poiler, I – again – had to look down the barrel of a gun, albeit under vastly different circumstances.
I had meanwhile moved to a different part of the city, close to the ocean. A rich neighborhood. Considerably more secure, I was told, mainly achieved by a massive presence of different police forces. Municipal guards, federal police, military police.
There was a police car at nearly every street corner, always with flashing red lights, always on alert. Private securities were guarding the expensive shopping centers, also carrying big revolvers. Military police cars were patrolling occasionally. Those were easily recognizable because they had machine guns sticking out of their open windows. Machine guns in a city is a sight I will never get used to.
By the way, everyone I spoke to hates the military police, not surprising, considering they are the main culprits for many innocent deaths during the violent favela raids.
My apartment was really cheap and incredibly shitty but very close to the beach. About 20 sqm, musty and moist mattress and bedding. Brownish stinking water from the tap and a bathroom so small it was a balancing act to not touch the toilet while taking a shower.
I was living among the poorest people in that area. Beach vendors, garbage men, cleaners, essentially just those serving the rich in the surrounding buildings. Lots of homeless people too.
The street was buzzing 24/7. There was a makeshift bar, music blasting from speakers, and people drinking all day and night. Nice folks, who looked at me strangely but were otherwise very welcoming.
Later I would find out that there were many drug addicts, constantly chasing 10 Real (2.5 USD) bags of cocaine. It was interesting to watch. There was a dealer on-site at all times. A young guy, maybe 17, 18. Sometimes, though, he was absent, either because he ran out of stuff, I guess, or because undercover cops were disturbing the trade. When that happened you could suddenly feel an uneasiness taking over the place. The party was on pause, everyone was just standing and waiting until the guy showed up again. People would then flock to him, form a line, and – one by one – patiently wait until it was their turn to hand over cash for cocaine.
Every morning the floor was covered with empty drug containers (see photo). Interestingly enough, those came with a label, detailing the gang who sold it and the quality or whatever. Someone told me you could go and demand a refund in case the package had been tampered with.
I guess this is what happens when drug gangs can operate relatively undisturbed by law enforcement (compared to, eg, Europe), they can display a corporate branding and adopt common marketing methods, like refunds and quality assurance.
Anyway, when I moved in, the landlord warned me about the water, apparently there is momentarily a crisis in Rio, all water is contaminated. I tried my best to avoid ingesting it, but surely enough, after a couple of days I became sick like a dog.
It started with fever and turned into a week-long vomit/diarrhea orchestra. Or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Point is, I was completely out of order. Borderline delirious, alternating between lying in embryo position on my shitty mattress while trying really hard to not throw up, and vomiting my guts out into a bucket while at the same time pissing out of my ass. In-between, I was passing out from exhaustion. All during 35 C heat.
I completely lost sense of time, but it didn’t matter because, as I wrote before, there was a 24/7 economy in front of my door. Every day I spent hours trying to gather enough strength and willpower to go and buy water and bananas. Why didn’t I buy more at once? Why didn’t I just check into a hotel? I don’t know, my brain wasn’t functioning properly, I was just trying to make it through the day, minute by minute. I must have looked like total shit because at one point a homeless guy asked me if I was alright and offered to carry my stuff.
The second week I could tolerate food again (before it was just fuel for my puke), but I was weak as fuck and completely dehydrated. Every day, I tried to get back into my routine but I was so nauseous, I wouldn’t even last an hour before retreating back into my bed, waiting to feel better. God, it was awful!
But I made it through!
One day, after I had fully recovered, I was on my way to Starbucks to work. I passed by a park where I saw a dude weaving birds with leaves. We started talking (broken English, Google translate). He told me that he was an artist and showed me his work. Really beautiful stuff.
I immediately noticed a small pipe in his hand and, curious as I am, asked him what it was.
Crack, he said nonchalantly, while offering me the pipe. I politely declined. He then asked if I would like to roll a joint. I made decent money the day before and I never met a crackhead before, also he seemed nice, so I decided to ditch work for the day and accepted his offer. He gave me the weed, I asked if it was OK to smoke here and he said, sure no problem.
Alright then. While I was preparing the joint and before and after (pretty much all the time), he was smoking his crack pipe. It was insane he was hitting it, like, every 2 minutes. It was a quite elaborative process and fascinating to watch. His demeanor was completely normal though.
I am not particular good with rolling, so I was fully focused on the task at hand, when all of a sudden I hear someone shouting something. Looking up I see 4 police officers. One of them had his pistol drawn. Fuck, was my immediate reaction, this is going to be expensive.
They were quite agitated and ran towards us. The guy with the gun out stayed behind while the others started searching us, all while angrily saying things (I really must learn Portuguese).
I tried to put on an apologetic face and gave them the half finished joint, which was sitting on my lap, there was no point in trying to hide it. I then took out my phone for Google translator. They wanted to know if I had more, especially also cocaine. I told them no. After the search they seemed to relax somewhat.
They then gave me the weed is illegal talk. I apologized but also said that where I come from it is not allowed either, but no one gives a shit. But that I am sorry to have disrespected their laws jadajadaja.
Surprisingly enough they were very understanding and explained to me that I am in a rich neighborhood, the home of many judges and politicians, which is why they have to strictly enforce law and order.
After a little chat they asked me if I was interested in a sexual relationship with the crackhead dude because they just wanted to let me know that he had a liter of anal lubricant in his bag. Honestly, I knew he was gay (it was quite obvious) but of course I didn’t care. I just made it clear right at the beginning that I was straight and that was it.
I pretended to be overly shocked, however, and we all had a laugh. Then we were apparently free to go. I couldn’t believe they didn’t want any money or file a report or anything.
We then went to the beach, where we finallly did smoke a joint. Idk, why or how he kept his weed. He also still had his crack-pipe which he continued to smoke like there was no tomorrow. I assume the cops knew him or weren’t out to harass homeless addicts. Good on them.
I asked him about his addiction and bloody hell, don’t do crack guys. He had NOTHING, not even a mobile. Anything worth a few dollars he would compulsively sell for crack. Pretty sad. But really nice dude otherwise.
So yeah, that was Zone Sur, the rich area, where law and order is still somewhat in place, though it feels fragile, on the verge of collapse, only upheld by a stupidly high number of armed forces.
For me this was a very interesting experience which does makes me think a lot. When I left Australia it was mainly because I didn’t want to live in a police state. Bondi Beach in Sydney is also heavily patrolled by cops, only their main tasks are slashing people with fines for drinking beer, smoking cigarettes or riding a bike without a helmet.
I hated it. I paid so much money to these assholes, their nonsensical, strictly enforced laws felt so restrictive, after a few years I just couldn’t take it anymore. Read this if you want to know more.
Back then I thought I’d rather live in a place with a dysfunctional police force which I at least can bribe in case they harass me. As for criminals, I’d happily deal with them myself by hiring security or buying a dog or gun or whatever.
Having seen and experienced the law of the jungle here in Rio, I am not so sure anymore. To be honest, and I hate to admit this, seeing police here does put me at ease sometimes. Where I live right now you really have to be on alert at all times. For example walking around at night with your headphones is a big no-go. Also, you should generally always be scanning your environment and be aware of your surrounding. When there is a lot of police around, you can be more relaxed. Everyone who knows me knows I actually really dislike cops, so this feeling is weird as hell for me.
Funnily enough, in the favelas you can feel safe as long as the cops are absent. So, actually, the problem are not the criminals or the police, respectively, but just the clash between them ;).
No, in all seriousness, the poverty and disparity between rich and poor is shocking here. Almost on par with India. Not surprisingly, this results in a lot of crime, and the police presence does contain it somewhat. This is a separate issue from the war against the drug trade.
For me there isn’t an all too big of a difference between state enforced violence and street violence (which, btw, is predominantly directed at your property, not your physical integrity or life). Sure, former is more predictable, but it still affected me to a larger extent throughout my life.
As said, I have paid thousands for minor offences, like not wearing a helmet (on a fucking push bike!), “parking in the wrong direction” or speed infringements.
Meanwhile, I have never been robbed by criminals. And this is coming from someone who found himself alone among Thai Meth junkies on a mafia island, with thousands of cash from a car sale in my pocket, and plenty of other situations like that and nothing ever happened.
The Police, however, took money off me wherever I went and lived.
At the end of the day, it is a highly personal issue, so you experience may vary. A person of color in the States is probably just as much at risk of dying from a police bullet as a white guy in a dark corner in Rio from being killed by gangsters for defending his Rolex.
Point is, it isn’t as simple as saying law and order equals good and safe, while dysfunctional police apparatus means unsafe.
Australia is at the extreme end of the spectrum, it is a police state, full stop. They strip search children at festivals, or people on their way to work. There is a crufew in place, for god sake. The coppers will rob you blind unless you follow their countless ridiculous laws to the point! It led to a very anxious society. People drive 40 when 50 is allowed. Idk, maybe that’s your thing, its surely isn’t mine. Read this if you want to know more.
Rio is on the other end of the spectrum, with big guns making the laws. Not a particularly pleasant situation either to be honest.
Berlin is a nice middle ground, imo. The fines are reasonable, and you can sometimes still talk to the police.
Without a doubt I prefer Rio over Sydney but let’s see how this story ends. Opinions can change. I am definitely grateful for the experience which does challenge my views a bit.
Not all cops are bastards, I guess. Damn, here I’ve said it.