Inside the favelas. My experience as a volunteer.

Twelve miles away from one of the most quiet and peaceful beaches in Rio, two police officers are guarding the entrance of a favela. They each have IMBEL FAL and Colt M4A1 assault rifles. So these aren’t your average pistol police.  Both weapons can shoot 700 bullets in 60 seconds, which  is  an  even  more  miserable  statistic considering the officers  were smiling at us. I shudder at the sight of their beaming faces and wonder what lies behind them.

Inside the favela a lawless theme park is waiting. The armed teenagers within carry the same weapons as the guards outside, so if it wasn’t for the uniforms and toothy grins it’d be impossible to tell who’s who — Although something suggests those inside have got a lot less to smile about.

The day had started at a miserable 6am, when a bus pulled up looking like something out of a 1960s trip. It didn’t have any suspension, as the government don’t want to invest in the buses that go to the favela. But of course, it doesn’t matter as long as the tourists don’t use it, because that is what really matters.

The view from the bus was like a scene of Lawrence of Arabia: bright, exhausting sun, sweaty people and a landscape both desolate and impressive in the arid loneliness of the steppe. It’s hard to imagine that this area was once a forest until the Portuguese explorers came to Brazil 500 years ago and destroyed the landscape.

The favelas near the tourist areas and the beaches are painted with bright colours but as we moved towards the outskirts of Rio, they became grey. By the time we got off the bus it was a completely different world.

Gone were the luxury apartments of Ipanema or the well­ decorated neighbourhood of Leblon.

Then my mind went off and I thought about Cleide, a middle aged woman who runs a little school in the favela of Vila Kennedy, where I was going to work. She started a project on her own when she realised the children in the favela needed help and someone to help them stay out of drugs. “I moved to this favela after I lost everything I had. My 14-year-old son had been run over by a car and I lost all my money trying to save him. Then I realised I couldn’t let myself down because there are people here that need me too.”

In  2001, Cleide decided to start a school for the children whose families couldn’t afford an education. Teachers work as volunteers tutoring everything from maths class to dance class. There are English lessons organised by volunteers from abroad who come to Rio through an international volunteering organisation.

The paving on the road ended. The air was full of sun and dust. It was hard to breath. The buildings contained so-called ‘shops’, complete with hand drawn signs that signalled towards conspicuous pharmacies. Cleide was waiting for at the bus stop to let the gangs know that we were with her.  They respected her, and under her influence we’d be respected and protected too. Police cars were constantly patrolling the area. They would slow down and smile at us while checking us out, like dogs waiting for a nice treat.

We finally got to the little school we were going to be work on. The paint on the walls was old and unfinished, with patches everywhere as it was painted by volunteers. Cleide kept telling us “When I started here I was scared but I had to find the courage to help entire families who needed someone to keep  their  children  away  from  drugs  or  from  robbing.  But sometimes that doesn’t happen as they see thieves can get money way quicker than humble workers.” She opens her heart to tell us the broken paradise that lays in Rio.

Not long ago there were a few siblings from a very poor family at her school. She would feed them after the lesson and that’d be the only meal they would have a day. One day, one of them said to Cleide that he had decided to become a criminal in order to feed his family. He said “Cleide I wanted to be an engineer, I really did, but it’s actually quicker to rob someone.’”  Today, that boy is dead  and  one  of  his  sisters  has  a  severe  drug addiction. Unfortunately, the project doesn’t always work the way we want to.

The volunteers that come from abroad pay a small amount to help the project and that’s how they finance it. Cleide and her nephew are there, working very hard on fixing an old piece of furniture. That day we don’t have enough students, as there was a shooting the day before and stray bullets killed two children that were playing on the street. This is very common in the favelas; bullets kill a worrying amount of people a year.

As we don’t have students I’m doing a massive painting on one of the kitchen walls. Another volunteer is helping out moving and cleaning furniture and another one is getting the English lesson ready in case any student shows up.

It’s worrying to see how low on means we are. The government doesn’t fund projects like this one, as there is a risk of fraud, and supposedly not enough money.

Funny how there isn’t enough money but they keep selling the Amazon to Ikea. They won’t protect indigenous people’s homes, it’s more profitable to sell their land.

They will shout that they are diverse, and that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil, but 80% of black applicants are rejected from university. They say they are a potential growing economy, but they have sweatshops owned by European fashion companies like Spanish brand Zara.

They say they are producing new jobs, but prostitution is on the rise every year because women can’t find proper employment. The government cannot afford supporting educational projects or antidrug programmes. Extortion and gangs are the kings of the favelas. Malnutrition and child poverty is on the streets. Brazilian police are essentially non-existent when it comes to enforcing laws to protect the population. The judicial system is a joke and there is usually no recourse for the citizen who is robbed, cheated or otherwise harmed. People live in fear and build walls around their houses or pay high fees to live in gated communities. Meanwhile the government spent shit loads of money on road works and new installations for the Olympics in 2016.

Yes, wonderful paradise. It just needs a whole new government, administration, new laws, more investment in education, science, gun controls, fight against racism and corruption.

Cuba from different angles

The fact that Cuba is a communist dictatorship where people live in limited conditions is widely known. Many Cuban people emigrated to United Estates and many others to Europe – mainly Spain as we share the same language. Five different people are able to talk about the way they lived and their impressions of a great country for a few, and a very repressed for the majority.

Sanchez works at Buena Vista, the famous Cuban restaurant in Clapham, London. I interview him behind a massive Che Guevara flag. He dislikes Cuba, as it has disappointed him for life. Long before, he was an activist for Cuban rights. This 42 year old man shares his experiences about the situation Cuban people were living back at home and tells me with passion his fight against the system.

Proudly, he tells me: ‘when I was young we always talked about politics in my house. Then I grew up and I went to Florida for work. I started to make friends with other Cuban people who liked politics and they were not allowed to come back to Cuba. They were frustrated. So I asked myself what I could do for Cuba, or what I wanted to do with my life. The repression that we live in Cuba led me to the idea of fighting against the system from the outside as I was in a hurry to leave. I wanted to help reconstructing the country I was born in, but the only way was by coming back, so I did’.

One of the reasons he wanted to change things came from the time his parents started renting a flat to tourists, but they experienced some kind of totalitarianism: The couple were not allowed to make money out of their flat, and they got threatened. Someone came to their home and told them they would lose their flat and their license if they carried on renting it. The authorities were trying to cut down their extra income. Dictatorship and Totalitarianism are not the same, he explains, and when there is totalitarianism the government controls every aspect and element of your life. ‘They didn’t let us have our own income. We were seen as potential creators of a capitalist project that would defy the government’s ideology and would spread the word of a better lifestyle that had nothing to do with humble communism’.

The government analyses every single threat. To say that Cuban people are able to generate their own means in order to contribute to a change, as the government preaches is an utter lie, he explains with nostalgically.

As a tourist, the impression I got when I went there is very different. At the luxury hotel in Varadero I could see people smiling all the time, very friendly and so kind. But I guess nobody wants to speak about the life they are living, they seem scared to do so or to criticise the government.

Then I wonder what kinds of consequences exist for those people fighting against the regime, so I ask him. ‘Well, we’d been threatened many times’. He looks uncomfortable and I know I shouldn’t ask him anymore. I’m thirsty for more information so I go ahead. He briefly tells me an intruder got into his political group and he was very conflictive – he was sent from the government in order to have an excuse to shut them down. Some of his mates went to prison for a few days. I ask him about the personal threats again. But instead of a diverged answer I get the one I didn’t want: ‘I don’t talk about it, sorry’ so I apologise as well and I proceed to my next question: ‘Is there political parties in Cuba or are they all gone?’ He seems more comfortable with my question now so he answers in a more relaxed way.

Mr Sanchez tells me that there are political parties but they are hidden as they are not legally recognised or even allowed. It’s difficult to make politics when there isn’t a base to what you’re doing or who you are, he says. The regime is in charge of dissolving any kind of political association that goes against them. ‘It was very effective in my case. We just stopped and moved on’. Unable to fight for Cuban people’s rights, Sanchez moved to Spain where he lived until the economical crisis hit the country back in 2008.

But as Mr Sanchez said to me, not everyone wants to fight Castro’s dictatorship and some of them simply left to improve their lives when they felt oppressed. Vilma Castro, a shop assistant at Ladbrokes, tells me her experience: ‘I left Cuba after I finished my degree. The government forces you to work for them doing some placements for two years all over the country, wherever they need you, and during that time you have no freedom at all, so I felt overwhelmed and when I got a job offer I simply left’.

Vilma, a happy and kind-hearted woman has always belonged to the Communist affiliation. She was never against the government’s politics as her parents had good salaries when she was young. She didn’t feel the crisis. ‘I only left Cuba because I wanted to have a good job really’. Mrs Castro emigrated to Spain and a few years after she got the citizenship, which allows her to come back to Cuba at any time. Cuba is not in a good situation at the moment. There is no freedom or democracy, things any country need in order to prosper, she tells me. But she still wants to come back at some point. ‘My generation decided to leave as a way to protest against the lack of freedom’.

Until now, all the people I’ve interviewed agreed on one thing: The problem is Fidel Castro. Apparently everyone on the streets talk about it in Cuba. People know that the responsible for the situation Cuban people are living is that elite on the power that Castro allows who are accumulating luxuries. They all live very different lives from the normal Cuban citizen.

Microbusinesses also get restrictions at the frontier, so businesses are very limited. Also, many Cuban people have a better life because they get family in the United Estates sending them medicines or money. They also get new technology that otherwise would be very difficult to get, as a normal shipment can take months to arrive and pass all the controls to the island.

Luis Manuel Álvarez is only visiting London for Christmas holidays. This tourist lives in Santiago de Cuba and has a very different opinion. He tells me Cuba is a very safe country and there is not much crime or homeless people, which I agree with. Cuba is the only country in the world where there is not child malnutrition. There are social services and everyone has a house where to live. Many people are satisfied with the National Health Service as it’s free and we have very prepared and competent doctors. ‘Our doctors are pioneers in investigation, the government invests a lot of money in health, we have one of the best medical systems in the world, but not many people know that. It’s not all misery, but the USA and Europe portraits it like that as they are scared of communism so they are constantly making bad publicity against my country’.

Álvarez tells me his big fear of becoming like Mexico, where the mafia controls the estate. From his point of view, around his circle in they feel they are under risk of becoming an authoritarian country supported by the rest of Latin America. ‘What I wouldn’t like is to evolve into a system in which the government in charge leaves their power to allies or family and we end up with an authoritarian capitalism regime for the next 30 years. The final result would be ending up like Mexico, and mafias would be created, organised crime would take over control, there would be drug traffic, human traffic… Actually human traffic already exists through the cartel group Los Zetas, which take people from Cuba to the Mexican coast to cross the frontier’.

When I share my experience as a tourist in Cuba back in 2013, Yoel Perez shares his thoughts. He’s a Cuban musician currently living in London and playing a few times a week at a Cuban restaurant in Camden Town. Between cocktails and laughs he tells me how everyone talks about politics but not many people will open themselves to tell what it really is to live there. People in Cuba compare their lives to TV shows from the USA and Europe and feel embarrassed because of the conditions. Compared to western countries, where they get their references from, their lives seem so much limited and simple.

‘People won’t tell you that they don’t have Internet at home, or that is really slow and you only get to use it a couple of times a week at universities, but mainly because the are used to it and for them is not a shocking thing, is just different cultures’.

In Cuba everything is under control, the government works really hard to make sure what you’re looking online is safe as well. He believes police work blindly for the government and if there were a revolution they wouldn’t doubt to go against people. Police are a mechanism of control. They won’t inspire safety, he says. Many people in Cuba are afraid of a change because they know what the government is like, they don’t like it but they are used to it. ‘What many people seem to think is that if we change we are going to get a right wing dictatorship which would be even worse, or that’s what they think anyway’.

In order to leave the country you have to apply to a permission to leave that you might get or you might not. Some people are denied it and cannot leave the country if the authorities think the person wants to emigrate or might go against them. With that excuse a wide percentage of people get their visa denied. For short holidays it is really difficult to get one, although if you are visiting family that leave abroad you are entitled to leave the country up to 6 months. If you do not return before the deadline you lose your right to come back, as the authorities see this as civil disobedience and you become a ‘risky person’.

Sagrario López is a Spanish woman who married a Cuban man and the inspiration of this article. She told me long ago how her family in law managed to get out of Cuba and emigrate to Florida. Around twenty years ago, fourteen people crossed the 94 miles of sea that separate United Estates and Miami by using a raft. Many other Cuban dissidents before them have tried, but many others have lost their lives at the sea.

This family faced a storm as they were approaching Miami’s coasts. It ended up with the lives of three of them. On the raft, there was a baby that miraculously survived the storm. It was dragged to the coast and appeared a few hours after on a beach. The survivors managed to swim to the nearest land. They had lost the raft and the baby on it. They still today cannot explain how the baby was dragged to the beach alive, but fishers in the area said they saw dolphins dragging a rough raft onto the beach.

The desperation that many Cuban people must have felt to risk their lives like that is enormous, and although some people live a good life in Cuba, the impression I get is that the lack of freedom and frustration they have to cope with is sometimes insufferable. The majority of the people interviewed for this article are opponents to Castro’s politics, and only people who are allowed to have money do actually enjoy the regime, as they are not affected by the cuts on basic means, but the percentage of this people is minimal. When I went to Cuba I only got one person, a taxi driver in Havana who wanted to talk about the real situation they were having there, and he told me how low on means they are, as in to hitch-hike to work every day because buses don’t run that often. Sadly, and as surprising as this seems, it is actually a very common practice in Havana and other big cities. We will have to wait and see what happens after Castro; hopefully this beautiful country will experience an enormous social and political change that leads into freedom and equality for its good people.

Rio. Week 2.

On Sunday I was told that I would be working at the other favela called Vila Kennedy, so I was really excited about it. It was close to Batam, just a bit further down on the same road.

The week started with a very hot morning on Monday. I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts so I had to wear long jeans and still to my surprise I got bitten by lots of mosquitoes –yes, during the morning!

I was told this favela was really dangerous, so I was expecting to see armed police and overall, military police, but I did not see any.

The streets were not paved and there was this mixture of sand and dust. Just like the other one, there was a bakery, some beauty shops, and some really cheap restaurants.

In the other one the break was at 11 so we were never hungry enough to have lunch. We’d buy some ham and cheese sandwiches and that would do for the rest of the day until dinner time. The heat made me not have any appetite.

I was expecting this place to have a well-maintained building, just like the other favela had, but in here there wasn’t a built floor with tiles, it was just concrete. The organiser of this place was a lovely old lady; a very strong woman, always fighting to give children an education, and to make the favela a better place for them. She was loving and caring towards us, and I appreciated it a lot.

Our job that day consisted in organising hundreds of books in categories. This being children, English literature, languages, adults… It was not hard, just tiring. It was not great, but I found the most important thing I could in there: peace; No tension, shouting or competitive people. Just a bunch of people doing their own thing and willing to help. It was fantastic.

We all went to have lunch at a really basic restaurant were the food was absolutely amazing for a ridiculous price. (Lunch for 4 people for less than £10). I wasn’t very hungry but the food was too nice not to eat it all.
I remember the lady that worked there, Jessica, a big young lady who had always a smile for us, and was patient with our bad Portuguese.

The other co-workers, two more volunteers were Diana, 31, from Italy but resident in Madrid, and Sara, 38, from Seville but resident in London. They were friendly and very funny. It was difficult not to love that place even when the conditions were not the best.

On the following day, Tuesday, I had to work at Batam, with the German woman. I had prepared two games for the students and they seemed to love it. On the break, this woman told me she was going to one of the students’ house that turned out to be her 10 years younger boyfriend, so I was left on my own for a long 2 hours and a half break. I decided to stay and draw some stuff. I was feeling incredibly lonely and missed the other favela where I had friends, a lunch break to enjoy with them and things to do.

I did my lesson and the game took pretty much all the time we had for it so she had 30 min to take over and teach something. She was notably annoyed. Not being the centre of attention for such a long time must had been painful. Every now and then she’d interrupt me and say random stuff –not even to do with the lesson.

On the way back she was trying to make conversation but unlucky her, I was being as dry as possible only answering with monosyllables. When we got on the bus the girls coming from Vila Kennedy were on the same bus and they called me to sit with them. I was so pleased to see nice people and be able to laugh and tell them my stories! The German woman just sat at the beginning of the bus and ignored us; then, when we were getting close to our bus stop, she got off the bus one stop before without saying goodbye.

In the afternoon we had a Portuguese class with this livey woman called Fernanda, a very talkative, social, friendly and outgoing Brazilian girl. Her lessons were always fun and for some reason we would always end up talking about really personal stuff –as long as we spoke in Portuguese. She used to go out with us at night and she was planning on coming with us to Ilha Grande, our next destination.

On Wednesday I went to work to Vila Kennedy and I started a massive painting on what would be the future kitchen room. At the end of the day I was feeling miserable about going back to Batam. I spoke to the old lady, Cleidge about it and asked her to tell Felipe that I was very happy working for her.

Later on, in the afternoon, I got a text from Felipe, the main organiser, telling me that it would be better for me to stay in Vila Kennedy as that was what everyone wanted. Everyone. That obviously meant the German woman, as Felipe and her were really close; and that’s why I did not speak to him about anything, because when I tried to, he had already spoken to her and told me that he was not happy with my attitude. (What attitude? Trying to improve things?)

But on the other hand I was just pleased to know that I was not going to share any more days with that woman, and I could just forget about my only problem there.

Thursday came and I was still doing my painting of random Brazilian fruits. It was way too big but it looked good, and the old lady, Cledge, said she liked it a lot.

We had a Portuguese lesson from 7 to 9, as usual. It was being a very intense week, with a crazy non-stop rhythm from 6 in the morning to 10 at night. Even longer if I wanted to go out for a bit with my Brazilian friend because then I had to sacrifice hours of sleep to see him. I was very tired but enjoying it at all at the same time.

Friday: We got up really early to go to Ilha Grande. In the end we were 7 people excluding the Portuguese teacher Fernanda who couldn’t make it.

My Brazilian friend, Werther, came along only to spend time with me–he had been to Ilha Grande already.

Rio. Week 1

It’s been a very intense week full of good and bad emotions.

I arrived on Saturday night and I went out with my Brazilian friend Werther just to get something for dinner. I got to meet my roommates, lovely people –I feel incredibly lucky for this.

And on Sunday we went to Copacabana market and beach. I had a fantastic day with some of the volunteers and we had dinner at a place nearby.

The hotel is located in Santa Teresa neighbourhood, which is not too bad, and our hotel is on top of the hill so we don’t get noise or many people around. It’s quiet and nice.

On Monday we –the new volunteers and I – had an introduction to Felipe, the organiser who explained what our projects would consist of. Then Felipe showed us around and we did a small tour around the area. He showed us where to get food and exchange money.

On Tuesday I got up at 6 to start my project. I am working in a favela called Batam teaching English to people from 9 to 64 years old. It’s normally a small group of no more than 15 people. There is a lesson in the morning and another one at night. And although they are keen on learning English, they sometimes don’t make it to come more than 2 times a week so the lessons’ pace is slow and it gets a bit repetitive.

On Wednesday there was only one student… Two teachers for one student. Apparently every Monday and Wednesday is like that. I felt incredibly frustrated. It is impossible to teach because the other teacher does not want to divide the lesson so it was like a fight for teaching. I gave up.

Nobody has ever complaint or tried to do anything about it. I was the first one, and that got me into trouble. “This is your second day here and you’re complaining already. If you don’t like the way we do things here then leave!”. Having heard this from just a volunteer like me made me really mad, so I left. I came to Rio to help, to feel useful, not to see how someone is teaching while I look at the ceiling. She was shouting at me as if I were an obstacle. I didn’t reply and just left the place on my own.

On Thursday that woman and I took the bus together with another two volunteers. The buses here do not have any suspension or shock absorber so it’s like a rollercoaster at 7.30 in the morning, right after the breakfast. Anyway, she went to sit really far from us. After an hour and a half the bus was absolutely crowded. One of the volunteers told me we where getting close to my favela, and the lady next to her confirmed it. She then told me to get off the bus on the next stop, so I went to the doors and waited. The bus stopped for a second but the doors didn’t open. Then after a while stopped again and I got off. But I was the only one. I looked to my right and left. I was completely lost, and there was no sign of that German woman that I worked with. I was in the middle of a massive road surrounded by favelas. Even though it was really hot I felt shivering cold, I was absolutely terrified and scared to death. I had no phone to call anyone, I didn’t know what to do or where to go and I had no escape of the situation or control of it at all.

I looked at the people around me. There was a lady waiting for another bus. She looked genuinely nice and I went to ask her in my best Portuguese trying not to look like a “gringa” too much although my platinum blonde hair was not helping. She explained me that I had missed the stop, that in order to get to Batam I had to walk back. I could not believe it, I was really confused. Did the German miss the bus stop as well? Of course she did, the doors didn’t open at any other point. Oh well. She said “you have to walk around 15 min in that direction and you will be there. Pass three bridges and right after the third one…” In my mind I was just thinking “thank God I’m Spanish and I can communicate and understand Portuguese”.

When she finished the explanations a tear dropped from my eye and she smiled at me. She asked if I was scared. I nodded my head and she told me that her son studied in Batam and that it was not dangerous, that I should not be scared. I thanked her and much more motivated I started my way to the favela. I walked through lots of houses and little shops; I was walking really fast and trying not to look at anyone in the eyes but trying to watch out and be cautious at the same time. It was all men all the time. In some areas three or four working on something, in some others just one at their door. I saw another man sitting on a horse carriage. I was amazed, I must admit. It was just like being in another century.

I passed the third bridge and had to ask someone so I simply asked for the favela by saying its name. A really nice man offered to take me to the right place. He stopped working on an old bike and took his bicycle so he could come back to his work faster. He positioned the bicyclein between us and started making conversation. I said I was a teacher and he replied with the name of that German woman. I said yes very enthusiastically and happy that he knew about us. When we got there I thanked him a lot and I saw him riding back.

To my surprise, the German woman was there already having a coffee and laughing with some workers of the favela. She saw me and stopped smiling. She came to me and said, “I tried to stop the bus. You didn’t get off at the right one!” At this point I was massively confused and asked her what happened. She then explained that it’s not that the doors didn’t open, but only one of the doors would open at that bus stop. The other ones near where I was sitting wouldn’t. She didn’t let me know. She pretty much let me get lost in a strange favela neighbourhood. She was too angry and had too much pride to be kind enough to let me know. Great. I was lucky that nothing happened to me, and she was childish for letting her emotions go first instead of being sensible enough to let me know. It was not reasonable at all; she had no empathy and had been cruel to me.

I though about those words, “I tried to stop the bus”. Liar. I would have heard it, she didn’t shout at me “it’s this one” or to the driver “open the other doors”. I was not able to see her because of the crowd but she didn’t try to let me know in any way.

I acted really laid back about it and I continued with my work as normal. I taught them the verb to be and some adjectives and the students were really focused on learning and paid a lot of attention. I felt accomplished for being alive and being able to be a great teacher after what happened. It felt great.

The German woman apologised after the lesson and I accepted her apologies. I did not want to cause any drama so I just didn’t talk about it with anyone.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday: My weekend had just started. I had great plans of going to Paraty or Ilha Grande with other volunteers but unfortunately our lack of organisation and the bad weather left us with no plans. I went with Werther, my Brazilian friend to see the Sugar Loaf, went on the cableway and took pictures of the panoramic view of the city before and after sunset. Rio is a beautiful city.