

“This was one of my students,” Roberto tells us. “He used to always say to me, ‘Roberto, Roberto, nobody says my name in the neighborhood. Nobody knows who I am.’” The kid looks about eight in the picture. I find out later that it’s the same kid that I thought pointed the rifle at me earlier. Gilberto tells me that once a gun is placed into your hand, everything changes. You have choices. You have the power to spit death. People start saying your name. You’re the white kid from Zona Sul that goes to university. You’re the one with a respectable job. You’re the one with a future. You’re somebody.

I remember sitting in a “Drugs and Society” course back when I was an undergrad and students genuinely not understanding why people entered the drug trade when there were perfectly viable jobs available. There was a case study of a resident in a Chicago housing project who worked a 9-5 as a mailman and how despite him having a stable government job, the kids looked up to the drug dealers driving fancy cars and flashing large sums of cash instead. People really couldn’t understand it. “Why would they join something so dangerous?” they would all ask. “Why don’t they just become mailmen?” I remember sitting the back with arms crossed thinking, “the same fucking reason you didn’t choose to become a mailman.” 

Ambition doesn’t die in the ghetto, in fact it can flourish. But people expect satisfaction from dreams of contentment, as if the poor do not have the right to aspire beyond the environment they are born into. The same reason middle class kids from the burbs don’t settle for their first shit paying job at the mall is the same reason why kids aspire to be someone in the drug trade. It is the same spirit of upward mobility, the paths are just constructed differently, access to legitimate means only available to some. And no one can ever see too far down a career path, just like people who become lawyers don’t envision buttfucking a working-class family out of their homes in a foreclosure case. Same story, different channel.

We finish lunch and Roberto invites us to walk around the neighborhood. The police invasion has since passed, fortunately, without violence. All the traffickers are back at their posts, sitting on stools with high-powered assault rifles posted against the walls, like a fisherman would have a fishing pole or a musician their instrument. In Brazil, the thumbs-up gesture is like the universal tool for deescalation. We pass by some hardass dudes staring holes through our skulls, but when I give the thumbs-up, they flash the widest grin and throw a gentle salutation in return. From that point on, I’m thumbs-upping like nobody’s fucking business, handing them out like tic-tacs in a halitosis convention.

The place is straight country. Rolling hills of wild vegetation, fences made of tree branches and flimsy chicken wire. There are horses, wild dogs, and all sorts of fowl strolling through the camp ground. And pigs. There are a shit ton of pigs trotting and nosing their way through trash, rolling around in murky black water. These pigs can’t be used for meat. They’re eating too much garbage, drinking too much contaminated water. I wonder what eventually happens to these pigs. A swarm of vultures circle overhead waiting for things to die. Question answered.

It smells like shit around every corner we take. This town was never equipped to handle a dumpsite, but the garbage came anyway. The government never bothered to install a functioning sewage system so the waste just spills onto the fields. The dump has been shut down less than a year ago, ironically, due to health hazards, and now there are only remnants. I find out later that a hill behind us is not actually a natural hill. There is trash underneath it all. A company came in and compacted dirt over the garbage and the compression of waste has contaminated the earth and the water supply. That’s why it looked like the pigs were rolling in poison oil. 

Now the only viable form of employment has left town. Now there are even less jobs. People try to do their best to get employed in government jobs, like paving roads or other shit paying menial labor. Most of them revert to drug trafficking. There really isn’t much else here. There’s hardly even a store. But there is still garbage. A field of trash sits in the middle of the town where the pigs roam. They shit in all these piles. I hear a child scream “Chocolate!” There are five kids alongside the pigs picking through the garbage, looking for something to eat. It’s a fucking wasteland, and people live here.  

“Happiest place in the world”? Kiss my fucking ass Huffington Post.

A group of kids swarm Roberto as we walk through a side alley. They love him. They trust him. One kid goes up to him and hugs him, holds his hands. Then another, and another. The parents around are smiling and Roberto welcomes them with open arms and a kind heart. One of them comes up to me and clasps my hand. He looks at me with innocent eyes. He gives the purest smile I’ve ever seen. He’s maybe 6 years old. He acts like children act before they know what life has in store for them, about what pain this world can cause. I wanna say that the kid is happy, that even in these conditions, they manage to find something to smile about, but somewhere something in life breaks, it always does, and it breaks harder in certain places than it does in others. The boy grips onto my hand tightly and I squeeze back in return. He breaks away after a moment of disinterest and our connection is broken. I wonder what will happen to him in 10 years. 

We go back to Roberto’s place exhausted, both from the heat and what we’ve seen. He prepares a dish of ice cream and bananas drizzled with a caramelized glaze. It’s probably the last thing I expected to be eating at that moment, but it’s also de-fucking-licious. 

Roberto has been living in this community for over a decade, completely by choice. It’s not like he has this overbearing sense of altruism that he forces down people’s throats, he merely says he prefers the community here. “In the city you live in apartment buildings, you never see anyone,” he says. “Here you know your neighbors, you talk with each other, you share your lives. It’s more humane here.” 

I asked him if he would ever want to move. “Sure, I’d like to travel every so often, maybe live in Asia for a few months,” he starts. “But I’ll always come back. It’s like indigenous people; we might leave every so often, but we always come back to our tribe.” 

Places like Fazendo do Mineros are held together by people like Roberto, people who despite all the poverty and violence, still see the decency of human life that flourishes underneath. It’s that compassionate dedication to unearth that humanity that keeps places like this alive.

And of course the city doesn’t give a shit about people that do this work or where they live. The city turns a blind eye to these places. Brazil is touted as one of the most promising economies of the next decade. The country of progress, the land of modernization. The lion of Latin America.

The World Cup is coming. The Olympics are coming. So what does the city do? They build a giant fucking concrete wall to shield away the favelas. They push the poor into small corners in the city.  

You want to say you’re the country of the future? You want to be the country of progress? Have it so kids have more of a choice than between a broom and a gun, so that people no longer have to pick through shit to feed themselves, then come and fucking talk to me. The only glimmer of hope are the people who care, and you shit on them continuously. 

"True revolution 
comes from true revulsion; 
when things get bad enough 
the kitten will kill the lion." 

Rue this place when that day comes, that day when this lion has starved its young for too long. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

5 Lessons in Brazilian Bureaucracy

In case you haven’t heard, Brazilian bureaucracy is a pain in the ass. This can be exemplified by my most recent experience in obtaining my CPF, the equivalent of a social security number here in Brazil.

Let’s start with the information on the Recita Federal  website saying the office opens at 7AM. I figure, any place where you have to process paperwork in Brazil, the earlier the better. I show up at 7:30 only to find out the department for CPF doesn’t open til 9. A burly security guard with glasses palms my shoulder as I arrive and points to a set of chairs behind the barrier separating the lobby from the waiting area.

“Sit there,” he tells me.

I’m tempted to say “fuck it” and leave it for another day, but I stay since I’m seated next to a cute French girl so of course I stay. Her name is Karine, a 23-yr old intern at the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. She speaks four languages and I manage to keep the conversation not awkward in one of them. 

9AM hits and the four-eyed security guard directs us like cattle. At first the process is like it is at any other overly regulated government building. Get in this line. Take a number. Get in that line. Take another number. Sit down. Wait. Watch government adverts playing over shitty elevator music. Wait.

My number is RA003. Karine’s is RA002. She gets called in. Ok, cool. I’m looking at maybe 5 minutes. The screen beeps and the next number flashes. It’s A016. What the hell? Ok sure. They have different codes for different services. Then TAF005 comes up. Then GHR004. CHM002. FH004. There is no rhythm to this coded madness; it’s like they’ve managed to use every amalgamation of letters and numbers just to fuck with you. Now I’m starting to lose my patience.

Karine comes back out through the doors. “It’s easy,” she tells me. “No problem.” She gives me a double kiss on the cheeks and says goodbye. I hope I see her again. 

RA003 flashes. Table 16. Ok, let’s do this. I walk pass the television screen and turn to my right. I go through a door into a giant office space spread with tables numbered with folded placards. I find my guy. Table 16.

I sit down and hand him my papers. The website said that all I had to do was hand over the small yellow receipt showing payment of the CPF fee. The man behind the desk seems nice enough, a typical government employee. He types with one finger, slouches over his monitor like an exiled village hunchback reduced to a baby grand as his only outlet of maintaining his sanity. Something beeps on the screen. It’s not a friendly beep. It’s more like a "something-is-fucked-up" beep. He tries again. The system is locked. He speaks his first words to me.

“N-n-no. Th-this f-for-form is not e-e-enougghhh.”

Great. The guy is a stutterer. Out of all the fucking tables in this room, I get the one guy that stutters. In Portuguese.

I try to clarify the problem. I explain to him that the website said the only thing I needed was the receipt. Hell, I still had the original application form. He tells me he needs a different form. One that has the same information, just a different header. I ask what difference it makes if the information is the same. His voice begins to raise and he starts speaking faster. His stutter just makes it a complete clusterfuck. He begins to stand and leads me to the door as he continues on his stammered explanation. I keep arguing until we’re outside the office. I’m making a scene and drawing a crowd. The security guard creeps up and watches closely with his hand rested on the sidearm sheathed in his holster. I tell the stutterer that he's not making sense.

“I-I-I’m sp-speak-speaking Po-port-portu-guese!” he manages to eek out with a sarcastic tone. He arches back with both hands on his chest and has an expression on his face like a woman in a white dress that just got pegged with a waterballon. 

I wanna say, I mean I really  wanna say, “Motherfucker, it’s not because I don’t speak Portuguese, it’s because your stuttering-ass don’t know how to fucking speak!” but I bite my tongue. Plus I don’t know the words for “motherfucker”,  “fucking” or even “stutter” in Portuguese, so it would have sounded way lamer out loud than it sounded in my head. Maybe his assessment of my language skills isn’t too far off. 

I guess I forgot to fill out the correct form at the bank so I stand there for fifteen minutes arguing like a fucking idiot making everyone in the Recita Federal  hate me. Even the one woman who came out behind her windowed office arguing my case ended up despising me. She gave me a look like I ate her cat and shit on her family tombstone before I left. 

I go back to the woman at the front desk who handed me my first ticketed number, an Afro-Brazilian woman who probably had to wade through a sea of racist bullshit to get to this minimum wage position and puts on a forced smile everyday in order to not get fired.

I end with saying to her, “Well you guys need to fix the information that’s put on the internet.” She mutters a “Sim senhor” and rolls her eyes. It wasn’t until I left that I remembered I read the instructions off some site and not the official government site. Fucking gringos. 

I go back to the bank where I paid my fee and wait in a crowd huddled around the one single information desk. Even though there is no line, people manage to remember and respect the order. Just remember the person who is in front of you. I guess it isn't that difficult when I stop and think about it.  

The teller starts processing my request until he asks for proof of residence. “Wait, but the website said…” Oh, it’s that fucking gringo site again. I shut my mouth and think of a solution. 

My couchsurfing host Elvis lives in the building next door. I walk up four flights of stairs to knock on his door unannounced to where he greets me with a smile and says, “Was I supposed to be expecting you?” 

I explain to him the situation and he’s kind enough to accompany me next door with an electricity bill and a copy of his property title. 

“You really need that?” I ask him.

“Listen, here in Brazil you need every document. One time I tried paying my light bill with my credit card. Same name on both documents. They said they needed to see my ID. I told them it’s the same name. Even if I stole them, I would be paying the bill of the person I stole them from.”

I shake my head in disbelief.

“Welcome to Brazil!” he smiles.

We get back to the bank and I’m thinking that this is going to work. I brought the cavalry. A Brazilian resident who speaks fluent English and Portuguese. Bring it on you motherfuckers.

Everything goes smoothly. Proof of payment. Check. Original passport. Check. Proof of residence. (I look over at Elvis). Check. Document with mother’s full name. What? 

“It’s not on your passport,” he tells me. 

I try to explain that the mother’s name is never printed on any form of ID in the States. He stares at me blankly. I suddenly remember that for some reason I’m carrying a copy of my birth certificate.

I pull it out with confidence, maybe even borderline arrogance. I mean this shit is laminated.
L-A-M-I-N-A-T-E-D. I proudly smack it down on the counter. He says he needs an original. Huh? C’mon, really? Who the fuck carries around their original birth certificate? Who the fuck carries around a laminated copy of their birth certificate for that matter? 

I try to say this to him without the explicatives or sarcasm. He says he can’t do anything. He prints a piece of paper that has the large words “NÃO-CONCLUSIVO” stamped on the top. He tells me I need to go back to the Receita Federal  to resolve the issue.

You mean the place where everyone wants to pelt me with rotten tomatoes and see me publicly castrated? Great. 

I look at Elvis for help. He shrugs his shoulders. I’m defeated. I go home and leave it for another day. 

I rant to my friend Rich about everything that happened. I already feel stupid at the way I acted. “Don’t fuck with the people behind the desk,” Rich tells me. “They can make your life a living hell.”

I go back next week wearing jeans and a dress shirt. I’m carrying a box of assorted Brazilian chocolates. I see the same Afro-Brazilian woman at the front desk. The same woman who turned sides on me at the end. The same guard directing the cattle traffic. Everyone is giggling when I come back. I accept it with my head tilted low.

I wait in the seats, again. My number is RA003, again. RA002 is called. Then A004. Then TAF034. Then A005, A006, all the way up to A015. This time I laugh. This shit is almost comical. I sit back calmly and put in my headphones. RA003. Table 16. 

When I enter the office the stutterer exclaims, “Oh! Yo-you a-again!” I sit down without a word and slide over my new documents. He’s chuckling the entire time as he pecks in the information from the NÃO-CONCLUSIVO  form. Turns out, this was the form he mentioned before and quickly prints out my CPF. But before he hands it to me, he dangles it like a scolding parent trying to prove a point to a misbehaving child. He gives me a broken “I told you so” lecture, to which I simply nod my head. I offer him a chocolate and he takes it with much delight. We shake hands. 

I notice the woman who turned sides sitting at the desk next to me. I ask if she remembers me. She nods with a smile. I tell her I’m sorry for my behavior, ready to offer my olive branch of manufactured sweets, but before I even pull one out, she flicks her hand and says, “already forgotten.”  I give her two. 

I go back out and give the same speech and chocolate to the four eyed security guard. He stares at me coldly with an open palm to receive his chocolaty payment. He continues to pet his holstered sidearm with the other hand.

I walk back to the Afro-Brazilian woman at the front desk. She is slumped over with her chin rested on her hands looking bored and reflective.

“I need to apologize for my behavior last week,” I say to her.

She smirks, not raising her head off the table.

“Do you want a chocolate?”

She raises one eyebrow and takes a moment to cautiously choose. She says “thank you,” more in “yeah, chocolate is the least you could do” kinda way, but a “thank you” nonetheless. She puts her chin back onto her folded hands and returns to her thoughts. Sometimes I forget what it must be like to work in a depressing building for the entire day and have piece of shit foreigners tell you how to do your job.

Morals of the story: 

1. It’s good to have friends. 
2. Don’t be an asshole to people who don't deserve it.  
3. Learn how to apologize when you are one. 
4. No matter your situation, someone probably has it worse than you do.
And 5. When things don't go your way and keep getting worse, carry a smile through it all. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

My Visit to Maré

Maré is a favela people forgot about. It doesn’t boast a scenic cityscape from the top of a hill, doesn’t have an aesthetic arrangement of stacked multi-colored homes, it doesn’t conjure an artistic dissonance between poetry and poverty. Maré mostly has only poverty.

Spread across a flat landscape, it is a compilation of 17 neighborhoods, one of the largest complexes of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. I first arrived after a rainstorm. The streets smelled like they were rotting, the sewers overflowing. It felt like many of the other communities I’ve been to in Latin America. This was Olaya. This was Callao. These were all the places that the boxers on my journey had lived. I walked through nine blocks of people mean mugging the shit out of me, but nothing more beyond that. When I first arrived in Rio, my friend Gilberto told me, “nobody will steal from you in Maré. It is the code of the favela.”

I stood awestruck at the doorstep of my destination. Fight for Peace, an organization that I’ve been in correspondence with for over four years. I’ve read all their annual reports, watched every media release, and used their videos in a workshop that I give every year at Franklin High School back in Seattle. I remember first stumbling across the organization while surfing the web in Bogotá thinking it was too good to be true: A gym planted in the middle of one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas aimed at using the sport of boxing to provide disenfranchised youth with more options in life. It was basically everything I’ve ever tried to communicate through my art embodied into a non-profit.

I kept the place in mind as I continued traveling, dropping the name whenever someone from the boxing scene would propose a similar idea. Lima. Bogotá. Nicaragua. People throughout the world could see the benefit of the sweet science. “Can you connect us with them?” they’d always ask. “One day,” I’d say. “One day I’ll work with them.”

Walking to the doors of the center was like walking onto a movie set. I stood outside the gates for a moment and took in a deep breath before going through the doors, greeted with huge smiles from everyone inside. I kept telling the staff that I recognized them from the videos online. To me they were celebrities. They all smiled shyly in return.

The one staff member who wasn’t so shy was the gym’s head coach, GB, a short Afro-Brazilian with a scruffy voice and workman like demeanor. His eyes scanned me up and down, trying to determine what to think. 

“What are you like, a middleweight?” 


He looked at me like he didn’t believe me. Shit, I didn’t believe myself. Welter was back when I was in shape. I have no idea where I stand now. 

One of the gym’s rising stars, Michel, walked through the doors. GB led him over to me and said, “Here, your new sparring partner. He’s a welter too.” Equipped with two giant-ass banana hands at the end of a pair of long, wiry arms and some freakish Gumbi-like flexibility, this cat could seriously fuck me up, and he oddly had the same name as my sister. 

But he flashed the kindest grin when I spoke one of the only three French phrases I knew. Michel had been here training in Maré for over a year since moving from Cameroon. I asked him if he ever thought about becoming a professional fighter. “Oh man, that’s like a dream,” he said with kiddish excitement. 

It made me think about his experience as an exchange student in Brazil. I wonder if he would talk about the beaches, the samba, the Sugar Loaf mountain, the Redeemer, if he would talk about late nights out in Copacabana or strolling on the beach in Ipanema. I wonder if outsiders would know about where he trains, the conditions people have to live in, if they know the other side of Brazil.

The academy is located two blocks from the dividing line between two of Rio’s largest drug factions: Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando. The surrounding buildings are peppered with bullet holes and a public school sits oddly in the middle of it all. Locally, it is referred to as the Gaza Strip. Not many NGOs would place themselves in the middle of that kind of situation.

Throughout boxing literature, it has been said in many variations that "the boxing is gym is where kids go to be safe."  The saying couldn't be more fitting now. When you wear the academy's t-shit around the neighborhood, it's like waving a banner of peace. You get a pass because people know that you are part of something, they know that you are trying to better yourself, and for the most part, human beings are generally supportive of seeing their communities excel. 

I feel like everything I’ve ever done for the past decade of my life has been for this moment. The writing, the research, the sparring, all of it. I was nearly brought to tears seeing this place in person for the first time. It is a negotiator for peace, casting a vote for something better in a world where so much has already been broken. 

Boxing saves lives. I've said it for years. This project, right here, does exactly that. I just need some time to show the world how. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

La Gloria

I love my new place. It’s ridiculous how amazing it is. Perfect size, perfect amenities. There’s a balcony overlooking the city, a cool breeze blowing through the windows at night. I have a shelf for my books and time to read them. There are chess boards engraved into the concrete tables sprinkled throughout the park outside my window and an organic farmer’s market comes a few steps from my apartment. I bought a loaf of gluten-free brown rice bread last Saturday. What. The. Fuck.

The only thing that I lack is a decent kitchen. I have jenky-ass hot plate and the apartment isn’t fitted for gas. There’s maybe enough room to hold a roll of paper towels and the kitchen counter doubles as the top of my mini-bar refrigerator. But I’m reminded that I once lived with someone in a dirt floor shack, and we made due with a two-burner electric stove and no fridge. In fact, she did it for nearly all her life. It’s strange that I thought of her here in Brazil, even stranger when I think about the name of this neighborhood.

“Onde voce mora?”
“Where do you live?”

“Eu moro na Gloria.”
“I live in the Glory.” 

This past weekend was actually the first time that I’ve spent alone since I’ve arrived in Brazil. The first week I had a roommate at the orientation in Sao Paulo. The second week I was Couchsurfing with whom I think is the Brazilian counterpart to my Spanish roommate, my spiritual guide for the last 6 years of my life. I can’t help but think that also wasn’t a coincidence.

I’m really enamored with this city. Everything about it speaks to my being. It’s like all the best parts of the best places I’ve been in my life mashed together into one city and I speak the language. But the novelty is beginning to wear off as I go deeper into my research. 

Today I came back from the university to which I thought was early in the day, but my hours were quickly consumed by writing real estate blogs, fucking around on Facebook, and preparing for my entry into the favela of Maré, the primary site of my research. I’m already beginning to see that my time here is finite. If I really want to get things done, I’ll have to focus. I’ll have to be alone.

Many people will claim that they are lone wolves but few actually are. It’s a path that’s much more glamorous to proclaim than to actually live. You have to do the frightening task of trusting yourself, and ignore most things said by other people because most people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. But on that same note, I don’t really either.

I didn’t sleep well the first few nights here on my own. Strange scenes of self-doubt woke me up at 5AM on a Saturday morning. I went for a run alongside the marina and watched the sunrise on the Rio horizon. Something at that moment told me that things would be okay. And I remember the last words Gloria said to me before I left her house in Nicaragua: “If you ever feel lonely, remember that I love you, wherever you are.”

I remember once thinking that difference between loneliness and aloneness is whether or not we know we are loved, that in those dark moments when we want to stab ourselves with self-hatred, we need to remember there is always someone out there wishing we were kinder to ourselves.

So although I’m surrounded by what I find to be paradise, I also know that I'll spend a lot of this time locked inside a room forced to deal with myself. But the love is there. The love to keep fighting against the normal, mundane drudgery of safety. That enticing, poisonous safety of life.  

And like Bukowski said, isolation is a gift. This is a chance, an opportunity to change, and I couldn’t be in a better place than living in "La Gloria."

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Man go(e)s

Last August I wrote this story about a friend I made back in 2008. Wherever she is, I hope she's well.

She would never forget that look on his face. That hungry gaze in his eyes when he would move his hands in the places she was told never to let anyone touch. He slapped her hard when she resisted, pummeled her face until she submit. One time he busted her lip open and she had to tell the teachers at school that she fell down the stairs. By the teacher’s estimate, she fell down at least twice a month, sometimes more.

But with time it appeared that she finally learned how to climb down stairs as the bruises slowly disappeared. Now when he crept into her room at night, she’d lay motionless. Silent. The only sounds were his grunts, the heavy panting, and the light sniffling of tears back into her nose.

No one told her that fathers weren’t supposed to do that, but it always felt wrong to her from the beginning. The moment she grew old enough to earn her own money, she moved into a small house that her aunt owned on the outskirts of town.

But she wouldn’t settle there. She would go on a few adventures. One time, she even made it to the United States. She met a man and married him, even carried his child, but he ended up being just like her father. She forgot how to climb down stairs when she was with him too. She came back to her small house on the outskirts of town to remind herself how. She vowed to never again forget how because of a man.

Normally, she wouldn’t talk to men she met at dance clubs. She wouldn’t be sitting outside on a park bench chatting about her life with a stranger. But he’s a foreigner and she thinks foreigners are different. He explains to her that he’s been looking for a place to rent, but failed to find anything.

“I have a spare bed at my place,” she says. She’s surprised at the words that come out. His eyes are intrigued. “But my place is ugly,” she shies.

They pull up to a small house thirty minutes later. She undoes a flimsy lock and creaks open the corrugated sheet metal door. There is no carpet, no flooring, just dirt. She flips on the switch. There is a single 60-watt bulb lighting the entire place. He looks around. A two-burner hotplate supported by an old wooden table stands against the main wall. In the corner is a 12-inch television propped up by a cheaply made DVD player. There is a hammock stretched across from the entryway to the backdoor, and two thick garbage bags that separate the bedroom.

“Livable,” he thought to himself.

Behind the garbage bags are two beds. There is a thin mattress spread across each frame. Both are hard as a plank of wood.

“This is my bed. You can take that one,” she says, clearing the folded stack of clothes to a corner. He moves in closer and kisses her. She doesn’t resist. For the next two weeks, the one bed remains as a wardrobe.

He learns a few things as the days pass. Lizards scurry through the cracks of the concrete walls, there is a barbed wire clothesline outside in between the house and the outhouse, and the bare aluminum roofing make the mangoes that fall at night sound like gunshots. Each time one falls she clutches him tightly and trembles. The first time he’s scared too. “It’s only a mango,” she tells him. He asks her why she trembles if she already knows. “Noises in the dark frighten me,” she says.

He treats her differently than the other men in her life. She never forgets how to climb down stairs while she’s with him. She feels safe, safe enough to eventually stop trembling when the mangoes fall. Then she remembers that he’s leaving.

They argue about it every morning like they’re a married couple. He doesn’t understand why she makes such a fuss over these small things. He’d be gone in a week. Enjoy the moment while it’s there. That’s how he lived.

“Imagine what it’s going to be like when I’m here by myself!” she screams at him.

He stands there and doesn’t know what to say.

On his last day he waits at the door with his bags packed. He asks for a final farewell hug. She dangles lazily on the hammock. She pretends like he isn’t even there, and continues to watch the telanovela blaring on the 12-inch screen. She’s making it easy for him. No messy goodbyes, no guilty conscious, just clean cut from something that never was.

He steps over the small concrete rise and moves out the door. She descends from her hammock and says one last thing to him before he leaves. She tells him that if he ever feels lonely to remember that she loves him, wherever he is. He says ‘thank you’ and that he loves her too. She turns around without a word and lets him disappear down the road.

She crawls back into bed and cuddles under a blanket. It is over 100 degrees with humidity. Moments of vague regret run through her mind. All these years. From the first man she ever knew to this man that just walked away, that familiar void, that same vacancy of meaning, was still there. She told herself she’d never let herself feel vulnerable, never let herself feel this way again. She risked it for a man, for what she thought was love. But he didn’t stay.

A mango crashes down on the roof in a loud clang and she trembles at the sound. She cringes into a ball and tries to sleep. Now, it is all a bit more unsure. The other men gave her reasons to leave, a reason to believe it was better to be on her own. It was easy. It was clear. But this one was nice. This one was sweet. But it was only that his poison was different. His poison just burned slower.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ring the Bell

So far, Rio has treated me well. There are parts of the city that remind me of Colombia, across town the place feels like Spain: my two favorite places in the world. Throw in some Cuba and I’m home. 

I found a place sooner than I expected, the process was actually much less of a pain in the ass than I had anticipated; in fact, all of it has been quite serendipitous. I’m renting the former spot of renowned writer and tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw, and he wrote his book Narcisa: Lady of Our Ashes in that place. It's the only book that I've seen receive 5 stars after 115 reviews on Amazon. The guy is mad real and all heart. Plus he knew Charles fuckin’ Bukowski. Shit can’t get more synchronous than that. 

Last night I sat through a thunderstorm in that apartment. The thing is, I wasn’t supposed to be there. We were supposed to sign the leasing contract earlier in the day, but as things in the world go, I ended up there right before the storm. I sat there alone with a dying iPhone, sending out last messages to loved ones before I was only left with a pen, a pad, and my thoughts. 

There is an energy pulsing through the walls of this place. The book that I’ve been flirting with for nearly 5 years is trying to burst out of my chest, begging to be written. I expect to go insane at this small desk in the corner. I expect to lose myself in this storm and hopefully find myself again amongst all this chaos. 

But I have the right place, the right tools, the right people. I have the canvas to paint a masterpiece. I just need to believe. 

I can confront my demons here at this desk. Maybe I’ll win, maybe I’ll lose. Who knows. But I’m a live dog in this match and I trained damn hard to get here. This is my moment, this is my fight and I’m going in with my hands raised high.

I’m ready to go. Ring the bell. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Thoughts of Ibiza in São Paulo

I’ve been in Sao Paulo for the last week, more or less living like a tourist at the Fulbright orientation. We have air-conditioned hotel rooms, attend city bus tours, our meals are comped at the hotel buffet. It’s not necessarily my style of travel, but after such a long hiatus from traveling, it has been probably the best transition into new surroundings. 

And the scholars. Jesus, the scholars. These are seriously some of the most brilliant minds I have ever met. It’s fucking ridiculous. From analyzing the effects of Chinese investment in Brazil to exploring the cultural currency of hair texture, these people have managed to develop a theory on damn near anything and have it make sense. People are doing projects on the open-source movement and I don’t even know what that is. I’ve connected with some wonderful minds, wishing that I had more time with them, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t always feel that way. 

If I had written this post a few days ago, I would have said I felt slighted, that there was too much ego and self-absorption floating around a room filled with the highest levels of self-accomplishment. I would have something about how intellect cannot surpass self-awareness, and at most times, it acts as a hindrance. 

The idea started when someone made a comment about Ibiza being nothing but a party destination, having nothing else to offer but drinks, drugs and massive trance parties. I mean, that kinda is true, but it’s not all that there is. Ibiza is a magical place; the party atmosphere consumes maybe 5% of the actual island. There is a significant indigenous population thriving on the other side and it was there I had my first sweat lodge experience, an experience that changed my life for the better.

I was ready to write off everyone who agreed with that comment about my beloved island, ready to jump to premature conclusions of people’s misunderstanding on the human experience. But I remembered what my friend Carolina had said to me before she brought me to the sweat lodge. I made a remark about there being a lack of connectedness in Ibiza, that I thought everyone seemed angry. She told me in response that if I saw that everyone around me was being antisocial, I was the antisocial one, that if everyone else appeared angry, that meant that I was an angry person. She said Ibiza was a powerful place; it had the ability to reflect our true nature.

I thought about that comment as I was busy conjuring assumptions in my mind that night in Sao Paulo. I thought about how if I felt others were slighting me, I was probably doing the same to them. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about a person if you’re willing to admit your faults and donate a smile every once in a while, and well truthfully, in 4 days, there’s really no way you begin to understand the complexity of another human being. 

This past week has more or less been an incubator coddling me before I set out on the actual journey. I already know the first few weeks living in Rio is going to be a giant pain in the ass. The heat, the obstacles of securing housing, and the impending sadness of the absence of those I love sinking deeper into my chest is not going to make for the best coming weeks. But I had some great people at the orientation prepare me for the next step, and truthfully, I’m lucky to have them on my side. I’ve worked through a lot of emotions, and found capacity to be a decent person. I think I'm ready to move on to the second stage.