The Bubble of Rio de Janeiro

We were just sitting in a circle on the penthouse balcony enjoying the glorious sunlight speckle our browning arms while sipping on a beer.  The city park below was busy and in the distance we could hear the waves beating the sand.  Welcome to the comfortable life in beautiful Rio de Janeiro.

Our Carioca friend Francisco pointed across the way to the Favela or slum where he had witnessed from this very spot an armed helicopter attack by the police.

The irony of the marvelous city of Rio, famous for it’s beautiful beaches, green peaks, and forest surrounding, is the poverty that lies just blocks from the affluent.  In a place so beautiful, I often wonder, how could there be so many social problems?

A friend of mine once told me that the difference between a developed country and a third world or developing country lies in efficiency.  In a place like Brazil, nothing works, and even what one would think to be the simplest task takes ages to complete.  While I agree, I think there’s another something else that differentiates the two: the enormous gap which divides the rich and the poor.  In many underdeveloped countries it seems that while some have risen above and are living quite comfortably, even very much like those in a developed country, the greatest portion of the public is completely left behind.  And as tourists, one must try to see past the glitz and glory to grasp the true story of the inhabitants of a country.

Recent news stories brought crime in Rio to international attention when some delinquents held foreign travelers hostage.  This story grabbed the attention of people all around the globe, but was only headlined due to the fact that it concerned well-off foreign travelers.  Most Cariocas in Rio deal with similar situations every day, but no one hears about it.

The movie City of God initially opened International eye to the atrocities arising from the favelas of Rio due to drug trafficking.  While nearly all of the favelas were once run by drug lords, the city police corps has been tracking these delinquents down and exterminating them.  Most of the people living in favelas are innocent, purely victims of the regime, due solely to their economic status.

One way in which City of God has affected tourism in Rio is the popular “Favela tours” in which foreigners are taken into favelas with a guide and shown the simple beauty of life there, displaying that there’s more to the neighborhoods than guns, drugs, and violence.  These tours may be a somewhat honest expression of life in favelas, but it certainly promotes the strange sense of spectatorship.  White foreigners strut in to gawk, not much different from staring down monkeys at the zoo.  It would be one thing if these Favela tours promoted some sort of change or political activism from the wealthy viewers.  Rather we walk in, observe, shake our heads in shame at the living conditions, and hobble back to our lives of luxury.  You know, the ones where we sit around drinking a beer, enjoying the sun and pointing.  This is the bubble.

I often remark about the bubble of Rio, the one that encircles the well-off, separating them from the very impoverished.  I am a foreigner drawing a circle around a group of people from another country, while in my own country there lies intoxicating poverty and unequal distribution of wealth as well.

While in under-developed countries the divergence between the groups is so acutely obvious, it seems that this division of wealth separates most societies around the world.  The difference is the extent of this division, how obvious it is, or perhaps, who’s judging it.

We peer at the favela lives and realize, or consider the poverty in our very own cities, but it all just becomes too overwhelming.  We feel no choice but to wander back to our personal lives, forget, and crack open that can of beer.

The beautiful bubble in Rio, I guess not so different from the bubble in San Francisco.


Theresa Soley Written by:

A recent graduate from the University of San Francisco with a B.A. in Biology, Theresa is embarking on travel aiming to uncover the connection between culture and wild environments. She believes that most social problems are linked to environmental ones, and hopes to one day work between the two realms. Her newest motto is "living locally in a globalized world". She needs to begin buying carbon credits for all her international flights abroad.