Monday, August 21, 2006

A (Short) Tale Of Two Cities

Returning, a little reluctantly, from my stay in Brazil, its time to get back to some semi-serious blogging. I have come back to a surprisingly cool and half empty city; August is generally the quietest month of the year in Madrid with many shops and restaurants closed for at least part of the month. Apart from that, little has changed in my absence; there seem to be a few more trenches excavated and even more pavements where it is impossible to pass than there were before – the ‘fascinating’ city that we have been promised is still not emerging from the dust.

It all provides quite a change from Rio de Janeiro, where I spent my last week in Brazil. The city spreads along the coast and the base of the green hills that descend towards the beaches, it is significantly bigger than Madrid both in surface and in population. More than most cities that I have visited, Rio shows the sharpness of the contrast between the lives of a very wealthy minority, and the much poorer majority. The favelas, the shanty towns built by immigrants from the countryside, spread over the hillsides looking down on the wealthy barrios below. Now tourism is beginning to reach them, there are organised tours which take visitors on a guided visit to some of these areas. Completely safe, despite the reputation that the favelas have, the tour I went on took a small group to two different favelas. In one of these the contrast could not be clearer, the left side of the road was occupied by large houses protected by high walls topped with electric fences, on the right side of the road was the favela, the distance between them no more than 10 metres. The occupants of these areas provide the labour that works in the construction of the homes of their wealthier neighbours, they build their own houses with the left over materials.

Dominating the favelas are the gangs that control the drugs trade in the city, a result of the indifference and neglect of the city and national governments. The police are only to be seen at the entrance, as a more or less symbolic presence – order inside these areas is maintained by the gangs. In fact Rio provides an opportunity for a study into the necessity of having a police force at all, it seems that the city’s police do little more than look for a means of increasing their own income – either from drug traffickers or simply from pulling up motorists on any pretext. Their effect on crime is probably to increase the number of offences committed; yet the city continues to function and despite its problems is not really as dangerous as the media makes it out to be.

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