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Gawking at Rio's poor

September 10, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Rio de Janeiro —

I DIDN'T KNOW WHICH was worse, staying half a block from the beach in a hip neighborhood and staying clear of Rio's infamous slums altogether, or paying a tour guide to take me and other looky-loos through the city's hillside favelas. I chose the latter, and for a week I didn't hear the end of it.

"That's horrible," a snooty Brazilian left-wing intellectual told me. "Paying to see poor people! At least you didn't take the tour in a safari jeep."

"I didn't know that was an option," I retorted. I mean, after all the horror stories I've heard and movies I've seen about the favelas, did she expect me to go there on my own?

Brazil is not only one of the most socially unequal societies in the world, it is also one of the most violent. On my second day in Rio, the front page of O Globo newspaper featured a photo of a mother cradling her dying son after he had been shot in the back outside his downtown office.

The image reinforced the warnings I had been hearing since I got on a plane in Miami. "Keep your money in your shoes," a Peruvian-born flight attendant told me. "Just be smart," she added, whatever that meant. Given that I hadn't asked her advice, I began to wonder whether I stood out as a big sucker with "I'm a clueless foreigner" stamped on my forehead.

As it turns out, more than a few Brazilians told me that I blended into their remarkably mixed society. But by that they meant racially. And while racial lines may blur in Brazil, class lines are much more rigid. Whereas racism here is more subtle than it is, say, in the United States, the classism is much more pronounced. The haves barely conceal their contempt for the have-nots.

This isn't to say that the slums are out of sight of the wealthy, like the banlieues to Parisians or the South Bronx to Manhattanites. In fact, what makes Rio's slums so unique is that they're all around, nestled in the hills near the beaches or the city center -- real estate that would command millions in L.A. From the splendid rooftop patio of my Ipanema hotel, where I sat each day at sundown, I could see the tiny brick shacks with corrugated metal roofs on the hillside only a few blocks away.

But close as they were geographically, they couldn't have been further in people's minds. Unlike the snooty intellectual who scolded me for my immorality, the working people I told about my tour tended to snicker at me for being stupid and indulgent. As they saw it, why would a foreigner who could afford to stay at my hotel want to visit a place known for its rampant poverty and crime?

The van picked me up at 8:45 one morning for my three-hour tour. A bald, gruff Argentine guide in his 50s took my $32 and told me to hop aboard. But before we crawled up the hill, we had a mini-tour of some of the nicest hotels on the beach. First we picked up a young blond couple from Stockholm, then two Korean American newlyweds from New York. There was the grizzled, middle-aged Argentine woman, and a young Scottish kid who looked as if he had just got in from a nightclub a few hours earlier.

We got out of the van and walked down winding alleyways, past tiny homes and little plazas crisscrossed by exposed phone and electrical wires. The neighborhoods we saw have improved since the 1990s, when the government stopped trying to tear them down and starting putting in water and sewers. I stared at an old woman scolding a fat green parrot and tried to peek into kitchens to see what was cooking. On a rooftop with a spectacular view of shanties, the coast and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain, my fellow tourists handed me their cameras so I could photograph them one by one against the incongruous backdrop. All the while our guide was admirably evenhanded. He didn't downplay the dangers and indignities of favela life; nor did he hype or fetishize them. His mission, it seemed, was to portray residents as three-dimensional humans. "Everyone has so many prejudices," he told me. "People here aren't any better or worse than anyone else."

I'm not ashamed to be a middle-class sightseer. I'm under no illusion that my tour helped me "understand" how the other half lives. I just figured it didn't seem right to gawk at the members of the leisure class while pretending that no one else existed.

Tourists have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades. That's why more and more travelers are trying to pretend that their journeys are somehow more genuine or contributing more to the developing world than they really are. Gawking -- at the rich or the poor -- is gawking. But coming back home with just a little bit more understanding of the world is not such a bad thing.

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