Favela – (n.) slum. Central São Paulo’s biggest favela is Paraisópolis, or Paradise City.
One Tuesday night, during the holidays, I do something remarkably stupid. I’ve been playing tennis and then head to the condominium bar to drink, eat a sandwich and read, when I am joined by Julião, a large, bald man in his fifties known for his prodigious capacity for alcohol. He looks like a cross between Shrek and Big Daddy. He is a good man with a good heart, but when drunk…let’s just say that he makes questionable decisions. I’ve seen him before in the early mornings when going down to the garage to drive to work, padding about barefoot with a can of lager, chatting to the seguranças.
We talk and he quickly nails two or three bottles of beer – the tall, 600 ml type that one normally shares. He tells a succession of filthy jokes and I try to keep up with his slurred and coarse Portuguese. At closing time, he wanders with me towards the lift.
‘Let’s go to the favela?’ he says.
‘Why?’ I ask, not really wanting to know the answer.
‘Another drink. I know people.’
I think about what Isabella will say when she hears of this and decide to never tell her. She has warned me before and like many middle class Brazilians has a deep distrust and fear of the favelas, especially, and not unreasonably, for me as a gringo.
‘You’re a prime target,’ she’s said more then once. ‘Don’t you ever let him take you there.’
Julião’s little excursions are well known and other friends of mine have been with him, vowing never again. Well, it turns out he is not the only one capable of making bad decisions, and before I really know what I’m doing, I’m jumping into the passenger seat of his car and we stutter and shunt down the hill into Paraisópolis. He parks – ‘parks’ doesn’t really capture it. The car rides up onto a curb and grinds to a halt, almost by itself, it feels, like a homing device or family pet who has arrived home.
So now we’re in a tiny, poorly-lit street with a shop-front bar, mosquitoes buzzing around naked bulbs, crates of empty bottles of beer stacked up in the street. A couple of sullen looking men sit at rusting, beer-brand tables, not talking, raising their bottles and glasses of cachaça to the owner. They greet Julião with nods and look at me with undisguised surprise. I don’t fit in here. I have no idea where I am. I’ve driven through the favela once before taking a short cut to work at seven o’clock in the morning and even then the maze – the warren – was confusing. Hills dip up and down, the houses lurching out at odd angles, lines of washing strung across the streets. Each house looks different, but the same. The same rough brick and corrugated iron, the same painted on house number, the same noises echoing out from the hollow walls, the same thick smells hanging in the heat like clouds.
The point about a favela is that you are in it. It’s a separate place from the city, a community, yes, but an alien one. There aren’t too many pale, reddened faces here.
We sit and Julião orders drinks. I am tense, my legs shaking, though everyone who passes seems to know him and he introduces me as O Gringão, The Big Gringo. It seems to satisfy them. I don’t have my wallet, just some loose change and I wonder if that is a good or bad thing. I want to trust Julião, but you never know with him – he’s created his own myth, and I can’t be sure how much of it is fiction.
After what feels like an extremely long time (measured by two beers between us) a group of very young women saunters by. They stop to talk to Julião and he makes them laugh, though I realise he is being pretty provocative. They examine me like an exhibit and raise their eyebrows, suck their teeth, slap hands. I find out later that they are prostitutes who come to dance Samba in the little, grotty garage bar opposite the condominium on Saturday afternoons. One nice thing about Julião – he doesn’t judge and will befriend anyone. A few young men in shorts and flip-flops pass by, calling out to the owner. They look a little more hostile. I try to reason with myself. Just how much influence does an old drunk really have? They eye me a little. I’m saying nothing, drinking too quickly to compensate. I start to think how I’m going to explain this to Isabella. I tell Julião I need to leave, make something up about having an early start. It is already past two o’clock. He grunts something about a saideira, one for the road, but I know that he rarely just has one. I ask about a taxi and he laughs.
‘I’m not letting you go off on your own,’ he says.
I’m not reassured.
Another beer is ordered. I think about Isabella, wonder where she is, know that she would be both worried and angry if she knew where I am. Part of me is relieved by this. We’re not spending much time together and perhaps when she does find out she’ll understand why I’m doing it, why I’m feeling a little lost in São Paulo.
The young men are joking and laughing at something. I hope it isn’t me, but I can’t be sure. They’re speaking in a rough slang much of which I don’t understand. And I’m trying not to listen too carefully anyway. I’m trying to sink into the background, but it’s a bit like hiding a glowing light bulb under a thin sheet.
There is a light breeze. It’s that rare thing in São Paulo when the heat finally dissipates and the freshness is cool and comforting, like the dusk in summer in England. Here, you have to be up in the middle of the night to feel it. The houses that bend over us in the tight street, their irregular shapes jutting out at odd angles, corrugated extensions hanging low, seem to sway with the wind. There is a low, constant crackle of electricity in the wires strung criss-crossed above us, straining to carry the current around the Paraisópolis labyrinth.
The girls amble down the street and the young men swagger behind, laughing at them, flip-flops slapping on the bumpy road. I look at Julião. He smiles and punches me on the shoulder, kisses me on the forehead.
‘Embora,’ he grunts. Let’s go.
We throw some money on the table and there is a tense moment as Julião does a quick round of goodbyes at the bar, each one taking a little longer than I’d like. I stand awkwardly grinning, nod my own goodbyes. Julião’s car staggers up the road and into the condominium garage.
I sneak into bed. Isabella, though, isn’t there.