Ellen Jinsun Kim
“I think we were both drunk and said things we didn’t mean last night,” I said, looking down at the brigadeiro, the Brazilian version of a chocolate truffle, he had just handed to me as a token of his apology.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve known what it would’ve meant for you to see that,” he said earnestly.
“No, it’s my fault; I shouldn’t have gotten so angry at you.”
“No, I’m sorry for putting you through that.”
“Shut up.” He grabs me and pulls me close, “you always talk too much… Te adoro.” Kiss.
We had been standing in the corner of a mansion packed with five hundred people drinking, swimming, dancing, making out, and laughing. But of course with my luck, every one of our friends had been there to watch this entire scene unfold. When we kissed, about twenty of our closest friends cheered and whistled. One of them even came up to us and playfully asked, “When’s the wedding?”
It had been a very interesting six months with my Frenchman, to say the least. Our time together had been exciting, confusing, sweet, and dangerous; everything a study abroad relation should and should not be. I had no idea what the protocol was with a Frenchman since I had never met one before. On top of that, we were in a study abroad program…in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I could barely get my bearings on the language and the culture of the place I was currently living in, let alone try to figure out how male-female relations work for French people who were studying abroad.
He and I came from two very different worlds and continued to live in polar opposite realms in Rio. I was staying with a lovely homestay family in the super chic neighborhood of Ipanema while he lived alone in a tiny room within the Cantagalo favela. The entrance to my apartment had video cameras recording every inch of the doorway, along with a 24-hour watchman on duty for extra security; his entrance, on the other hand, required climbing 200 winding stairs through trash, feces, and stray crowing roosters.
My experience with him opened my eyes to another reality of life in Brazil. Located just two blocks from my swanky apartment were the stairs to the slum that he lived in. So close yet so well hidden was the crammed, smelly, and immensely poverty-stricken Cantagalo. This favela was just one of many in Rio de Janeiro alone. Favelas, which started as bairros africanos or African neighborhoods for former slaves, are shanty towns which are found high up in the hills or in sections of cities all over Brazil. It is fascinating how the vastly wealthy and the extremely poor live in such close proximity yet are able to ignore each other effortlessly.
Before pacification by the Brazilian government, favelas used to be run by local mob bosses who enforced what one friend who lives in a favela referred to as “the law of the block”. Currently, officers of the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit), also known as the UPP, are stationed throughout pacified favelas in order to maintain peace and control. Their presence is usually not too much of a problem, but they can be quite aggressive and intimidating at times.
One evening, I went to visit my Frenchman. He had broken his nose while sparring during Muay-Thai practice the previous night and was preparing for the next morning’s surgery. He had mentioned that he was a little apprehensive of being put under full body anesthesia so in order to comfort him, I surprised him with homemade hamburgers, a card, and a movie. As I walked up the stairs in his building, I was stopped by a UPP officer. He asked me why I was there and who I was there to see. After answering his questions satisfactorily, he allowed me to pass.
The grill had just finished heating up, and I was about to put the patties on when we heard a banging noise. We looked outside and saw several UPP officers knocking on the neighbor’s door and yelling in Portuguese. We asked what was wrong, and an officer responded that the man who lived in that room was a suspect of a drug bust and that we should not leave our rooms or else we would be arrested. After several hours of banging on the door and no response, the officers decided to break in. The Frenchman and I tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but we could not help feel terrified as the walls shook from the battering ram, hammers, and other tools used by the heavily armed UPP officers to penetrate the door. At times, the UPP officers would yell at us in Portuguese to tell us that they were the good guys and to ask why we would choose to live in such a dangerous environment. Gunshots were fired somewhere outside, and the crowing of roosters and the howling of dogs added to the din and madness. A giant bag filled with hundreds of capsules of cocaine was dragged out of the room when a hole was successfully punched through the door, and the UPP celebrated. The suspect was nowhere to be found however. Therefore, the UPP turned to us with questions of his whereabouts, but we honestly had no idea. After raiding the room a bit more, the UPP decided to take shifts guarding the room until he was caught.
That night, my Frenchman could not sleep peacefully. He tossed, turned, and muttered nervously. I shook him lightly, and he awoke with a start. “It’s okay; it’s just a bad dream,” I whispered, and he nodded back to sleep. This one drug bust had seriously unnerved my friend who had been living in this favela for five months at this point. If this is how nightmarish one experience could make a 22-year-old who was well traveled including several months working in Cameroon, I could not imagine how terrifying pacification must have been for the people living in this and other favelas. The horrifying things that both young and old must have seen and gone through during that time is unimaginable.
I learned a lot from my interactions with my Frenchman. He taught me to see the world in a different light, to not be afraid of the unknown, and to not judge based on preconceptions. To be honest, if it weren’t for him, I probably would have been just another girl from Ipanema lying on the sand and oblivious to the vast poverty surrounding me. I even thank him for this terrifying evening because I was able to experience a reality that is not just one night, but an entire lifetime for a large portion of the population in Brazil.
The sun was rising beautifully on my Frenchman’s last day in Rio de Janeiro as we walked up the stairs to his home in Cantagalo after the mansion party. As we gazed out his window to soak in the last moments of the marvelous city, he turned to me and said, “I am leaving now, but I will see you in France next summer. I can’t promise that it will be as dangerous or as interesting as Rio has been. You probably won’t see a drug bust or hear many gunshots, but I promise that we will be together in Paris, and that in itself is an adventure.”
Ellen Jinsun Kim is a fourth year Linguistics and Religious Studies double major with a huge passion for traveling. Some countries she has visited include Brazil, Ecuador, Austria, and Italy. When she is not traveling, or even when she is, she likes to run long distance, write, dance, play soccer, act, and learn new languages-the most recent being French for her upcoming trip to France!