While waiting in the middle of a ghetto in Rio de Janeiro, a traveler tries not to draw too much attention from two suspicious men.
“Fique aqui,” said Thiago, telling me to wait here as he hurried off down one of Vidigal’s many twisting alleyways, my backpack dangling off his shoulder.
It was hard to watch my backpack disappear into the favela. My passport was in there. My laptop too, and with it, the only copy of my recently completed novel—my plan to finally make some cash. I’d wanted to go with Thiago to see where he was going to stash my backpack, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. If he decided that he didn’t want to give it back, knowing where it was wouldn’t change anything. We were in the favela (ghetto) of Rio. He was from there. I wasn’t. All I could do was trust him.
Thiago was the boyfriend of a friend of a friend of a one-night stand. He was also a motorcycle taxi driver. Rhayssa, the girl I’d spent the night with the night before, had been impressed by my stories about guiding volcanoes in Nicaragua and woke up wanting to go for a hike. She’d called a friend, and now the three of us were in Vidigal to do the Trilha de Morro Dois Irmãos—an hour-and-a-half out-and-back through a steep stretch of jungle and onto a huge fin of rock that splits the favelas of Vidigal and Rocinha. I didn’t want to do the hike with my laptop, so Rhayssa’s friend set it up for me to leave my backpack with Thiago. When we got to Vidigal, the girls took motorcycle taxis up to the chain link fence-enclosed soccer field at the start of the trail. Thiago drove me into the heart of the favela.
Standing next to Thiago’s motorcycle, I tried to come off as relaxed. Houses stacked one on top of the other walled me in like the cliffs of a canyon, the cinder blocks a chalky red against the blue sky. The shirtless old white guy in the window above me purposefully avoided eye contact when I looked up, but the drug dealer a couple of body lengths away was openly staring. I gave him a nod, doing my best to avoid looking at the black pistol sticking out of his waistband, the clip not fully inserted in lieu of using the safety. Two more Glocks, their clips also not fully pushed in, rested on a table heaped with mountains of little baggies, some green, the others white. Stacks of blue hundred and orange fifty reais notes were piled next to the drugs. An AK-47 leaned against the wall.
The dealer looked around my age—mid-twenties—and had a smile that deserved to be on a Colgate commercial. His finely trimmed goatee and the tips of his well-kept dreads were bleached blond, and a large Eye of Horus tattoo inked in thick black lines gazed back at me from his right shoulder. His black skin shined in the ruthless Rio de Janeiro sun. Looking incredibly relaxed where he sat next to the guns and drugs, he ate rice, beans, and chicken out of a Styrofoam bowl.
I got ready to explain what I was doing there, but he didn’t ask, instead returning his focus to his food and the music playing out of a nearby house, a Brazilian funk song by MC Zaquin called “Replay” about a blond girl. He tapped along to the beat with his fork on the side of his bowl, singing the chorus. I decided to refer to him in my mind as “Eye of Horus” for his tattoo instead of “the drug dealer” for his occupation—we’re more than just our work.
Leaning against the brick wall behind me, I stopped my hand before it pulled out my phone. It was probably safe to pull my phone out—organized crime has outlawed stealing in the favela—but there was no reason to risk it. I also didn’t want Eye of Horus to think I was going to take a picture of him. Watching the clouds float by was a smarter way to pass the time anyway.
A mother walked past carrying her smiling baby. Two middle school-aged girls returned from school, their hair in braids. A group of boys barely old enough to tie their shoes walked past, kicking a tattered soccer ball. One of them had a carton of orange juice that dripped big drops of condensation onto the asphalt like a small thundercloud. An old man passed by with his groceries. Carrots stuck out the top of one of the bags, a bag of milk out of another.
It was my second time in Vidigal. The first time had been over a year before when my buddy Jorge and I were scouting out potential locations for a charity we were opening. It had been a good time, but what I remembered most was getting hit by a motorcycle. A motorcycle taxi had dodged an oncoming van by going up onto the sidewalk and taking the path of least resistance—me. The driver hit me from behind, but I hadn’t said anything besides, “Tudo bem, tô de boa. Tá suave,” to say I was fine. It had been an accident. We were also in the favela.
Movement in the corner of my eye brought me back to the moment. A guy who looked like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—if Charlie were to wear Havaiana flip-flops and a baggie Flamengo soccer tank top that showed off a jagged pink scar running down the left side of his neck and across the top of his chest—was coming up the alley. He had a backpack—not mine—and was holding an empty beer can. Keeping his thumb over the hole, he shook the can, brought it to his mouth, and inhaled; he was huffing loló, a drug that is supposed to be a mixture of chloroform with ether and sometimes formaldehyde, but is usually just chloroform in a can. The pistol sticking out of the waistband of his shorts had its clip fully pushed in.
Eye of Horus’s smile disappeared when he saw Favela Charlie. Putting down his bowl, he stood up as Favela Charlie walked over to the table, brushing the clip into his pistol with a movement of his elbow that almost looked like an accident. Watching out of my peripherals, I strained to listen, but they were talking too quietly for me to catch more than the occasional word over the music. The song had changed to something I didn’t recognize. The beat was aggressive, the singer’s voice raspy—it sounded like MC Rick.
Taking a casual step to the side, I glanced over. They were standing in front of each other talking. Eye of Horus smiled, but his smile was different than before. The joyful swagger was gone. He projected a cold strength, nothing else. Favela Charlie scowled. He took another hit of loló. Reaching into his shorts, Eye of Horus pulled something black out of his waistband. I almost dropped into a crouch behind the motorcycle before I realized it was his phone. Eye of Horus held it out as he sent a voice message. Favela Charlie noticed I was watching and glared at me. I looked away. There was no one else around. Even the old guy in the window had disappeared.
Taking a step farther away, I stole another glance. Eye of Horus was holding up his phone—he’d gotten a response. They listened to it at the same time, their faces impassive. Then, they were suddenly grasping each other’s hands, maintaining the grip for several seconds before letting go. Favela Charlie handed Eye of Horus a couple of stacks of money. Eye of Horus helped Favela Charlie fill his backpack with hundreds of little white baggies. He also gave him one of the pistols from the table. They were smiling and laughing. I stopped watching.
A minute or two later, Eye of Horus was eating lunch again. Favela Charlie was gone. The music had gone from funk to reggae, Natiruts’ mellow “Deixa o Menino Jogar” filling the air. Thiago came back near the end of the song. Eye of Horus called him over and handed him twenty reais. They spoke quickly, and then Thiago walked over smiling and turned his motorcycle around. I climbed onto the back, holding my hat onto my head as we zipped through the maze of alleyways. A minute later, we were dodging vans and cars and other motorcycles as we accelerated up through the hectic traffic of the favela’s main road to the trailhead.
Forty-five minutes later, the girls and I were on top of the Morro de Dois Irmãos looking out over Rio. The pristine sand of Ipanema stretched along a blue ocean dotted with islands that looked like they belonged in the Gulf of Thailand. The white buildings of Leblon and Botafogo glowed in the sun. Zona Sur’s lagoon and racetrack espoused high society. The jungle-draped cliffs of the Floresta de Tijuca were a statement of natural beauty, as were the huge granite monoliths that Rio was built around. Across the bay, the city of Niteroi glittered in the sun. Jesus watched over it all, his arms held wide open in a manner that could almost be mistaken as a symbol of welcome. The rest of Rio was hidden behind the cliff, the hills, and the curve of the coastline.
A Venezuelan tattoo artist guiding an Italian tourist offered to share a joint. We talked, and then I snapped some pictures of Rhayssa and her friend. Before we left, I walked out barefoot on the rock until the slope became too steep to continue. It dropped off into a cliff just a few steps further.
As the girls and I started back down the trail, the tattoo artist said goodbye with a nod of his head and a “cuídate.” His eyes were serious—the eyes of someone who knows danger. I waved bye, and we headed back down the trail and toward the favela, back toward our respective lives. A few hours later, I was alone again, heading north on the metro, my backpack in my lap.