Coming Home

I was excited to come back to Rio, really I was. To, "matar as saudades", or kill the longing to the place that has become my home over the last three years. So much that I love here; every time I come back I get a tingle in my stomach, butterflies, to see the people I've grown to love, have a drink, go to my favorite forro, samba or just move, on a daily basis, to the beats of this oh-so-irresistable city. 

So yes, I was excited. And as the airplane was approaching Rio, almost touching down, a strong scent invaded the plane. 'Wow', I thought, 'I've never smelled an airplane bathroom from so far back in the plane (26J, window seat. Not quite business class). 'Must have been a rough one for someone up there,' and well, then the thought passed as the wheels hit Rio soil. 

Everything went surprisingly smoothly with customs (today marked the first time that they stamped my passport without checking with the higher-ups of the Federal Police. Could it be that four years later, the main computer in Brasilia finally got the memo that I paid the silly fine from years ago?!)

My bags came out faster than the average 45 minute waiting time, I plopped them on the baggage cart, and off I went to meet Nava, my taxi driver who I had asked to pick me up. We were in the taxi for about 5 minutes making small talk about the perfume Nava would have had me bring for him had he known (because, perfume is 4 times more expensive in Rio), and then the traffic came to a standstill. I took a deep breathe - stopped traffic at 9am on a Wednesday in Rio, heading from the North Zone to the South, was not news. It was a beautiful day, soon I would be home, unpacked and heading to the beach to enjoy my last day of vacation before starting work. I really was excited to come home, really. The stopped traffic wasn't going to change that. 

We continued to chat, mostly about how traffic has gotten worse over the last few years and how hard that makes it for Nava and other taxi drivers like him. And then the smell hit me. The putrid, undeniably rancid smell of flowing sewage. We were between the Maré favela and one of the northern parts of the Guanabara Bay. It's so bad there that the smell actually has a taste. (It was at this point that I realized that the smell in the airplane was not the bathroom. Or rather, it was just a different bathroom. We had flown over Rio's greatest toilet deposit of course, but my excitement at arriving had allowed me to ignore what I knew all too well.)

I confess that every time I pass the most polluted sections of the Guanabara Bay, I question my decision to live in Rio. Why should I have to stand this smell - or worse, what this smell represents in the grand scheme of Rio's politics - if I could be anywhere in the world?

I would not let my excitement wane. Even when the campaign propaganda for Aécio Neves, one of Brazil's presidential candidates, came on the radio. Claiming with utmost pride that he is in favor of lowering the age of incarceration, whereas Dilma is not. Nava aptly makes the statement: "They want to put children in jail, but deal with corrupt politicians who are stealing our money? Absolutely not." It's worth mentioning here that 40% of prisoners in Brazil's prisons have NOT been given a trial. But Aécio, confident in his words, wants to lower the age so that all children can be eligible for prison! Oh, perfect plan! (More worrisome is that there are people who might actually vote for him because of that.) 

But okay, focusing on my grand plan for the day, I remained excited to get home. I would proceed to ignore the fact that a storm troop of soldiers ran into a nearby favela with a swiftness that could only leave me uneasy, at best. And that, a little while later 2 police cars were stopped in the two left lanes of a main street, for a chat, creating insane amounts of traffic. I would ignore how this brought me back to the incessant abuse of power so evident in the Rio police force.

I would get out of Nava's taxi at my apartment building, say hi to Dona Marilia, my lovely elderly neighbor with two cats (and who never forgets to ask me about mine) and head up to my apartment.

Upon opening the door, the first thing to greet me? None other than a dried up giant cockroach, lying face down with its dried up cockroach legs scattered about him. 

I really was excited to come back to Rio. Really, I was. 


In the midst of protest, tear gas, robocops and mutual frustration (which means frustration on all sides, of every possible "team." The government; throwing its frustration and control by manipulating what it means to have a police force to serve and "protect." The people; tired of being confronted with uniforms and weapons that really, I can only recall seeing on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Citizens; imploring with signs and screams: 'education, health and rights, to Fifa's standards!' Not just stadiums up to standard.) But the rest of it too. I won't get in to Fifa, and what I think of them, or the Fifa store, a temporary construction built on the sands of Copacabana. One of many symbols of all that is wrong with the World Cup. It's true that these sands are the same sands upon which so many of Rio's citizens have tried to get a work permit to sell their humble goods and make a fair wage. So many denied by bureaucracy, paperwork and endless barriers. I'm pretty sure that Fifa didn't have to face those barriers. Pretty sure that Fifa just set up shop, gigantic shop, and is now selling overpriced mascots on Copa beach. (And really, who designed that mascot? What is that?)

But I digress...

The scene was beautiful. In the midst of the robocop and protest madness - three musicians. A saxophone, a mandolin and a tambourine coming together to make forro (a Brazilian music, that is more popular than Samba, but everyone seems to forget). They played forro and in front of them, a police battalion. Full gear: shoulder, arm, leg and foot padding. Helmets. Real gladiators. Listening to Forro. Underneath the helmets were faces: hardened by heat, heavy gear, dust, and a long morning of urban combat. 

Behind the saxophone was a face, not quite as hard, perhaps slightly exhausted. (I would later learn that he had played all night and had not intended on playing in front of this battalion. Yet when he saw them, his hands lifted to the sax and did what came naturally to him). So he played, and the police, listened. And they listened. And their faces. Softened. 

The saxophone player put down his weapon, his sax, and spoke. And looked at the police battalion in front of him and implored them to understand: "we are on the same team", he said. "Can't you see?" With his soft spoken words he asked them to understand that all sides are in a similar battle, stuck in a system that is pitting one against the other. And the violence from one "side" toward the other should stop, because we are on the same team. And the police-man, in all his gladiator glory, took off his helmet. And also spoke. Softly. Explained that he had his duty to fulfill, his body to protect when attacked. 

It doesn't matter what he said. That was it. The moment. It was followed by a few of the other gladiators removing their helmets.  

And the harsh lines start to fade away, the hardness softens; breaks apart, becomes unsteady in the face of, Dialogue.