There are three boys at the top of the hill, each carrying a walkie-talkie and a handful of firecrackers. They are messengers, watchmen for the drug cartel that runs this favela, or shantytown, overlooking some of the richest real estate in Rio de Janeiro.
The young messengers, barely in their teens, are there to signal the arrival of drug shipments or warn of the approach of police. Until recently, the lookouts flew kites: white for a cocaine delivery, green for marijuana, red for a police raid, but that system became too obvious.
I am in Rocinha, the largest of Rioâ€™s favelas, a place where the vast majority of the cityâ€™s population fears to tread. But I am safer here than I would ever be on the streets of tourist Rio, according to my guide, Sidharta. â€śYou can leave your cameras on your seat. Nothing will ever be stolen from you in the favelas,â€ť says Sidharta. The drug barons donâ€™t want any excuse for the police to act within Rocinha.
More than a fifth of Rioâ€™s population lives in the favelas and although shunned by mainstream society, shantytown residents are not isolated from it. They are the security guards, bellboys, room maids, gardeners and kitchen hands of its homes and hotels.
Thereâ€™s a welcoming group of souvenir stalls as you enter Rocinha on Estrada de Gavea, the main road built in the 1930s as a formula one track. Red brick houses are piled one on top of the other on the steep slopes, five and six storeys high. On the eastern side of the hill they overlook ritzy Gavea and Corcovado, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer stands with its arms embracing Rio. Over the hill the houses have million-dollar views of Pepino beach and the fashionable residential towers of SĂŁo Conrado.
Rocinha has much about it that is reassuringly normalâ€”three newspapers, two radio stations, three bus lines, a cable TV channel, streets lined with such outlets as a surf shop, pharmacies, bars, cafes, video shops and banksâ€”but there is also an air of threat spelled out in the burnt cars and the graffiti-ridden alleyways. The least busy place I saw was the police station, where a single officer sat slumped in the doorway watching TV. In Rocinha, nobody goes to the police: the community deals with its own problems.
And there are many problems for the community to deal with. There is a chasm between those who can afford to live on the three main roads and those who live in the choked alleyways. The alley dwellers have no street address, so they cannot get bank accounts and find it difficult to get jobs. One section of Rocinha, the Dirty Clothes district, is composed of hundreds of houses built of cardboard that share a single water tap.
But Sidharta was right about one thing. I left Rocinha unscathed, camera and wallet intact, and the following night I was mugged on Avenida AtlĂ˘ntico, beachside Copacabanaâ€™s main street.