The midnight bus rattled and jumped violently, hitting hard edges in the road, the driver foot to the floor, striving to beat a personal best in a race against himself. The vehicle took to the air, pushing well past the limits of control, slewing wildly on chewing gum suspension. The Rio pilots are armchair Schumachers and top guns testing the laws of physics and it is not uncommon for their urban comets to become horrifically unstuck.
We were hurled back and forth across the rear seats as the city gave way to the semi industrial flatlands of the north zone. There was a pay if you can system in action with latinhas and cardboard recyclers clambouring on for free via the back door and the occasional crack head climbing in through a rear window. As the bus filled up a latinha took on the role of unofficial conductor, shouting for halts, quickly unloading garbage bags of scrap to allow passengers to descend, re-loading and beating an all clear accompanied by a chorus of “vai, vai piloto!” from he rest of the back door commuters.
The passengers were a mix of small, sharp, brown north easterners and large round black Afro Brazilians. Street sellers with tape wrapped styrene coolers and beer sponsored nylon singlets, scrawny survivors with bags of cans, clothes worn and sun bleached, bouncy excited young guys with cheap spring loaded trainers, screen printed tshirts, artfully shaved heads and third world phones squeaking funk on speaker and delicious popozudas primped and manicured in short dresses with muscular thighs and wet ringlets of hair cheia de crème.
Outside the city was gloomy, the dim orange street lights did little to illuminate the grey concrete of everything, houses were dark and shut up, covered with pixação and razor wire.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked Sombrinho as my adrenaline began to rise.
“You’ll see” was all he said with a sideways smirk.
“Go, go, here now, desce!”
We leaped over the bags of cans and onto a dark and deserted street. In the shadows were arrayed numerous dark piles of blankets.
“Don’t stop, don’t look at them, don’t talk to anyone. You are not in your place now, just stay close to me,” Sombrinho spat, momentarily dark and heavy then suddenly manically bright, skipping down the eerie street, propelled by some newly fuelled desire. We continued for several blocks and as my eyes adjusted and with furtive glances I realized those blankets were crack addicts. Their numbers increased as we went, many sat listless and idle but some circled scratching and picking at their elbows and hair, casting around for something invisible lost on the ground.
We turned a corner and passed a barrier of three lengths of railway track on end, cemented into holes in the ground.
“To stop the tanks” explained Sombrinho and laughed at my blank expression of incomprehension.
The world changed at that waypoint, the dark cracklands abruptly gave way to a street full of light and movement, bright tiled snack bars cooking hamburgers, and salgados, carts with sweet buttered corn, acai and coconut water, tiny fronts for mobile phone chargers, pirate CD’s and clothing, micro salons and small bars blasting forro and pagode.
Another turn, another tank barrier and we were moving parallel to a long stinking canal. Ahead was a small apothecary’s marquee under which were spread two tables, each with wooden trays divided by narrow slots. In each slot sat numerous carefully packaged substances and many small bottles all overseen by half a dozen young men armed with AK-47’s, a long black Fal and some kind of tubular submachine gun which appeared home made. The bearers were very relaxed and very quiet and they watched us pass with unblinking analysis.
Further on was a scene of horror that I can not shake. There in the night, under the hard white sodium light of an adjacent football court was a garbage pile whose stinking mounds reached two and three meters high leaking a bile drawing putrescence. Our passing triggered a vast plague of rats which erupted from deep within the interior, flowing fur and teeth and naked tails, clawing over the hills in a tight phalanx which stretched the full width of the plot. Worse still, in the shadowed back corners of the refuse sat a small wooden shack with two large, ugly dark women actually living there, lounging, smoking under a lean-to awning amongst the rodents and filth, sucking the fume and miasma. My mind desperately reached for an explanation, something rational, a reason, it wasn’t like there was nowhere else to set up shack, this must a horrible punishment, machinations of the faction. I wanted to ask Sombrinho but I was beginning to go numb, my mouth would not work and he had already turned to cross a bridge leading over the canal.
There we entered the favela proper, where lay concealed a labyrinth of lanes and alleys, of becos and vielas, of corridors so tight that one may not pass with shoulders squared. Rivulets ran wet along the central depression of the rat runs and roughly boarded potholes made treacherous each step. Clay brick walls and concrete, heavy with the day, made hot and humid and claustrophobic that warren in which swarmed a huge and countless population. Sombrinho did not slow or stop, moving deeper in and deeper in with expert certainty until there was no hope of return. Pressure rising, wet and clammy, the unbearable weight and closeness of that endless maze, suffocating turn after turn till at last we broke out gasping into the open square and spreading trees of Praca da Concordia.
Yet still he pushed on, towards a rolling thunderous beat, down another street, where began to thicken a crowd and motorcycles passing each direction without pause and at savage speed through a tangle of humanity, threading needles, passing within millimeters of all manner of pedestrians. There were families taking an evening constitutional at this absurdly late hour, more bars but seedier these were, open fronts displaying rough men and toothless hags and unhealthy narrow girls in spandex microshorts, funkeiros by the dozens and more crackheads awake and busy with plastic cup water pipes or shuffling with itching desire around the end of the boca.
The boca was frenetic, ten tables to either side of the street piled high with drugs, each table with a vapor dedicated to one particular substance and price. Cocaine for R$1, R$2, R$5, R$10, R$20, R$30 and R$50, Crack for $1, $2, $5 and $10, Marijuana R$2, R$5, R$10, R$20, R$35 and R$50, bottles of Lolo and vials of Lanca. Everything was wrapped, packaged, labeled and priced. Marijuana for ten was Bob Marley, twenty was Osama Bin Laden and a special edition hydroponic fifty had a label featuring The Hulk. Cocaine for thirty was labeled with blue paper on which was written “Pitbull” in a bold black font, the bags with large yellow ten Reais rocks of crack were stapled to a picture of The Scream and marked “Panico”
On each table also sat supermarket fruit bags brimming with cash with more slung from the waste bands of the vapors who loudly spruiked their wares while customers lined up to rifle through the stock looking for that best deal.
Crack e deix, crack e deix , crack e deix… porradão de trinta, porradão de trinta, po de trinta e melhorrrrrrrr, vem cheirar, vem cheirar, vem, vem, vem….
We squeezed through the filling street, dodging motorcycles and paused at the end of the boca, I accepted a balão to steady my nerves, it had been only forty minutes since we disembarked the bus but in that short space I had lost a year or two.
In the cross street the baile was in full swing. An epic wall of speakers covered in lights and lazers throbbed with a harsh electro heartbeat punctuated by simulated gunfire. In the lead up to the central mass were dozens of marquees sheltering makeshift bars, some just large styrene boxes full of beer, others were small units dedicated to Grey Goose vodka on disks of coloured LED’s and there was even a few fully fledged cocktail establishments setup for the night with blenders, arrays of tropical fruit, top shelf spirits and sweetened condensed milk for batidas served in one litre cups.
As the tide of humanity grew ever deeper, the form of the baile emerged organically, the road flooded with pedestrian traffic but maintained the order of two lanes such that in the very centre, with thousands pressed up on either side there flowed two single files of funkeiros pushing in each direction, hands on the shoulders of the one in front forming baile funk trains. Sombrinho caught the end of a train and we were pulled into the meat of the party, as others slid into our slipstream there was no way backwards, to the right was one half of the revelry packed shoulder to shoulder writhing in a semi syncronised pelvic groove, to the left was the train heading in the opposite direction, there was only one way on, forward and deeper in. As we neared the heart of the baile the sound became painful, smashing timpani and throbbing through every fiber as black skin shook and sweat.
Then up ahead above the opposing train, held aloft and pumping came assault rifles, fifty or sixty in a line, makes and models from all over the world, sprayed with urban camouflage, Lacoste stickers and alligators on the forestocks, some all plated in bright chrome, the Bonde do Jacare was passing.
The bonde is the train, the gang, the brothers, the cousins and the faithful. The bonde is the essence and form of the favela baile and the most sinister bonde is that of the faction soldiers, draped in gold, sucking on Lanca and loaded with tracer ammunition for the nights fireworks. Sombrinho turned to look back at over his shoulder with a grin, “Welcome to the heart of Commando Vermelho.”
Little did I know this place, Jacarezinho, the Little Alligator favela, was going to become my second home.
Pesadão Na Moral (Jacaré) Mc Orelha
Super heavy without problem, you know how it is,
In Jacare, is the bonde of the ever faithful
Since I was young I learned, I learned to close with certainty
To never speak too much and just deliver my words correctly
Since I was young I learned to conquer my liberty
And that the essence of life was always humility
Pure Comando is the ideal, the red of nature
I represent Niterói, I’m MC Orelha
I’m locked in with this firm, you can have faith
Try your luck and see, in the favela of Jacare….
Heavy morals, you know how it is
In Jacare, is the bonde of the ever faithful
And if you run will the train will drop you, if you stay it’ll tear you up
It’s the train of Alex Luthor, carrying a load of rifles
Latinha Small can or person who collects cans for recycling
Popozuda Big butt thick thigh party girl
Cheia de crème Full of wet look hair cream
Pixação Black runic graffiti
Salgados Savoury Snacks
Açaí Amazon berry used to make a frozen sorbet
Forró Pop folk style often heard with an accordion
Pagode Pop samba
Becos and Vielas Alleys and Lanes
Funkeiros Afficionados of Carioca funk
Baile Funk Party which plays a style of music developed in Rio with initial inspiration drawn from Miami Bass
Boca de Fuma Point at which drugs are sold (lit. Mouth of smoke)
Vapor Drug salesman from the favela
Lança-perfume Ethyl chloride gas contained in pressurized glass spray bottles
Cheirinho-de-loló Liquid cocktail of hydrocarbons such as Benzine, Chloroform or Ether
Balão Cigarette with marijuana extension
Batida Cocktails with Cachaca, fruit juice and condensed milk