Room for Improvement.

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I am writing whilst sat upon the peak of Pão de Açúcar, only having to slightly turn my head to absorb magnificent views across Rio de Janeiro, expanding to Cristo Redentor, Cobacabana, and the Atlantic Ocean. Nestled between the rolling hills that form the background of Rio and dotted between various districts of the city lay the many favelas that make such a significant contribution to the size and demographics of this amazing city. To me, the favelas are influential in the beauty of this city through their inhabitants, culture, and even through their colourful contribution to my current view from Pão de Açúcar. But, they are equally as significant in providing a functioning demonstration of the many problems that exist here. It is both amazing and astonishing that the city will play a significant role in next year’s FIFA World Cup, and in 2016, host the Olympic Games. I can only hazard a guess at the total cost of playing host to such events, but after spending a month here it pains me to imagine how much more usefully and humanely that money could be spent. Now, I’m no expert in the economics of global sporting events, but I highly doubt that the World Cup or the Olympics will bring significant and long term improvements to the many people struggling in Rio de Janeiro. I sense an unfair distribution of services, tourism investment and corporate sponsorship. Corrupt elements within the national and local governments remain, the obvious existence of significant crime and poverty, two protests descending into violent clashes with the police occurring here since my arrival all signify that there is clearly room for improvement within the social, economic and political structure of a country that holds the 6th largest economy in the world.

My time here has plunged me into thinking about how I could possibly make a difference here and what I could do to help. As I am not Barack Obama, head of the United Nations, World Bank or a billionaire business tycoon, clearly I am only capable of attempting to make the smallest of improvements in such a vast city of well over 10 million people. So what can I do? What can outsiders do to help the people here? The longer I spend here, the more I learn and understand through the people I meet and through my own assumptions. Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate all of this is to provide a case study of a boy living in the favela that I am currently volunteering in.

Anderson, who’s company I enjoy tremendously, also happens to be one of the most talented young footballers I have seen so far. You may remember that in an earlier entry I had mentioned witnessing a young boy score a bicycle kick, Anderson was that boy, and has continued to impress since then. He is 12 years old, and I hold the belief that if he was a British or any other European national, he would quickly have been enlisted in a footballing academy or development project of some form, most probably leading to a successful professional career. Very idealistic I know, and possibly this would only happen in Perot circumstances. But Anderson does not have this opportunity, and will most definitely continue living in Thera vela for the rest of his life. Anderson’s father died several years ago, and his mother struggles to put food on the table for Anderson and his younger brother with her monthly salary of £120. I have visited their home, horrified to hear that whilst Anderson shared a bunk bed with his brother, their mother slept on the floor of what regrettably I can only describe as a small, asbestos roofed, single roomed garage. Anderson doesn’t have the opportunities that many other children have around the world. The state only provides education for two days a week, and due to the fact that both protests that have occurred here in the last three weeks have been organised by teachers, I doubt very much that the education system is a stable and entirely successful institution. Anderson’s mother cannot afford to pay the £25 monthly fee to send him to the local Vasco da Gama footballing academy, whilst I doubt that club scouts venture into the favelas regularly. Anderson is always smiling, enjoys playing football with the other children and shows a true eagerness to learn in the classroom, yet I worry about his few opportunities to succeed.

Anderson’s situation upset me tremendously, he should be given the opportunities that I received as a 12 year old boy. Furthermore, Anderson is not alone and there are many others Lenten children in very similar scenarios, whether their talent b in football, mathematics, art, dance, or any other skill or gift that would lead to a promising career in the UK. I had naively thought over the idea of sponsoring Anderson through the eagerly phases of an academy with a fellow volunteer, but it soon became obvious that it would not be as simple, straight forward or successful as I had first thought. There would be no guarantee of an improvement to Anderson’s quality of life, surely the money would be better spent on providing food for Anderson and his family? Why sponsor Anderson, how fair would it be to select him over other young talented footballers? The list of problems goes on.

A lunchtime conversation with the house construction project coordinator, a Dutchman who left his comfortable lifestyle on Europe behind in order to move into the favela five years ago, gave tremendous insight into the many problems that have been troubling my thoughts since I had arrived here. Fabian attributed the lack of opportunities for children to two main factors. The first is a government whose first and foremost objective is to improve the overall economy, promote big business and promote profit, therefore ignoring the ‘little’ problems and minimising their solutions to focus on bringing the two largest sporting events in the world to Brazil. I can only hope that Brazil’s economy doesn’t to follow the road that the Greek economy took following Athens 2004. The second factor is the favelas themselves. The children are not exposed to a world where they can aspire to become someone in a particular profession. A doctor, fireman, veterinarian, lawyer or even investment banker may be the aims of many children or adolescents in the developed world, yet children here are raised amongst violence, growing up idealising the gangsters and drug barons who appear to have the money, the girls, and the. Attest technology and gadgets in the favela. It is easy to see how children who know no different opt to follow that lifestyle, and this is sadly a case for many.

In exposing and illustrating just a few problems, however, I am disregarding the many successful programs and projects that are making tremendous improvements in their respective areas of operations. The project I volunteer at, emarca, is one of many brilliant examples of this. The staff are caring, clearly love what they are doing and aim to improve the community that the you have grown up in. The children that attend the community centre for football, education, arts and crafts or any other activity are regular attenders, signifying that they enjoy what they are doing – choosing to learn and play at the centre rather than potentially causing trouble on the streets. The project has also succeeded in opening the minds of many children, giving them aspirations for the future to pursue through their education and life choices. This has been demonstrated by an activity that I had asked a group of children to complete on Wednesday, to identify and illustrate what they would like to become when they grow up. I was thrilled by their creativity and enthusiasm, a feeling only enhanced by the results that I received. Two firemen, three doctors, an artist, a builder, a security guard at the Maracanã and a pop star. One boy was clearly thrown of course when the project coordinator decreed that a professional footballer was not a feasible response to this activity, opting for a dream job at the home of Brazilian football instead. Still, the responses from all nine children were fantastic, and I would argue that their thoughts were almost identical to the aspirations of many children in the UK, a warming and encouraging thought.

I continue to enjoy my time here excessively, and I look forward to my final two weeks in Brazil.

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They know how to celebrate…

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My first week volunteering finished without any major setbacks on Thursday afternoon. Waking up everyday at 7am wouldn’t normally sound particularly appealing to me, but I absolutely love working with the kids every day. The bus journeys are even fun, and that’s something I didn’t think I’d be able to say, but being the most violently and aggressively driven vehicles ever, the Cariocan bus drivers certainly keep the passengers on the edge of their seats. Lunch is amazing, an all you can eat restaurant in the favela for about the equivalent of £4 offers the most amazing variety of local foods in a buffet, everything tastes so good! Apart from attempting to equal the football skills of kids less than half my age, possibly the most fun I have is in trying to overcome the language barrier when speaking to the children. Through using a combination of overly dramatic hand gestures, jumping around, shouting, and repeating the same thing until I was given a thumbs up certainly tests your patience but there’s nothing better than having a normal conversation with them, they’re always so happy! Sharing my week with kids is such a privilege, I couldn’t think of being in a better place at the moment.

Our ‘working’ week finishes on Thursday, and on Friday most of our house ended up going to Ipanema beach on the south coast of the city. First impressions? Spending time on the beach is obviously high on the Carioca’s agenda and is clearly cemented in their way of life. Amongst the thousands of people enjoying the sun and the sea, there are many who make their living on the beaches of Rio. Every hundred yards or so there are stalls selling drinks and barbecued food and let you set up a tab to cover whatever you buy throughout the day. There are vendors walking amongst the towels and umbrellas selling anything from grilled halloumi to bikinis with sales pitches to rival the one pound fish man. The women wear the most ridiculous excuses for bikinis, but who am I to complain? I’m pretty sure you’d find more fabric in a shoelace than in their swimwear but unfortunately it’s almost the same for men, a day at the beach requires nothing more than speedos and a pair of Havaianas. The water was the perfect temperature and the waves were so much fun, I’ve never been to such an amazing beach with such a great atmosphere! There are beach volleyball courts marked out all along the beach, but of course football replaces volleyball and I could spend hours watching the most intuitive shapes these people make to get the ball back over the net.

Friday night was my first night out here, what better way is there to experience the people and culture of a new city? We headed down to Lapa, a district 5 minutes walk from where we are staying. The place had been completely transformed since I walked through earlier in the day, and hundreds of stalls lined the streets selling all kinds of street food and drinks. The walls echoed the sound of samba bands playing in the streets, each with their own cluster of keen and impressive samba dancers surrounding them. I was as if everyone’s movements in the area were defined by the drum beats, a truly amazing experience! After having a drink or two in Lapa, we ended up in a club not far from where we were. On entry we were frisked and handed a card which the cost of our drinks would be added to and we were expected to pay for our entire night as we left the club later on. Everything went according to plan until everyone was leaving the club and it became clear that not everyone had understood the payment system. I only had to pay 69 Reals but aone of us had managed to lose his card and another had left the house with 40 Reals and owed over 250. Things seemed to get heated pretty quickly and everyone was shouting in different languages but after about an hour or so everyone was allowed to leave, getting home just in time for breakfast at 7am…

I was woken on Saturday by a phonecall from my project coordinator with news that I would be able to go on a trip with the kids from my favela in the afternoon to watch a Ligo do Brasil football match at the Maracanã stadium! I felt like I used to feel as a little kid on Christmas Eve. It was Children’s Day in Rio, and when we arrived in my favela the roads were closed to traffic and children were running around, bouncing on trampolines and the sound of fun and laughter echoed through the tiny alleyways of the Community. We were to take about 40 boys and girls to the football, so making sure everyone was there and loading them onto the bus was time consuming and stressful, but I think I was just as excited as all the 10 year olds. The street party continued on the bus, and into the football stadium as games and other activities were organised for the kids by the staff at the stadium. Good god they can dance!
The stadium itself was even more spectacular than I had expected, and though less than half full during the game the atmosphere was fantastic. I can only imagine what it would be like at the World Cup next year with a capacity of 100,000! Witnessing Fluminense draw 1-1 at home to Grêmio was made even better by sitting with the kids, who even at such a young age were clearly so passionate about their national sport and became increasingly animated as the noise of the stadium around them grew over the course of the match.
The journey back home from the stadium was pretty surreal, we took the metro closer to the centre of town and then decided to get a mototaxi back to the house. Clinging on to the back of a motorbike was always going to be exciting, but with no helmet (sorry mum) and racing riders, it was an experience I won’t forget!

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Exceeding expectations.

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So, my first day at the sports project I’d be working at over the next few weeks. It turns out the bus drivers take the same initiative as the car drivers of the city, though being in a much bigger vehicle does make you feel a lot safer! I spent the journey speaking to one of the project coordinators about Rio and Brasil, how it is governed, policed and it’s history. The more I speak to this lady the more I seem to learn about how much is wrong with this country, giving me a much better understanding of all the rioting that we hear about on the news. The seriousness of it all appears to hit you a lot harder when you’re sharing your lunch table with three military policemen accompanied by their AK-47s, but more on this sort of thing later…
I arrived in the favela I would be working in and was surprised with how well established the main streets were with such an extensive array of shops. On my route in and out of the favela I pass a shop that sells chickens, a florist and the local football stadium – home to CR Vasco da Gama, one of the four main teams in Rio. I arrived at the favela’s community centre with the knowledge that I would be playing football with Brazilian children, but did not quite know who I was meeting or what to expect. I was met by a big group of local kids who excitedly introduced themselves to me in English, followed by a high-five and a fist bump. Having been introduced, I was ready to play football with the children of a country who has won the World Cup five times, were they as good as I thought they would be? Before lunch I had been nutmegged three times and I witnessed a nine year old boy score a bicycle kick.
After meeting the 2026 FIFA World Cup winners, an associate of the community centre asked if I could join a few other volunteers in demolishing one of the shacks in the favela. The single roomed structure that was no larger than a greenhouse that I had helped to tear down had been called home by a family of seven. The removal of the asbestos roofing and makeshift foundations had exposed the largest cockroaches and millipedes I had ever seen, whilst the amount of dust and debris enabled me to sympathise with Joe Hart, prior to his sponsorship deal with Head and Shoulders. As a fair haired and white Englishman walking through the narrow corridors of the favela with my arms stacked with asbestos and wood, I did inevitably attract some attention. Taking my shirt off probably didn’t help but hey, it was 28 degrees. The family we were working with were amazing and the kids were so friendly and talkative, even if I didn’t completely know what they were saying to me.
The next day at the project was a lot less strenuous, playing football with the locals, it was great fun and I met some more amazing kids. Every Wednesday morning a stripped out bus turns up in the main square of the favela, filled with fresh fruit and vegetables to sell to the local community – I tried my first guava!
I’m looking forward to my first night out here on Thursday night, and on to Copacabana beach at the weekend!

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