World Next Door Part 3: Saying Hello

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.

View looking down onto Copacabana from the favela.

The daughters of the hostel owner, posing at the summit just above the favela.

The hostel owner and his wife, holding a book written about a potential redevelopment plan written by a planner using the ideas of new urbanism.

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.”

The couple and the hostel owners and neighbors who dropped in got along famously. The man on the right is a friend from the favela who was a riot. He joked casually about the racism in Rio – if he walks into a shop on the beach speaking Portuguese, the staff tail him and are unwilling to help him. As soon as he walks in speaking English with a foreign friend, he’s their VIP.

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.

The couple posing outside their apartment. They were by no means even progressive – the husband was a veteran of the army under the Brazilian dictatorship and was unabashedly a fiscal conservative.

The view from the couple’s window of the long walk up to the favela. In the upper left is Favela Babilonia, which directly borders Favela Chapéu Mangueira.

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.

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