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Brazil: A country of blinding contrasts

Madeleine Curby is a current GLPer studying a Bachelor of Arts (Media, Culture and Communications) with a Bachelor of Business Administration.

The Brazil Symposium is organised and facilitated by the Global Leadership Program. It is an opportunity to develop skills and knowledge with a delegation of like-minded students against the backdrop of three of the most interesting cities in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro, with its natural wonders; São Paulo, the country’s largest economy; and Manaus, famous for its Free Trade Zone and the Amazon rainforest. Experience Brazil’s history, diversity, colour and strength with the Global Leadership Program.

Light and dark, day and night, rich and poor – all are stark contrasts that need the other term to create a difference. While Brazil is a country known for many things, including soccer and carnivalé, it is also known for its extreme contrasts. People live in poverty while next-door, lavish 8-storey, 5-star hotels are booming with tourists. Brazil’s culture and economy has grown, developed and yet still reflects this severe difference.

As part of our trip to Brazil, on the last day our group visits Cantagalo, which is a favela* just back from the sandy beaches of Copacabana. The houses look like little blocks of lego, neatly stacked upon each other and spread out to the left, right, above and below like fingers clawing for more space. Alleyways run between the houses connecting the front to the back and so forth. Some are big pathways where you can walk side by side while others are so small it’s almost too hard to walk in single file, your body twisting to the side to fit between the narrow gaps. Rivulets of stairs descend down the favela and are so steep it’s hard to imagine people lugging their furniture up. Recently, the government installed an inclinator that runs halfway up where people and garbage are taken down to the streets. At the top of the favela runs a thick cement wall, which was built by the government to prevent the favela from expanding. We are taken through by a local tour guide who grew up in this very slum and is trying to make a better life for himself through honest work. It’s a privilege to experience the world of someone less fortunate, guided by his firsthand experience and intimate knowledge. Hearing his perspective and what drives him to work hits home on how lucky we, as Australians, are.

In the middle of Cantagalo is a large room made of cement which houses a local band of teenagers. They beat drums held by straps around their neck while others shake small instruments in their left hands making their own beat that resonates against the walls. Girls dance to the rhythm, moving their limbs in true Brazilian style. Weaving through the band is a couple of young boys that kick a tatty soccer ball, throwing their arms up in glee every time they score. This rich cultural scene is spectacular to see and slowly more people turn up and soon a small crowd is gathered to the right where kids and adults are joining in the dance. The band welcomes us in, taking us by the hand and teaching us what looks like simple dance moves that somehow we don’t pull off with the same flair.

We soon reach the far left of the favela where there are multi-million dollar views. The ocean spreads out below us, where small black dots sunbake on the sand drinking coconut water through straws and riding on jet skis. Straight ahead of us are a couple of large white hotels, their perfectly constructed layers of balcony and brick showcase the wealth that parallels the tiny irregular lego houses we stand amongst.

This clash between the rich and poor is part of the Brazilian culture. The favela doesn’t evoke tears of sadness, it is not destitute or depressing to see. Rather it’s eye opening and buzzing with life. The children may not have the material possessions we are used to, but they are happy with smiles spread so wide it’s infectious and just watching them makes us guests smile as well. It is not all happy, but you can’t help but feel somewhat inspired by kids who have nothing and not only do they not care, but they don’t even notice, even if it is because they know no better.

The communities in favelas often don’t mix with communities outside, largely due to a socio-economic disparity. With less spending money, there are not many places for the poor to meet the rich and so a class divide, based largely on economic status, has emerged. It cuts Brazil in half, although one thing is for sure: regardless of money the entire country can be brought together through a vibrant samba dance, or enthralling soccer match.

*A favela is the term for a slum in Brazil, most often within urban areas. The first favelas appeared in the late 19th century and were built by soldiers who had nowhere to live. Some of the first settlements were called bairros africanos (African neighbourhoods). This was the place where former slaves with no land ownership and no options for work lived. Over the years, many former black slaves moved in. Definition taken from here

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