Friday, October 7, 2016

The Olympics for whom?

This is a photo, I found online on a facebook page that was offering tickets to buy, sell or trade,  during the games. If you look closely, these tickets are middle level priced tickets going for 260 reais for Athletics, general admission, which basically you arrive got to the section and area designated by the ticket and choose your seat. The price of this ticket that you see on top is approximately 30% of what the average favela dweller earns in a month. So the games we really only accessible for the middle and upper classes.  

It all started as a big question, would the Olympics be a success or would it flop? Everyone in the media was fearful of Zika, terrorism, crime, water pollution. I had clients cancel meetings with me because the feared Brazil and the negative media. I heard stories of athletes cancelling their participation in the Olympics because of their fears.

This was the first time that South America and Brazil has hosted an event of this size other than the World Cup in 2014 and the Military Games in 2013. We all heard then too, problems with getting the stadiums done on time and crimes statistics. Yet somehow, not perfectly, the World Cup came and went with few problems. Brazil somehow pulled it off.

We who live in Rio know the problems that exist here. There has always been corruption, crime and problems with infrastructure. This is nothing new. So nobody in Brazil is surprised with the media’s reaction to when Rio received the games in 2009. Many news channels like Fox (from the US) and other countries mostly had negative things to say as to why Rio wasn’t deserving. Considering Chicago put in a bid for the games but the residents voted a big “no”, I find this ironic.

I have mixed opinions about the games. Brazil needs help in many areas like improving education for the masses. Healthcare is very poor, especially the further you go or from the city center. The people who are most affected by these poor services are those who live in favelas.

I live in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio with approximately 300,000 people. We who live here experienced a different Olympics. Ours was from watching the tv screen. I knew very few who went to events and those who did were given tickets by volunteers or they were given out by representatives of the games to specific organizations.  Some residents were able to volunteer which gave them access to see some of the games. Towards the end of the games, free tickets were given out to but obscure events like Archery or Equestrian sports but certainly to no Brazilian popular sports like Football, Volleyball, Swimming, Judo or Athletics. Some who got tickets even tried to sell them with little luck.

I was able to go to an event, table tennis because of a friend who invited me. Otherwise, I would not be able to go. Tickets for Olympic events were very expensive. It was nice to be part of this experience but while watching in the stands, I could not help think of those in my favela who would never get to experience this. How many times does an Olympics ever pass through the city you live? Rarely, If ever .

Rio was able to clean the ocean water to acceptable levels for the swimmers, there wasn’t any bomb threats or heavy violent protesting as some expected. It was far from a perfect games but I think on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give Rio a 7. There were problems that I heard from friends, disorganization of people trying to get tickets through “CoSport”, long lines (I guess to be expected), and in the beginning transport to and from events was a little bumpy. There were a few cases of people getting things stolen like a German couple who had just arrived in Rio, went straight to the beach with all their luggage only to have it stolen upon return from a swim. There were other cases of pickpockets and stuff going missing. Not like any other big city problems during an event so large.

The future is now looking at the spending and the city, where do we go from here? Will the government invest in education for everybody or will everything stay the same? How about healthcare? And conditions in my favela, will they improve? Most likely not.  Should Rio have been host to these games? I think not, but I don’t make those decisions. I am just a simple favela dweller who has no power in these decisions. All I can do is still work to help improve my own community from within like most of us have been doing all along. We don’t have high hopes that the system will change much. The only positive note I heard from fellow residents is that Brazil’s football team redeemed themselves against Germany in the final game to win the gold medal. Too bad gold medals don’t, feed, educate or house people in need!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Jiu Jitsu competitor from Rocinha will run with the torch

This post is to celebrate the Olympics taking place in Rio and the 20th Year Anniversary of Rocinha Jiu Jitsu.

Here is Leandro's story!

Rocinha' Olympic hero wakes up at 6am, take the bus and works until 4pm working on getting the subway/metro ready for the Olympics.After work he becomes a hero to over 60 children in the favela community. Since 1996 Leandro Souza Dos Santos, 31, gives free jiu jitsu lessons were many have been here for years. On August 4th the everyday fighters will be one of Rio's chosen for the torch relay.

"Fighting has changed my life. I lost many friends to violence. Sport can change your view on life. Sport gives Discipline and self control. I am a winner and I am now reaping the rewards. I have my own home have a good job."

Born in a family of 8 brothers, Leandro remember the time when as young boys, sleeping "on top of one another" in a one room house. At the age of 14 he found jiu jitsu and at 16 came his big break. A good friend of his took him to the Gracie Family Academy. 

"I was a fighter who had ability. One the first day, they decided to give me a scholarship. I trained morning, noon and night. I trained there for 3 years and received my black belt." 

Leandro and friends created the Rocinha Jiu Jitsu project 20 years ago to help change the lives of children in the community. We demand that the kids stay in school. Everyone watches out for everyone, helping and once takes account for the performance of his training partners. I feel so proud to represent my community carrying the torch. And be an example for these boys.

Leandro, father of Larissa, 14, Leonardo, 12 and Gabriel, 9 all participate in Jiu Jitsu and are talented. With dad being being a jiu jitsu teacher the kids has full access to being able to train almost everyday. 

"Im not saying this because I'm her dad but, Larissa is a good fighter. They have created a the group "Jiu jitsu girls". My daughter knows how to defend herself."

Leandro says that many of these kids improve in school after joining the jiu jitsu academy. 

He says "By design, its been hundreds of this favela. We work the mind of the children too. They need more attention and love. Sport also teaches the value of discipline. All of the stress is on the mat."

"My parents came from the Northeast with six children and fought a lot. Me and my sister already were born here and didn't cause much trouble. But my brothers say that things became difficult and they would often share bread and a plate of food. My parents fought a lot. Today, myself and two of my brothers and a nephew, are fighters. I lost so many good friends to violence. Fighting really changed the vision of my life. Often, young people go to a lifestyle path that is not legal because they spend too much difficulty. They learn crime is easy money but it does not lead to happiness. In the academy, they find an environment of much attention and affection. Some become fighters, others will work in other areas. Six years ago, I started working on the subway in Leblon.  Before I worked in projects in Rocinha. I managed to buy my house and I am very happy. Now my dream is to make a UFC fight because also fight MMA . Even if it's one fight."

Leandro happy to be chosen to carry the torch for Brazil and Rocinha!

Phoebe stays in Rocinha and volunteers!

Phoebe contacted me months before coming here to volunteer. I showed her a few projects where they could use her help and she made many friends in Rocinha. This is her story.

1.) What is your name? Where are you from? My name is Phoebe, I am from Cambridge in England 

2.) How did you come about visiting Brazil?
I am currently a gap year student, I saved to come travelling this year. Brazil has been my dream destination since I was a child. Mostly for its multiculturalism and dance. Being from England, Brazil stands for all that is exotic and other.

3.) How did you find out about Rocinha? Why did you decide to stay in Rocinha?
I've stayed in ghettos in Africa. I prefer this grassroots living. Historically, these marginalised areas are the main generators of culture and community. I chose to come to a favela to stay close to the insinuating rhythms of real Brazil. 

I did my research of favelas in Rio. Rocinha is the biggest; is fairly visited by tourists; and is where pacification has been fairly effective. So for me it was ‘accessible’. When I wanted to learn more I contacted Zezinho whom I discovered through his online blog and he offered to help me find voluntary projects and recommended me accommodation. 

4.) What kinds of things are you doing in Rocinha?
I found volunteer work with the help of Zezinho who located the places I work and enabled me to meet and communicate with the organisers. I teach contemporary and ballet dance at a local dance studio called ‘Aberte da Espaco’ run by a lovely, talented former-dancer named Yolanda.  And, I teach English with an Italian NGO called ‘il sorriso dei mei bimbi’. It's an open class hosted in a beautifully bohemian book cafe renovated from a garage. 

I approach voluntary work as a cultural exchange of ideas and experiences towards a greater dissemination of knowledge.

For example, at ‘Aberte da Espaco’, as well as give classes I am also learning Afro-Brazilian and Samba dance which is so central to Brazilian culture. I love being involved with dance because this training stimulates students creatively and challenges them physically which balances and fufills a person spiritually.

And the Garagem provides a space for the convergence of people and ideas, a hub of activity, that puts motion into social development. My English class has a nice diversity of students of all ages and abilities to compose a picture of the community locally and outside of Rocinha.

The ‘give and take’ is the beauty of this interaction so I would stress travellers need not feel obliged to pay to volunteer with projects. I think that tarnishes the ethos.

4.) What kinds of things are you doing in Rocinha?
I found volunteer work with the help of Zezinho who located the places I work and enabled me to meet and communicate with the organisers. I teach contemporary and ballet dance at a local dance studio called ‘Aberte da Espaco’ run by a lovely, talented former-dancer named Yolanda.  And, I teach English with an Italian NGO called ‘il sorriso dei mei bimbi’. It's an open class hosted in a beautifully bohemian book cafe renovated from a garage. 

5.) What do you like about Rocinha?
I would describe Rocinha as an intriguing amalgamation of Alice's wonderland and Batman’s Gotham city. Real and surreal. For a traveller searching for the fantastical Unknown but with a gritty down-to-earthness, lost in major touristic attractions, Rocinha could not better epitomise this.

My experience here I have coined the ‘falling-down-the-rabbit-hole-syndrome’, that is to say, the novelty and strangeness doesn't cease to impress itself upon me. Everyday I am the fresh-eyed Alice, or even the young Miranda exclaiming “Oh brave new world; that has such people in’t”.

The people are warm and abrasive which is my favourite kind. The favela that never sleeps, it also lives and breathes. You don't need to lodge in Copacabana to feel at the centre of it all.

6.) What don't you like about Rocinha? 
There isn't enough of an intellectual culture here which I think there could be with the introduction of more social projects. I'd like to see some that promote arts and stage panel debates and host book clubs etc . A friend of mine is establishing a touring exhibition of his graffiti work in the area which I think is a great idea, though more targeted at tourists. There could be more for locals to engage with.

7.) How has been your overall experience here?
My days in Rocinha flutter by in casual disorder in between chilling on a stoop with neighbours eating acai; drinking in local bars where I recognise faces and mine is too now familiar; liaising on Sao Conrado beach which I prefer to Ipanema and Copacabana for its quiet tranquility; and cooking up a churrasco on a veranda in the hood. That is just the backdrop to my experiences here, yet it stages a very colourful scene. A scene which I feel apart of.

I enjoy the soundscapes: moto engines, funky beats from sound systems, samba whistles, and church bells, and a hum of chatter. The scenery when I'm soaring down Estrada da Gavea on a moto taxi or clambering up the alley of rua 1. All this is charged with a breath of Rocinha's spirit and it invigorates me and it's what I’ll remember and take with me.

8.) What would you change about the favela?
Like many favelas after pacification, Rocinha must take strides for greater infrastructure, particularly its sewage systems.

9.) We know that you are only here for 2 months, do you plan to return to Rocinha someday?
I fully intend to come back. I have made many personal ties here with people and the place and it would be a pleasure to return in the future. I am very interested to conduct academic research here for my anthropology degree and beyond.

10.) What is it that you would like the world to know about the favela?
This may be a ghetto but there is no ghettoisation of the mind. Rocinha does not follow a typical paradigm for poor, less educated communities around the world. Its infrastructure may be underdeveloped but its progressive ideals pertain to the first world.

Here, women will be at the beer as much as men. And work and party equally to their counterpart. Amongst the hyper masculine Brazilian males you will find a thriving LGBT community, transgender people are seamlessly integrated into the community without need for subcultures and fabulous Drags will stride with confidence, no heads turned. And the locals won't be gawking at the new gringo on the block. Generally, there is a sense of exposure and an air of open-mindedness.

Another thing, the entire time here I have felt comfortable walking alone at absolutely any time of day and night. As a female expect a few whistlers and depending on where you go out maybe an arm grabbing but nothing enough to make me personally feel vulnerable or endangered.

To get the most of the favela experience be conscientious and a little bold.
Befriending locals was the best way for me to educate myself and better explore the place. There's no real point plainly stating you can't go somewhere because it's dangerous. To rationalise this claim; a dangerous situation will not arise without provocation. That is to say, a drug trafficker isn't going to pay you much notice unless you really give them a reason to. So just be sensible and respectful but mostly relax, we are all human.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Those with the least, help the most!

It's amazing the people you can meet in a community of about 300,000 people. I have made it my life's mission to help in any way possible to connect with others who need help. Or meet others that have the same idea. About two weeks ago I met Luciana who has a creche (daycare) "Creche Refugio Fortaleza" in her home. I met her son months ago but thought it best after hearing about the work she does.

The front of Luciana's home that also acts as a daycare

Luciana is 48 years old and lives in a very humble home at the top of Rua 2. She was born and raised in Rocinha and is raising her kids here as well. Because of health issues, she decided to open up her home to other children as she was raising her own. She at the same time was raising her young daughter so this stay at home work was best for her. She opened her creche in August of 2013. Her creche is a home run "business" but she makes equal to about 800 reais a month. As many of you know this is not a lot of money to live but she manages. She is married and her husband works as a construction laborer. They barely make it with their combined income but they don't complain.

I decided to stop by and distribute some donations of art supplies that she can use for the kids.

 Luciana with some of her "children".

After visiting her "Creche" or home. I knew this would be a great fit for us. For me, the idea is to create bridges where the most needy can access the help they need. Luciana has the creche but she also organizes donation drives in Rocinha. She collects unwanted clothing and shoes and the distributes them to some of the poorer familes in the favela. She has connections to an area called "Palmerinha" in "City of God" favela which she says is one of the poorest and the people there are forgotten. For someone who has so little, she gives so much.

These are the type of people who I want to work with. In August we have some teachers from outside of Brazil coming by to visit the creche and make a tour of Rocinha. We are going to organize that part of the money from the tour will go towards the creche and their needs.

I want to make this part of our tour route where people can donate items directly to the creche. At this time she takes care of about 25 children between the ages of 1 year and 10 years of age. I asked her what she needs the most to sustain the creche. I told her to make a list, so here it is:

Powdered Milk
Diapers Sizes Small-XL
Hygienic Products
Used Toys
Rubber Mats (for children to sit on)
Sippy Cups
Plastic Spoons
Plastic Plates
Colored Pencils
Crayons Scissors (for Children)
Drawing paper

If any of you who come on our tours wish to visit the creche and contribute with a few of these supplies we can organize this for you.

Below are some photos of the kids from the creche.


University of Minnesota teachers and students came by and were able to donate 250 reais worth of items for the creche. Thank you to Frances Durkin for facilitating this meeting and hope you return soon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

After School Homework Club in Rocinha

One of the challenges for young students is access to quiet space to study. Houses in Rocinha are small so with the average family of 4 people, theres not much space. Once kids reach about 12, they want private or quiet places to study without interruption of their siblings.

Rosa for the past 10 years has been tutoring children in Rocinha, helping them with their studies. The children she helps are between 8-14 years old. Sometimes she gets older students high school age or adults returning to finish their secondary education. Her classes are open to anyone that needs help. She charges a small fee of 70 reais a month each student. Rosa's tutoring classes run everyday from 9-11am and 2-4pm Monday thru Friday.

What Rosa does is something much needed for students. The Public school system is awful and the kids only go to school for about 4.5 hours a day. What can a student learn in 4.5 hours? The problem in Rio for the public school is that there are not enough teachers or schools, so this is why such short school hours. Rocinha, like any place has kids that want a future. Many want professional jobs when they get older but are put at a disadvantage.

The public school does not prepare youth for university, so this is where Rosa comes in. With her helping the students, as they get older they will have better study skills and a support system when they prepare for exams.

I had some extra school supplies in the house so I went by and gave them to Rosa to give to the students. We always try to find projects that are in need of supplies. Below are some of the photos from Rosa's classes.

I want to thank all of those visitors who have donated school supplies. Rosa's students thank you! We will continue to search for projects in need! For more information on donating supplies or wanting to volunteer contact Zezinho at: 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Path to Success: Marco Paulo

Alguns lutam pela fama.
Alguns lutam pelo dinheiro.
Eu nasci lutando, e luto porque eu amo! - Marcos Paulo


Some fight for fame
Some fight for money
I was born to fight, and I fight because I love it! - Marcos Paulo

For many who live here in Rocinha, life is a daily challenge of survival. To live in a favela there is the social stigma of not being "equal" in Brazilian society. Much of that has to do with lack of proper or equal educational opportunities. Other preconceived ideas have to do with stereotypes that favelados are always trying to disprove. Very few people here are involved in criminal activity, most are hard working individuals who just earn less money. 

I have always been attracted to stories of athletes, specifically fighters as I was once in the same position as a youth. Life was always complicated for me. Sports was my outlet and way of free expression. With sports I felt I had value and could accomplish anything. Sports gave me the confidence to succeed at life. 

If first had contact with Diego Buchecha when I met him at the Rua 2 Community Center and introduced a French tourist to him. The French Tourist was wanting to write a story about Buchecha and his team of Muay Thai fighters. I always admired Buchecha for his commitment to his students and the team Nockdown Brasil he created. Now in Rio, Nockdown Brasil fighters are highly respected with many champions being created at their school. 

One such fighter is Marcos Paulo or "Vuvuzela" as his teammates call him. He was born in São Gonçalo in Rio. He moved to Rocinha 7 years ago for better opportunities. He used to get in trouble as a youth. Around 16 years old, a friend of his once saw him fighting in the street and told him that he should train as a fighter. After one year of training he entered his first amateur competition and he won the belt. Of course this motivated Marcos to continue training and competing. 

There were many difficulties because he had to work to help his mother and continue his studies in school. And now added on to his workload was finding the time to train. From 2011-2012 because of the stress of doing so much, he lost several competitions. This was discouraging him but he made a decision to dedicate himself to training more. He saw better results in his competitions. 

In 2013 he made the decision to turn professional as a fighter. He entered the Muay Thai Titanium Cup and was able to win the belt and became the Featherweight 65kg division Champion. 

Marcos with his coach Diego Buchecha, leader of Nockdown Brasil.

Life is not without its challenges in 2014, he made his title defense and unfortunately lost the belt to a very tough athlete "Arnaldo Fly". But he kept on training and competing and was able to collect two more belts, Itaborai Regional and Regional RFC in the same year, thus holding 3 belts. 

In 2015 he fought again in the Titanium and was able to regain the belt but this time at 60kg or Rooster weight class. 

Marcos had this to say about his victory, "On June 6th, 2015 I received an offer to fight in Sao Paulo by Titanium Copa Muay Thai where I entered as the underdog. My opponent had several National and International competitions won, but I was able to beat him and showed that I was the better athlete."

With the victories opportunities did not stop. 

In March of 2016, I was invited to compete in the World Championships in Bangkok Thailand. There I fought in 3 fights, winning 2 but unanimous decision and in the final I got the knockout to become the World Champion and the belt!

This was always my dream to compete at the highest level. I now have 5 belts.

But my thirst for victory does not end there. I continue to train as I am focused on my first title defence. I am sure it will be a great rematch and a awesome fight! I hope my opponent is ready because I am working hard to defend this belt and will not allow anything in my path to victory! 

I am proud to live in Rocinha on Street 2 with my wife and daughter. Right now I am only 22 years old with plenty of time to develop my fighting skills. My goals are to keep training but I want to try MMA. I currently work at Platform Body and Personal Training, a fitness club in Sao Conrado where I teach Muay Thai classes and train. I dream one day to buy my own house here in Rocinha so I don't have to pay rent. I love Rocinha. Despite some problems, its a wonderful place to live!

After Team Brasil came back from Thailand, I thought they deserved a party for the job well done by Marcos and his Teammates at Trapia restaurant! 

    Marcos with his belt and the Cake for Rocinha's Fighters Nockdown Brasil!

All of these fighters are winners. The awesome pride of our favela Rocinha!

And a photos of Marcos trying a competition in amateur MMA. In 2016 he has fought in 3 MMA matches, and won all 3. Seems like he is off to a good start in MMA as well. But he wants to continue for a while in Muay Thai as well. He has a great future in front of him!