Let’s begin with an exercise in arts and crafts, shall we? Take a map of Rio de Janeiro and place it on your table. Now fold the map such that the northern edges of the paper kiss its southern counterparts. Pinch the folded map till there’s a distinct crease and tear along the depression.
Now take the southern half and pin it up on a softboard in your living room — ideally between your oil paintings and below a lamp-shade. Once you’ve finished adoring it, get down to the sheet with the contours of the north. Crumple it into a ball and find the furthest dustbin. Shut the lid of the bin and go back to adoring the map on your yellow-lit softboard.
All done? Good. The government of Brazil, especially the ministry of tourism, will be mighty proud of you. Just like you, they too have disposed of the unwanted north from their Cidade Marvilhos (Marvelous City) guidebooks a long, long time ago.
Divide it any which way you like, by geography, demographics or a simple scissor, the city of Rio de Janeiro is in fact two distinct metropolises. The Rio of the fables is south Rio — pearly white Brazil in all its glory. White Cariocas, the white sands of Copacabana, white foaming beer sipped by white tourists under white shack awnings, white music and, of course, white cocaine. The blinding white sun too hinders one from craning their necks northward. North Rio is black as the crack peddled on its streets. I’m on my way to Gamboa, the northern tip of this city. It is the oldest borough of a once forgotten Rio, a Rubik’s Cube of a structure with a labyrinth of brownish cement houses intertwined between a maze of slate-grey gullies.
One of its inhabitants is Alem Alvarez, a Palestinian immigrant who doubles up as my host during my stay here. “Whatever you do, please try and avoid Livramento,” she says in chaste but accented English, crossing out a street bordering Gamboa on a map hanging from her fridge. “It was one of the most notorious of all favelas. I advise all my guests to avoid it.” Three wrong turns later, I’m bang in the liver of Livramento.
None of my extra polite nods are matched by those on Livramento’s streets, until it is. “Africano?” asks a man, wearing a Nigeria football uniform. It appears to be a trick question, considering the Super Eagles fan is sitting under a Brazil flag — every doorstep in Livramento is draped with one.
Weighing my options, I manage to stammer out: “Nao, Indian.” “Indiooooo!” he exclaims, eyes lighting up and arms ushering me through the door.On one side lies two plastic chairs pointing at a television building up to the Germany-Ghana match. On the other end lies a marble slab. A hirsute, half-skinned hog is spread out on it, which Fernandao, Livramento’s only butcher, goes back to skinning.
To break the ice, or slice it like he seems to be doing to the pig, I decide to bring up the only thing all of Brazil seems to worry about at this moment, the upcoming final group match between the hosts and already knocked-out Cameroon. He signals me to wait, wipes his hands on a towel and drags me four blocks up Livramento to his brother’s house, a Cameroes fanatic.
Unlike Fernandao, Santinho speaks a decent amount of English, thanks to his day job of selling beer at Copacabana. The brother finds his Cameroon jersey and waves it at me. It expectedly has ‘Milla’ printed at the back. Would he support Cameroon over Brazil, I want to know.
“Si. In Livramento and many other favelas, you’ll find many people supporting African teams. They understand our problems more than the politicos in Brasil.” Santinho wants to know if I want to join him to Copacabana, where he will sell cerveja at the fan-fest. I tell him it will be an absolute pleasure. So he disappears through a set of curtains and returns as the Fenomena himself.
With his yellow number nine jersey and a pair of football boots on, Santinho looks to pass off as the double of Brazil’s most successful goal-scorer in World Cups, Ronaldo. His hair too is styled like the megastar, from his 2002 World Cup avatar.
“It helps with business,” he says. “When the rich see me, they go crazy. They want to click pictures with me and I allow that only after they promise to buy my cerveja,” he says, raising a beer-filled polythene bag. He’s right.
At Copacabana, an Argentine man kisses Santinho on the cheek. Hundreds swarm him and he soon disappears into the crowd. The south has embraced a northern man. But only when he resembles the most affluent Fenomena himself.