This post is part three (see part one here and part two here) of a series on the space we occupy as travelers and outsiders, and the contradictions between our lives at home and our lives abroad. These posts were written together weeks, months, or even a year after the experience, but they are presented here together and arranged by theme rather than in chronological order.
How do we overcome this ignorance of what the other half of society is experiencing – be it women in Tajikistan, poor blacks in South Africa, chicken sellers in Burkina Faso, or the Latino day laborers in South Park? Perhaps inch by inch we can start to weave together our own narratives by traveling – and sometimes, as I found, that doesn’t need to be very far at all.
I’m inspired by a couple from Copacabana, Rio de Janiero, Brazil. They had lived at the bottom of the hillside Favela Chapeu Mangueira (“favelas” are typically poor Brazilian informal settlements) for nearly a decade and never even attempted the ten minute walk into the favela so visible from their living room window. Yet when my friend and I were taking a walking tour of the favela with a local hostel owner and resident of the newly “pacified” favela, we ran into the couple on the path to the top. They joined us on our walk. Like Soweto, our guide couldn’t go five meters without hearing a warm greeting – “bom dia!” and chatting about the latest news with a friend.
They were blown away – as we were – by the vitality of the community and the total absence of the danger the media has taught us to associate with “favela.” The latter is partially a result of recent police efforts, but our guide said it has always been good. He was used to dispelling preconceptions and said quite simply,
“La favela no e otrou mundo.” (The favela is not another world.) It’s not so different from ours – children play, adults gossip, and everyone dances. It’s not the dangerous place full of drugs and desperation devoid of humanity shown on TV – it’s a living example of a historical sense of community Brazil is trampling in its headlong rush into the consumerist world of “modernity.”
When the couple invited us back to their apartment for tea, we looked out the window together. The favela, once and ominous looming presence on the hillside – one where any stereotype might be true – was suddenly a real place for us. The drugs, violence, and prostitution of our imaginations had been replaced by the smell of strong coffee, vibrant smiles, and stories of people simply caught in the economic squeeze of capitalism.
I think what I fear most about taking the bold steps the couple took is being rejected by those at the top of the hill – those with an upbringing, race, and class far different than my own. I always worry about how to explain myself and my curiosity – as a privileged, educated kid – without turning the interaction into a paternalistic one typical of a zoo. But the Brazilian couple showed me that perhaps I was overthinking it – and that this same overthinking was what created an artificial distance between us.
Their secret was to walk up and say Oi! (hello!).
Sometimes it just takes a few steps – and the curious mindset of an outsider without pretenses – to discover that another world that is happening right next door.
…Admittedly, it isn’t always so easy – sometimes tensions are so great that simply walking up and saying hello is dangerous (e.g. Palestinians and Israeli settlers). But I have found traveling that an earnest hello goes a lot farther than I ever imagined. I only hope I can carry this sense of genuine interest in everyone – and openness to all – back home.